Will the Real Medee Please Step Forward?

by Joy Sylvester
Texas A&M University

In 1635, the year of the first presentation of Medee (which was probably written the preceding year, Pierre Corneille was 29 years old and about to acquire the reputation of: 'le pere du theatre francais' (Adam 469-73). The following year, with his outstanding and controversial successes of L'Illusion Comique and Le Cid, he would have changed the course of French drama forever. Corneille was pleased to call Medee his first tragedy and throughout his life and in his writings on the drama he maintained a firm and fatherly affection for Medea: 'toute mechante qu'elle est', his first tragic heroine.

Medee is a play that poses many problems but although it is not well known and has been studied very little, it is a play that merits attention, especially in this age when scholars are at long last turning their thoughtful gaze on the 'non-canonical' works of major writers. Even Voltaire, usually such a severe judge of Corneille, called his Medee (if somewhat mistakenly): 'la premiere tragedie francaise. (Lievre 90). Corneille's Medee has often been called an imitation or even a translation of Seneca, but it exhibits many differences not only from its Senecan model but also from the plays of Euripides and certainly from that of Jean de la Peruse. La Peruse wrote the first Medee in the French language, in all probability in 1553, just one year after the Cleopatre, Captive of Jodelle which is generally acknowledged as the first French tragedy. Corneille always tried to seek out the new and innovative in his work, and, in this his first attempt to write a real tragedy, he created a work that is an amalgam of many borrowings, and, at the same time, an original work of art.

The figure of Medea dominates the play, and, in her: 'le mal en son char triomphant' (Epitre 20), Corneille created the model for some of his most powerful heroines. She stands head and shoulders above all the other characters in the play, dominating it as her fatal passion for Jason has dominated her. And it is the creation of the tragic figure of Medee that marks another turning point in the dramatic career of Corneille, for it is after this play that the theme of vengeance becomes: 'le theme de l'election' (Nadal 144) in his theater. However, there remain several very knotty problems at the center of Corneille's play, and, in this paper I will describe one of the most important; one that may be phrased in the form of a question: How many Medee's are there in this play?

My answer will be that there are at least three faces of Medee: the dignified tragic heroine, the untamed barbarian and the wicked magician.

First and foremost, and most importantly, there is the true tragic heroine, a figure psychologically complex, a direct descendant of Euripides and Seneca, the mythic incarnation of the woman scorned, betrayed and abandoned. One who is capable of great dignity and intelligence and outstanding, indomitable courage. Her verbal duel with Creon, the reigning king of Corinth, is representative of her strength and complexity. Andre Stegman has stated that: 'Creon est le premier visage du tyran machiavellique (Stegman 576) in all of Corneille's oeuvre, and, he also cites the great confrontation scene between the two in the Second Act as one of the best scenes in all of Corneille's theater that: 'Jamais il ne surpassera' (Stegman 576).

This is the scene that I have chosen to illustrate the persona of the tragic heroine. The second scene of the Second Act marks Creon's first appearance in the play, and his first words, addressed directly to Medea, express his anger at her continued presence in his land, when he, the king, had ordered her banished. His pride in his kingship and the respect that he feels is due to him as king, as well as his desire to save his country, 'peace at any price,' are his ruling passions. Although he fears Medea and her powers, so often proved in the past, he is willing to make her his sole scapegoat, to placate the rage of Acaste and to save his country from war. He has also just given the lamentably 'volage' Jason to his daughter Creuse as her future husband, and thus robs Medee (at one and the same time) of her husband and her safe exile. Creon taxes Medee with his generosity; at Jason's request and for love of that brave hero of the Argonauts, he will sentence her, Medee, not to death, but only to exile. She is the price for the bargain he has made to ensure peace and to deliver his state from danger. She becomes an object, to be made use of, a pawn in the game that he is playing.

