Shakespeare's Myths

Medea’s story makes a number of significant appearances in Shakespeare’s works, though direct references to her or to Jason are rare, particularly considering the medieval and early modern familiarity with her myth (see Katherine Heavey, The Early Modern Medea: Medea in English Literature 1558-1688, 2015). Shakespeare seems to have known several important early modern handlings of her legend: Natale Conti’s Mythologia (1567), Arthur Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses (1567), and John Studley’s translation of Seneca’s Medea (1566). In common with many other early modern writers, Shakespeare saw a two-fold potential in Medea’s story. It appealed because of its abhorrent and sensational violence, but also because of her romantic suffering at the hands of Jason, and both faces of Medea, the murderous sorceress and the naive lover, are discernible in his drama.


Because of her command of witchcraft and the terrible crimes she commits both for and against Jason, Medea was frequently invoked when an Elizabethan or Jacobean author wished to stress the horrifying and perversely fascinating disobedience of a female character, against husband, father or monarch. Similarly, echoes of Medea are often discerned in two of Shakespeare’s most alarming anti-heroines, Tamora and Lady Macbeth. However, the first of Shakespeare’s Medea-figures seems initially to be very far from the classical sorceress, who slaughters her young children in cold blood. Tamora’s first appearance in Titus Andronicus is as a supplicant, begging for the life of her son Alarbus, and the first apparent allusion to Medea’s story comes as Lucius demands Alarbus’ murder and dismemberment:


Give us the proudest prisoner of the Goths,

That we may hew his limbs and on a pile

Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh

Before this earthy prison of their bones,

That so the shadows be not unappeased,

Nor we disturbed with prodigies on earth. (I.i.96-101)


The idea of committing murder to appease the shades of the dead, and particularly the use of the phrase Ad manes fratrum, recall the Senecan Medea’s vision of her dead and dismembered brother Absyrtus, a vision which drives her on to kill her sons:


mihi me relinque et utere hac, frater, manu

quae strinxit ensem. victima manes tuos

placamus ista. (969-971)


[Leave me to myself, and act, brother, through this hand that has drawn the sword. With this sacrifice I placate your shade.]


When Alarbus is killed despite her impassioned protests, then, Tamora is not Medea, but is almost a Jason-figure, powerless to stop the slaughter of her son. However, like Medea, Tamora is then very quickly shown to be a threat to the male community in Titus Andronicus, even as she appears under the control first of Rome, and then of her husband Saturninus. In her introduction to the play, Katharine Eisaman Maus notes:


In a world in which women are treated as the sexual property of their male relatives, “good” women like Lavinia seem destined for passivity and victimization. One acquires power in such circumstances by refusing to play by the rules (Maus, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. S. Greenblatt, 1997, 376).


As a barbarian outsider, and particularly in her desire for bloody revenge on the male ruling community she sees as having wronged her, Tamora is an echo of Medea. She is described as a “tiger” (V.iii.194), an epithet applied to Medea in both Golding’s Metamorphoses and Studley’s Medea, and the gruesome death and dismemberment of her sons may also be intended to recall Medea’s killing of Absyrtus, as well as other classical tales of mutilation, such as Progne and Philomela’s murder of Itys, or Atreus’ slaughter of the sons of Thyestes.


However, though her foreignness and her bloodthirsty rage ally her to Medea, the Colchian who causes such havoc in Corinth, Tamora does not dismember or mutilate her own sons, and for all her monstrous behaviour towards innocents such as Lavinia, she is in essence far less of a transgressive threat than the classical witch. As she relies on Saturninus for her position of power in Rome, so she relies on her adult sons Demetrius and Chiron to wreak revenge on Lavinia and Bassianus: by contrast, Medea’s young sons carry her poisoned gifts to Creusa, but are ignorant of her plans, and play no active part in the grisly deaths of Creon and his daughter, which are entirely masterminded by Medea. Indeed, the essential difference between Tamora and Medea is brought home forcibly in the play’s conclusion. First, Tamora is horrified to hear of her sons’ brutal murders at the hands of Titus, whereas Medea kills her sons herself, as a result of Jason’s sexual and marital betrayal. Then, unlike Medea, Tamora herself is quickly and unceremoniously killed, and in the play’s final scene Lucius commands her body’s rapid and undignified expulsion from the city:


As for that ravenous tiger, Tamora,

No funeral rite nor man in mourning weed,

No mournful bell shall ring her burial;

But throw her forth to beasts and birds to prey.

