(First Century A.D.)
MEDEA, daughter of Aeëtes, king of Colchis, and wife of Jason.
THE TIME of the play is confined to the single day of the culmination of the tragedy, the day proposed by Creon for the banishment of Medea and the marriage of Jason to Creusa, daughter of Creon.
Although the play is confined in time to the final day of catastrophe at Corinth, the background is the whole romantic story of the Argonauts: how Jason and his hero-comrades, at the instigation of Pelias, the usurping king of Thessalian Iolchos, undertook the first voyage in quest of the Golden Fleece; how, after many adventures, these first sailors reached the kingdom of Aeëtes, who jealously guarded the fleece, since upon its possession depended his kingship; how the three deadly labors were imposed upon Jason before the fleece could be won – the yoking of the fiery bulls, the contest with the giants that sprang from the sown serpent’s teeth, and the overcoming of the sleepless dragon that ever guarded the fleece; how, smitten by love of him, the beautiful barbaric Medea, daughter of the king, by the help of her magic aided Jason in all these labors and accompanied him in his flight; how to retard her father’s pursuit she slew her brother and scattered his mangled remains in the path as they fled; how again, for love of Jason, she restored his father to youth and tricked Pelias’ own daughters into slaying their aged sire; how, for this act, Medea with her husband were exiled from Thessalia and dwelt in Corinth; how, for ten happy years, she lived with her husband and two sons in this alien land, her wild past almost forgotten, her magic untouched.
But now Jason has been won away from his wife, and is about to wed Creusa, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. The wedding festivities have already begun when the play opens and reveals Medea invoking all the powers of heaven and hell in punishment of her false lord.
MEDEA Ye gods of wedlock, and thou, Lucina, guardian of the nuptial couch, and thou [Minerva] who didst teach Tiphys to guide his new barque to the conquest of the seas, and thou, grim ruler of the deeps of Ocean, and Titan, who dost portion out bright day unto the world, and thou who dost show thy bright face as witness of the silent mysteries, O three-formed Hecate, and ye gods by whose divinity Jason swore to me, to whom Medea may more lawfully appeal – thou chaos of endless night, ye realms remote from heaven, ye unhallowed ghosts, thou lord [Pluto] of the realm of gloom, and thou, his queen, [Proserpina] won by violence but with better faith, with ill-omened speech I make my prayer to you. Be present, be present, ye goddesses [the Furies] who avenge crime, your hair foul with writhing snakes, grasping the smoking torch with your bloody hands, be present now, such as once ye stood in dread array beside my marriage couch; upon this new wife destruction bring, destruction on this father-in-law and the whole royal stock.
I have yet curse more dire to call down on my husband – may he live. Through unknown cities may he wander, in want, in exile, in fear of life, hated and homeless; may he seek hospitality at strange doors, by now a familiar applicant; may he desire me for wife, and, that which I can pray nothing worse, may his children be like their sire and like their mother. – Already borne, borne is my vengeance! I have borne children! But why frame complaints and idle words? Shall I not go against my enemies? I’ll snatch the bridal-torches from their hands and the light from heaven. Does he behold this, the Sun, father of my race, and do men still behold him as, sitting in his chariot, he courses over bright heaven’s accustomed spaces? Why does he not return to his rising and measure back the day? Grant, oh, grant that I ride through the air in my father’s car; give me the reins, O sire, give me the right to guide thy fire-bearing steeds with the flaming reins; then let Corinth, with her twin shores cause of delay to ships, be consumed by flames and bring the two seas together.
This course alone remains, that I myself bear the wedding torch unto the chamber and, after sacrificial prayers, slay victims on consecrated altars. Amid the very entrails seek thou a way for punishment, if thou livest, O soul, if there remains to thee aught of thy old-time strength. Away with womanish fears, clothe thy heart with unfeeling Caucasus. Whatever horror Pontus has beheld, or Phasis, Isthmus shall behold. Wild deeds, unheard-of, horrible, calamities at which heaven and earth alike shall tremble, my heart deep within is planning – wounds, slaughter, death, creeping from limb to limb. Ah, too trivial the deeds I have rehearsed; these things I did in girlhood. Let my grief rise to more deadly strength; greater crimes become me, now that I am a mother. Gird thyself with wrath, and prepare thee for deadly deeds with the full force of madness. Let the story of thy rejection match the story of thy marriage. How wilt thou leave thy husband? Even as thou didst follow him. Break off now dull delay; the home which by crime was gained, by crime must be abandoned.
[Chanting the epithalamium for JASON and
Our maiden in beauty far excels the Cecropian [Athenian] brides, and those who on Taÿgetus’ ridges are trained after the manner of men by the unwalled city [Sparta], and those who bathe in Aonia’s [Boeotian] waters and Alpheus’ [of Elis] sacred stream.
Should he wish to be judged in beauty, all will yield to the son of Aeson, our leader – the ruthless lightning’s son [Bacchus] who yokes with wild tigers, and he [Apollo] who makes tremble the tripod, the stern virgin’s [Diana] brother; with his twin Castor, Pollux will yield, more skillful in boxing.
So, so, ye heaven-dwellers, I pray you, let this bride surpass brides, this husband far excel husbands.
When she has taken her stand midst her train of maidens, her one beauty shines more brightly than all. So does starlight splendor wane with the coming of the sun, and the huddled flock of the Pleiades vanish away when Phoebe, shining with borrowed light, with encircling horns encloses her full-orbed disk.
While on such beauty the young lover gazes, her cheeks are suddenly covered with rosy blushes. So snowy wool, dipped in purple dye, doth redden; so shines the sun when the shepherd at dawn, wet with the dew, beholds it.
Do thou, O bridegroom, rescued from the marriage bonds of barbarous Phasis, wont with fear and reluctant hand to caress an unruly wife, joyfully take to thy arms the Aeolian maid [Creusa, a descendant of Aeolus] – now at last ‘tis with the parents’ will.
