Medea’s Significance to Greek Theater, Euripides’ Innovation
Greek theatre, portrayed in Medea, emphasizes the characters and the plot through the structure of Greek theatre as well as bringing about a new moral and social portrayal of Greece. Originated in Athens around the 5th century BC, Greek theater, was performed in open air to honour the God Dionysus, God of ecstasy and wine. In a festival called “City Dionysia” tragedies and comedies were performed in the form of competition. Tragedies were those by which the themes of love, pride, loss, abuse of power and the relationships between men and gods were established. Whereas, Greek comedies were mainly satires that derided men in power for their pride and imprudence. Euripides, writer of Greek tragedies, was in competition with two other greek tragedians Sophocles and Aeschylus; Where Sophocles and Aeschylus followed the traditional form of Greek theatre, making the chorus the centre and showing great importance of the Gods and heroes, Euripides focused on the characters and satirizes Greek heroes.
“Medea” a play in which the protagonist is Medea, is a Greek tragedy written by Euripides. Themes of Love showcased by Medea’s love for Jason, pride by Medea’s reputation and urge for vengeance, abuse of power is shown by the murders done by Medea. However, “Medea” can also be considered a Greek comedy due to its portrayal of Jason, where he loses, due to his desire for power, not only his newly wedded wife, but also his offsprings. Euripides in contrast to Sophocles and Aeschylus, had blasphemous plays and was therefore not seen with much importance during his time. Moreover, he mocked the Athenian society of 431 BC by portraying a different role of women, one which is not encaged by marriage. For example, when Medea speaks “we women are the most wretched […] possessor of our body.” reflecting upon the dowry system of ancient Greece, and in contrast to the usual perspective of obedient women and men being the possessors, the verb “bought” represents that the one who purchases shall be the owner, i.e, the women who pay exorbitant amounts should be in power, and not vice versa. The dialogue uses possessive pronoun “our” to show the collective society and that women suffer the same miseries.
Greek theatre famous for its precise structure is made of prologue which serves as an introduction to the play, done by the ‘nurse’ and ‘tutor’ in “Medea” when they create an image of Medea, a scorned lover, for the viewers. Followed by the parados, which consists of the chorus that manifests the main idea of the play. In Medea the chorus opposes the idea of women’s inferiority, “For Phoebus[…]infamous than women.” highlighting the fact that the women in ancient greece whose emotions were ignored, now had a voice and men were “no less famous or infamous than women”. Furthermore, Euripides uses the phrase “time is old” in reference to his main idea of a modern Greek society. Then happens the first episode where the hero is first shown, this in “Medea” is when the transformation of her character takes place. Medea comes out cool and self possessed, whilst addressing the chorus “We women are the most wretched” she portrays herself not as a victim to her husband’s infidelity but showing that all women are victims. Furthermore she shows herself as a strong woman who seeks “revenge on Jason”, unlike the earlier helpless “poor Medea”. Thereafter, is the stamison, the crime committed by the protagonist is told here. This yet again shows Medea’s characterization who gets “double pleasure” from hearing of the death of Glauce and Creon from the Messenger. From a scorned wife Medea is transformed into a dominant woman through the use of her “skills”. The play ends with the exodus, the last thing said by the chorus, which concludes the play. In Medea the chorus sings “Many are the[…]of this story”, this shows that though Jason was the one who was going to become powerful, with a newly wedded and his pride at peak, is finished by Medea- left in misery without a wife, and childless. Additionally, Euripides is known for using “deus ex machina”, a plot device that introduces a character, mostly a God or Goddess, and abruptly that character provides a solution to the problem faced by the protagonist. For instance, in Medea Aegeus promises shelter to Medea because of which she successfully carries out her plan for revenge.
Euripides transforms Greek theatre and shows a totally different view of women in the Greek society. Alongside the Greek theatre’s structuralism, Euripides adds a new level intrigue and comedy in his plays while using also the deus ex machina. With the use of chorus and other characters present in the play, Greek theatre provides many different perspectives to view the protagonist. Thereafter, indulging the audience in the lives of the characters, making emphasis on the struggles of the protagonist and how they survive. Transforming the Greek theatre Euripides is successful in portraying lucidly different characters of Medea, making sure the spotlight is on the protagonist, who “wins” the fight through revenge, leaving Jason in desolation.
“Euripides – Ancient Greece – Classical Literature.” Euripides – Ancient Greece – Classical Literature. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
“Greek Theater.” Greek Theater. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
“Ancient Greek Theatre.” Greek Theatre. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
“Learn About the Third of the Great Tragedians.” About.com Education. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
The Question of Ethics in Medea
At first glance, the system of ethics presented by Euripides in his masterpiece Medea seems to parallel the systems found in several other tragedies of ancient Greek theatre. This system of helping friends and harming enemies, which recurs throughout many of tragedians’ works, attempts to rationalize the excessive violence and hostility (Blundell 1989). This system falls short in Medea, however, as Medea is forced to decide a course of action which both ways will harm her friends and help her enemies. Therefore, both Medea and Jason must be driven by an alternate motivation, which turns out to be a utilitarian position in which all that matters is personal success and happiness, regardless of consequences. These ethical overtones, however, contrast a great deal with Sophocles’ ethical standards portrayed in the Antigone. Through an examination and interpretation of the actions of principle characters from Medea and Antigone, it is brought to attention that Euripides finds Sophocles’ system inadequate.
Medea is in a situation where regardless of her actions, she and her friends will suffer and her enemies aided. If she kills her children she will harm her enemy Jason, but she will be forced to endure the pain of murdering her own offspring. Conversely, if she decides to not kill her children and go on living as Jason’s wife, she does not harm her enemies in any way and must endure the disgrace of Jason taking another wife. Medea recognizes the difficulty of her situation but decides that it is better to take action and bear the pain than to give in to her maternal desires, saying “Do I want to be laughed at for letting my enemies off scot-free?” (Medea 1049 – 1050).
Euripides puts Medea in a unique situation. Because of her circumstances, the traditional system of ethics applicable in most other plays falls apart. A more fundamental system of motivation – in this case, utilitarianism – is required. Medea must adopt the idea that the best course of action is the one that best advances her self-interest. She decides that avenging the shame Jason brought upon her by introducing a mistress into the home is more important than killing her children. Harming Jason is worth the price of murder.