Her life was beastly and devoid of pity,

And being dead, let birds on her take pity. (V.iii.194-99)


Robert S. Miola notes that a later version of the tragedy goes far further in drawing parallels between Tamora and Medea: “In his notorious adaptation (1678) of Shakespeare’s play, [Edward] Ravenscroft capitalized on the Senecan elements in Tamora’s character, portraying her as a Gothic Medea who finally slays her child for revenge on the treacherous father” (Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy, 1992, p. 24). In Shakespeare’s play, Lucius remarks that the infant Tamora bears to Aaron is ‘Too like the sire for ever being good’ (V.i.50) but while in Ovid and Seneca, it is in part their physical resemblance to Jason (and Medea’s fear that they will imitate him in behaviour) that seals the fates of her sons, Tamora’s child survives unscathed, and certainly does not suffer at the hands of his mother. Thus, although in some ways the Elizabethan audience might be intensely alarmed by the idea that a child of Tamora and Aaron survives, and is received back into Rome, Shakespeare’s Tamora still ends the play distanced from Medea, because she does not commit infanticide, unlike her Restoration counterpart. She does not kill either her two adult sons or the infant, and similarly, though Lavinia is killed at the play’s bloody climax, Tamora’s own death means that she has not triumphed over the woman who is the focus of her jealousy and anger, as the Senecan Medea did in her calculated and gory murder of Creusa. Tamora leaves society when she is cast out of Rome, but rather than ascending, and transcending, triumphantly, as Medea can by virtue of her divine connections, she is thrown, dead and defeated, from the city, literally and figuratively excluded from the male-dominated society that she sought to destroy.


The ignominious end that Shakespeare devises for Tamora demonstrates how, in common with other Elizabethan and Jacobean authors who invoked the classical sorceress, he cannot bring himself to allow his Medea-figure a triumphant escape, such as that enjoyed by the Medea he would have encountered in Seneca’s Medea or the Metamorphoses. Tamora commissions others to carry out her crimes for her, and though she is a disruptive and malign presence in Rome, she is shown to be prey to her fears for her children, accountable to male authority, and vulnerable to punishment, as the classical sorceress is not. Similarly, Aaron, described by Marcus as “Chief architect and plotter of these woes” (V.iii.121) is Medea-like in his utter lack of regret for his crimes: in Seneca, Medea’s only sorrow is that Jason has no more children for her to slaughter, and Aaron exclaims


But I have done a thousand dreadful things

As willingly as one would kill a fly

And nothing grieves me heartily indeed

But that I cannot do ten thousand more. (V.i.141-44)


However, his reward for this delight in evildoing is that he, like Tamora, is condemned to die, while his enemies rebuild the society he has sought to bring down. As G. K. Hunter has put it:


The revenge play of the Elizabethans would have been wholly unacceptable if Titus, or Hieronimo, or Hoffman, or Hamlet had been rewarded for their revenges, as Atreus or Clytemnestra or Medea are (“Seneca and English Tragedy”, 1974, p. 177).


Here, Hunter pinpoints a fundamental difference between classical and Elizabethan tragedies: the fate of the successful revenger. Critics such as Miola and M. L. Stapleton follow J. W. Cunliffe’s ground-breaking nineteenth-century study (Cunliffe, The Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan Tragedy, 1893; Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy, 1992; Stapleton, Fated Sky: the “Femina Furens” in Shakespeare, 2000), in identifying echoes of Senecan tragedy in Elizabethan and Shakespearean drama, while others, such as G. K. Hunter and Howard Baker, have been far more reluctant to acknowledge Senecan borrowing. Baker dismisses the theory of Senecan influence on Elizabethan tragedy as a “blighting critical fiction”, and argues that features such as the chorus and the use of ghosts and messengers are more properly attributed to medieval sources (Baker, Induction to Tragedy, 1939, p. 5, 140-153; and see Hunter, Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition, 1978, p. 159-173). In fact, while he may have known Seneca’s Medea and Ovid’s Heroides in the original Latin, Shakespeare’s treatment of women like Tamora and Lady Macbeth, and particularly his decision to punish his Medea figures, could also have been influenced by early modern translations of Senecan and Ovidian works, as well as by Elizabethan dramatic convention. John Studley augments the final lines of his translation of Seneca’s Medea (1566) to hint that his anti-heroine may suffer punishment, while George Turberville’s popular translation of the Heroides (1567) includes a wish for Medea’s suicide, voiced by her love-rival Hypsipyle, and absent from Ovid’s Latin version. While they are admittedly slight, such alterations do accord with what Hunter identifies as the typical and expected movement of Elizabethan tragedy (towards punishment for villains or revengers), and so may have been more attractive to Shakespeare, grappling with the problem of how to deal with a character as wicked as Tamora, than the Latin originals.


