How Married is Medea?

J. Michael Walton*


This article revisits the Euripides play to consider the nature of the relationship between Medea and Jason. We all recognize the difference of status between the Greek, if not Corinthian, Jason, and the “barbarian” Medea. But if, as the varying terms used in the play for “husband” and “wife” seem to indicate, the two were never “married” then, I suggest, Euripides might have been drawing attention to a contemporary issue in Athens after Pericles’ citizenship law, where non-Athenians could claim none of the protections relating to marriage and divorce.

Keywords: Medea, husband, marriage, status, playwright, Athens

The Soho Place theatre in London has recently staged a production of Medea directed by Dominic Cooke, with the superb Sophie Okenedo in the lead. I will not be, able to see it and can only record the favourable impressions of critic Deborah Levy, “stunning and devastating production,” in The New Statesman  (14-20 April 2023). The production sounds full of interesting ideas, from having the chorus sitting in the audience to all the male parts being played by the same actor. This latter brings to mind the one-woman performance of Nike Imoru in the garden of the Sikelianos house at the Delphi Festival of 2000 where all the male characters were simply masks hanging on a tailor’s dummy with a single off-stage voice for Creon, Jason  and Aegeus.

A difference is that the play at Delphi was titled Medea Complex, while the Soho production is billed as from the Robinson Jeffers “adaptation” of Euripides. This is a rather odd choice of base material as the Jeffers was a bizarre version of Medea commissioned in 1946 for the Australian Dame Judith Anderson, clips of whom can still be found on YouTube. Nothing wrong with this, of course. Medea belongs along with all the greatest plays as having no definitive interpretation and Dominic Cooke makes no claims to translation, merely staging a new version of this story of “filicide” which almost certainly had seen earlier treatments than that of Euripides. It does, though, raise an issue that the original Euripides, and this new version of the story, raise as to what the relationship really was between Medea and Jason.

Greek tragedies survive at three levels: as a story from the mythical past of ancient Greece that is built around an invented and fictional society; as a parallel comment by the playwright on social and political issues of the fifth century BC; and, thirdly, as a parable for later generations, up to our own, in themes and situations whose implication we can still recognize and apply to our own time.

My aim here is to consider the link between these three with reference to Euripides’ Medea and Jason, to look at the language in the play used to describe their relationship and consider whether Euripides may have been making a specific comment on the precarious situation in which many non-citizen women of 431 BCE Athens had to live their lives. Inevitably this involves the complex relationships in ancient Athens between citizens and non-citizens, and that ambiguous word xenos which can mean both stranger and friend, host and guest, mercenary and refugee. Such relationships frequently prove central in ancient tragedy, especially in Euripides where the interpretation of actions taken in, for example, Alcestis, Electra, Iphigeneia Among the Taurians or The Suppliant Women,focuses on the link between hosts and guests. In his Medea, both the two main characters are “foreigners” in Corinth where they have taken refuge, but their status is not the same. Jason is male and a Greek. Medea is a woman and a non-Greek, a “barbarian,” in the society in which she has had to make her home. It is this difference that calls into question the precise nature of their relationship.

In a set of essays on Medea edited by James Clauss and Sarah Iles Johnston the Index includes 88 entries under Medea, including “Medea as environmentalist,” “Medea as revolutionary symbol” and “Medea as protector of children.” Nowhere is there anything on “Medea as wife.” Euripides’ play may not have been the first dramatic presentation of the legend, but it has become the essential template for subsequent versions of her story. So, what in Euripides is the precise nature of the tie between Jason and Medea, removed from any of the baggage which belongs with the broader history of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece?

Photo: European Cultural Center of Delphi

When Euripides produced Medea in 431 BCE, marriages in Athens were arranged: the purpose was the procreation of children, the maintenance of the male line and the safeguarding of the family unit. To protect these priorities Pericles had introduced his “citizenship law” which stipulated that to be considered an Athenian citizen, a man had to have both parents Athenian. The effect was to reinforce the importance of marriage between citizens. A marriage could be dissolved by an announcement of divorce by the husband (posis) in front of a witness and the return of the wife to her father, or male “sponsor,” together with her dowry, clearly a disincentive: probably the bigger the dowry, the bigger the disincentive. Women could seek divorce, but the process was more complex and less common.