Medea’s deed further subverts conventional ethics because she is a woman. In ancient Greek time, women were often thought of as second class citizens, needed only for procreation, raising of children, and tending to the man’s home. Because she breaks away from her expected role, some scholars, most notably Helene P. Foley, argue that through her action she becomes a man in all senses other than physical (2001). This drastic change is only possible through Medea’s adoption of a new set of ethical values.
Medea also displays a utilitarian stance when she formulates an agreement with Aigeus. She promises that in exchange for refuge in Athens, she will give Aigeus fertility. It may seem that she is doing this to help her friend, but really she is simply looking out for her own safety. The safe haven Aigeus provides allows Medea to murder her children and avoid retribution.
Jason employs a similar utilitarian system of ethics when he brings a new mistress, a daughter of Creon, into Medea’s house. By marrying Creon’s daughter, he secures a political and financial bond between his house and that of the king of Corinth. Jason’s actions explicitly depict a utilitarian viewpoint, as he consciously brings disgrace upon Medea to ensure his own security and his children’s financial well-being.
In contrast to Euripides, Sophocles illustrates Blundell’s ethical system of “helping friends and harming enemies” in his play Antigone. Both Antigone and Creon adhere to the system, though each hold allegiance to different area of their group – Creon to the state, and Antigone to her family. Antigone is so dedicated to helping her friends that she is prepared to die for them, saying to her sister “… you made the choice to live, and I to die” (Antigone 555). In this case, she is determined to help her dead brother Polyneices by honoring his dead body with a proper burial. In addition, when Antigone’s sister Ismene attempts to talk her out of defying Creon, Antigone fiercely resists, thinking that Ismene simply wants a share in the glory: “Don’t try to share this death with me. Don’t claim as yours a deed you did not touch. My own death will suffice” (Antigone 546-547). Antigone is simply remaining devout to her moral system.
Because Creon is more interested in political affairs than familial bonds, he views Polyneices as an enemy for rebelling and leading troops against Thebes. He states that the body of Polyneices will be left “unentombed, to be the food of birds and dogs, an outrage to behold” (Antigone 205-206). Creon, however, does honor Eteocles, the brother of Polyneices, with a proper burial because Eteocles died defending the city. Antigone, conversely, ignores their political affiliation and believes strongly that both men should be honored because they are her brothers.
While their opinions differ, however, Antigone and Creon share devotion to their ethical code. Antigone’s suicide illustrates that people dedicated to morality must be prepared to make sacrifices if their morals conflict with those in power. This moral code works in Sophocles because the concepts of friends and enemies, though not agreed upon, are clear and defined.
The reader’s understanding of characters’ ethical codes is essential when one attempts to interpret a play. For example, Foley argues that Medea makes the transition from woman to man to divine through her choices and actions (2001). It would be very difficult to make such a strong interpretation if the reader did not first understand the motivation that drove Medea.
Euripides disregards the moral code presented so clearly by Sophocles because the situation he depicts in Medea is too complicated to follow that code. The “helping friend and harming enemies” ethical code works well in clear-cut matters, but falls well short in situations in which helping friends will also help enemies, or vise-versa. By presenting a situation in which Sophocles’ ethics break down, Euripides argues that such a code cannot and should not be followed.
Blundell M. Helping Friends and Harming Enemies – A Study in Sophocles and Greek Ethics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Euripides. Medea. Trans. A.J. Podlecki. Newburyport: Focus Classical Publishing, 2004
Foley, H. Female Acts in Greek Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. Ruby Blondell. Newburyport: Focus Classical Publishing, 2002.
The Development of Medea’s Tragic Character
What lends tragic literature its proximity to human nature is that the border between being a tragic villain and a tragic hero is extremely thin.
A question that this statement will certainly bring up is whether there is such a thing as a hero or a villain or whether these terms are defined by the ideals of the society. Tragedies such as Macbeth or Oedipus Rex feature a character with heroic traits who falls victim to a personal flaw or an outside circumstance which finally pushes that character into becoming a villain. Macbeth’s greed and hunger for power are the causes for his descent into madness and villainy, and Oedipus falls victim to fate because of his pride and finally ends up tearing his eyes out and running into exile. A similar progression can also be followed in Euripides’ Medea. Medea is a play about a woman, Medea, who is betrayed by her husband, Jason, and expelled from the city. In an outburst of treacherous but cleverly planned rage, she avenges herself by first poisoning Jason’s new fiancé and then killing her own children, thus leaving Jason without distinction. Though Medea possesses certain traits of a victim and a heroine, it is impossible to identify her character as solely one of these. In order to fully comprehend her tragic character, one must instead view it as a combination of these traits and trace her development into a villain.
Medea’s position as a victim of fate is already defined by the first lines of the play, in which the nurse tells the tale of Medea and Jason so far. Medea had, through Hera’s influence, fallen in love with Jason and given up her home, killed her brother, and taken various risks upon her to save him and live with him in a foreign country (1-15). Throughout the play, Medea’s ill fate is recognized most clearly by her servants and fellow women. According to the nurse, Medea had gone through the entire adventure to retrieve the Golden Fleece and defied her household only to be deserted by him and left “slighted, and [crying] aloud on the Vows they had made to each other, […] [calling] upon the gods to witness what sort of return Jason has made to her love” (20 -24). But her situation only becomes worse when she is informed by Creon that he is going to force her into exile (270-274). After a long discussion in which Medea pleas to Creon and finally succeeds in getting permission to stay for one day, the chorus of Corinthian women remarks that “a god has thrown suffering upon [her] in waves of despair” (358-9). Here one can once again see that it is the fellow women who feel sorry for Medea and go beyond the prejudices against foreigners to recognize the terrible fate of which she has become a victim. One may assume that women were, in certain ways, oppressed in ancient Greek society and that they could thus relate to Medea’s problems.