This urge, to explore the ways in which a Medea-figure might be punished or undermined, remains discernible in Shakespeare’s later tragic uses of Medea’s story. If Titus’ themes of bloody revenge by women, the slaughter of innocents and the fall of dynasties, all seem to echo Medea’s story, the same is true of Macbeth: and here, the supernatural elements added by the Weird Sisters suggest the influence of the Ovidian or Senecan Medea (whether original or Elizabethan translation) even more compellingly. Lady Macbeth’s ruthlessness is often seen as echoing that of the Senecan Medea, particularly given that both women regard femininity as incompatible with their bloody plots, and call on supernatural forces to help them overcome any lingering mercy in their souls. Lady Macbeth asks


Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty. (I.v.39-42)


Inga-Stina Ewbank sees Studley’s translation and expansion of Seneca’s Medea as a more likely source for Lady Macbeth’s speech than the original Latin (“The Fiend-Like Queen: A Note on Macbeth and Seneca’s Medea”, 1966, n.93; see also Y. Peyré, “‘Confusion now hath made his masterpiece’: Senecan resonances in Macbeth”, 2004, p. 149, for echoes of the Senecan original). In Studley’s rendering, Medea demands of herself


If any lusty life as yet within thy soul do rest,

If ought of ancient courage still do dwell within my breast,

Exile all foolish female fear and pity from thy mind,

And as th’untamèd tigers use to rage and rave unkind,

That haunt the croaking, cumbrous caves and clumpered, frozen clives, [clives: slipes (Latin: clives)]

And craggy rocks of Caucasus, whose bitter cold deprives

The soil of all inhabitours, permit to lodge and rest

Such savage brutish tyranny within thy brazen breast. (fol. 3r-v)


Lady Macbeth’s hints at her capacity for infanticide also ally her to Medea, who kills not only her own children, but her young brother: she tells Macbeth


I have given suck, and know

How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.

I would, while it was smiling in my face,

Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums

And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn

As you have done to this. (I.vii.54-59)


However, though she can promise terrible deeds, like Tamora, and unlike Medea, Lady Macbeth cannot act herself, instead relying on her husband to carry out the play’s murders. Like Tamora, too, her plot to revenge herself on her enemies is unsuccessful, and she commits suicide offstage, thus realising the fate that Turberville’s Hypsipyle wished for Medea, in a tantalising hint at Shakespeare’s knowledge of the popular Elizabethan translation. In fact, Miola argues that Shakespeare’s apparent use of the Senecan Medea at first serves to make Lady Macbeth appear more powerful, before ultimately demonstrating that she falls short of the classical sorceress: “Seneca’s Medea provides initially a paradigm of passionate atrocity for Lady Macbeth and then a revealing counterpoint to her deterioration” (Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy, 1992, p. 107). Stephen Greenblatt describes Macbeth’s sense of guilt and self-loathing in terms that underscore his moral weakness, and seem deliberately evocative of Medea’s famous pronouncement in Metamorphoses VII, 20-21, “video meliora proboque, / deteriora sequor” (“I see the better and approve it, but I follow the worse”). Greenblatt notes of Macbeth:


Far more than any other of Shakespeare’s villains ... Macbeth is fully aware of the wickedness of his deeds and is tormented by this awareness. Endowed with a clear-eyed grasp of the difference between good and evil, he chooses evil, even though the choice horrifies and sickens him (Introduction to Macbeth, The Norton Shakespeare, 1997, p. 2557).


Of course, Medea agonises in this way over whether to love Jason in the first place: when it comes to murder, she is utterly ruthless in her determination, able, in the Senecan tragedy, to brush off any doubts as quickly as they occur to her, and thus Macbeth, like his wife, is at best a distorted and guilt-ridden reflection of the classical witch, for as Peyré points out, “Unlike Seneca’s murderers ... Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do not find pleasure in committing murder” (“‘Confusion now hath made his masterpiece’”, p. 150). While Medea’s atrocities (her killing of her brother, of Pelias, of Creon and Creusa) seem only to make her stronger, spurring her on to commit the final taboo of infanticide, the Macbeths’ power, inextricably linked to status and court politics as Medea’s is not, crumbles as the play’s horrors accumulate, and they are unable to draw any real strength from supernatural forces or from their own crimes, as Medea can. Indeed, for Miola, the appearance of magic in the play only serves to underscore how Lady Macbeth in particular is a pale imitation of Medea: speaking of the Weird Sisters, he notes


Shakespeare again practises transference, this time removing Medea’s supernaturalism from his female protagonist, conferring it on non-human creations, the black and midnight hags. So doing, he denies Lady Macbeth this moment of eerie self-actualization and transcendence; she remains intransigently human, subject to supernatural forces outside her control not master of them (Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy, 1992, p. 106).