Sport, youths, with free banter and jesting; let your songs ring out, O youths, in responsive cadence; rarely against our lords is unrebuked license given. Comely, noble scion [Hymen, son of Bacchus and Venus] of Lyaeus, the thyrsus-bearer, now is the time to light thy torch of frayed pinewood; toss on high the ritual fire with languishing fingers. Let saucy, sharp wit pour forth festive banterings and let the throng be free with jesting. – Let her pass in silent gloom who steals away to wed with a foreign husband.
MEDEA We are undone! Upon my ears has sounded the marriage-hymn. So great a calamity scarce I myself, scarce even yet can comprehend? Had Jason the heart to do this; having robbed me of my father, native land, and kingdom, could he leave me alone in a foreign land, cruel? Has he scorned my deservings, who saw flames and sea conquered by my crime? Does he think that all my powers of evil are so exhausted? Perplexed, witless, with mind scarce sane, I am tossed to every side. Whence can I get vengeance? I would that he had a brother! A wife he has; into her heart let the sword be driven. Is this enough to offset my woes? All monstrous deeds which Pelasgian, which barbaric cities know, all that thy own hands do not know, must be made ready now. Let thine own crimes urge thee on, and let them all return in memory – the bright ornament of the kingdom stolen away, and the wicked girl’s little comrade [Absyrtus] hewn in pieces with the sword, his murder forced upon his father’s sight, his body scattered over the deep, and the limbs of aged Pelias seethed in a brazen pot. Murder and impious bloodshed now often have I wrought! – and yet no crime have I done in wrath; ‘twas ill-omened love stirred me.
But what else could Jason have done, once made subject to another’s will and power? He should have bared his breast unto the sword – nay, ah, nay, mad grief, say not so! If possible, may he live and, mindful of me, keep unharmed the gift I gave. The fault is Creon’s, all, who with unbridled sway dissolves marriages, tears mothers from their children, and breaks pledges bound by straitest oath; on him be my attack, let him alone pay the penalties which he owes. I will pile his home high with ashes; its dark pinnacles wrapt in flames Malea shall see, where, jutting out, it holds ships in tedious delay.
NURSE Be silent, I pray thee, and confide to secret grief thy hidden plaints. Whoever has dumbly borne hard blows with patient and calm soul, has been able to repay them; it is hidden wrath that harms; hatred proclaimed loses its chance for vengeance.
MEDEA Light is the grief which can take counsel and hide itself; great ills lie not in hiding. ‘Tis pleasing to face the foe.
NURSE Stay this frenzied outburst, my child; even silent calm can scarce defend thee.
MEDEA Fortune fears the brave, the cowardly overwhelms.
NURSE If there is place for courage, then should it be approved.
MEDEA It can never be that for courage there is no place.
NURSE No hope points out a way for our broken fortunes.
MEDEA Whoso has naught to hope, let him despair of naught.
NURSE The Colchians are no longer on thy side, thy husband’s vows have failed, and there is nothing left of all thy wealth.
MEDEA Medea, is left – in her thou beholdest sea and land, and sword and fire and gods and thunderbolts.
NURSE The king is to be feared.
MEDEA My father was a king.
NURSE Fearest thou not arms?
MEDEA Not though they were sprung from earth.
NURSE Thou’lt die.
MEDEA I wish it.
MEDEA Of flight I have repented.
MEDEA Will I be.
NURSE Thou art a mother.
MEDEA By whom, thou seest.
NURSE Dost delay flight?
MEDEA Flee I shall, but I’ll take my vengeance first.
NURSE The avenger will pursue.
MEDEA Perchance I shall find means to stay him.
NURSE Check thy words, spare now thy threats, foolish one, and thy proud spirit humble; ‘tis well to fit thee to the times.
MEDEA Fortune can take away my wealth, but not my spirit. – But under whose blows does the king’s door upon its hinges creak? It is Creon himself, puffed with Pelasgian power.
[MEDEA has retired to the back of the stage. Exit NURSE. Enter CREON.]
CREON Medea, Colchian Aeëtes baleful child, has she not yet taken herself from my realm? She is plotting mischief; I know her guile, I know her power. Whom will she spare? Whom will she let live in peace? I was making ready to rid me of this outrageous pest by the sword’s means and with all speed; but the prayers of my daughter’s husband have prevailed. I have granted her life; let her free my boundaries from fear, and depart in safety.
[He sees MEDEA approaching.]
MEDEA What crime, what fault is punished by my exile?
CREON What cause expels her – that may an innocent woman ask.
MEDEA If thou art my judge, then hear me; if my king, command.
CREON A king’s commands, just and unjust, thou must obey.
MEDEA Unjust rule never abides continually.
CREON Go, complain to the Colchians.
MEDEA I go; but let him take me who brought me thence.
CREON Thy prayer comes too late; my resolve is fixed.
MEDEA He who has judged aught, with the other side unheard, may have judged righteously, but was himself unrighteous.
CREON Didst thou hear Pelias ere he suffered punishment? But say on; be a hearing granted to thine excellent case.
MEDEA How hard it is to turn away from wrath the spirit when once aroused, and how royal it seems to him who has grasped the sceptre in his proud hands to go on as he has begun, I have learned in my own royal home. For, although I am overwhelmed by piteous disaster, an exile, suppliant, lonely, forsaken, on all sides buffeted, once I had glory from my noble father, and from my grandsire, the Sun, traced illustrious descent. All the land that Phasis waters with its calm, winding stream, all the Scythian Pontus sees behind it, where the sea grows sweet with marshy waters, all that the unwedded hordes [Amazons], crescent-shielded, hemmed by Thermodon’s banks, fill with alarm – over all this my father rules. High-born, blest of heaven, in royal power and splendor then I shone; then princes sued for marriage with me, whom now I must sue. Swift and fickle is fortune and, swooping down, has torn me from royalty and given me over to exile.
