Shakespeare's Myths


Benoît de Sainte-Maure.  Le Roman de Troie (c.1160-1165) [The Book of Troy]:

[Old French. A romanticised portrayal of Medea, which focuses on her love for Jason, and her assistance in the quest for the Golden Fleece, and which describes Jason and Medea’s story as a precursor to the first sack of Troy.]


Guido delle Colonne.  Historia Destructionis Troiae (1287) [The History of the Destruction of Troy]:

[Latin. An adaptation of Benoît’s romance, which frequently also mentions its debt to Ovid. Far more critical of Medea than Benoît’s Roman, focusing (for example) on Medea’s sexual desire for Jason, and often extending its disapproval to all women. Like Benoît, Guido does not dwell on Medea’s crimes, and ends his account once the pair leave Colchis.]


Giovanni BoccaccioDe Mulieribus Claris (1362), [Famous Women]:

[Medea is beautiful but wicked, and Boccaccio describes her control over nature, her murders of her brother and her children, and her attempt to poison Theseus. Finally though, Boccaccio demonstrates this power being subsumed back into the male community: Medea does not escape triumphantly as she does in Euripides and Seneca, but instead is reunited with Jason after her abortive marriage to Aegeus.]


William CaxtonMetamorphoseos (1476), VII.


Natale Conti.  Mythologia (1567), IV, vii, “De Medea”: 

[Drawing on authorities including Ovid and Apollonius Rhodius, Conti describes Medea’s passion for Jason, and her magical power. He recounts two versions of her killing of Apsyrtus, one in which Medea wants to stop an older Apsyrtus pursuing her, and another in which it is her father she wishes to delay: he also notes disagreement between ancient authors as to whether Medea strews her brother’s limbs on the ground in Colchis, or whether she casts them over the side of the Argo into the sea.

Conti describes Medea’s killing of her children (as well as the alternative tradition that they were killed by the Corinthians). He goes on to explain how Medea’s crimes, and her passion for Jason, may be understood as allegorical lessons for modern readers.]


Arthur Golding.  Metamorphoses (1567) (STC 18956), VII, 5-25:

[An accurate translation of the Medea episode in the Metamorphoses. Golding expands on Medea’s witchcraft at certain points, and includes a moralising preface to the poem, explaining how the entire work, and certain legends in particular, should be understood.]

And after suffering many things in noble Jason’s band,

In muddy Phasis’ gushing stream at last they went a land.

There while they going to the King demand the golden fleece

Brought thither certain years before by Phrixus out of Greece,

And of their dreadful labours wait an answer to receive,

Aeetes’ daughter in her heart doth mighty flames conceive.

And after struggling very long, when reason could not win

The upper hand of rage, she thus did in her self begin:

“In vain Medea dost thou strive. Some God—what ere he is—

Against thee bends his force. For what a wondrous thing is this?

Is any thing like this which men do term by name of love?

For why should I my father’s hests esteem so hard above   [hests: orders]

All measure? Sure in very deed they are too hard and sore.

Why fear I lest yon stranger whom I never saw before,

Should perish? What should be the cause of this my fear so great?

Unhappy wench—and if thou canst—suppress this uncouth heat

That burneth in thy tender breast. And if so be I could,

A happy turn it were, and more at ease then be I should.

But now an uncouth malady perforce against my will

Doth hale me. Love persuades me one, another thing my skill. [hale me: tear me asunder]

The best I see and like: the worst I follow headlong still.”


George Sandys.  Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Englished, Mythologized and Represented in Figures (1632) (STC 18966), VII, pp. 231-39, 252-60:

[Follows Ovid closely. In the commentary that follows Book VII, Sandys provides rationalising explanations for many of her powers, and for the more supernatural aspects of the quest for the Fleece (such as the fire-breathing bulls that Jason must defeat). He retraces Medea’s life, her spirit of revenge and return to Colchis where, “After her death, the Colchians gave her divine honours: it being lawful for no men to be present at her sacrifices, nor at any time to enter her temple, in regard of the ingratitude of Jason” (p. 260).]


How to cite

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

(2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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