The Weird Sisters wield a Medea-like magical power that Lady Macbeth does not, and they are not punished, as she is, by the play’s close. However, even they might be diminished by comparison to Medea. In act III scene v, the chief witch Hecate (whose scenes are often ascribed to Shakespeare’s fellow playwright Thomas Middleton: see A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on “Hamlet”, “Othello”, “King Lear”, “Macbeth”, 1905, p. 466; N. Brooke, ed., Macbeth, 1990, pp. 53-55) chides them angrily for becoming involved in Macbeth’s affairs, pointing out


All you have done

Hath been but for a wayward son,

Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,

Loves for his own ends, not for you. (III.v.10-13)


Brooke glosses “wayward” as “wrong-headed, perverse, not following others’ wishes”, and points out that “Hecate recognises that [Macbeth] is not a potential convert” (Brooke, 161). Like Medea, the Weird Sisters practise magic that benefits a selfish and self-centred man, one who “Loves for his own ends, not for you”, and will not, Hecate suggests, accord them the respect their power deserves.  Moreover, unlike Medea, the witches do not have curative power: this ability (seen when she rejuvenates Jason’s father Aeson) is displaced onto King Edward, whose “healing benediction” (IV.iii.157), described by Malcolm, manifests itself in helping


strangely visited people,

All swoll’n and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,

The mere despair of surgery. (IV.iii.152-54)


The witches have no such influence, and they can exact only the most trifling of revenges over their enemies: they have even been seen as comical in their lack of real power (H. Berger, “Text against Performance in Shakespeare: the Example of Macbeth”, 1982, p. 67-68). Inga-Stina Ewbank, in her influential article on Shakespeare’s use of Seneca’s and Studley’s Medea, sees his manipulation of the Roman play (and its anti-heroine) as demonstrating how “mature Shakespearian imitation of Seneca contains within itself a reaction away from Seneca” (“The Fiend-like Queen: a Note on Macbeth and Seneca’s Medea”, p. 83). While it is the Shakespearean tragedy that most clearly delights in confronting its audience with alarming versions of the ruthless, violent sorceress Medea, Macbeth simultaneously demonstrates how Shakespearean characters—whether witches, ambitious men or murderous women—can never expect to enjoy the bloody triumphs, and the victorious escape, of their Senecan forebear.


Miola also sees echoes of Medea in Pericles and Cymbeline, in the murderous figures of Dionyza and the Queen (Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy, 1992, p. 197, 202). Predictably, all Shakespeare’s most obviously Medea-like figures are women—Tamora, Lady Macbeth and the Weird Sisters—and similarly, in the works of his contemporaries and successors, it is almost always a terrifying and deadly female figure who is likened to the Colchian witch. In one of Shakespeare’s histories, however, we find a rare instance of a male character being explicitly likened to Medea. In 2 Henry VI, furious at the death of his father, the Lancastrian Young Clifford exclaims “Meet I an infant of the house of York, / Into as many gobbets will I cut it / As wild Medea young Absyrtus did” (V.iii.57-59). He goes on to fulfil this terrible vow in 3 Henry VI, slaughtering the Earl of Rutland, young son of the Duke of York. Ewbank suggests that this episode (and particularly Clifford’s use of the word “gobbets”) may demonstrate Shakespeare’s knowledge of Studley’s Medea, although he could also have found the infanticide described in gruesome detail in Ovid’s Tristia III, ix, which had been translated into English by Thomas Churchyard in 1572 (“The Fiend-like Queen: a Note on Macbeth and Seneca’s Medea”, p. 88). Whatever his precise inspiration for including the allusion to Medea, Shakespeare did not find it in chronicle sources such as Edward Hall’s The Union of the Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and York (1548). Hall compares Clifford to a lion in his savage and merciless killing of Rutland, but it is Shakespeare who adds the mention of Medea, to underscore the horror and the dehumanising effect of civil war in England. However, like Tamora and Lady Macbeth, and unlike Medea, Clifford must die himself, once he has provoked the comparison to Medea, and fulfilled the terrible potential suggested by this comparison in his killing of an innocent child. (For further discussion of Shakespeare’s use of Medea in his histories, see K. Heavey, “ ‘An Infant of the House of York’: Medea and Absyrtus in Shakespeare’s First Tetralogy”, 2016).