It is the identification with Medea that leads the chorus to see her heroic traits and even admire her as an avenger for all women. In an attempt to soothe Medea’s sorrow, the chorus states that “God will be [her] friend in this” (156). This statement implies that the chorus believes her cause to be worthy of God’s support and thus a good cause. The chorus views Medea as a victim of ill fate and is naturally inclined to support her. Though this statement is made before the chorus finds out about Medea’s brutal scheme, it must be noted that the chorus reaffirms its support for Medea after she has revealed her plans. After a monologue in which Medea finally does reveal her plan and ponders about how to implement it, the chorus delivers an ode about the oppression of women: “Flow backward to your sources, sacred river, and let the world’s great order be reversed […] women are paid their due. No more shall evil-sounding fate be theirs” (407-413). In this ode, the chorus condemns the oppression of women and encourages Medea to pull through with her plan. It views this as a rare chance for women to avenge all the wrongs that men have done to them and to turn the hierarchy around, putting the men at the mercy of women. Medea acts as a kind of a revolutionary saviour to them. Another trait of Medea’s which may be considered heroic is the extent of her self-sacrifice for the sake of vengeance. The fact that she goes so far as to kill her own children for her cause proves her strength and determination. In an extensive monologue, Medea wavers but finally overcomes her feelings of love and sympathy and comes to the conclusion that she must kill her children (995-1053). This act theoretically puts Medea into the position of a martyr, who is willing to sacrifice more than just her life for her cause.
Practically, however, it is this last step that causes Medea to finally lose the support of the chorus. Though it may have supported the murder of Jason’s new fiancé as a means for revenge, the killing of Medea’s own children is morally intolerable. But Medea’s descent to a villain starts long before the murder of her children. Her reputation as a violent, ruthless woman at the beginning of the play is reaffirmed by the nurse’s foreshadowing statement that she “may even kill the king and the new-wedded groom” (42) and Creon’s fear that she is “a clever woman, versed in evil arts” (283), who “may injure [his] daughter mortally” (281). Medea’s evil intentions further become evident through her reaction to the news from a messenger that Creon and his daughter are dead. She replies that “those were the finest words [he has] spoken” (1101) and that “[he] will delight [her] twice as much if [he says] they died in agony” (1109-1110). Medea shows no sign of guilt, remorse, or pity. Instead, she listens intently while the messenger reports every detail of their agonizing deaths. Finally, the brutality of the means that Medea uses to get revenge suffices to classify her as a villain. The deaths of Creon and his daughter, as well as the murder of her children, which, though it occurs backstage, is still presented to the audience through the children’s cries “what can I do and how escape my mother’s hands?” (1237-1248). Are so horrible that even the chorus, who was on Medea’s side, can’t accept them: “O your heart must have been made of rock or steel, you who can kill with your own hand the fruit of your own womb” (1253-1255). With the murder of her children, Medea has reached the climax of her villainy.
So one can clearly trace the progression within the play of a victim with certain heroic traits who, because of her ill fate and her ruthlessness, becomes a villain. This progression, which greatly resembles the standard progression of tragedies such as Macbeth or Oedipus Rex, combines the traits of a victim and a hero and pursues the development of these traits into those of a villain. But the question about the definition of such terms as “hero” and “villain” still remains open. Certainly, in our contemporary society as well as in ancient Greek society, the murder of one’s children would be considered intolerable and condemned. But if one traces the development from a victim to a villain and takes the motives for such intolerable acts into consideration, the acts don’t become more tolerable but they do become more human. Also, certain traits, such as ruthlessness or willingness to self-sacrifice, can be considered as both heroic and negative. So are there really heroes and villains, or are we all just human?
The Means of Narration in Character’s Presentation
Despite her violent transgressions, Euripedes paints Medea as a victim from the start to the end of the play. Even Medea’s most violent act, the murder of her own children, is made complicated by Euripides’ appeal to the reader’s sympathy for her situation. Medea’s goal for revenge is permanently intertwined with the sympathetic presentation that Euripides shows at the start of the play. By introducing readers to Medea first as a victim, Euripides paves the way for a complex but indeterminate line of thought regarding the morality of her actions. Euripides ensures that the reader will question not only Medea’s gruesome revenge, but his or her induced sympathy for Medea as well. Euripides employs this manipulation by presenting Medea as victim to Jason’s cruelty and indifference. The reader’s response is complicated by the fact that, with respect to Euripides’ initial portrayal of Medea, her actions may sway towards justified.
By presenting readers first with the image of Medea suffering a great loss, her later plot for revenge is made less black and white. Euripides opens the play with a nurse lamenting Medea’s current morose state. Through this nurse’s monologue Medea is described as the once compassionate wife of Jason, who now suffers severely from his betrayal. Euripides immediately calls upon our sympathy when the nurse details both Medea’s love for Jason and her pain because of it: “Then my mistress/ Medea, never would have sailed away/ to the towers in the land of Iolcus/ her heart passionately in love with Jason” (9-12). Interestingly, Euripides doesn’t dispel the possible issues taken with Medea’s violence even in this introductory scene. In fact, he manages to present Medea’s past misconduct in the midst of his appeal to the reader’s sympathy. The nurse continues, “She’d never have convinced those women/ Pelias’ daughters, to kill their father/ and she’d not have come to live in Corinth/ with her husband and her children- well loved/ in exile by those whose land she’d moved to./ She gave all sorts of help to Jason” (13-18). In these lines Euripides provides an account of Medea’s cruelty juxtaposed with her compassion, devotion, and aid to Jason. Euripides paints an honest picture of Medea’s violence, but skillfully paints it aside the picture of her as a loving wife and mother. In this way, Euripides leaves the reader responsible for weighing Medea’s crimes against her suffering even at the play’s introduction.