Put thy trust in royalty, although light chance hither and thither tosses even mighty wealth! This is the glorious, great privilege of kings, which time can never snatch away – to succor the afflicted, on a safe hearth to shelter suppliants. This only have I brought from my Colchian realm, that by my own self I saved that great glory and illustrious flower of Greece, bulwark of the Achaeans, offspring of gods. [The Argonauts.] Orpheus is my gift, who softens the rocks by his singing and draws trees after him; mine, too, are the twins, Castor and Pollux, and the sons of Boreas [Zetes and Cala´s], and Lynceus, who with far-flung gaze sees things removed even beyond Pontus, – and all the Minyans. For of the leader [Jason] of the leaders I say no word; for him naught is owing; I count none debtor for his sake. For you I brought back the rest; him only for myself.
Come on now, and heap all kinds of shameful deeds upon me. I will confess them; but as for crimes, this only can be charged, the rescue of the Argo. Suppose modesty should please the maiden, suppose her filial duty should please her; then will the whole Pelasgian land perish with its leaders, and this thy son-in-law will first fall before the fiery breath of the fierce bull. Let what fortune will, oppress me; I repent not the glorious salvation of so many kings. Whatever reward I have won by all my crimes, it is in thy hands. Arraign and condemn me, if ‘tis thy pleasure; but give me back my sin. I am guilty, I confess it, Creon; such didst thou know me when I clasped thy knees and as suppliant sought the loyalty of thy protecting hand. Once more, some corner, some abiding-place for my woes I beg, some paltry hiding-place; if from thy city thou art pleased to drive me, let some remote nook in thy realm be given me.
CREON That I am not one to wield the sceptre with violence nor to trample upon misery with haughty foot, methinks I have not unclearly shown by choosing for son-in-law an exile, crushed and stricken with heavy fear – aye, one whom Acastus, lord of Thessaly, demands for punishment and death. He complains that his father [Pelias], palsied and weak with age, burdened with years, was taken off, and the murdered old man’s limbs torn asunder, when, deceived by thy guile, his [i.e. Acastus’] pious sisters dared an impious crime. Jason can defend his own cause if it is separate from thine; no blood has stained his innocence, his hand wielded no sword, and he has kept far off and free from company of such as thou. Thou, thou contriver of wickedness, who combinest woman’s wanton recklessness and man’s strength, with no thought of reputation, away! Purge my kingdom and take thy deadly herbs with thee; free the citizens from fear; abiding in some other land, harry the gods.
MEDEA Dost force me to flee? Give back then to the fugitive her ship, yea, give back her comrade [Jason]. Why dost thou bid me flee alone? I did not come alone. If ‘tis war thou fearest, drive us both from thy kingdom. Why make distinction ‘twixt two culprits? ‘Tis for him Pelias lies dead, and not for me. Add flight, theft, a deserted father, a mangled brother, any crime which even now the bridegroom is teaching his new wives – ‘tis no crime of mine. Full oft have I been made guilty, but never for myself.
CREON Thy going is already overdue. Why dost contrive delay with words?
MEDEA Suppliant I make this last prayer to thee as I depart: let not the mother’s guilt drag down her guiltless sons.
CREON Go then; these will I take as father to my fatherly embrace.
MEDEA By the blest bed of this royal marriage, by thy hopes for the future, and by the estate of thrones, which fickle Fortune disturbs with changeful lot, I pray thee be bountiful of a brief stay of my flight, while I, their mother, imprint on my sons the latest kiss, perchance my dying act.
CREON For treachery thou art seeking time.
MEDEA What treachery can be feared in time so scant?
CREON No time is too brief for harm to those on evil bent.
MEDEA Dost refuse a poor mother just a little time for tears?
CREON Though my ingrained fear bids me refuse thy plea, one day shall be given to prepare for banishment.
MEDEA ‘Tis more than enough, though thou retrench it somewhat. I also am in haste.
CREON With thy life shalt thou pay penalty if before Phoebus brings the bright day thou art not gone from Isthmus.
But the marriage rites summon me, summons the festal day to pray to Hymen.
CHORUS Too venturesome the man who in frail barque first cleft the treacherous seas and, with one last look behind him at the well-known shore, trusted his life to the fickle winds; who, plowing the waters on an unknown course, could trust to a slender plank, stretching too slight a boundary between the ways of life and death.
Unsullied the ages our fathers saw, with crime banished afar. Then every man inactive kept to his own shores and lived to old age on ancestral fields, rich with but little, knowing no wealth save what his home soil had yielded. Not yet could any read the sky and use the stars with which the heavens are spangled; not yet could ships avoid the rainy Hyades; not yet did the fires of the Olenian Goat nor the Attic Wain which slow old Boótes follows and controls, not yet did Boreas, not yet Zephyrus have names.
Tiphys made bold to spread his canvas on the vasty deep and to write new laws for the winds: now to spread full-bellied sail, now to haul the forward sheet and catch cross-breezes, now to set the yards in safety midway of the mast, now to bind them at the top, when the too eager sailor prays for winds and aloft the ruddy topsails flutter. The lands, well separated before by nature’s laws, the Thessalian ship [the Argo] made one, bade the deep suffer blows [i.e. of oars], and the sequestered sea become a part of our human fear.
Heavy the penalties which that bold barque paid, brought through long terrors, when two mountains, barriers of the deep, from either side quick rushing, soared as with sound of thunder, and the sea, caught between, sprinkled their peaks and the clouds themselves. Bold Tiphys paled with fear and let the helm slip wholly from his faltering hand; Orpheus was still, his lyre mute with amaze, and the Argo herself lost voice [the Argos’ figurehead was made of wood from the talking oaks of Dodona]. What, when the maid [Scylla] of Sicilian Pelorus, her waist begirt with dogs, opened all her gaping throats together? Who did not shudder in every limb when that one monster howled with so many tongues? What, when the deadly pests [the Sirens] soothed the Ausonian sea with their tuneful songs, when, sounding back on his Pierian lyre, Thracian Orpheus well-nigh forced the Siren to follow, though wont to hold ships spell-bound by her song? Of this voyage what was the prize? The golden fleece and Medea, worse evil than the sea, worthy to be the first ship’s merchandise.