Relationships in Greek tragedy, of course, are not based on any contemporary, that is fifth-century BCE Greek,  social structure. There are kings and queens who rule with or without the sanction of an assembly of the people. Law and custom have local significance and weight. And, of course, the circumstances are based neither on the precise geography, nor on the political alliances of the places where they are set. They are self-defining situations created as stage contexts. But they did have to be socially recognizable to an Athenian audience, and internally consistent. Thus the marriage procession that Alcestis recalls in Euripides’ Alcestis may well be similar to what would have happened at an Attic celebration in 438 BCE.  And the various Euripides plays that feature the breakdown of a marriage, with characters such as Clytemnestra or Helen, could have provided an echo, however oblique, of circumstances that might occur in Attica. The deflecting factor is that in dramatic situations rules of citizenship did not apply in the same way as they did in the lives of the Athenian audience. Marriages in Greek tragedy were frequently between families who wished to be connected by status and influence rather than by nationality: as long, that is, as they were between Greeks.

Medea Complex, The Sikelianos House Garden, Delphi, 2000. Medea confronting male characters as no more than masks.
Photo: J. Michael Walton

In Medea, however, Euripides offers a less conventional scenario. Jason is a Greek. Medea is from the far end of the Black Sea, now Georgia, and to an ancient Greek about as barbarian as you could get (see especially Hall 35). She may be a princess and granddaughter of the Sun, but she has some very un-Greek relations with dangerous reputations, including Circe and Hecate. In Corinth Jason is a foreign xenos.It will still be perfectly acceptable for him to marry the daughter of the king of Corinth, though he comes from Iolcos in Thessally on the northern shore of the Pelasgian Gulf.

This domestic setting invites certain questions. Are we to accept that the “marriage” of Jason and Medea was a “proper” marriage and Jason her lawful posis, her “husband”? If so, has Jason “properly” divorced her? Any vagueness might be put down to dramatic convenience. But, I would suggest, it may just as easily indicate a desire on the playwright’s part to raise some Athenian issues, beyond the overweening plotline in which Medea murders the king, the new bride and her own two children.

Here, then, resides the question “How married is Medea?”. Whatever the answer, there will be a further question over whether Euripides may be making a special issue of the ‘marriage’, and, if he is, whether this is simply in the context of the play; or as a broader comment on the position in which such foreign (IE non-citizen) women may have found themselves not only in fifth-century Athens, but, as we later find in Menander’s Athens too, a hundred years later.

The prologue of Medea is delivered by a Nurse. She informs the audience at what point the audience are entering in on a story, the broad outlines of which will probably be familiar. Jason has abandoned Medea, the mother of his two sons, in order to marry the daughter of Creon, the king of Corinth. The first time that the Nurse makes reference to the relationship between Jason and Medea she talks of Jason as Medea’s anêr, (alpha, nu, êta, rho). Anêr is the commonest word in ancient Greek for man, “man” as opposed to gunê, “woman,” rather than anthrôpos which means “man” as opposed to “animal” or “god.” In most English translations of the Nurse’s speech anêr appears as “husband,” and in any lexicon you will find that anêr can have this secondary meaning of “husband.” It often does so in Homer, but in tragedy the more familiar word for husband is posis while anêr tends to mean “lover” or “paramour.”

The Liddell and Scott Greek-English lexicon offers two instances from tragedy of anêr in this sense. The first is in Sophocles’ Trachiniae (550-1) when Deianira, having been informed of her husband’s bringing back a woman from his recent expedition tells the Chorus “I am afraid that Heracles may be called my ‘husband’ (posis), but this younger woman’s ‘man’ (anêr).”