The nurse compels the reader to weigh Medea’s suffering as more potent as she continues: “Their fine love’s grown sick, diseased, for Jason/ leaving his own children and my mistress/ is lying on a royal wedding bed” (22-24). These lines further the reader’s sympathy for Medea but also introduce Jason as the unjust cause of her suffering. Euripides employs Jason’s character as a stark contrast to the wounded Medea. The nurse describes Medea’s current state: “As for Medea/ that poor lady, in her disgrace, cries out/ repeating his oaths, recalling the great trust/ in that right hand with which he pledged his love/ She keeps calling to the gods to witness/ how Jason is repaying her favours” (26-31). As this lamentation continues, so does the description of the severity of Medea’s state. By describing Medea as disgraced and dishonored, Euripides also establishes a sense of injustice. Emphasis is placed on Medea’s anguish but more importantly on her betrayal. In addition, the lines read that Medea calls upon the gods for an explanation of the injustice of the situation. The described betrayal and Medea’s invocation to the gods make the need for retribution all the more pressing. Once Medea’s place as victim has been solidified, Euripides complicates the reader’s response further by developing Jason as the cruel source of her misery. Jason meets Medea with callous indifference: Now is not the first time I’ve observed/ how a harsh temper can make all things worse-/ impossibly so. It’s happened often” (524-526). Here Jason antagonizes Medea by disregarding her anger, an anger that was presented as justified at the start of the play. He continues, “Now you’re exiled for your stupid chatter./ Not that I care” (530-531). Jason continues to invalidate the hurt and betrayal that has left Medea so distraught. Since Euripides followed Medea’s hurt and betrayal with a compromising image of Jason, Medea’s thirst for vengeance simply becomes more and more justified.
The reader’s sympathy for Medea is brought into critical question when, at the play’s close, she kills her children and escapes with the help of the gods. Her final and most severe act of cruelty immediately creates a tension in readers. Euripides establishes Medea as deserving of our sympathy but grants her revenge in a most gruesome way. More importantly, her call to the gods for justice is seemingly answered when they help her flee at the play’s close. Euripides’ employment of sympathy, his characterization of Jason as uncaring, and Medea’s assistance from the gods would typically demonstrate that justice has been served. However, the sacrifice of Medea’s children undoubtedly strikes the reader as unforgivable. Euripides ultimately leaves the morality of Medea’s actions, as well as the intended moral compass for the play as a whole, up for debate.
Review of Culpability from Medea’s Vengeance and Jason’s Disloyalty as Described in Medea, A Play by Euripides
Medea’s revenge ultimately makes her far more guilty than Jason. Discuss.
Penned in a time of legend and antiquity, Euripides’ meditation on ‘where love was once deepest a cancer spreads’ elucidates the self-serving infidelity and untempered vengeance of both Jason and Medea, respectively. Initially painted as a victimized and desolate character, Medea’s inner disdain is the source of her poisoning those that do wrong by her, with her infanticide crime, exacting dread and turmoil on her ‘cruel husband.’ Indeed, Jason’s ‘mockery’ of Medea by seeking every opportunity for social advancement and thereby marrying Glauce results in a direct blow not only to Medea’s heart, but also to the entire house. Yet, even though Euripides skilfully forces the audience to accept Medea’s sympathies, the viewers, and readers, are still inclined to feel contempt to the actions of a ‘child murderer’ who has brought the ultimate suffering on so many. Therefore, despite Jason’s ‘criminal behaviour’, both the characters and the audience are seemingly shocked at the protagonist’s excessive displays of grief, which in turn, are the seeds of her dark force.
Voiced through the Nurse, Jason’s unfaithful decision of ‘marri[ying] the daughter of Creon’ leaves Medea in ruin, now an ‘exile’ and bearing a ‘heart transfixed by desire for Jason.’ Indeed, Jason, whose demise illustrates Euripides’ judgment of surrendering too much to the whims of ‘wisdom…and prudence’, is selfish, naive and overly rational, which is evidenced by when he ironically urges the children to “grow to manhood” – with the audience all but appalled. Furthermore, the self-deluded views and values of Jason: having a ‘famous name’, security and ‘money’ is the basis for his justification of his decisions. Jason ironically asserts that he has ‘acted like a true friend to [Medea] and to [his] children’ by prioritizing his family to ‘live comfortably.’ Thus, through Jason’s quarrels and self-justified actions, Euripides suggests that the ancient Greek values of order, equality and justice cannot be achieved, when individual motives, ideas and wishes are at the forefront of one’s judgment. Yet, Jason’s egotistical action of marrying into royal blood as a response to his fading reputation and to ensure ‘equal footing’ for his son’s, is, however, not uncommon in Greece within 431BC, as the playwright asserts that a large proportion of the Athenian audience would have understood that a man such as Jason must pursue the necessary methods to move upward in society’s hierarchy. Ultimately, Jason represents the upper echelon of what it means to be reasonable; the type who can vindicate his actions, whatever they may be, as meant for the benefit of all, while leaving emotion unchecked.
The ‘impassioned’ and ‘ungovernable’ soul of Medea is, principally, the driving force, which guides the protagonist to elicit dread on Jason and wreck havoc upon the royal house. Hence, Medea’s explication that ‘passion is the master of [her] reason’ attempts to catch the readers off guard to her having ‘special knowledge’ in which she utilizes to turn the ‘anger that weighs on her heart’ to ‘make corpses of her enemies.’ Therefore, one can marvel at Euripides’ sophisticated construction of Medea’ character; in one moment, she is ‘anguished’ and depicted as carrying the plight of martial betrayal and the other, a shrewd character – all too clear in her mind. Such a notion is further supported through Medea’s ironically ‘unheard of scheme’; for example, Medea ensures that King Aegeus receives her ‘in [Aegeus’s] country and at the hearth of [his] home’ before commencing her plan. Furthermore, the ‘anger of [Medea]’ that weighs heavily on her heart and ‘won’t die down until someone’s felt the force of her thunderbolt’ pierces her former counterpart Jason, whose helplessness and ignorance, as he continues to take Medea’s honeyed words at face value, the reason for his downfall. Here, Euripides is effectively employing his strategy of dramatic irony, where the audience is aware that Medea’s words that are seemingly sweet to Jason are actually laced with poison. Thus, Medea is an ‘enemy to be feared’, especially to Jason, as the strength it took to ‘plung a sword into [her] children’ was the strength and life robbed from Jason after sighting his dead children. Consequently, Medea’s cold-blooded revenge is the dreadful climax that the audience were simultaneously privy to and also dreading, with the ‘visible corpses of the children’ epitomizing Jason’s hollow and cursed fate at the claw’s of Medea’s rage.
