Shakespeare's Myths

Geoffrey Chaucer.  The Legend of Good Women (c.1372-1386), “IV: The Legend of Hypsipyle and Medea”:

[The Legend of Good Women pointedly ignores Medea’s crimes, and she is paired with Hypsipyle as a woman who suffers as a result of Jason’s cruelty. Chaucer focuses on her love for Jason, and the assistance she lends him in his tasks, before ending the Legend with Jason’s desertion and Medea’s reaction, distress, rather than fury.]

Tho gan this Medea to him declare

 The peril of this cas from point to point,

 And of his batayle, and in what disjoint

He mote stonde, of which no creature

 Save only she ne mighte his lyf assure. (1629-33)


This is the mede of lovynge and guerdon

That Medea received of Jasoun

Right for her truthe and for her kindenesse,

That lovede him better than herself, I guesse. (1662-65)


Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales (1380-1400),The Knight’s Tale”; “The Man of Law’s Tale”:

[In “The Knight’s Tale”, Medea is mentioned as depicted on Venus’ temple, an example of the bloody consequences of love, while in the “Introduction to the Man of Law’s Tale”, Chaucer refers to Medea hanging her children; the Book of the Duchess also mentions the infanticide]


John Gower.  Confessio Amantis (c.1386-1393), V, 3247-4242, “Tale of Jason and Medea”:

[Unusually among medieval authors, Gower describes Medea’s murders of her children (though not her brother). The poem dwells extensively on Medea’s magical powers, and has her rising up to the heavens after Jason’s abandonment, to complain of her fate. Although she is more powerful here than in many of her medieval incarnations, in Confessio Amantis, as in other medieval versions of her story, Medea’s love for Jason makes her vulnerable. ]

… into weepinge

She fell, as she that was thurgh nome [thoroughly paralysed]

With love, and so far overcome,

That all her world on him she sette. (V, 3635-37)


Lo, what mighte any man devise,

A woman schewe in any wise

More heartly love in every stede,

Than Medea to Jason dede?

Ferst she made him the fleece to winne,

And after that fro’ kith and kinne

With great tresor with him she stal [stole away],

And to his fader forth withal

His elde [age] hath torned into youthe,

Which thing non other woman couthe [could do]. (V, 4175-84)


John Lydgate.  Troy Book (1420), I, 1513-3720:

[Lydgate’s Troy Book is based on Guido delle Colonne’s Historia, and frequently claims to do no more nor less than translate the Latin text. However, Lydgate includes and even extends the famous misogynist criticisms of Guido. He sees Medea’s adorning herself as being not just a typical feminine trait, as Guido does, but as indicative of her attempts to disguise her character for the hapless Jason: “Fer al the foule schal covertly be wried [concealed], / that no defaute [defect] outward be espied” (I, 1813-14). Although, after Lydgate’s descriptions of Medea’s deceptive and transgressive desire for Jason, and of feminine inconstancy, he declares “thus liketh Guydo of wommen for tendite [to indict]” (I, 2097) and claims “My purpos is nat hem to done offence” (I, 2104), Lydgate includes Guido’s interpolations on feminine inconstancy and changeability at every opportunity.


At some points, Lydgate’s changes make Medea seem more of a victim: in Guido’s Historia, Medea seems to benefit from Fortune, who drives Aeetes to ask his daughter to entertain the Argonauts. In Lydgate’s poem, the account of how Medea is torn between love and shame is greatly extended, and she is described as confounded and led astray by “Fortune with hir doubleface” (I, 2251) and “the whirlyng of hir whele aboute” (I, 2253). Later too, Lydgate seems to regard Medea’s decision to sleep with Jason with far more sympathy, surmising “And yet she meant nat but honeste; / As I suppose, she wende have ben his wife” (I, 2940-41). Lydgate’s adherence to Guido means that he abandons Medea abruptly after Jason’s success, although he does mention her crimes, and points his readers in the direction of texts such as the Metamorphoses and Heroides, that give a fuller account of these.]