The slaughter of Rutland is a dreadful crime in its own right (in Richard III, I.iii, the memory of the murder has the power to unite the squabbling Yorkists against the unrepentant Lancastrian Queen Margaret) but once again, Clifford’s punishment demonstrates Shakespeare’s squeamish reluctance to resurrect Medea unapologetically: his villains can be like her in murder, but not in triumph or escape, and while Clifford kills one innocent child, he is not permitted to kill two more as Medea does. Other Shakespearean characters in the history plays can invoke Medea to demonstrate their own suffering, rather than their desire for revenge, by identifying not with Medea, but with her victims. Virgil Whitaker points out that in Richard III, the hapless Anne wishes for the gory end suffered by the only woman to cross Medea, Jason’s new wife Creusa, and suggests that here Shakespeare is using Seneca’s play for details he would not have found in the Metamorphoses or Heroides. Wishing for death rather than life with Richard, Anne exclaims:


O would to God that the inclusive verge

Of golden metal that must round my brow

Were red-hot steel, to sear me to the brains.

Anointed let me be with deadly venom

And die, ere men can say “God save the Queen” (IV.i.58-62)


Whitaker sees Anne’s speech as evidence of a specifically Senecan influence, “since Ovid does not mention in either of his accounts of Medea both the fiery gold crown and the poisoned robe to which Shakespeare alludes” (Whitaker, Shakespeare’s Use of Learning: An Inquiry into the Growth of his Mind and Art, 1953, quoted in Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy, 1992, p. 81). If Anne imagines herself as Medea’s victim, it is fitting that Harold F. Brooks sees echoes of the Senecan Medea in Richard’s “intellectual force and absence of moral feeling”, and in his attempts to blame Anne’s “heavenly face” (I.ii.170) for his crimes, as Medea accuses Jason of some responsibility for the murders she has committed in his name (“Richard III, Unhistorical Amplifications: the Women’s Scenes and Seneca”, 1980, p. 735, 732). However, once again, as it does for Clifford, any similarity to Medea presages defeat rather than victory, and even Richard, who piles murder on murder much as the classical sorceress does, cannot escape deserved punishment and death at the hands of England’s rightful king, Richmond.


As the preceding examples have demonstrated, critics have most commonly turned their attention to Medea in order to argue for Senecan influence over Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories. However, Miola has seen the Senecan Medea in the threatening women who inhabit the late romances Pericles and Cymbeline, while more surprisingly, Emrys Jones suggests that an allusion to Medea’s ruthlessness may be discerned in Much Ado About Nothing. He suggests that Beatrice’s shocking demand of Benedick, “Kill Claudio” (IV.i.290), echoes the Senecan Medea’s vicious and sarcastic demand that Jason should be willing to commit a crime for her, to balance all that she has done for him:


Jason. What lieth in my might

To do for thee?

Medea. If no good turn then do thy worst despite. (Studley, fol. 25r)


Seneca’s customary stichomythia, lost in Studley’s clumsy translation, has Jason ask haplessly “Quid facere possim, loquere”, and Medea shoot back “Pro me vel scelus” (515) (“Tell me what I can do”; “For me? Even a crime”). In fact, while the punishment of his tragic Medea-figures points to Shakespeare’s knowledge of Studley’s translation, in which Medea is somewhat weakened, here the devastating brevity of Beatrice’s response suggests that if Medea is Shakespeare’s source, he is using the original. Emrys Jones argues that “[f]or a moment Beatrice is like another Medea, furious for revenge, Benedick another Jason, weakly yielding to her savage demands” (The Origins of Shakespeare, 1977, p. 272). Of course, like Jason, Benedick refuses to kill for Beatrice, and a happy resolution is reached once Claudio is appeased, and honours his commitment to Hero, in contrast to Jason’s rejection of Medea. The allusion to this most alarming of Medea’s manifestations, the Senecan heroine who has already committed murder, and who is described by E. M. Spearing as “almost a raving maniac” (“The Elizabethan ‘Tenne Tragedies of Seneca’”, 1909, p. 456), threatens to destabilise the play, and underscores the way in which Much Ado, at this point of crisis, swerves close to tragedy, as Claudio’s lack of faith in Hero inspires a Senecan homicidal rage in the play’s most forthright and outspoken woman. More commonly, though, the Medea who intrudes on Shakespearean comedy is the slightly more sympathetic Medea of Ovid, a woman who commits terrible crimes, and possesses alarming magical powers, but who is stymied and humanised by her love for Jason, as Hero is humiliated by Claudio’s lack of belief in her.