The second example comes in Euripides’ Hippolytus when Phaedra has revealed to her Nurse the passion that she feels for her stepson and the Nurse responds “Fine-sounding words are not what you need, but t’andros, ‘the man’” (490-1). Phaedra has a “husband,” Theseus, though he is away at the time and the Nurse certainly doesn’t mean him. Anêr here can only mean either “a man” (sex), or “the man,” meaning Hippolytus: and probably means both.

In the Medea prologue the Nurse’s use of the term anêr, when she is referring to Jason, seems less respectful than “husband,” perhaps intentionally. Indeed, she uses the word on four occasions in that speech alone when speaking of Jason:

[Medea in Corinth] with her man and her children (11).
[Life is free of trouble] when a woman is not at odds with her man’ (15).
…since hearing her man has wronged her (26).
…when she came here with the man who has dishonoured her (36).

When she talks about the Princess, on the other hand, she speaks of Jason bedding down in a royal match after marrying Creon’s daughter, the noun gamos and the verb gameô being used in successive lines(18, 19): and later where Jason is described as the gêmanta, the bridegroom (42). So emphatic is the change of language she chooses, when comparing the two relationships, that it is hard not to see a contrast being signaled for the audience between the status of Medea and that of the Princess. To use the words, as Deianeira uses them in Trachiniai, Jason was Medea’s “man” but is now the Princess’s “husband.” 

Though Euripides might appear through the Nurse to imply that the relationship between Medea and Jason is not actually a marriage, this is not the whole story. The first time that Jason is referred to as the posis of Medea is by the Chorus who in the same ode speak of Medea as numpha (150-5), which usually means “young bride,” a curious description for a mother-of-two. At the time, however, they are recommending that Medea should not be too concerned about how she has been treated because such betrayals happen all the time, and Zeus offers plenty of precedents. Medea’s (offstage) response is to sing of Jason as her posis, but when she too uses the word numpha (163), it is the Princess to whom she is referring.

As soon as Medea enters, however, in the celebrated speech where she talks about marriage to a group of married Corinthian women, she begins by stating that as a xenos she is well aware that she must abide by the customs of the country where she now lives (222-3). She then speaks of Jason as her posis as a prelude to the celebrated dissection of marriage:

MEDEAHe has placed a woman (or “a wife”) as mistress of the house over me (694).
I wouldn’t want to be reproached, my Corinthian friends,
For being high and mighty, indoors and aloof.
If you like a quiet life they’ll call you antisocial.
But when were first impressions reliable?
One man will hate another for no reason,
The moment he claps eyes on him.220
A gut reaction but where’s the justice in that?
If you’re a foreigner, well, it’s best to conform.
Even a citizen can’t make the rules
Simply to suit himself. That would be bad manners.
But I…I was not expecting this.
It pierces me to the soul.
You are my friends. I’ve lost the will to live.
My life was centred on one man, my husband.
A hollow man.
Poor women. 230
No living, breathing creature feels as we do.
We want a husband? It’s an auction
Where we pay to give away our bodies.
That’s not the half of it. A good man or a bad?
By the time you find that out it’s too late.
Divorce for a woman means disgrace.
And once she’s married, there’s no saying ‘no’.
It’s her who has to change the patterns of her life.
You’d need to be clairvoyant
To predict how he’ll behave in bed.240
If you do strike lucky
And this husband turns out bearable,
Submits gracefully, then fine. Congratulations.
If not, you might as well be dead.
When a man starts to get bored at home
He can visit a friend, some kindred spirit,
Look for consolation elsewhere.
We have a single focus, him.
You’ve a nice, easy life, that’s what they say,
Safe at home when they’re off fighting.
Good thinking, that is, isn’t it?
I’d fight three wars rather than give birth once.250
Our situations are different, of course.
This is your city. Your father’s house was here.
Life at its best with your friends around you.
But I’m alone, stateless, abused
By a man like something picked up abroad.
No mother. No brother. No relation
To turn to in a time of trouble.
That’s why I’d like to ask for your support.
If I hit upon some means, some stratagem260
To pay my husband back for what he’s done,
The bride and giver of the bride he has married,
Say nothing.
A woman’s always full of fears, of course,
Petrified by the mere sight of steel.
But scorn her, cross her in love,
And savour the colour of her vengeance (trans. Walton 213-67).