Throughout their confrontation Medee has remained coolly reasonable. She responds to his expedient use of her with: 'Lache Paix.... Paix, dont le deshonneur vous demeure eternel.' (II, 2). She reminds him that she has had no hearing and that such a judgment can only be unjust. Creon remains steadfast and is determined to purge his state of: 'Un monstre tel que toi,' (II, 2); he cites her former crimes against her, calling her, 'Barbare' and 'inhumaine' and, suddenly in a gesture of fatal generosity, without her even asking, much less begging or bending her knee to him, he grants her a respite of twenty-four hours for, as he later tells a confidant: 'En si peu de temps, oue peut faire une femme' (IV, 2) Medee throughout has remained sober, reasonable and coolly intelligent; her only defense and her only fault, the one thing responsible for all her crimes is indeed her fatal flaw -- her love for Jason:

'Il est mon crime seul, si je suis criminelle,
Aimer cet inconstant, c'est tout ceque j'ai fait.' (II, 2)

He is, moreover, her legitimate husband. She argues that her punishment should not be exemplary, falling on her shoulders alone; rather it should be shared by the one who most profited by it, Jason. Creon extols Jason's innocence once more, his only crime, it seems, is to have Medee as his wife. Medee herself, he asserts, is not only guilty of all the crimes attributed to her, but is also guilty of that most unforgivable of crimes . . . lese-majeste. She is insolent and proud, lacking in a subject's and particularly in a woman subject's proper deference to royalty. Creon says of her, when alone:

'Quel indomptable esprit!
Quel arrogant maintien
Accompagnait l'orgueuil d'un si long entretien!
A-t-elle rien flech
de son humeur altiere?
A-t-elle pu descendre a la moindre priere?
Et le sacre respect de ma condition
En a-t-il arrache quelque soumission?' (II, 2).

Creon has expected that Medee as scapegoat can restore Jason's innocence as she had restored old Aeson's life, by assuming unto herself all their communal guilt and. At the same time, it is she who will save his state from a debilitating war! Her 'coeur impitoyable'; as well as her magic herbs and poisons must be cast out in order to restore the health of the state. Medee is the victim to be sacrificed on the altar of Creon's expediency. But Creon has judged badly, and, for him, the mistake is fatal. Medee refuses to play his game: no willing and consenting victim she! Never was there a scapegoat so miscast for the role. She easily defeats Creon's 'specious reasoning' (Stegman 283) and reminds him that he knew all her long and bloody history when he gave her and Jason both asylum and his protection.

'What has changed?' she presses him, and 'Why now?' for: 'Je suis coupable ailleurs, mais innocente ici'(II, 2). Creon sarcastically condemns her for 'une telle innocence' and insists that he must be rid of her 'fatale presence'--and then delivers the final blow to her pride, her sense of justice and her outraged inflexible spirit: not only has he given her husband Jason to his daughter, Creuse, but at the request of his daughter and for the sake of her love for Jason he has consented to their desire that Medee leave her two children behind as she goes into exile. He, Creon, does not wish, after all, to be a king: 'trop severe' nor should he punish innocent children for 'les crimes de leur mere' (II, 2).

He thus reminds Medee that her most valuable asset in this game of political expediency may well be her two children. Finally, that most unkind cut of all; not only will Creon, by his order, take away from her rightful husband, the man for whom she has sacrificed everything; not only will he deprive her of her natural right and consolation, her children; but he will do this for the sake of his only child, his daughter, Creuse, who will become Jason's wife and the stepmother of Medee's children. Medee thus sees herself wounded in her innermost being as 'femme' in both senses of the word 'woman' and 'wife'. Medee also sees herself bereft of: her new country, her place of safe asylum, her immutable love for her legal husband, Jason, and also the products of their legitimate union, her children--in fact, all that is rightfully hers. Such unthinking scorn will not go unpunished by a woman such as Medee! Her immediate retort:

'Barbare humanite qui m'arrache a moi-meme
et feint de la douleur pour m'oter ceque j'aime (II, 2)

reduces Creon's arguments to nothing and unmasks his duplicity. Thus this Colchian 'barbarian' rejects the civilized but yet, oh, so 'barbaric' humanity of her king and sovereign.

The word 'barbarian' in Medee's mouth brings me to the second of her personae that I see embodied in this play. Medee, let us not forget, is no mere mortal woman, she is the self-same sorceress whose aid allowed Jason to carry off the Golden Fleece. Creon would have been well advised to remember 'la main saignante' that Medee reminds him of in their verbal duel; but he is completely scornful of this 'Barbarian' and even in his language seeks to diminish and trivialize her true worth. He says 'va, va' to her repeatedly, as though he considers her no more worthy of notice than an annoying fly; but his scorn will be more than repaid in the horrifying vengeance meted out to him by the wrath of Medee.