Shakespeare’s clearest uses of the Ovidian Medea are to be found in The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest.  In the former play, Medea is naively invoked by Jessica after she has eloped with Lorenzo. Jessica exclaims


                    … In such a night

Medea gatherèd the enchanted herbs

That did renew old Aeson. (V.i.12-14)


Jessica is using Medea not as an example of a murderous revenger, but as a lover who resisted paternal strictures (in Medea’s case, those of her father Aeetes) in order to pursue the object of her desire, and aims to keep him by rejuvenating his father. However, many in Shakespeare’s audience, familiar with Medea from Studley’s Medea, Golding’s Metamorphoses and from various vernacular Elizabethan works, such as Richard Robinson’s Rewarde of Wickednesse (1574), would know well that Medea’s devotion to Jason would end in the deaths of their children and the destruction of Corinth. Even this particular episode is both evidence of Medea using her power benignly, to cure Jason’s father, and a foreshadowing of a callous and brutal crime, her subsequent killing of his uncle Pelias by pretending to perform the same rite on him. Jonathan Bate argues that


By activating Medea’s destructive magic here, Shakespeare is contaminating a superficially lyrical interlude with a precursor text which is marked by bodily dismemberment that perhaps reawakens Shylock’s demand for his pound of flesh ... What is more, the image of Medea gathering ingredients for her cauldron evokes a world of witchcraft akin to that of Shakespearian tragedy, not comedy—her nocturnal gatherings are also of ingredients like those of the weird sisters (Shakespeare and Ovid, 1993, pp. 155-56).


Elsewhere, Bassanio is compared to Jason, and Bate points out that these allusions to a faithless classical man “suggest that what is really open to question is the future conduct of … men” (Shakespeare and Ovid, 1993, p. 153). Shakespeare’s use of Medea and Jason as well as other inauspicious lovers (Troilus, Thisbe, Dido) thus demonstrates his awareness of the flexibility of classical myth, the way that character and audience member may interpret classical examples very differently. In Jessica’s speech, a resetting of a familiar classical myth hints at the potential for tragedy in her defiance of her father, but simultaneously is mined for a wry humour: humour which derives from the gap between a character’s understanding, and that of a classically educated audience member. Shakespeare has vernacular precedent for such a use: in William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, a story taken from the Italian of Matteo Bandello (via the French of François de Belleforest) sees the heroine Adelasia use the example of Medea to encourage herself to disobey her father and elope with Alerane. She observes “I shall not be alone amongst princesses, that have forsaken parents and countries, to follow their love into strange Regions” (Bbbi v). Her use of such clearly inauspicious models (she also uses Phaedra and Ariadne to strengthen her resolve) means that while the story ends happily, with her marriage to Alerane, the potentially devastating consequences of a daughter defying her father and leaving her country with a stranger are implied, through Painter’s deliberate use of Medea. Here, different readers might reflect soberly on the tragedy that has been narrowly avoided, or smile at the way in which tragic expectations have been raised by a mention of Medea, and then unexpectedly upset by the happy ending. Similarly, Shakespeare’s contemporary and rival, the author and playwright Robert Greene, delighted in having his romantic heroines invoke unsuitable couples like Medea and Jason, as they debate whether to give in to potentially faithless men. For example, Greene’s Mamillia, heroine of his eponymous romance (first printed in 1580), worries that Jason abandoned Medea, but then blithely assures herself that Pharicles will not imitate Jason in his faithlessness. In fact, Pharicles himself also turns to Jason as an example, not as a spur to fidelity, but to reassure himself that in his abandonment of Mamillia for Publia, he has ample classical precedent: as Helen Moore notes, examples taken from the Heroides “serve as a means of rationalizing or excusing his instincts and behaviour” (“Elizabethan Fiction and Ovid’s Heroides”, 2000, p. 53). Confronted with two different uses of the story, Greene’s classically educated readers would appreciate the folly of Mamillia’s invoking Jason and Medea, as she hopes for fidelity from Pharicles. Similarly, Jessica’s use of the inappropriate story in The Merchant of Venice exposes her own foolish innocence, while simultaneously hinting at a suppressed undercurrent of darkness and potential tragedy. Meanwhile, in his own twisting of classical precedent, Pharicles recalls Seneca as well as Ovid, seemingly forecasting Publia’s death at the end of the romance, in his veiled recollection of Creusa’s demise: he likens his choice of Publia to Jason’s choice of Creusa, “to whom he was constant to the end” (K v).