I have included all of it with an English translation because it is such a major speech within the play, and for the present argument. Much of what she says, it is clear, is not immediately relevant to her own position. She has not been given in marriage by her father; her situation has been created of her own free will; and the dishonour of divorce is not what she is facing. Her ‘man’ has deserted her. Apart from anything else, she can hardly return to her father or her previous home. The purpose of the speech, of course, is for her as a foreigner to engage the local chorus as sympathisers and, accordingly, as co-conspirators. It is the end of the speech, however, which offers perhaps the greatest surprise when Medea refers to herself as lelê(i)smenê by an andros  (256), meaning “taken away as plunder by a man” or even “raped.”

The Chorus pick up her cue and speak of Jason as her posis, as later do Creon and Medea herself through the rest of the play, including to Jason and Aegeus. Indeed, when Aegeus asks her what Jason has done Medea’s reply is literally “he has put a woman (or “a wife”) as mistress of the house over me” (694).

However often she refers to Jason as her “husband” she does not similarly refer to herself as a “wife.” Even in her encounters with Jason she speaks only of his “taking a new bed” (kaina lechê, 489) and complains of his breaking of his oath to her. She never says he married her. She never speaks about a divorce from him, not even to Aegeus, though she does speak of Jason’s “marriage” to the Princess and of the Princess as a “newly-married bride”.

Wedding preparation. Marriages in Athens were arranged. The purpose was the procreation of children, the maintenance of the male line, and the safeguarding of the family unit. Photo (Creative Commons, Pushkin Museum, Moscow): Web/Wikipedia

All of this would seem to imply that their union was sanctioned by nothing more than private promises and there is certainly condemnation by Medea of Jason as an “oath-breaker.” When Jason offers excuses for his actions, claiming that his marriage is purely political and has nothing to do with his having lost interest in Medea, it sounds like something he had never said before. The argument that he has done everything on Medea’s behalf is no less feeble, but it does suggest that Medea had little or no warning of his desertion. The Chorus are unimpressed, accusing him of “doing what is not right” (ou dikaia dran) after “betraying his alochos” (prodous sên alochon, 578).  This a curious word to use because alochos almost always means “partner” in our modern usage of the word, what in English law used to be known as common-law wife. The situation is perhaps summed up best in the exchange between Jason and Medea at the end of their first scene together:

MEDEAIf any of this were true you would have talked to me
Before this marriage, not kept it all a secret.
JASONAnd so I would, but for your attitude.
Mention the word marriage and look at you.
You cannot control your fury.
MEDEAThat’s not it, is it? As time went by
You found it inconvenient to be living with a foreigner.
JASONYou know perfectly well, it’s nothing about the princess
That made me want to have a royal marriage. (586-94)

All of this would suggest to me that, though the union of Jason and Medea has produced children, it is sanctioned by natural law (themis) and by sworn oath, but not by any legal or recognized ceremony such as he has undergone with the Princess.  This is confirmed by Jason when, believing Medea to have accepted what has happened:

JASONIt’s only natural that a woman should feel angry when a marriage of a different kind (alloiou)
takes the place of her husband’s present one (909-10).

The text is difficult here (and difficult to translate), but the word parempolôntos seems to mean something like  “interpolates.” It is not until the last scene of the play that Jason comes close to dmitting that he and Medea were married, and by this time he is preoccupied with contrasting the way Medea has behaved to what you would expect from any Greek woman.

Euripides is ambivalent about this “marriage.” The question then arises why there should be such ambivalence. Euripides is a precise playwright, many of whose most cogent and innovative stances are aimed at giving a new slant to an old story and a certain immediacy in the context of the Athens of his time. He was not alone in this. Aeschylus and Sophocles clearly investigate questions of everyday behaviour and morality through the context of the mythical past. In Euripides the detail is usually significant, so what is his purpose in Medea and how might it point to contemporary social practice in Athens?

