Medea: The Witch or the Woman

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Arts and Humanities | Classical Literature and Philology | Classics


Scott Richardson, Modern and Classical Languages


The tale of Medea has been told many times and in many ways. The two most famous versions are those that we still have in their entirety are those told by Seneca and Euripides. Both playwright set out to tell the well-known story of a murderous witch…or do they? While Seneca gives us what we expect is a very traditional version of the play, Euripides changes everything around on us and the result is anything but what we expect. Medea does still murder her children but do we see her as the cold-hearted, murdering witch she is known to be? The question is, what has Euripides done differently from the traditional version we see Seneca presenting that glues the audience to the edge of their seat, waiting and eager, to see what will happen next? How did Euripides give Medea, a witch, a personality that the audience can repeatedly flip between loving and hating with the change of a scene even though she is plotting something considered truly heinous by all moral standards? I chose to examine how the two playwrights used the same myth of Medea to give us such different plays that aroused dramatically different emotions. The key I found was in the portrayal of the characters themselves, especially Medea. Seneca chose to give us static characters and clear-cut boundaries about what to feel. From the beginning of Seneca’s play we know to expect a horror story. Euripides on the other hand created dynamic characters and gives us no indication about how to feel or what to expect from them. These differences carry through to the rest of the characters as well. What we end up seeing is that each playwright had a very different purpose for writing his version. Seneca chose to go back and write a play that was closer to the simple myth as it most likely originally been told. Euripides wanted to create a new kind of tragedy where we don’t just feel sorrow for the wronged and innocent victim but rather everyone involved. He used this play and others that would follow to create a new form of tragedy.