In what in my opinion is a masterpiece of sardonic irony, at the very end of the play, from the height of her balcony after she has told Jason of her ultimate act of revenge, the murder of the children; she takes her verbal revenge on Creon. When Jason rails powerlessly at her: 'Horreur de la nature, execrable tigresse' (V, 6) She replies by using Creon's very words to her repeating: 'Va . . . Va . . . ' (V,6) three times. Thus does she avenge the verbal insults she has had to suffer from Creon who had dared to make light of her. Moreover, when she states in her last speech of the play, before flying off in her 'char de triomphe':

'Enfin, je n'ai pas mal employe la journee
Que la bonte du roi, de grace m'a donne' (V, 6).

Corneille is ironically commenting on such 'bonte' and the uses to which one king's 'grace' may be put. Creon had already asserted to Pollux: 'En si peu de temps, que peut faire une femme?' (IV, 2).

This 'femme' has had the last laugh and an ironic and tragic one it is. Creon, of course, can no longer appreciate the exquisiteness of the irony, for he has already killed himself, in order to escape the atrocious torture of the poisoned cloak ('robe') that had belonged to that 'mere woman.'

To return to Medee in her persona of 'Barbarian': as an exile and hunted murderess in flight from her native land, Medee had no standing in Corinth other than her status as Jason's wife. Heene Domon has recently pointed out that Medee is truly 'l'autre,' the stranger, the outsider, whose isolation from the normative human institutions of society is underlined by the breaking of vows, or, as Domon calls them, 'epacts' (Domon 88-93). The vows of marriage, broken by Jason, lead to Medee's expulsion by the state. The political vows, first made by Creon, when he accepted both Jason and Medee into Corinth and gave them sanctuary and safety from their enemies are broken by him when he decides to offer only her up as the sacrifice necessary to save his state. More and more, she stands alone, cut off from all she has known and loved. She has given up everything; country, family and her royal status, for love of Jason. As she now stands in splendid isolation against the powerful forces amassed against her, what remains to her is herself. When asked by her confidante: 'Dans un si grand revers, que vous reste-t-il?' (I, 5) her answer is simply: 'Moi. / Moi, dis-je et c'est assez.' (I, 5).

Corneille had taken these, the most famous lines in the play, word for word from Seneca; ('Medea suprest'); but, with a stroke of original genius, he gives the lines new meaning and profundity. The first 'moi' stands alone, and by using the repetition of the 'moi' at the beginning of the next line with a dramatic pause before the 'dis-je et c'est assez,' Corneille valorizes and calls attention to what Nadal has called' 'l'inviolabilite du moi' [The inviolability of the moi] (Nadal 144). She then continues: 'Tu vois en moi seule et le fer et la flamme' (I, 5).

With this 'moi seule,' Medee has declared herself. Her courage is unshakable. She may seem powerless, but she is fully conscious of the power that resides inside herself. Her mythological stature only serves to heighten her grandeur. Her 'savoir'--the knowledge of the black arts of magic and her connection to the Gods--will only strengthen her hatred and make her vengeance more spectacular. It is the foolish, weak Jason who himself has furnished her with the form her revenge will take. When she learns of Creuse's desire for her sumptuous 'robe', the only thing remaining to remind her of her royal status and the only treasure she had taken with her from her native land, it is indeed the last straw. Can Jason really have forgotten how her arts had won him the Golden Fleece? 'Bornes-tu mon pouvoir a celui des humains?' (III, 3), she asks.

She will use all these powers to invest the 'robe' so desired by Creuse with the powerful and selective poison which will become that young princess' fiery and agonizing death - as well as that of her father, the king.

I have attempted to show that the psychological and dramatic portrait of the woman betrayed and abandoned is a profoundly moving and realistic one. This portrait contains in itself the seeds of some of the themes that Corneille will exploit in his later, more fully developed and psychologically 'vraisemblable' heroines. How then to account for the presence of that other persona (the third) that now appears in this play? 'La magicienne fabuleuse,' the 'sorciere', whose magic arts are displayed so spectacularly at the beginning of the 4th act, before the eyes of the no-doubt delighted public?