In both Mamillia and The Merchant of Venice, one reader or audience member may smile at the inauspicious reference to Medea, another may fret that the love affairs will end tragically, while a third may be entirely unaware of the bloody aftermath of Medea’s desire for Jason. Moore notes that early modern authorial use of a well-known text such as the Heroides to provide exempla does not imply readerly or critical consensus: in fact,


While the examples may stem from authoritative texts, the interpretations which are put on those examples are subject to reformulation by subsequent users, whether as a result of changes in proverbial traditions or because of rhetorical exigency (“Elizabethan Fiction and Ovid’s Heroides”, 2000, p. 52).


Shakespeare’s use of Medea in The Merchant of Venice has provoked critical disagreement, most obviously between Bate and Charles Martindale, who argues that Jessica’s naive invocation of Medea and other classical examples is not ironic, and rather “[t]he romance has been isolated from the tragic or squalid elements of the stories” (C. Martindale, “Shakespeare’s Ovid, Ovid’s Shakespeare, A Methodological Postscript”, 2000, pp. 202-03). Shakespeare’s final use of Medea, in The Tempest, is no less divisive, with the issue of contention once again being how much he expected his audience to know, or remember, of previous Medeas, both classical and vernacular. Shakespeare’s allusion to Medea (as in Macbeth and Titus Andronicus, he does not name her specifically) comes as the play draws to a close, and Prospero describes his precious magic by paraphrasing her boasts in Metamorphoses VII:


I have bedimmed

The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,

And ’twixt the green sea and the azured vault

Set roaring war—to the dread rattling thunder

Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak

With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory

Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up

The pine and cedar; graves at my command

Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth

By my so potent art. (V.i.41-50)


Bate has shown that while it was once thought that Shakespeare relied solely on Golding, in fact he makes use of both the renowned Elizabethan translation, and the Latin original (Shakespeare and Ovid, 1993, pp. 8-10). Bate argues that again, as he did in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare intended at least some of his audience to recollect Medea’s power, on hearing these lines. He insists:


Recognition of the source is absolutely crucial, for it puts the audience into the same position as Prospero: as he sees that his magic must be rejected because it may so readily be abused when driven by vengeance rather than virtue, so at exactly the same moment we see that it must be rejected because it is, for all its apparent whiteness, the selfsame black magic as that of Medea (Shakespeare and Ovid, 1993, p. 252).


As Bate notes (Shakespeare and Ovid, p. 9), Charles and Michelle Martindale have disputed such views, and have argued that “the use Shakespeare is making of Ovid is imitative, not allusive; educated members of the audience would recognise the presence of Ovid, but there is no question of any such complex interplay between the divergent meanings of the two texts as our more ingenious critics so often suppose” (Shakespeare and the Uses of Antiquity, 1990, p. 23). Whether or not Shakespeare was concerned with his audience’s intimate knowledge of Medea’s story, what is significant here is that once again, he invokes Medea only to shy away from the most notorious and uncompromising elements of her legend, and to distance his protagonist from her example, even as he makes them appear similar. Like the Weird Sisters, Prospero wields a magical power that makes him somehow akin to Medea: and unlike the Shakespearean witches, the Duke has turned this power into rule. However, Sarah Annes Brown points out that Shakespeare makes his magician’s power lesser than that of Medea, even as he has Prospero boast of it in his invocation of the “elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves” (V.i.33). She notes the comparative weakness of the spirits upon which Prospero calls:


The activities with which the elves are associated are within the province of traditional English fairies, making magic rings and mushrooms. But these are natural phenomena, not the violent alterations of nature which Medea claims to have the power to carry out (“Ovid, Golding and the Tempest”, 1994, p. 9).