Visit to the hetaeras. Attic red-figure hydria.  Collection Staatliche Antikensammlungen. Photo: Web (public domain)

The play, it has often been suggested, is concerned less with the act of infanticide than with the causes behind it. I would suggest that in this the playwright may have wished to draw attention to the plight of many non-Greek women of his own time, there and then, in the Athens of 431 BC. This may be twenty years after Pericles’ citizenship law, but it is still a hot issue, especially in the light of Pericles’ own relationship with his Milesian hetaira Aspasia, and the attacks on her at this time in order to get at him. Might there be some invitation here to speculate either on Aspasia’s behalf, or against her? On the other hand, it may be that the play Medea was no more than a general statement about the plight of all free women in Athens who might have the opportunity to enter into a relationship that is a marriage in all but name, but offers not even minimal formal protection?

Aspasia, Pericles’ hetaira. Photo: Vatican Museums/Public domain

There is an interesting possible parallel in Samia, one of our two surviving Menander plays, for all it dates from over a hundred years after the first performance of Medea. Chrysis, the woman from Samos of the title, is a hetaira, but a free woman living in Athens who has to find a means of supporting herself in whatever way she can. For many such, being a professional mistress might have been the best option and Demeas has taken her into his home. On his return from a prolonged business trip, near Medea’s home by coincidence, he comes to believe, wrongly, that Chrysis has had a baby and that his adopted son is the father. In a viciously cruel scene he throws Chrysis out but without telling her why:

DEMEASSomething special are you? You’ll soon find out how you rate in the city.
Ten drachmas a lay and a free dinner. Till you die of drink.
If you don’t like the idea of that, then starve (390-93).

All, of course, will end happily, but the alternatives for a woman in Chrysis’ position are little better than those faced by Medea.

Medea’s story, then, as Euripides tells it, maybe set in Corinth, but identifies the predicament of many non-citizen women in Athens. She is a barbarian, while Jason, though no Corinthian, is at least Greek. As a Greek he can be a suitable husband for the daughter of another Greek. As a non-Greek Medea has no security. Medea’s killing of her children is presented with as much sympathy as it would be possible to muster. The act is not condoned, but neither is there any punishment for Medea beyond what she heaps upon herself. The circumstances in which such an atrocity could happen are explained at least in part by the nature of her “foreignness” – of her “otherness.”

All I wish to suggest is that beneath the horrifying plot of Medea there is a subtext about male/female relationships in Athens with an immediate relevance to its first audience. Medea’s lack of a family background may well have reflected the position of many a non-Greek, but non-slave, woman living in Athens at his time in what feels like a marital situation. All his plays to a great extent make use of myth as metaphor and in Medea there is enough said to raise all sorts of questions about how women were treated both inside and outside marriage, as well as how non-citizens were treated in and around the city of Athens. And who would doubt that such things still happen?


Clauss, James, J. and Sarah Iles Johnston , eds.. Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy and Art. Princeton UP, 1997.

Hall, Edith. Inventing the Barbarian. Oxford UP, 1989.

Walton, J. Michael, et al. Euripides Plays 1. Methuen Drama, 1998, pp. 213-67. 

—. “Translation or Transgression: The Translator as Director in Medea. Proceedings of the X and XI Meetings of the ECCD at Delphi.” Translating Greek Plays: Collected Plays.  Routledge, 2016.

*J. Michael Walton is Emeritus Professor of Drama at the University of Hull, a theatre historian and practitioner, former professional director and long-serving member of Actors Equity. He has translated more than 20 Greek or Latin plays, all published and/or performed, as well as writing numerous articles and books, including Craig on Theatre (1983); Found in Translation: Greek Drama in English (2006); Euripides Our Contemporary, (2009); Translating Classical Plays: Collected Papers (2016); The Greek Sense of Theatre (3 editions, 1984, 1996, 2015).

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