Medea

Professor Joe Jansen first suggested that we include Medea on our syllabus, and he generously visited our seminar to discuss how Vergil absorbed Euripides’ drama, particularly in Book 4. There are online translations by E. P. Coleridge; Ian Johnston; and C. A. E. Luschnig; Robin Robertson recently translated the play. Zoe Caldwell’s 1983 production can be viewed online. (Female roles were performed by male actors in Greek tragedy, much like the early modern English stage.)

Here are Dido’s penultimate words in The Aeneid (4.657–58):

felix, heu nimium felix, si litora tantum

numquam Dardaniae tetigessent rostra carinae 

“A happy – no, a more than happy life,

If Trojan ships had never touched these shores.” (Ruden)

Dido alludes to the opening words of Euripides’ tragedy Medea:

NURSE: If only it had never happened like this.

If the Argo hadn’t opened its sails and flown

to Colchis through the Clashing Rocks.

If the pines were still standing

in the glens of Mount Pelion,

not cut and turned to oars for the Argonauts.

If Pelias the king hadn’t sent those heroes

off to do his bidding, to cross the sea

and steal the Golden Fleece.

It would all be different. Not as it is.

In The Arte of English Poesie, George Puttenham misattributes the lines to Medea herself in his discussion of metalepsis:

But the sence is much altered & the hearers conceit strangly entangled by the figure Metalepsis, which I call the farfet, as when we had rather fetch a word a great way off then to vse one nerer hand to expresse the matter aswel & plainer.  And it seemeth the deuiser of this figure had a desire to please women rather then men:  for we vse to say by manner of Prouerbe:  things farreset and deare bought are good for Ladies:  so in this manner of speach we vfe it, leaping ouer the heads of a great many words, we take one that is furdest off, to vtter our matter by:  as Medea cursing hir first acquaintance with prince Iason, who had very vnkindly forsaken her, said:
Woe worth the mountaine that the maste bare
Which was the first causer of all my care.

Where she might aswell haue said, woe worth our first meeting, or woe worth the time that Iason arriued with his ship at my fathers cittie in Colchos, when he tooke me away with him, & not so farre off as to curse the mountaine that bare the pinetree, that made the mast, that bare the sailes, that the ship sailed with, which caried her away.

Amphora with Medea Ixion Painter

Vase: Amphora with Medea Killing Her Son, Ixion Painter, c. 340-320 BCE

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