From the outset of the play, Euripides evidences how the actions of characters are required to align in order for a tragedy to occur, with the initial sympathy of Medea’s sorrowful plight blinding the audience and thereby strategically positioning Medea on an unsuspecting platform to plan her gruesome act. It is through this notion that the former ‘barbarian’ and passion corrupted Medea – reinforced by the Nurse’s bewailing of the dire fate of her ‘mistress’ – utilizes both methodical and rational scheming for the demise of Jason and the royal house, and thereby seeks to exasperate the extent of her revenge. Clearly, such savageness and brutality undermines Euripides’ aim to put the audience, and prophetically a modern audience, in situations that cause a high degree of discomfort, and even horror, as a means to give pose more problems than the play has answers. That being said, the stage direction in which Medea ‘sinks… to her knees and seizes… Creon by the hand’ underscores her skillful manipulation of characters such as King Creon to execute her machinations, which not only leads to the ultimate revenge on Jason, a man cursed by his children’s ‘bloodshed’, but also paints a picture of Medea’s ability to steer her heart to withstand the pain. Primarily, Medea is instinctively resourceful in that she assesses and considers all her options before executing her inauspicious plan, making her vile act all the more unfathomable and problematic for Jason and the audience to grip.
As such, Euripides condemns both Jason’s infidelity and Medea’s mercilessness and radically provides; no hero, no villain, and, ultimately, no relief or resolve.
Yet, despite endorsing Medea to exact revenge on Jason, the audience are all but left to accept the depths of Medea’s outrage, with the degree of her internal hatred for Jason and the ability to carry out her repugnant crime, shocking readers.
Medea and the Vision of Euripides
Critics have noted that unlike his illustrious predecessors who also specialized in Greek tragedy, Euripides bears a far greater sensibility towards the marginalized sections of society such that many of his prominent characters are seen to be either women or people belonging to the ‘lower classes’. This was in stark contrast to Greek dramatic tradition, which mainly focused on men of noble birth and the divine immortals. Apart from other aspects, it is this realism of Euripides that makes his plays shine forth in retrospective analysis, attributing to them a timeless universal quality.In Euripides’ treatment of the legend of Medea, one finds subtle subversions of the patriarchal ethos of his time, which at the same time are balanced through his dramatic innovations for the purpose of tragic ambivalence. As Richard Rutherford claims in his preface to the play, “It is probable that Euripides was the first to make Medea kill her own children deliberately”, which of course is the vital conflict in the play. While it is made clear that Medea’s need for revenge as a wronged woman is completely warranted, Euripides introduces the question whether such a situation could justify any means to achieve vindication. Thus, the feminist assertion is brought in conflict with the basic notion of motherhood associated with the female gender, as Rutherford elaborates: “What kind of a woman, even in such circumstances, could bring herself to kill her own infant children?” To further highlight the tragic aspect, Euripides makes it more than evident that Medea is fully aware of the horror of her deeds and yet proceeds as she does, instead of mitigating her crime as an action executed in a moment of insanity.Through Medea, Euripides portrays a strong-willed woman who would go to any length to preserve her honour and extract due revenge in spite of all the odds stacked against her; as in her own words: “Wrong a woman in love and nothing on earth has a heart more murderous”. For being a woman living in a patriarchal society in a foreign country, alienated from her own land, spurned by her husband and then banished from her state of residence, Medea has no external resources or influence to help her in her cause. Apart from the promise of asylum from Aegeus and the initial public sympathy, it is clear that Medea must rely on her own wits to realize her purpose. It is no wonder then that at the start of the play she is found to be wallowing in the throes of despair, self-pity and anguish.Right from the start, Euripides employs a unique technique to assert the tragic situation of Medea, which is then echoed at various occasions later in the play. The nurse initiates the play with a vain lament of the past to emphasize the tragedy of the present, while conveying the basic premise at the same time: “If only it had never gone to the land of Colchis, the ship Argo”. For after all, if this wasn’t the case, the tragic instances would never have occurred. Apart from everything else, numerous murders would have been prevented at the hands of Medea, such as those of her brother, Pelias; and in the course of the play, the murders of Creon, his daughter, and Medea’s own sons. Therefore, even before Medea’s actual intent is declared in the play, it is implicitly understood that she is a dangerous woman, well versed in witchcraft and unafraid of killing people to serve her purpose; as the nurse states: “No one making an enemy of her will win an easy victory”Oaths were deemed of great significance in Greek tradition, and thus, Jason’s rejection of the marriage oath serves to further highlight the injustice meted out to Medea. As a result, until Medea finally declares her murderous intent, Euripides continues to provide a rationale for her rage and direct sympathy towards her through the perspectives of the other characters and her interactions with them, including the chorus of Corinthian women. For again, public sympathy was held to be quite important in Greek society owing to its democratic customs of debate (agon) and justice. In fact, it is keeping in mind this tradition that Medea finally regains her composure and appears in public to make her appeal, which is seen to be a passionate observation of the female plight in a patriarchal world with statements such as: “Of all creatures that have life and reason we women are the most miserable of specimens…we must buy a husband, taking a master to play the tyrant with our bodies”. It is this objective treatment of gender notions that marks the genius of Euripides in the play, and after all, it is heartening to realize that a man writing in the fifth century BCE could possess such a heightened sense of awareness.Furthermore, through the tutor’s statement: “Is he so different from the rest of mankind?” and at latter occasions, through the chorus such as in the lines 410-430, Euripides provides incisive commentary on the patriarchal hypocrisy that made adultery seem almost acceptable for men. This sentiment is again echoed in the first agon scene between Jason and Medea where Jason’s audacity in his reasoning by virtue of being born a man is more than evident. However, though the chorus could be seen as symbolic of female solidarity, as they boldly claim, “No more shall we women endure the burden of ill-repute”, in support of Medea’s retaliation, even they refuse to accept her eventual heinous decision, thus underlining the paradox regarding women and motherhood as discussed before.Coming to the declaration itself: “I shall kill my own children; no one shall take them from me…to suffer the mockery of my enemies is something I will not tolerate”, it is needless to say that these statements reflect Medea’s psychological turmoil; and in the subsequent dialogue between her and the chorus, Euripides defines the rationale behind Medea’s actions: “But to kill your very own