Now, in our time, the deep has ceased resistance and submits utterly to law; no famous Argo, framed by a Pallas’ hand, with princes to man its oars, is sought for; any little craft now wanders at will upon the deep. All bounds have been removed, cities have set their walls in new lands, and the world, now passable throughout, has left nothing where it once had place: the Indian drinks of the cold Arazes, the Persians quaff the Elbe and the Rhine. There will come an age in the far-off years when Ocean shall unloose the bonds of things, when the whole broad earth shall be revealed, when Tethys shall disclose new worlds and Thule not be the limit of the lands.
MEDEA hurrying out of the house.]
[MEDEA goes on without heeding.]
[MEDEA now approached]
MEDEA [Aside.] If thou seekst, poor soul, what limit thou shouldst set to hate, copy thy love. Can it be that unavenged I should endure this royal wedding? Shall this day go idly by so anxiously besought, so anxiously bestowed? While the central earth shall bear up the balanced heavens, while the bright universe shall pursue its unchanging rounds, while sands lack number, while day attends the sun and stars the night, while the dry [because these constellations never set beneath the ocean] Bears revolve about the pole, and rivers fall to the sea, my madness shall never cease its quest of vengeance and shall grow on for ever. What ferocity of beasts, what Scylla, what Charybdis, sucking up the Ausonian and Sicilian waters, or what Aetna, resting heavily on panting Titan, shall burn with such threats as I? No whirling river, no storm-tossed sea, no Pontus, raging beneath the north-west wind, no violence of fire, fanned by the gale, could imitate the onrush of my wrath. I shall lay prostrate and destroy all things.
Did he [Jason] fear Creon and the threats of Thessaly’s king? [Acastus] True love can fear no man. But grant that under compulsion he yielded and made surrender; he could at least have come to me, could have spoken some last words to his wife. This also, though bold of heart, he feared to do. Surely ‘twas in the power of the king’s son-in-law to put off the time of my cruel banishment – one day was given for my children twain. But I complain not that the time is short; it shall stretch far. This day shall do, shall do that whereof no day shall ever be dumb. I will storm the gods, and shake the universe.
NURSE Win back thy woe-troubled heart, my mistress; calm thy soul.
MEDEA The only calm for me – if with me I see the universe overwhelmed in ruins; with me let all things pass away. ‘Tis sweet to drag others down when thou art perishing.
[Calling after MEDEA.]
JASON O fate, ever hard, and fortune, cruel – when she rages and when she spares, equally malign! How often does God find cures for us worse than our perils; should I resolve to be faithful to my wife according to her deserts, my life would be forfeited to death; should I refuse to die, alas! I must be faithless. It is not fear, but fearful father-love that has conquered faith; surely my children would share their parents’ death. O holy Justice, if in heaven thou dwellest, I call thy divinity to witness: the sons have prevailed upon the sire. Nay, even she herself, though she is fierce of heart and ill brooks the yoke, would rather, methinks, take thought for her sons than for her marriage rights. My mind is fixed to assail her wrath with prayers.
MEDEA We are fleeing, Jason, fleeing. ‘Tis no new thing to change our abode; but the cause of flight is new – ‘twas for thee I was wont to flee. I withdraw, I go away, whom thou art forcing to flee forth from thy home; but whither dost thou send me back? Shall I seek Phasis and the Colchians, my father’s kingdom, the fields drenched with my brother’s blood? What lands dost thou bid me seek? What waters dost show to me? The jaws of the Pontic sea through which I brought back the noble band of princes, following thee, thou wanton, through the Clashing Rocks? Is it little Iolcos or Thessalian Tempe I shall seek? All the ways which I have opened for thee I have closed upon myself. Whither dost send me back? Thou imposest exile on an exile, but givest no place. But let me go. A king’s son-in-law has commanded it; I’ll not refuse. Heap dire penalties upon me; them have I deserved. Let the angry king crush thy mistress with cruel punishments, load her hands with chains, shut her up and bury her in dungeons of eternal darkness; I shall suffer less than I deserve.
O ungrateful man, let thy heart recall the bull’s fiery breath, and, midst the savage terrors of unconquered race, the fire-breathing herd on Aeëtes’ arm-bearing [where the dragon’s teeth sowed by Jason sprang up into full-armed warriors] plain, the weapons of the suddenly appearing foe, when, at my order, the earth-born soldiery fell in mutual slaughter. Think, too, on the long-sought spoil of the ram of Phrixus, the sleepless dragon, bidden to close his eyes in unknown slumber, my brother given up to death, crime not done once alone in one act of crime [Medea not only slew her brother, but cut him in pieces and cast them into the sea]; think on the daughters [of Pelias] who, lured by my guile, dared dismember the old man who was never to return to life. By the hopes of thy children, thine established house, by the monsters conquered, by these hands which I have never spared in thy service, by the perils we have undergone, by heaven and sea, witnesses of my marriage, have mercy on me; happy thyself, give thy suppliant her turn at happiness. Seeking a kingdom for another, I have given up my own; of all that wealth which, plundered even from the distant swart tribes of India, the Scythians heap up, that golden treasure which, since the packed palace can scarce contain it, we hang upon the trees [referring to the golden fleece], I brought away nothing in my exile save only my brother’s limbs. Those also I squandered upon thee; for thee my country has given place, for thee father, brother, maidenhood – with this dower did I wed thee. Give back to the fugitive her own.
JASON When angry Creon was bent on thy destruction, ‘twas by my tears he was prevailed upon to grant thee banishment.
MEDEA As punishment I deemed it; now, as I see, exile is a boon.