William Caxton.  The History of Jason (c. 1477) [translates Raoul Le Fèvre’s Histoire de Jason] (STC 15383):

[Like Le Fèvre, Caxton demonises Medea in order to provide Jason with an excuse for leaving her. Medea’s nurse bewitches Jason, compelling him to leave Queen Mirro (a new lover who was apparently an invention of Le Fèvre). Her murders of her brother and children are described in particularly grisly detail, and Medea warns Jason against philandering (p. 176).]

“Certes my dear love know ye for truth that I had lever [rather] see all the world die than I knew that ye should have habitation with any other woman than with me”.  [Finally, though, she renounces her magic and swears obedience to Jason. Here, Caxton slightly alters his source to suggest that Medea might practise magic in the future, but that she will only do so with Jason’s knowledge:]

And then she sware to him and avowed that she should never meddle more with sortes [sorceries] ne enchantments ne none other malefices [forms of sorcery] ne of any thing but first he should have the cognoissaunce and knowledge.


William Painter.  The Palace of Pleasure (1566) (STC 19121), novel xiiii, sig. Bbbiir:

[In Novel xiiii, Adelasia uses Medea as an example of a princess who ignored her father’s disapproval in order to elope].

None forced Medea, the wise furious Lady, but Love, to depart the Isle of Colchos, her own native country, with the Argonaut Jason. O good God, who can resist the force of Love, to whom so many kings, so many monarchs, so many wise men of all ages, have done their homage?

[Despite Adelasia’s use of such an inauspicious example, she ends the tale happily married to Alerane, and reconciled to her father]


John Studley.  Medea [translation of Seneca] (1566, re-ed. 1581) (STC 22224):

[Studley expands on Seneca’s Medea, making changes that are often geared towards weakening Medea (for example by stressing her vulnerability to Jason’s seductive powers) or suggesting some punishment for her (most famously through an alteration of Jason’s closing lines).However, he also greatly expands on the more bloodthirsty elements in Seneca’s tragedy, particularly with regard to Medea’s recollection of her past crimes, and her plotted revenge]

Who hath not wist that windy words be vain,

And that in talk of trust is not the ground,

Here in a mirror may he see it plain.

Medea so by proof the same hath found;

Who being blind by blinded Venus boy,

Her blearèd eyes could not behold her bliss, [bleared: dimmed with tears]

Nor spy the present poison of her joy,

While in the grass the Serpent lurkèd is.

The shaft that flew from Cupid’s golden bow,

With feathers so hath dimmed her dazzled eyes,

That cannot see to shun the way of woe:

The rankling [festering] head in dented heart that lies,

So dulls the same, that cannot understand

The cause that brought false Jason out of Greece

To come unto her father’s fertile land,

Is not her love, but love of golden Fleece. (fol. 4v) 


George Turberville.  Heroycall Epistles [translation of Ovid’s Heroides], (1567) (STC 18940.5):

[Relatively faithful translations of Hypsipyle’s and Medea’s epistles to Jason. Hypsipyle’s epistle ends with her wishing for Medea’s suicide, rather than exile, a detail repeated by some later translators.]


Shakespeare.  The Tempest (1611).


Thomas Churchyard.  Tristia [translation of Ovid], (1572) (STC 18977aa, i.e. 18977a), III, ix:

[Churchyard embellishes the Ovidian account of Medea’s fratricide with melodramatic descriptions of her violence towards her brother]

He all unawares and dreading nought her cankered cruel spite,

Into his side her bloody sword she thrust with raging might.

Her blade plucked back from gorèd side, she rent with ruthful wound,

And members minced in pieces small, she cast about the ground. (p. 24)

[This quotation is from the more legible 1580 edition, STC 2nd ed. 18978.

The translation of this particular episode may have inspired Shakespeare’s reference to the fratricide.]


Shakespeare.  2 Henry VI (c.1591, 1592).