Medee (IV, 1) appears alone in her magic grotto, stirring her cauldron of special poisons and death-dealing herbs that she has gathered herself: 'moi-meme en les cueillant, je fis palir la lune,' (IV, 1) and acting more and more like a wicked witch in a fairy tale. She entertains more than she terrifies. She appears with her magic wand, her 'baguette,' and with it, strikes open the doors of the prison in which the helpless, aged King Aegee, king of Athens is languishing, spouting love-stanzas, and removes his chains with another stroke of her wand, and gives him a magic ring which will render him invisible. With this same magic wand she later renders the messenger Theudas invisible.

However malevolent her magic may ultimately be, it seems with this creation of a new persona more of a 'divertissement' that serves to weaken the power of the psychological portrayal of the woman/wife/mother whose fatal passion makes her tower above all the other characters in the play, and the tragic heroine who has become emblematic of the cruel mother. Corneille's play has been seen by some critics (and perhaps justly so) as 'unfused' (Nelson 82). Medee's dominating presence in it has also been called 'doubly inappropriate' (Nelson 82) but one must not forget that Medee was Corneille's first tragedy and, as such, served as his apprenticeship in the mastering of a form that was new to him.

Neither must one forget that for this author, as he asserts in his Epitre to this play: 'le but de la poesie dramatique est de plaire.' (Epitre . .) For an audience of the 17th Century, very often 'plaire' meant to entertain with spectacular effects, and, certainly, the convention of the magician was a commonplace of the dramatic literature of the period (Nelson 66). One but has but to look at the date of the year following the Medee, 1636, and the appearance of L'Illusion Comique, to see that with this third persona of Medea/magicienne/sorciere, Corneille was serving another apprenticeship. It must also be noted here, that in 1659, Corneille returned to the theme of Medee, in a play in which the spectacular holds pride of place: La Conquete de la Toison d'Or: a 'piece a machines,' complete with music, in which the fantastical and the magical will be foregrounded at the expense of the psychological.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize the fact that, although the 1635 Medee is a play that is far from perfect, with its melange of different thematic elements; it served, for its author as the bridge between this, his apprenticeship to tragedy to the later plays that are universally called his masterpieces. Even so does the fragmented yet powerful portrayal of Medee as tragic heroine set the stage for the future exploration of a subject that was to fascinate Corneille throughout his long career. Corneille's predilection for exemplary and heroic women, his 'monstres-sacres' (such as the marvelously evil Cleopatre in Rodogune) had its genesis in his Medee, of the play of that name.

Corneille's Medee never attained popularity. It was given at the Comedie Francaise in January of 1763 for the first time, and by the end of the 18th Century had only been presented eight (8) times (Rat 441). Perhaps, in light of the new 'post-modern' interest in non-canonical works by critics and scholars in 17th Century studies, it is time to take a new look at Corneille's Medee. In Corneille's own words, 'la peinture et la poesie ont cela en commun, entre beaucoup d'autres choses, que l'une fait souvent de beaux portraits d'une femme laide, et l'autre, de belles imitations d'une action qu'il ne faut pas imiter.' (557)


Adam, Antoine. Histoire de la litterature francaise au XVII siecle. Paris: Editions Domat Montchrestien, 1948- 1956.

Corneille, Pierre. Theatre Complet. Texte preface et annote par Pierre Lievre er Roger Caillois; Bibliotheque de la Pleiade. Paris: Gallimard, 1950. All citations from Medee are taken from this edition.

Nadal, Octave. Le sentiment de l'amour dans l'oeuvre de Pierre Corneille Paris: Gallimard, 1948.

Stegmannn, Andre. L'Heroisme Corneilien, genese et signification, tomes I and II Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1968.

Domon, Helene. 'Medee ou l'Autre. Cahiers du Dix-Septieme. An Interdiciplinary Journal, Athens, Georgia. 1987 Fall, 1:2.

Nelson, Robert J. Corneille, His Heroes and their Worlds. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylania Press, 1963.

Joy Sylvester
Texas A&M