JASON Depart while still thou mayst; take thyself hence; grievous ever is the wrath of kings.
MEDEA In urging this upon me, thou art Creusa’s advocate; thou wouldst remove the rival whom she hates.
JASON What! Medea charge me with love?
MEDEA Yes, murder, too, and treachery.
JASON What crime, pray, canst thou charge to me?
MEDEA Whatever I have done.
JASON This one thing remains still for me, to become guilty of thy sins as well.
MEDEA They are, they are thine own; who profits by a sin has done the sin. Though all should hold thy wife infamous, do thou alone protect her, do thou alone call her innocent; let her be guiltless in thy sight, who for thy sake is guilty.
JASON Unwelcome is life which one is ashamed to have accepted.
MEDEA Then one should not keep a life which he is ashamed to have accepted.
JASON Nay, calm thy wrath-stirred heart; for thy sons sake be reconciled.
MEDEA I reject, forswear, disown them! Shall Creusa bear brothers to my children?
JASON Yes, a queen, to the sons of exiles; a royal lady to the fallen.
MEDEA Never may such ill day come to the wretched, as shall mingle a base breed with illustrious stock, Phoebus’ sons with the sons of Sisyphus.
JASON Why, wretched woman, dost thou drag both me and thee to ruin? Begone, I pray thee.
MEDEA Creon has heard my prayer.
JASON What can I do? Tell me.
MEDEA For me? Crime.
JASON A king on this side and on that –
MEDEA There is (and this more fearsome still) Medea. Let us [i.e. Creon and me] strive together, and let the prize be Jason.
JASON I yield, worn with trouble. And do thou thyself beware lest thou tempt fate too often.
MEDEA Always has every fortune stood beneath my feet.
JASON Acastus is hard after us.
MEDEA Nearer foe is Creon; flee them both. That thou arm thy hand against thy father-in-law, and stain thyself with kindred [Acastus was Jason’s cousin] blood, Medea does not compel thee; remain guiltless and escape with me.
JASON And who will resist if double war assail us, if Creon and Acastus unite their arms?
MEDEA Add the Colchians to these, add Aeetes, too, to lead them, join Scythians with Pelasgians; to destruction will I give them all.
JASON I tremble at lofty sceptres.
MEDEA See that thou lust not after them.
JASON Cut short this long discourse, lest it arouse suspicion.
MEDEA Now, O most high Jupiter, thunder throughout thy heavens, stretch forth thy hand, thine avenging flames prepare, rend the clouds and make the whole world quake. Let thy bolts be poised with hand that chooseth neither me nor him; whichever of us falls will perish guilty; against us thy bolt can make no error.
JASON Begin to think with reason, and speak with calm. If any solace from my father-in-law’s house can soothe thy flight, request it.
MEDEA To scorn the wealth of kings, my soul, as well thou knowest, hath strength and wont. I ask but this: that I may have my children as comrades of my flight, that in their bosoms I may pour forth my tears. Thee new sons await.
JASON I confess that right gladly would I yield unto thy prayer, but a father’s love forbids; for that I should permit this thing, not Creon himself, my king and father-in-law, could force me. This is my reason for living, this, my heart’s comfort, consumed as it is with cares. Sooner could I part with breath, with limbs, with light.
MEDEA [Aside.] Thus does he love his sons? ‘Tis well! I have him! The place to wound him is laid bare. [To JASON.] As I depart, my final message, at least, grant me to speak; grant me to give the last embrace; even that will be a boon. With my latest utterance I beg thee now; let not any words my distracted grief has poured forth remain within my mind; let the memory of my better self stay with thee, and let these words spoken in wrath be quite forgot.
JASON All have I driven from my mind, and I also make prayer to thee that thou curb thy hot passion and be calm; peace soothes the soul’s distresses.
MEDEA He has gone! Can it be so? Goest thou, forgetful of me and of all the deeds I wrought? Have we fallen from thy memory? Nay, we shall never fall therefrom. [To herself.] To thy task; summon up all thy powers and arts. The fruit of thy crimes is to count nothing crime. There is scant room for fraud; we are held in fear. There make attack where no one can fear aught. Haste thee now, dare, begin whatever Medea can – and cannot – do.
[To the NURSE.] Do thou, faithful nurse, comrade of my grief and of my shifting fortunes, help my unhappy plannings. I have a robe, a gift from heaven, the glory of our house and kingdom, given by the Sun to Aeetes as a pledge of fatherhood; there is also a gleaming necklace of woven gold and a golden band which the sparkle of gems adorns, with which the air is encircled. Let my sons bring these as gifts unto the bride, but let them first be anointed and imbued with baneful poisons. Now call on Hecate. Prepare the death-dealing rites; let altars be erected, and let now their fires resound within the palace.
CHORUS No violence of fire or of swelling gale, no fearful force of hurtling spear, is as great as when a wife, robbed of her love, burns hot with hate; not when cloudy Auster has brought the winter’s rains, and Hister’s floods speeds on, wrecking bridges in its course, and wanders afield; not when the Rhone beats back the sea, or when the snows melt into streams beneath the sun’s strong rays and in mid-spring Haemus has dissolved. Blind is the fire of love when fanned by rage, cares not to be controlled, brooks no restraint, has no fear of death; ‘tis eager to advance even against the sword.
Have mercy, O gods, be gracious, we beseech you, that he [Jason, who first ventured on the sea in the Argo] may live in safety who tamed the sea; but the lord [Neptune] of the deep is enraged that the second realm is conquered. The youth [PhaŰthon] who dared drive the everlasting chariot, heedless of his father’s goal, himself caught the fire which in his madness he scattered over the sky. The familiar path has cost no mortal dear; walk thou where ‘twas safe for folk aforetime, nor break, rash man, the inviolable covenants of the universe.
Whoever handled that daring ship’s famous oars and despoiled Pelion of his sacred grove’s thick shade, whoever entered between the roaming rocks [the Symplegades] and, having passed the perils of the deep, moored his vessel on a savage shore, to return captor of foreign gold – all by a dreadful end atoned for the sea’s outraged laws.