Richard Robinson. The Rewarde of Wickednesse (1574) (STC 21121.7), “The Complaint of Medea”:

[This strongly anti-Catholic dream vision describes Medea in the Underworld—she recounts her crimes and describes her regret to Morpheus and the dreamer, and the dreamer outlines the horrible and deserved punishment she suffers for her sins. Medea complains:] 

O that witches and Conjurers knew so well as I,

Of Jove’s mighty doom that doth in heaven sit,

Then would they mend, if they had grace or wit:

To serve the Lord would set their whole delight;

And disobedient children would their folly flit, [flit: get rid of]

Assuredly the Lord at length doth smite. (sig. Gv)


George Whetstone. The Rocke of Regarde (1576) (STC 25348), “The Piteous Complaint of Medea”:

[Medea makes no mention of her crimes, but regrets the effort she went to in assisting Jason, who has reneged on his promises to her, and abandoned her in “desart woodes”. She highlights her magical power specifically to illustrate how she is, paradoxically, unable to help herself in the face of Jason’s abandonment.]

What vaileth now my skill, or sight in magic’s lore,

May charmèd herbs suffice to help, or cure my festered sore,

A salve I shaped, for others’ smart,

My self to aid, I want the art. (p. 75)


Robert Greene.  Mamillia (1583) (STC 12269.5), sigs. B3v-B4r:

[In common with many of Greene’s other romances (and following Helen in Ovid’s Heroides, XVII, 229-33), Mamillia uses Medea as an example of an abandoned woman, not a furious revenger. Agonising over whether to submit to Pharicles, Mamillia outlines her dilemma in a typically euphuistic style, which makes use of Ovidian myth:]

What? is it the beauty of Pharicles that kindleth this flame? Who more beautiful than Jason? yet who more false? for after Medea had yielded, he sacked the fort, and in lieu of her love, killed her with kindness. ... Beware Mamillia, I have heard them say, she that marries for beauty, for every dram of pleasure, shall have a pound of sorrow.


Robert Greene. The Comicall History of Alphonsus, King of Aragon (1587-1588, 1587) (STC 12233):

[In Alphonsus, Medea appears on stage, something that is very unusual in early modern drama. Rather than being represented as a murderous revenger, she uses her powers to assist in the happy resolution of the love affair between Alphonsus and Iphigina: Medea urges Iphigina’s mother Fausta to accept the match, and summons the Trojan prophet Calchas to foretell the future for the Emperor Amuracke.]


Michael Drayton. Peirs Gaveston (1594) (STC 7214), sig.I2v:

[In Peirs Gaveston, Gaveston describes his seductive power over Edward II by mentioning Medea’s rejuvenation of Aeson]

As when old-youthful Aeson in his glass,

Saw from his eyes the cheerful lightning sprung,

When as art-spell Medea brought to pass,

By herbs and charms, again to make him young,

Thus stood King Edward, ravished in the place,

Fixing his eyes upon my lovely face.


Michael Drayton. Mortimeriados (1596) (STC 7208), [sig. E5v]:

[In Mortimeriados, the malign power of Edward’s queen Isabel is underlined by Drayton’s use of the Ovidian and Senecan Medea as a comparison]

Medea pitiful in tender years,

Until with Jason she would take her flight,

Then merciless her brother’s limbs she tears,

Betrays her father, flies away by night,

Nor nations, seas, nor dangers could affright;

Who died with heat, nor could abide the wind,

Now like a tiger falls unto her kind.


Edmund SpenserThe Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), II, xii, 44-45; V, viii, 47:

[In Book II, the story of Medea’s love for Jason, and her violence towards her brother (and possibly also her sons) and Creusa, is depicted on the gateway to the Bower of Bliss. In Book V, the violent sultaness Adicia is described as even worse than Medea, as she threatens Artegall and Samient:]

Like raging Ino, when with knife in hand

She threw her husband’s murdred infant out

  Or fell Medea, when on Colchicke strand

  Her brother’s bones she scattered all about;

  Or as that madding mother, ’mongst the rout

  Of Bacchus’ priests her owne deare flesh did teare

Yet neither Ino, nor Medea stout,

Nor all the Moenades so furious were,

As this bold woman, when she saw that Damzell there.