children – will you have the heart for that, lady? Yes; it is by doing this that I shall hurt my husband most”. In these statements, one finds the deranged reasoning of a woman scorned, stemming from an egotism that is fixated upon the notions of justice and honour. However, in this mode of rhetoric, one might derive that there is some pragmatic thinking behind Medea’s murder of her children, for as a woman born in a man’s world, where would she have dragged her children along in exile? What fate would they meet, and despite Jason’s assurance, could she really trust the man who had already betrayed her once? “They must be killed; there is no other way. And since they must, I will take their life, I who gave them life.” This tragic sentiment reflects a certain heroism and courage on Medea’s part, which is then once more juxtaposed against the notion of motherhood in her heartbreaking vacillation in her soliloquy, until she finally realizes that she is a woman guided by passion and remarks on the fate of her children: “You have lost this world, thanks to your father”.Then in the messenger’s detailed description of Creon and his daughter’s deaths, there is a visible devilish delight that overcomes Medea, for the messenger’s graphic monologue provides a cathartic sense of vindication for her. After all, through these murders she ends up having her revenge both on Jason and Creon, the men who were to be blamed for her predicament. Though from this point onwards, the public sentiment starts to sway towards Jason, there is a strong argument voiced by Medea herself that it was easy to blame her for her conduct, simply because the others being objective commentators, weren’t in her shoes. Also, it might be interesting to note the irony that while the chorus of women call upon the Sun god to prevent the murder of the children, he instead sends his chariot to help Medea in her getaway. Should this be seen as a mere whim of the gods congruent with Greek legends as voiced by Homer or Hesiod, or could this be interpreted as a subtle indication that the gods too agreed with Medea’s sense of justice? Again, the ambivalence of Euripides makes it difficult to take a definite stance but then, therein, lies the mark of great literature.Finally, in the climax, it is evident that Medea has indeed made Jason suffer to the highest degree such that she even denies him the burial of their children, all “to cause you (Jason) pain”. However, in the end, it is both vain and unfair to question Euripides’ motives behind the play. While his sensitivity towards the position of women is amply clear, it is somewhat unreasonable to claim that he intends Medea’s behaviour to be seen as the ideal of feminist retaliation, simply by virtue of his choice of her mode of revenge. Rather, Euripides’ purpose seems to lie in highlighting the tragedy of human behaviour or an aspect of it, through the portrayal of the inner conflict of an individual and the social reactions to it, to comment on the notions of justice and revenge. With regard to a specific feminist voice, Euripides rather chooses to delve into objective logic while commenting upon the prevailing circumstances of his time, as voiced by the chorus:“The rolling ages have much to tell of our side, much, as well, of men’s”Therefore, instead of pinpointing and dissecting Euripides’ intent, Medea must be treated simply as an individual work of literature, which encompasses the trivialities of the human condition into a timeless framework.
The Influence of Monotheism and Polytheism on Gender Roles
Throughout western history, enormous gender differences have been evident in both monotheistic and polytheistic cultures. Indeed, the patriarchal hierarchies in both social systems have emphasized the superiority of the male sex; however, greater stress is placed on the worthlessness of women in a monotheistic society. The fact that women in polytheistic worlds such as those found in The Odyssey and Medea are able to command more power than women in monotheistic civilizations such as those found in The Holy Bible and Beowulf suggests that the female image commanded greater respect and was more highly regarded in a polytheistic society. In many ways, this shift in mind-set can be attributed to the religious nature of the culture at that time. The emphasis placed on female inferiority in a monotheistic society can be seen even in a henotheistic culture. As henotheism is often viewed as a precursor of monotheism, it is beneficial to examine the conditions experienced by women in this type of society. “Genesis” describes a world based on a patriarchy: this is a civilization founded on the idea that the primary deity is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Women are rarely mentioned as having any power over the decisions of men, as they listen only to the word of YHWH, and YHWH speaks only to men. For example, Lot presents his daughters to the men of Sodom as mere property: his daughters have no verbal or physical power. Another instance is found in the account of the rape of Dinah by Shehchem. Whether Dinah is distressed by this event or wants to take action against the offender is unknown; however, it is clear that the retaliation against Hamor’s town is the work of Dinah’s brothers, who never mention that the motive is the actual rape. Dinah and her brothers are the children of Jacob, and thus are the chosen people. It seems that the presence of a single God (YHWH) and His focus on the advancement on the patriarchs leaves females out of the picture.The inferiority of women is only further emphasized in “Exodus”, which portrays a wholly monotheistic society. Though there are no actions described that involve women, it is evident from the sermon on Mount Sinai that YHWH views women not only as property, but more importantly, as unable to exert power. Women who are married are fed and clothed by their husbands (Exodus 21:10), and women who act as “sorceresses” are condemned to die (Exodus 22:18). By worshipping a single God (who is clearly male), the female gender is relegated to the class of loyal servants to their male counterparts. Even in later writings, one of the “Fathers of the Church” (Tertullian) claims that women are the “devil’s gateway” and promotes persecution of them under Christianity.Following the fundamentals of monotheistic Christianity, Beowulf’s warrior-driven society again portrays women who have no substantial actions in the story, and speak impassionedly only when they are fed lines. Indeed, it appears as if Welthow is merely another Hrothgar, in that she can only reiterate every feeling that Hrothgar has just spoken. Once again, the view of women as mere objects of hospitality can be derived from the traditional Christian view: God clearly praises male values in fighting, war and strength. The one female character in Beowulf who actually has authority and control is Grendel’s mother. Predictably, she is despised for these characteristics, although they would have been deemed acceptable had she been a man. In addition, Grendel’s mother (as well as all other females) “could not come with a man’s strength, fought with the power and courage men fight with, smashing their shining swords, their bloody, hammer-forged blades onto boar headed helmets, slashing and stabbing with the sharpest of points.” It is clear that society places women in an inferior position, believing that they are not suited for the same tasks as men. Success in battle is attributed to God – as is seen when Hrothgar thanks God for allowing Beowulf victory. God expects men, not women, to display these highly-regarded, warrior-like attributes.In contrast to the monotheistic societies, cultures that believe in multiple gods offer a more powerful, respected image of women. Although