In A Nutshell
Euripides (480-406 B.C.) was a misunderstood genius. His classic Medea got totally dissed in its time. It came in third place at the annual Athenian play competition at the Theatre of Dionysus. "Third place," you might say, "that's not tooo too bad." Yeah, except that, as usual, there were only two other playwrights competing. Euripides got trounced by his old rival, Sophocles, and Euphorion, the son of Aeschylus.
Medea's bronze medal probably came as no surprise to Euripides. He is said to be the author of around 92 plays, but he only won the competition five times. Euripides didn't even get to enjoy the final win. The prize (for The Bacchae) was awarded after his death. To add insult to injury, Euripides died by being ripped apart by a pack of wild Macedonian dogs. Some scholars say that this story of his death is totally fictional. We hope they're right.
Poor Euripides was always getting picked on. Aristophanes lampooned him mercilessly. The comic playwright made fun of Euripides's use of language and his characters' tendency to spout the new fangled philosophies of Socrates. Like his buddy Socrates, Euripides's ideas were hard for mainstream Athens to swallow. This was due in part to his progressive ideas. The guy was anti-war, sympathetic to slaves and women, and so critical of traditional religion that many believed him to be an atheist. Athens just wasn't ready for these "liberal" ideas.
Euripides was known to be kind of a loner. He spent most of his time writing in a cave on the island of Salamis. Eventually the lack of appreciation and disgust with Athenian politics (especially the destructive Peloponnesian War) may well have been what drove Euripides to leave Athens. He spent the last months of his life in the court of the King of Macedonia, where he proved them all wrong by penning his undisputed classic, The Bacchae, and perhaps met a pack of dogs with a taste for playwrights.
In Poetics, Aristotle rates Euripides as much a lesser tragedian than Sophocles, pointing out his haphazard plots and un-heroic heroes. These criticisms are valid (both are true in Medea), but we wonder if Aristotle ever stopped to think that Euripides had another agenda altogether. While his rival Sophocles was towing the traditional line, Euripides was busy inventing entirely new genres. In retrospect, we can see that it wasn't necessarily that Euripides didn't know how to write a traditional tragedy; he was just dissatisfied with the form altogether.
By blending comic elements with tragic, Euripides basically created Tragicomedy genre. His loosely plotted plays with happy endings created the genre of Romance. And, of course, there's Medea, which revolutionized Revenge Tragedies by letting its heroine off the hook. On top of all that, Euripides's focus on the emotional lives of his characters, along with his comparatively natural-sounding dialogue, foreshadowed by thousands of years the creation of modern realism.
History has vindicated Euripides. More of his plays are extant (still around) than any other ancient Greek playwright. Medea is now recognized as a timeless classic, while the two plays that beat it in the original competition don't even exist anymore. Euripides is now known as one of the greatest and most innovative playwrights to ever walk the Earth. We're glad the man has finally gotten his due – he was basically a one man dramatic revolution.
Why Should I Care?
Medea's relentless protagonist has become more than just a character. She has become a timeless symbol of feminine revolt. Medea has spent quite some time in male-dominated Greece. As a woman, she has no rights. This is made worse by the fact that she's a foreigner. The people are very suspicious of her because she's way smarter than everybody else. When Medea's husband, Jason, casts her aside for another woman, it's the last straw. Medea responds with violence, even going so far as to kill her own sons.
Some may argue that today's women don't have as much room for complaint as they did back in Ancient Greece. It's undeniably true that the women's rights movements across the world have made incredible progress in recent decades. Of course, there are many countries in the world where women are even worse off than in Medea's day. In some places, women are still bought and sold like cattle and are completely under the thumb of men.
The play's bloody ending is just as shocking today as it was in Ancient Greece. When Medea slaughters her innocent children to get back at her husband, we are forced to question the morality of her actions, as well as those of her male oppressors. Rather than give us a one dimensional, pure-hearted heroine, Euripides gives us a character who is horribly flawed. When Medea gets away with her murderous actions without any repercussion, the play becomes even more disturbing. Medea's complexity and contradictions still spark debate. Its radical message remains just as edgy today as on the day of its first performance.