Michael Drayton. Englands Heroicall Epistles (1597) (STC 7193), “Henry to Rosamond”, fol. 6v:

[In Englands Heroicall Epistles, which are modelled on Ovid’s Heroides, Elinor Cobham’s letter to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, sees her wish in vain for Medea’s power over her enemies, while in Henry II’s letter to Rosamond, the King describes her beauty as greater than Medea’s power to rejuvenate.]

For very age had I lain bedrid long,

One smile of thine again could make me young.

Were there in art a power but so divine

As is in that sweet angel tongue of thine,

That great Inchauntresse, which once took such pains,

To force young blood in Aeson’s withered veins,

And from groves, mountains, meadows, marsh and fen,

Brought all the simples were ordained for men,

And of those plants, those herbs, those flowers, those weeds,

Used the roots, the leaves, the juice, the seeds,

And in this powerful potion that she makes,

Puts blood of men, of beasts, of birds, of snakes,

Never had needed to have gone so far

To seek the soils where all those simples are;

One accent from thy lips the blood more warms

Than all her philtres, exorcisms, and charms.


John Mason.  The Turke (1607-1608, 1607) (STC 17617): 

[Timoclea desires Mulleasses, and kills her daughter Amada in a fit of jealousy, demanding “Why like Creusa hast thou stolne my Jasen?” (G4r); Amada pleads with her: “O be not a Medea, (G4r); her husband Borgias accuses her with the same comparison.]


Ben Jonson.  The Alchemist (1610), II.i.89-100:  

[Jonson refers to the tradition of reading Jason’s quest for the Fleece allegorically, as a reflection of the alchemical quest for gold. The foolish Sir Epicure Mammon refers to Medea’s legend in an attempt to demonstrate his interest in alchemy, and his hopes to profit from it:]

I have a piece of Jason’s fleece, too,

Which was no other than a book of alchemy,

Writ in large sheepskin, a good fat ram-vellum.

Such was Pythagoras’ thigh, Pandora’s tub,

And all that fable of Medea’s charms,

The manner of our work: the bulls, our furnace,

Still breathing fire; our argent-vive, the dragon;

The dragon’s teeth, mercury sublimate,

That keeps the whiteness, hardness, and the biting;

And they are gathered into Jason’s helm

(Th’alembic) and then sowed in Mars his field,

And thence sublimed so often, till they are fixed.


Thomas Heywood.  Troia Britanica, or Great Britaines Troy (1609) (STC 13366), VII, stanzas 60-80:

[Troia Britanica draws heavily on Ovid, describing Medea’s love for Jason, and his success in the tasks, along with her killing of her brother. But Heywood also draws on Caxton and, like many medieval narratives, his account ends with the successful conquest of the Fleece, the action then shifting to describe the first sack of Troy.]

With triumphs they in Greece are welcomed all,

And Jason famous for his royal quest,

The bed-rid Father will his son install

In his own kingdom, and with him his guest

Deep-spelled Medea, at whose magic call

The seas and winds, or travel, or find rest:

O Magic, by thy power what cannot they,

To whom the seas submit, the winds obey?  (80)


Thomas Heywood.  Londini Status Pacatus, or Londons Peaceable Estate (1639) (STC 13350), sigs. B4v-C[1]v:

[The story (and particularly Jason’s dominance) is also invoked in mayoral pageants, including one for the Drapers’ Company, Londini Status Pacatus (1639). Heywood describes his inclusion of Jason and Medea in the fourth show:]

Jason signifieth sanans, or healing, Medea consilium, or Counsel: he was the son of Aeta [sic. This should read Aeson], his Father was no sooner dead but he left the kingdom to his brother Pelias, who set him upon an adventure to fetch the Golden Fleece from Colchos: to which purpose he caused the Argo to be built, in which sixty of the prime princes of Greece accompanied him; whom Medea the daughter of Aeta [Aeetes] King of Colchos courteously entertained with all the rest of the Argonauts: and being greatly enamoured of him, and afraid least he should perish in the attempt, knowing the danger he was to undergo, upon promise of marriage, she taught him how he should tame the brazen-footed bulls, and to cast the dragon that watched the Fleece into a dead sleep: which he did, and by slaying him bore away the prize.

