Both, Seneca and Euripides present their versions of ancient myth about Jason and Medea. Two authors use one subject but there are parts in their tragedies which significantly differ. The role and function of Medea, the protagonist, is different in both tragedies. Seneca’s Medea has more power and takes active position in comparison to Medea by Euripides. These differences reflect not only personal attitudes of the authors, but also illuminate the role of women in their contemporary societies.
Two authors present different images of Medea because they center on different aspects of their characters. The image of Medea crated by Seneca has more power. Euripides creates more human character. His Medea is more like a usual woman with her demerits and fallacies. Euripides’s Medea is passive and obedient woman. From the first lines she describes her miserable and humiliated position: “Ah, me! A wretched suffering woman I! O would that I could die!” (Euripides, 11). She asks Gods for mercy and compassion. Euripides presents Medea to the audience through the descriptions of other characters. It is Nurse who mainly speaks about Medea and all thought that happened to her. “Nurse: She gave all sorts of help to Jason…
But that marriage changed. Now they’re enemies.
Their fine love’s grown sick, diseased, for Jason,
leaving his own children and my mistress,
is lying on a royal wedding bed (Euripides, 13-20).
Euripides shows Medea as the ordinary housewife, who suffers because of injustice. Medea is depicted as passive character who is distanced from the audience and is presented through other people.
Seneca’s Medea has more power. He paid great attention to her supernatural abilities. Her image is more mystical and that is one of the reason it looks more powerful. Seneca’s Medea is active and she becomes the main source of all changes in the plot. She moves the plotline and all her judgments are expressed directly. From the first lines she introduces her active position and demand for revenge: “O gods! Vengeance! Come to me now, I beg, and help me…” (Seneca 205).
The image of women presented in the contemporary society also had great influence on the presentation of the protagonists in both plays. Women are depicted as lees powerful and more obedient in tragedy by Euripides. Euripides’s Medea looks for justice. She hesitates and does not know what to do. During the entire play she is full of doubts concerning her plans to revenge her husband and Creon. In Seneca’s tragedy Medea does not have doubts and hesitations. She knows what she wants and moves to her goal. Euripides’s Medea obediently waits for her destiny.
“MEDEA [still from inside the house]
Oh why can’t a bolt of lightning strike me?
What point is there in living any more?
I want death to come and sweep me off—
let me escape this life of suffering!” (Euripides, 165-170).
She only asks Gods to change their will and to be merciful to her. She addresses Gods pleading for mercy and counts on their help:
“O great Themis and noble Artemis,
do you see what I am having to endure,
when I’m the one who bound that cursed man,
my husband, with strong promises to me?” (Euripides, 240).
She believes that her destiny fully defends on the will of almighty Gods and they are her only hope to change the situation for better. All her misfortunes she views as the will of Gods and she believes that only Gods are able to change this.
Medea in Seneca’s tragedy takes active position. This reflects female roles in Seneca’s society. She makes decisions not only about her own life, but also about the lives of people around her.
Attitudes to Gods expressed by the protagonists is also different in two tragedies. This attitudes is defined by two cultures and it also has influence on the depiction of Medea. The myth described in the tragedies belongs to the Greek religion. The Gods are important for these religion and Euripides illustrates this attitude in his tragedy. The images of Gods are mighty and power in his tragedy and Medea is vice versa obedient to Gods. She knows that she commits a crime and she obediently waits for punishment. Gods are treated like supreme power in Euripides’s tragedy and Medea reflects this attitudes. The attitude to Gods is different in Seneca’s tragedy. Seneca used the myth from Greek mythology and his attitude to Gods from this pantheon is not that obedient as an attitude by Euripides. Seneca’s attitudes to Greek Gods makes his Medea more powerful. Medea doubts the existence of Gods and even confronts them. Medea addresses Gods but her words sound more like a demand than like a pleading. She even threatens them in case they do not respond to her pray: “Or else, in the absence of gods, I pray to Chaos itself” (Seneca). She demands Gods to follow her will and she is sure she has a right to do this.
The role of chorus is different in both tragedies and these differences also illustrate the different presentation of two main characters. In Euripides’s play female chorus is compassionate to Medea. It shows compassion to female destiny and shares Medea’s troubles. This way the chorus proves that the main character is a week woman who needs more support and understanding. The chorus is more impartial in Medea by Seneca. It appears as impartial observer. It does not express personal attitudes and only comments the events. Seneca’s Medea is a strong woman. She does not need external support.
She meets her troubles with dignity and she knows what she wants. The chorus underlines Medea’s strong position. It does not take her side and only depicts events objectively. In the beginning of the play the Chorus expresses happiness because of Jason’s marriage: “May the gods of the sky and sea attend and bless the marriage of Jason, our prince. Be kind to them, and grant they may have the full measure of happiness man and woman can find together” (Seneca 115). This does not happen in Euripides’s tragedy where the chorus is fully compassionate to Medea and regards all events from her perspective.
Seneca and Euripides used ancient myth for their tragedies but thanks to personal interpretation they created different characters of Medea. Their characters give new shades of meaning to the ancient myth and reflect the system of beliefs presented in their societies. Seneca’s Medea has more power than the character of Medea crated by Euripides These difference is conditioned by historical and cultural realia, as well as by the personal positions of both authors.