Punishment the challenged ocean claims. First of all, Tiphys, the tamer of the deep, gave up control to an untrained helmsman; dying on a foreign shore, far from his ancestral realm, in a paltry tomb he lies midst unfamiliar shades. For this, Aulis, remembering her lost king, in her becalmed harbor holds ships chafing at delay.
That son [Orpheus] of the tuneful Muse, at whose sweet melodies the swift stream stood still and the winds were hushed, when the bird, leaving off its own singing, came near him, the whole wood following after – he lay scattered over the Thracian fields, but his head floated down mournful Hebrus; he came to the familiar [Orpheus had visited the lower world once before] Styx and Tartarus, never to return.
Alcides laid low the sons [Zetes and Cala´s] of Aquilo, he slew Neptune’s son [Periclymenus] wont to take upon him countless shapes; but he himself, after establishing peace on land and sea, after opening up the kingdoms of savage Dis, laid him down, living, on burning Oeta, and gave his body to the devouring flames, consumed by the wasting of the double blood [i.e. the commingled blood of the hydra and of Nessus], his wife’s offering.
The bristling boar [the Calydonian boar], irresistible in his thrust, laid Ancaeus low; thou, Meleager, dost impiously slay thy mother’s brother and diest by thine enraged mother’s hand. All these deserved the charge for which that tender boy [Hylas], sought vainly by mighty Hercules, atoned by death – the boy snatched away, alas, midst peaceful waters. Go now, ye brave, plow the sea, whose streams ye ought to dread.
Idmon, though he well knew his fate, was slain by a serpent on Libya’s sands; true to all, but false to himself alone, Mopsus fell and saw not Thebes again. If he [Mopsus] told truth as to the future, Thetis’ husband [Peleus] shall in exile wander. Nauplius, while striving to wreck the Argives by false beacon fires, shall fall headlong into the deep; his son [Palamedes] shall perish and pay the penalty of his father’s sin [i.e. of joining in the Argonaut expedition]; Oileus [Ajax; the father’s name is put in place of the son’s], too, dying midst flame and flood; redeeming from death her lord [Admetus] of Pherae, the wife [Alcestis] shall perish, giving up her life for her husband’s sake. Pelias himself, who bade the prize of the golden spoil be brought away in the first ship, seething in boiling pot, wandering midst waters close confined, perished by fire. Enough now, ye gods, have ye avenged the sea; spare him [Jason] who was ordered to the task.
NURSE [Alone.] My spirit quakes with horror; some great disaster is at hand. Monstrously grows her grief, feeds its own fires and renews its former strength. Often have I seen her in frenzy and assailing the gods [i.e. the sun and moon], drawing down the sky; but greater than such deeds, greater is the monstrous thing Medea is preparing. For now that with maddened steps she has gone out and come to her baleful shrine, she lavishes all her stores and brings forth whatever even she herself long has dreaded, and marshals her whole train of evil powers, things occult, mysterious, hidden; and, supplicating the grim altar with her left hand, she summons destructive agencies, whatever burning Libya’s sands produce, what Taurus, stiff with arctic cold, holds fast in his everlasting snows, and all monstrous things. Drawn by her magic incantations, the scaly brood leave their lairs and come to her. Here a savage serpent drags its huge length along, darts out its forked tongue, and seeks against whom it is to come death-dealing; hearing her incantation, it stops in amaze, knots its swollen body into writhing folds, and settles them into coils. “Petty are the evils,” she cries, “and cheap is the weapon which deepest earth begets; from heaven will I seek my poisons. Now, now is the time to set in motion some plan deeper than common guile. Hither let that serpent [the constellation Draco] descend which lies like a vast rushing stream, whose huge folds the two beasts [the Bears] feel, the greater and the less (the greater used [i.e. as a fixed point in sailing] by Pelasgians; by Sidonians, the less); let Ophiuchus at length relax his choking grip and give the poison vent; in answer to my incantations let Python come, who dared to attack the twin divinities [Apollo and Diana]. Let Hydra return and every serpent cut off by the hand of Hercules, restoring itself by its own destruction. Thou, too, ever-watchful dragon [which guarded the golden fleece], quitting the Colchians, come thou to my aid, thou who through my incantations wast first lulled to slumber.”
When she had summoned forth the whole tribe of serpents, she assembled her evil store of baleful herbs. Whatever trackless Eryx produces on his rocky slopes; plants that grow on heights clothed in unbroken winter, the heights of Caucasus, spattered with Prometheus’ gore; plants wherewith the rich Arabians smear their arrows, and the bold Mede, girt with his quiver, or the light-armed Parthians; or those juices which, under the bold pole, high-born Sueban women gather in Hyrcanian groves; whatever the earth produces in the nest-building springtime or when frozen winter has stripped the woods of their glory and bound all things with icy fetters; all plants that bloom with deadly flower, and all whose juices breed cause of death in their twisted roots – all these she handles. Haemonian Athos contributed those baneful herbs, these, mighty Pindus; on the ridges of Pangaeus that plant was lopped of its tender foliage with a bloody sickle; these Tigris fed, checking his deep flood the while; the Danube, those; these, gem-studded Hydaspes, flowing with warm waters through thirsty tracts, and the Baetis, which gave its name to its own country [Provincia Baetica, in Spain], pushing into the western sea with languorous flood. These plants felt the knife while Phoebus was making ready the day; the shoot of that was clipped at midnight; while this was severed by finger-nail with muttered charm.
She seizes death-dealing herbs, squeezes out serpents’ venom, and with these mingles unclean birds, the heart of a boding owl, and a hoarse screech-owl’s vitals cut out alive. Other objects the mistress of evil lays out, arranged in separate heaps; in some is the ravening power of fire; in others numbing frost’s icy cold. She adds to her poisons words, no less fearsome than they. – But listen, her frenzied step has sounded, and she chants her incantations. All nature shudders as she begins her song.