[Medea then speaks, and makes almost no mention of the traditional story: her role is to reflect well on the Drapers’ Company, by emphasising the value of the Fleece and the wool-trade.]

Thus doth the daughter of the Colchian King, 

Her husband Jason home in triumph bring,

After his mighty conquest of the Fleece;

The Aureum vellus brought from thence to Greece.

And wast not a brave prize? for who so dull

Cannot conceive the worth of golden wool?

The morning’s sun upon their fleeces shines,

Making the fields appear like richest mines.


Thomas Heywood.  The Brazen Age (1613) (STC 13310):

[Again, heavily indebted to Metamorphoses VII, but in The Brazen Age, Jason takes the more active role. He is well aware of Medea’s affection, and callously exploits her feelings, noting:]

I have observed Medea

Retort upon me many an amorous look,

Of which I’ll study to make prosperous use. (F4 r)

[Medea acknowledges her helplessness, and admits as much to herself]

His presence without all this oratory

Did much with us, but where they both conjoin

To entrap Medea, she must needs be caught (F4 v).

[After Jason has won the Fleece, Aeetes attempts to enlist Medea’s help in slaughtering the Argonauts. Medea pretends to agree, but really plans to kill her brother to assist Jason’s escape. The figure of Homer appears to confirm that this did happen, after Heywood has abandoned the story.]


Anthony Munday.  Metropolis Coronata (1615) (STC 18275), sig. A4 r, B v:

[In this mayoral pageant, commissioned by the Drapers’ Company, the Fleece’s importance is emphasised, as it would be in Heywood’s pageant. Medea and Jason are described relaxing on the Argo, in the company of the other Argonauts:]


This Argoe is rowed by divers comely Eunuches, which continually attended on Medea, and she favouring them but to passe under the fleece of Golde, had all their garments immediately sprinkled over with golde, even as if it had showred downe in droppes upon them, and so they rowe on in Jasons triumph.


[The new Lord Mayor, John Jolles, is met by the shade of London’s first mayor, Henry Fitz-Alwine, and encouraged to regard Jason’s conquest of the treasure as an instructive example:]


By way of moral application,

Your honour may make some relation

Unto your self out of this story.

You are our Jason, London’s glory,

Now going to fetch that fleece of fame,

No monsters dare confront your way.

Imagine then, as well you may,

That all this faire and goodly Fleet,

Do in mere love, on purpose meet,

Like to those Argonauts of Greece,

That then fetched home their Golden Fleece,

To tend the Argo where you ride,

Behind, before, on every side

With all applauding melody,

That best this day may dignify.


James Shirley. Love Tricks, or The Schoole of Complement (1625) (STC 22456), sig. E r: 

[In The Schoole of Complement, the despairing Infortunio tears up a letter that the object of his desire, Selina, has written to her future husband Rufaldo, and exclaims:]

This is Medea’s brother torn in pieces, [Absyrtus]

And this the way where she with Jason flies,

To[wards] Colchos, come not near ’em, see, look,

That’s an arm rent off.


James Shirley.  The Triumph of Beautie (1646) Wing S3488, pp. 4-8: 

[The Triumph of Beautie sees a group of shepherds discussing their intention to stage the story of Jason and Medea, “the King’s daughter, that fell in love with Jason and bewitched the dragon”, for the Trojan prince Paris. The performance never takes place, and Medea does not appear.]


How to cite

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

(2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.


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