females in these ancient polytheistic cultures were still largely viewed as ill-intentioned creatures, their increased level of influence demanded recognition. For instance, the ancient Greek culture described by Homer deviates from that of a strict patriarchal society. Although prominence on the battlefield was still highly valued, the fact that women had an important role in shaping everyday life was acknowledged. One explanation for the shift in gender treatment is that the culture developed a reliance on the fact that multiple aspects of life were controlled by both male and female gods. These gods are clearly accorded gender-specific responsibilities, such as Ares, the god of war, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Interestingly, Athena also represents war, although not to the extent that Ares does. With this overlap in duties, it is no wonder that both gods were revered, which in turn required a re-evaluation of current gender classifications.In polytheistic societies, all gods must be worshiped, regardless of their gender. It was considered unwise to demean women, since any stranger could be a goddess in disguise. In addition, although women were still viewed as having evil intentions, it is evident that they had far more power and influence over others than ever before. From the creation of that “damnable race of women” in Hesoid’s Theogany to the wicked nature of Medea, women have always used their power for vile purposes. However, the Odyssey is filled with accounts of women with remarkable powers who are respected for their judgments. Penelope shares many characteristics with Odysseus – intelligence, quick thinking, and reasoning, to name a few – and yet society does not view her qualities with the level of disdain that is found in “Genesis” or Beowulf. In fact, Penelope is highly valued by both her family and Athena. Helen, although regarded as highly deceitful, has obviously been endowed with the ability to drug those who cross her, and she uses this skill to her advantage. Whether the female spirit of independence and willingness to take action is a desirable trait is not addressed, but it is certainly permissible, and a potent force in these Greek stories. It is not only mortal women who exhibit increased influence in a polytheistic society. As the most powerful goddess in the Odyssey, Athena, has the power not only to change the outcome of battles, but to influence Zeus’ decisions. In the interest of saving Odysseus, Athena persuades Zeus to bring Odysseus home. Other goddesses in the story, such as Circe and Calypso, are also described as having great powers. With female goddesses present in the culture, it was no longer acceptable to view women merely as male property, especially since the goddesses rivaled the gods in terms of power and authority. In Medea, there are far fewer mentions of the gods than are found in the Odyssey. Medea, however, is a sorceress, and it is obvious that she is not the obedient, loyal woman that was considered desirable in monotheistic societies. Indeed, in a monotheistic society Medea would have been condemned to die for a variety of reasons – most prominently because of her status as an enchantress. In Medea, however, she is looked upon with regard, mostly because she wields greater powers than Jason or Creon. When Medea takes her revenge by killing both of her children, as well as Creon and his daughter, Jason is disgusted by her actions, but never attributes her evil nature to her gender. Many parts of the Bible, on the other hand, refer to the innately evil nature of females. Although both monotheism and polytheism appear to breed a contemptuous attitude towards women, polytheism confers higher regard upon the female gender. This image of women is achieved in stories by giving them considerable power and the ability to make decisions. One of the major reasons for the difference in views is that polytheistic religions include deities of both genders. The reverence of female deities appears to alter the manner in which women are viewed. They are no longer perceived as helpless, loyal slaves to men, but rather take on an important role in society.
Medea and Divinity
Euripides portrays his character, Medea, through a combination of sometimes contrasting traits. She is female in gender yet is largely responsible for the glory achieved by her husband and has achieved Kleos, an honor usually reserved for men. She is both powerless in her relationship to Jason, and powerful in her accomplishments and wit. She is a foreigner, yet, through her marriage to Jason, she is a Greek. Finally, she is both mortal, and because of her grandfather, the sun god Helios, immortal. This relationship to the gods is highly present in Medea. Throughout the play, Medea is often presented, both by herself and others, as the agent of divine will.Euripides uses storm imagery to connect Medea’s rage and revenge to the will of Zeus. As both the “Keeper of Oaths” (170) and the God of Thunder, Zeus becomes representative of Medea’s rage. Describing Medea’s ominous situation, the Nurse frets over “add[ing] new [sorrows] to old… even before the present sky has cleared” (78 79). This metaphor simultaneously forebodes the inevitable trouble that spawns from Jason’s actions, Medea’s own darkening will, and Zeus’s anger. Like rain from the stormy sky of the Nurse’s metaphor, Jason’s violation of his marriage contract with Medea brings down the wrath of Zeus. The Nurse continues to foretell Medea’s revenge, describing how Medea “soon will put lighting / in that cloud of her cries that is rising” (106 107). Medea’s revenge, like Zeus’ lightning is both direct and immediate. Given only the space of one day, Medea implements her supernatural knowledge of dark magic and potions to destroy all that Jason holds dear. Medea recognizes her own role as the executor of Zeus’ will. As both a sign of the intense agony of her situation, and a reference to the god whose will she believes to be on her side, Medea wishes that, like when Zeus asexually bore Athena from his forehead, lightning would “split [her] own head open” (144). Medea’s statement demonstrates the lack of sustainability of the present situation and hints at the future violence that will follow from the emotions Jason’s actions have stirred. As the drama of the play progresses and Medea’s anger grows, she persists in relating her actions to Zeus. In “full force of the storm of hate” (278) that Jason’s actions have conjured, Medea begins to plot the eventual revenge that she will take on Jason. Describing the rage of hatred she feels in terms of a storm creates an unavoidable causal relationship between Jason’s actions and the inevitably tragic outcome that serves to separate Medea from guilt for her actions of revenge.While Medea is often described in terms of Zeus imagery, Zeus’ actual role in Medea’s revenge remains uncertain. Perhaps as a means to separate the patriarchal deity from directly condoning Medea’s disturbing actions (the murder of royalty, the destruction of her husband, and the slaughter of her children), Euripides leaves Zeus’ role intentionally ambiguous. Through the barrage of Zeus imagery surrounding Medea and her rage, it seems that Medea feels confident in the father deity’s support. While Zeus seems one of the most obvious deities to pray to after Jason violates his marital commitments, Medea does not actually ask for his support. Instead, Medea prays to both Themis, “the goddess of Promises” (169), and Hecate, the goddess of dark magic, for help. As the play progresses, further uncertainty is cast over what part Zeus takes in Medea’s revenge. When the Nurse references Zeus as the god “whom we believe” (170) to be the Keeper of Oaths, Euripides makes us question whether it is