Moreover, of course, Prospero implicitly likens himself to Medea only when he comes to reject her power, and pledges to “drown my book” (V.i.57). Unlike Medea, he finally recognises magical and necromantic power as forces to be resisted and rejected, and unlike Shakespeare’s other Medea-figures (and unlike his magical counterpart, the vanquished witch Sycorax) he is allowed to end the play both alive and at peace, because of this realisation. Once again, because of her disregard for human mores or order, Medea is shown to enjoy an autonomy and control that Shakespearean characters are not permitted. Miola notes that the Senecan Medea’s boasting about her power over nature demonstrates her ability “to travel beyond the limits that define the human condition”, and by contrast, Prospero’s


is precisely the opposite achievement: having renounced his magic, Prospero resumes his former place in the world and his former identity as the fallible, wronged, and utterly human Duke of Milan, sadly aware of his own fragile mortality (Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy, 1992, p. 213).


For some critics, the adoption and then the rejection of Medea’s power is more of a triumph: William C. Carroll notes that “by quoting Medea, Prospero temporarily becomes his dark other, a composite Medea/Sycorax figure, in his very leave-taking”, before arguing that “Prospero is not Medea or Sycorax, but he can confirm himself only by first becoming them willingly, by releasing his self in order to reclaim it” (The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy, 1985, p. 239, 241). What is certain is that, win or lose through this rejection of disturbing Medea-like power, Prospero, like Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, must turn away from the alarming and potentially tragic model she represents, in order to facilitate a happy and ordered ending.


Raphael Lyne suggests that, along with the barbaric witch Sycorax, “The other somewhat surprising analogue for Medea in the play is Miranda, also a princess who falls for an interloper and pities him to the extent that she turns (very slightly) against her father” (Lyne, “Ovid, Golding, and the ‘rough magic’ of The Tempest”, 2000, p. 159). Of course, this “very slightly” is crucial, and akin to Ewbank’s acknowledgement that Lady Macbeth is like Medea “in spirit if not in fact” (“The Fiend-Like Queen: A Note on Macbeth and Seneca’s Medea”, p. 84). Like Jessica before her, Miranda imitates Medea in nothing more than her love for a stranger, and her rejection of her father’s wishes, just as Lady Macbeth can strive to commune with spirits, and speak of infanticide, but falls short of both within the world of the play. Similarly, speaking of The Merchant of Venice, Stapleton points to Portia’s “Medean variety of verbal witchcraft”, before noting that, of course, Portia is not Medea: “[s]he, in effect, tames herself, and maintains a politic reign over her emotions” (Fated Sky: the “Femina Furens” in Shakespeare, 2000, p. 71, 76). When Medea is referenced or alluded to in Shakespearean tragedy, characters imitate her ruthless and bloodthirsty will, and they must be punished for their sins by death, as Medea never is. In Shakespearean comedy, a similarity to Medea is only allowed to extend so far, and his characters may flirt with her disobedient and transgressive example, even with her black magic or her murderous rage, before embracing the relative conservatism of happy endings.


As the direct references to her, or the adaptations of her words, in The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice and 2 Henry VI make clear, Shakespeare was familiar with Medea’s story, with her love for Jason, her magic, and her terrible crimes. Shakespeare engages with Medea’s story only fleetingly, but when he does, his engagement is always geared towards the limitation of her abhorrent power, despite his obvious interest in the threat she poses. Beatrice makes a Medea-like demand of Benedick, but the audience of Much Ado About Nothing knows that this will never come to pass. For Miranda, Jessica, Portia and most significantly Prospero, their fundamental difference from Medea is, finally, more striking than any similarity, though the echoes of her myth may be deeply and deliberately unsettling for audience or reader. In tragedy and history, meanwhile, the havoc wreaked by Shakespearean Medea-figures (The Weird Sisters, Clifford, Tamora, Lady Macbeth, Richard III) is tempered, because they can only imitate her power by directing or acting for others, or because they meet their ends by murder, execution or suicide: punishments that balance out the terrible crimes they have committed, but which are never suffered by the classical Medea. As Titus Andronicus builds to a bloody climax, Titus invokes a classical tale of retribution to swear revenge on Demetrius and Chiron, declaring “For worse than Philomel you used my daughter, / And worse than Progne I will be revenged” (V.ii.193-94). In his revenge, Titus does outdo Progne, as Demetrius and Chiron outdid Tereus in their assault on Lavinia. By contrast, though she is a compelling figure for early modern authors, the infanticidal sorceress Medea is a classical figure who can never be bested in Shakespeare’s plays, or even successfully imitated: so terrible were her crimes against patriarchy, monarchy and family, that she is brought forward in the plays so that Shakespeare can demonstrate how her example should, finally, be resisted.

(last updated 12 March 2017)

How to cite

Katherine Heavey. “Medea.”  2014.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology 

(2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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