This paper will examine the representation of Corinth in Euripides’ Medea. I will suggest that Euripides’ decision to explore the myth of Medea and Jason as it unfolded in Corinth has repercussions for the interpretation of the play. Euripides’ tragic Corinth anticipates and correlates with more transgressive visions of Corinth in other genres, especially comedy. In Athens, Corinth was imagined as a land of luxury and prostitution. Indeed, the Athenians associated Corinth so closely with prostitution that the verb comic poets derived from the city’s name, korinthiazesthai, “to play the part of the Corinthian,” means either to be a courtesan (hetairein) or, in the case of a male, to be a pimp, (mastropeuein). Since tragedy was a genre of the highest level of decorum, it did not accommodate the representation of prostitution of any kind. Nevertheless, the same Athenian conceptions about Corinth that comedy articulated through the register of prostitution are evident on the tragic stage. Awareness of Athenian stereotypes about Corinth will enhance and transform our interpretation of the events and characters that tragedy locates there.
Corinth was a major travel hub, and when people passed through, they had the opportunity to indulge in its expensive pleasures. Medea participated in the image of Corinth as a city through which many travelers passed. Jason and Medea arrive in Corinth having slaughtered their way through the east and are greeted by the Corinthians with a great big welcome mat. The Nurse describes Medea as “pleasing as an exile to the citizens of Corinth.” (10). Aegeus just happens by. He is what Mark Buchan calls “a foreign presence, a haphazard addition and an affront to any organic unity of the plot.” The fact that Aegeus is just happening by does however correlate to the reputation of Corinth that exists beyond the tragic stage— for Corinth is the thoroughfare par excellence.
Medea finds herself an unmarried woman in Corinth, a city known as a center of exchange and movement, traffic in goods and services, with a specialty in sex trade. In any genre other than tragedy, the image of a female metic in Corinth would raise the specter of the courtesan. Indeed, juxtaposing the character of Medea, and her language with the semantic field of the courtesan reveals a robust set of correlations. Scholars generally interpret Medea through the lens of one of two typologies—the barbarian witch or the Greek male aristocrat. This paper will show that it is precisely these two strands that come together in the figure of the hetaira as signaled by the drama’s location in Corinth. To put it another way, we can read Medea as an exploration of the courtesan type, writ large and tailored to the tragic stage. D.L. Page has emphasized the importance of Medea’s foreignness to our interpretation of the play. Medea’s language and comportment have also been interpreted as conforming to the Greek heroic code. Indeed, Helene Foley has argued that Medea’s self is divided between a male heroic side, and a feminine maternal side, and my argument builds on this observation, identifying the way masculine and feminine are intertwined as analogous to the gendering of the hetaira. Medea’s efforts to engage in the masculine sphere of exchange are persistently intertwined with her sexuality. While it might seem strange to search for the invisible courtesan in a genre from which she is excluded, the setting of the play in Corinth prompts us to do this. Indeed the imprint of the courtesan in the portrayal of Medea was perceptible in the ancient world, for there are numerous fragments from Machon’s Chreiai in which courtesans parody the lines of Euripides’ Medea.