[Enter MEDEA singing an incantation.]
MEDEA I supplicate the throng of the silent, and, you, funereal gods, murky Chaos and shadowy Dis’ dark dwelling-place, the abysses of dismal Death, girt by the banks of Tartarus. Leaving your punishments, ye ghosts, haste to the new nuptials; let the wheel stop that is whirling his body, and Ixion stand on earth; let Tantalus in peace drink his fill of the Pirenian spring. You, too, whom a fruitless toil mocks with urns full of holes, ye Danaids, come hither: this day needs your hands. On one alone, my lord’s new father, let a penalty rest heavier – let the slippery stone roll Sisyphus [Sisyphus was father of Creon] backward over the rocks.
Now, summoned by my sacred rites, do thou [Hecate as the moon-goddess], orb of the night, put on thy most evil face and come, threatening in all thy forms [Hecate is triformis].
For thee, loosing my hair from its band after the manner of my people, with bare feet have I trod the secret groves and called forth rain from the dry clouds; I have driven the seas back to their lowest depths, and the Ocean, his tides outdone, has sent his crushing waves farther into the land; and in like manner, with heaven’s law confounded the world has seen both sun and stars together, and you, ye bears, have bathed in the forbidden sea. The order of the seasons have I changed: the summer land has blossomed beneath my magic song, and by my compelling Ceres has seen harvest in winter-time; Phasis has turned his swift waters backward to their source, and Hister, divided into many mouths, has checked his boisterous streams and flowed sluggishly in all his beds. The waves have roared, the mad sea swelled, though the winds were still; the heart of the ancient woods has lost its shadows, when the bright day has come back to them at commandment of my voice; Phoebus has halted in mid-heaven, and the Hyades, moved by my incantations, totter to their fall. The hour is at hand, O Phoebe, for thy sacred rites.
[She offers various gifts to HECATE.]
I see Trivia’s swift gliding car, not as when, radiant, with full face, she drives the livelong night, but as when, ghastly, with mournful aspect, harried by Thessalian threats, she skirts with nearer rein the edge of heaven. So do thou wanly shed from thy torch a gloomy light through air; terrify the peoples with new dread, and let precious Corinthian bronzes resound, Dictynna, to thy aid. [The moon in eclipse was supposed to be suffering under the spell of magic, which spell might be removed by beating on brazen vessels.] To thee on the altar’s bloody turf we perform thy solemn rites; to thee a torch caught up from the midst of a funeral pyre has illumed the night; to thee, tossing my head and with bended neck, I have uttered my magic words; for thee a fillet, lying in funeral fashion, binds my flowing locks; to thee is brandished the gloomy branch [of the yew or cypress trees] from the Stygian stream; to thee with bared breast will I as a maenad smite my arms with the sacrificial knife. Let my blood flow upon the altars; accustom thyself, my hand, to draw the sword and endure the sight of beloved blood. [She slashes her arm and lets the blood flow upon the altar.] Self-smitten have I poured forth the sacred stream.
But if thou complainest that too often thou art called on by my prayers, pardon, I pray; the cause, O Perses’ daughter [i.e. Hecate], of my too oft calling on thy bows is one and the same ever, Jason.
Do thou now [she takes a phial] poison Creusa’s robe that, when she has donned it, the creeping flame may consume her inmost marrow. Within this tawny gold [she takes a casket] lurks fire, darkly hid; Prometheus gave it me, even he who expiates with ever-growing liver his theft from heaven, and taught me by his art how to store up its powers. Mulciber hath also given me fires which subtly lurk in sulphur; and bolts of living flame I took from my kinsman [both Medea and PhaŰthon were descended from Phoebus], Phaëthon. I have gifts from Chimaera’s middle part [i.e. the goat part, which vomited fire], I have flames caught from the bull’s scorched throat, which, well mixed with Medusa’s gall, I have bidden to guard their bane in silence.
Give sting to my poisons, Hecate, and in my gifts keep hidden the seeds of fire. Let them cheat the sight, let them endure the touch; let burning fire penetrate to heart and veins; let her limbs melt and her bones consume in smoke, and with her blazing locks let the bride outshine her wedding torches.
My prayers are heard: thrice has bold Hecate bayed loud, and has raised the accursed fire with its baleful light. Now all my power is marshalled; hither call my sons that by their hands thou mayst send these costly gifts unto the bride.
[MEDEA’s sons are brought in.]
[Exuent sons toward the palace; MEDEA in the opposite direction.]
CHORUS Whither is this blood-stained maenad borne headlong by mad passion? What crime with reckless fury is she preparing? Her distraught face is hard set in anger, and with fierce tossings of her head she haughtily threatens even the king. Who would think her an exile.
Her cheeks blaze red, pallor puts red to flight; no color in her changing aspect does she keep long. Hither and thither she wanders, as a tigress, robbed of her cubs, ranges in mad course through the jungles of Ganges.
How to curb her anger Medea knows not, nor yet her love; now that anger and love have joined cause, what will the outcome be? When will the wicked Colchian be gone from the Pelasgian borders and free from terror at once our kingdom and our kings? Now, O Phoebus, speed thy chariot with no check of rein; let friendly darkness veil the light and let Hesperus, vanguard of the night, plunge deep this fearful day.
[Enter MESSENGER, running from the direction of the palace.]
MESSENGER All is lost! The kingdom’s props have fallen. Daughter and father in commingled ashes lie.
CHORUS By what snare taken?
MESSENGER By the common snare of kings – by gifts.
CHORUS What snare could have been in them?
MESSENGER Myself, I also marvel, and, though the woeful thing is done, can scarce believe it could be done. What stay is there to ruin? The greedy fire rages through the palace’s every part as if ‘twere bidden so. Already the whole house has fallen, the city is in peril.
