The price of ambition
“Few, I ween, shall stir her hate unscathed, or lightly humble her.”
In Euripides’ drama Medea, Jason forsakes his wife and children in order to marry the daughter of Creon, ruler of Corinth. Medea, the daughter of Aiêtês, King of Colchis, has given up everything – her country, her father and her home, all “For this man’s sake, who casteth her away”.
Jason, self-deceiving and sanctimonious, claims however to be helping Medea by providing “…young kings for brethren to…[her] sons”. Poor men, he notes, have no friends but by marrying a king’s daughter, he will henceforth dwell in a fair house. Yet every man, as an attendant observes, “…more loveth his own head than other men’s”. Jason, he infers, “…dreameth of the bed of this new bride and thinks not of his sons”.
Medea’s erstwhile nurse warns that “Her [Medea’s] heart is no light thing, and useth not to brook such wrong”. Her love for Jason is transformed into remorseless hatred – “Dire and beyond all healing is the hate, when hearts that loved are turned to enmity”. Her only wish now is to see “….him and his bride, who sought my grief when I wronged her not, broken in misery and all her house”. She acknowledges that “…there moves no bloodier spirit between heaven and hell” than a women betrayed in love.
Creon fears that Medea, “…sullen-eyed and hot with hate…”, might hurt his daughter and resolves to immediately banish both her and her children. But Medea cunningly claims to harbour no hatred for his family and asks for her banishment to be delayed by one day so that she can comfort her children. Creon, whom Medea considers a “triple fool”, accedes to her request.
Medea also feigns compliance with Jason’s selfish plans but requests that he intercede with Creon’s daughter to have the banishment of her children overturned. She then sends her sons to the bridal chamber of Jason’s new bride to present her with a splendid robe and golden crown. Enthralled by these “gifts”, she duly puts them on but they have been poisoned and she dies in agony. Creon, grief-stricken, kisses his dead daughter and is himself poisoned. Medea then slaughters her own beloved children to complete the punishment of their father.
The chorus conclude in suitably fatalistic vein, thus, “Great treasure halls hath Zeus in heaven, from whence to man strange dooms be given, past hope or fear. And the end men looked for cometh not, and a path is there where no man thought: so hath it fallen here”.
The hapless and hubristic Christopher Murray Paul-Huhne might now perhaps agree.
LESLIE JONES is the Quarterly Review‘s deputy editor. Leslie Jones © February 2013