CHORUS Let water put out the flames.
MESSENGER Nay, in this disaster this marvel, too, has happened: water feeds the flames, and the more ‘tis checked the more fiercely burns the fire; the very defenses does it seize upon.
[Enter MEDEA, in time to hear the last words.]
NURSE [To MEDEA.] Quickly begone, Medea, from the land of Pelops; seek headlong any land thou wilt!
MEDEA What I – shall I give ground? Nay, had I fled already, for this I should return. Strange nuptials see I here.
[She becomes absorbed in her own thoughts.]
Glad am I, glad, that I tore off my brother’s head, glad that I carved his limbs, that I robbed my father of his guarded treasure [the golden fleece], glad that I armed daughters [i.e. of Pelias] for an old man’s death. Seek thou fresh fields, my grief; no untrained hand wilt thou bring to any crime.
Whither, then, wrath, art tending, or what weapons art thou aiming at the forsworn foe? [Jason] A dark purpose my fierce spirit hath resolved within me, and dares not yet acknowledged to itself. Fool! fool! I have gone too fast – would that mine enemy had children by his paramour! [She pauses and then addresses herself.] All offspring that thou hast by him are Creusa’s brood. Resolved is this way of vengeance, rightly resolved; for a last deed of guilt, I see it now, must my soul make ready. Children that once were mine, do you pay penalty for your father’s crimes.
Horror has smit my heart! My limbs are numb with cold and my heart with terror flutters. Wrath has given place; the mother has all come back, the wife is banished. Can I shed my children’s, my own offspring’s blood? Ah, mad rage, say not so! Far, even from me, be that unheard-of deed, that accursed guilt! What sin will the poor boys atone? Their sin is that Jason is their father, and, greater sin, that Medea is their mother. [She pauses.] Let them die, they are none of mine; let them be lost – they are my own. They are without crime and guilt, yea, they are innocent – I acknowledge it; so, too, was my brother. Why, soul, dost hesitate? Why are my cheeks wet with tears? Why do anger and love now hither, now thither draw my changeful heart? A double tide tosses me, uncertain of my course; as when rushing winds wage mad warfare, and from both sides conflicting floods lash the seas and the fluctuating waters boil, even so is my heart tossed. Anger puts love to flight, and love, anger. O wrath, yield thee to love.
Hither, dear children, sole comfort of my fallen house, come hither and link your entwining limbs with mine. Let your father have you unharmed, so but your mother may have you too. But exile and flight press hard upon me; now, now will they be torn from my bosom and carried away from me, midst tears and sighs and kisses. – Let them be lost to their father; they are lost to me. My grief grows again and my hate burns hot; Erinys, as of old, claims my unwilling hand. O wrath, where thou dost lead I follow. I would that from my womb the throng of proud Niobe had sprung, and that I had been the mother of twice seven sons! Too barren have I been for vengeance – yet for my brother and my father there is enough, for I have borne two sons.
Whither hastes that headlong horde of Furies? Whom seek they? Against whom are they preparing their flaming blows? Whom does the hellish host threaten with its bloody brands? A huge snake hisses, whirled with the writhing lash. Whom does Megaera seek with her deadly torch? Whose shade comes there dimly seen, its limbs all scattered? It is my brother, and ‘tis punishment he seeks. We’ll pay, yes, all the debt. Plunge your brands into my eyes, tear, burn; see, my breast is open to the Furies.
O brother, bid the avenging goddesses depart from me, and go in peace to the deep-buried ghosts; to myself leave me and use this hand, brother, which has drawn the sword – [She slays the first son.] With this victim I appease thy ghost. – What means that sudden noise? ‘Tis arms they are making ready, and they seek me for my slaying. To the lofty roof of our palace will I mount, now the bloody work hath been begun. [To her remaining son.] Do thou come with me. [To her dead son.] Thy corpse also will I take hence with me. Now to the task, O soul; not in secrecy must thy great deed by lost; to the people approve thy handiwork.
[Exit MEDEA, carrying the body of her dead son and leading the living. Enter JASON in the street below shouting to the citizens.]
JASON Ye faithful souls, who mourn your princes’ doom, rally to me that we may take the author herself of this dread crime. Here, here, my brave band of warriors, bring weapons, raze this house to the very ground.
[Appearing on the house-top.]
MEDEA Nay, Jason, heap up for thy sons their last funeral pyre; build them a tomb. Thy wife and father have already the services due the dead, buried by me; this son has met his doom, and this shall suffer like fate before thy eyes.
JASON By all the gods, by our flight together, by our marriage couch, to which I have not been faithless, spare the boy. If there is any guilt, ‘tis mine. I give myself up to death; destroy my guilty head.
MEDEA Here where thou dost forbid it, where it will grieve thee, will I plunge the sword. Go now, haughty man, take thee maids for wives, abandon mothers.
JASON One is enough for punishment.
MEDEA If this hand could be satisfied with the death of one, it would have sought no death at all. Though I slay two, still is the count too small to appease my grief. If in my womb there still lurk any pledge of thee, I’ll search my very vitals with the sword and hale it forth.
JASON Now end what thou hast begun – I make no more entreaty – and at least spare my sufferings this suspense.
MEDEA Enjoy a slow revenge, hasten not, my grief; mine is the day; we are but using the allotted time.
JASON O heartless one, slay me.
MEDEA Thou bidst me pity – [She slays the second son.] ‘Tis well, ‘tis done. I had no more atonement to offer thee, O grief. Lift thy tear-swollen eyes hither, ungrateful Jason. Dost recognize thy wife? ‘Tis thus
[by means of a dragon-drawn car] I am wont to flee. A way through the air has opened for me; two serpents offer their scaly necks bending to the yoke. Now, father, take back thy sons. [She throws the bodies down to him.] I through the air on my winged car shall ride.
JASON [Calling after her.] Go on through the lofty spaces of high heaven and bear witness, where thou ridest, that there are no gods.