Zeus or Medea who is actually enforcing Jason’s oath. Medea does not ignore the powerful god entirely. In response to Jason’s curse on Medea for her actions, Medea states “Long would be the answer which I might have made to / these words of yours, if Zeus the father did not know / How I have treated you and what you did to me” (1351-1353). Medea seems confident that she is an agent of Zeus’ will. However she receives the most obvious divine aid through other deities.Much of our perception of the relationship between Medea’s actions and the gods is built through tricks of speech. Euripides’ uses these tricks to make us question what role Medea takes in fulfilling the gods’ will. During a conversation with Medea, the Nurse notes that “God indeed, when in anger, brings / greater ruin to great men’s houses” (128 130). Medea proceeds to kill Creon, his daughter and her own children, thus doing the gods’ bidding by destroying the once great house of Creon and bringing about the fall of her husband, Jason, by wiping out all he holds dear. Medea often uses such tricks of speech to present herself as an instrument of gods’ will. Ambiguously referring to either her own marriage with Jason or Jason’s marriage to Creon’s daughter, Medea warns Jason that “perhaps with the help of God – / [he has made] the kind of marriage [that he] will regret” (625-626). Eventually Medea, through her elaborate punishment, insures that Jason eventually regrets both. Medea issues such statements to foreshadow as well as to justify her eventual actions as in line with the will of the gods. Ultimately, the prophecy rings true as Helios directly aids Medea by presenting her with a chariot pulled by dragons. Medea again suggests her own ability to fulfill the gods’ will during her interactions with King Aegeus. Distraught at his and his wife’s inability to produce children, Aegeus travels through Corinth from having discussed his problem with the oracle. Medea, distraught over Jason, runs into him and wishes that he “with God’s help” (714) be able to bear children. Once again, Medea promises to act as an agent of the gods’ will by promising “I will end your childlessness, and I will make you able / to beget children” (717-718) using drugs. In exchange, she asks for asylum in his country. Eager to rectify his problem and become a father, Aegeus promises to allow Medea to remain in his country “for the sake of the gods / and then for the birth of children” (720-721). Aegeus recognizes that aiding Medea would, in fact, be a virtue in the eyes of the gods. However he refuses to directly transport her from the country for fear that he may “incur blame from [his] friends” (730), showing that he recognizes that there may at times be a split between the will of the people and that of the gods. The Chorus also seems to recognize this divide between the will of people and that of divinity. Medea murders Creon and his daughter as well as her and Jason’s children in order to avenge the dishonor she has suffered through Jason’s marriage to Creon’s daughter. The Chorus attempts to dissuade her from murdering her children. However, when it becomes apparent that Medea is resolute on her course of action, the Chorus adamantly protests that if she is punished for her actions “divine / blood may be shed by men” (1256 1257). Medea, as the granddaughter of Helios, is beyond simply being an agent of the gods’ will of divine blood. For her blood to be spilt by mortal men would disturb the natural order.Euripides makes us question the extent to which Medea has been divinized. In a very real sense, she shares immortal blood with her grandfather Helios. But she seems to have aspirations of, beyond simply acting as an executor of the gods’ will, acting as a god herself. During much of the play, she attempts to position herself on equal planes with other gods. At one point, she refers to Hecate, the goddess of dark magic, as her “partner” (397). Hecate’s magic allows Medea to take revenge on Creon and his daughter by causing a dress Medea gives to Creon’s daughter to catch on fire. This method of poison involves not only the magic poison of Hecate but the fire of Medea’s grandfather, Helios. Towards the end of the play, Medea begins to blur the line between deity and mortal. Traditionally, the establishment of religious ceremonies is limited to gods. However, having murdered her children as a final blow to Jason, Medea honors her children by establishing “a holy feast and sacrifice” (1382). Medea’s powers are certainly supernatural. Not only has her grip on dark magic earned her Kleos in the eyes of the Greeks, but she also successfully foretells Jason’s death. Most likely appearing on stage in an area traditionally reserved for gods, Medea claims that Jason will die anticlimactically by being “struck on the head by a piece of Argo’s timber” (1387). Nonetheless, it remains unresolved to what extent Medea’s divine blood makes her godly. In any scenario, the gods’ support of Medea is eventually validated as the gods continue to aid her. Faced with the uncomfortable situation of being trapped in the land of Corinth after having murdered the king and his daughter, Medea is told fatalistically by Jason that in order to escape the “royal vengeance” (1298) she must “hide herself beneath the earth, / or raise herself on wings into the height of air” (1296-1297). In a final sign of support for Medea, Helios sends a chariot pulled by dragons for her to make her escape.
Medea: Feminism in a Man’s World
Although Euripides was known for his propensity to challenge tradition and complacency, his Medea was quite controversial when it was introduced in 431 B.C. in Classical Greece (ca. 479-323 B.C. ). Athenian society, a man’s world by organization, had no place for women outside of the home. When a girl was young, she was ruled over by her father, and after he chose whom she would marry, her new master was her husband, and she “received much male advice on the subject of staying home and being quiet” (Bowra 85). Women basically shared an equal status with slaves in Athenian society, having no privileges and certainly no power other than that power held within the home over servants. The culture expected women to display great virtue and to fully submit to their husbands. Not only is Medea a woman, she is also a foreigner, placing her at an even lower status. Nevertheless, she exercises power over her husband as well as every other character whether female or male, and she does so using extreme violence. Written in what certainly could be called a male-dominated society and time, Euripides’ Medea is a feminist piece and Euripides’ himself, traditionally believed to be a misogynist, is quite the opposite.Athenian society was certainly a man’s world in which women were expected to run the household and to stay out of sight. Quite often, many marriages were arranged for religious, political, or economic purposes, and rarely for love. Many times husband and wife never met until the wedding. Once the marriage was final, the woman was basically limited to the wifely practices of managing the servants, weaving on a loom, and rearing the children. Medea’s negative feelings toward this are revealed when she exclaims, “A man, when he’s tired of the company in his home, goes out of the house and puts an end to his boredom…What they say of us is that we have a peaceful time living at home, while they do the fighting in war. How wrong they are! I would very much rather stand three times in the front of battle than bear one child” (Euripides 441. 246-49). This is not only the voice of Euripides mocking male selfishness and society’s lofty view of war, but also one clue to Medea’s dissatisfaction with the confines of her sex.Men, on the other hand, including married men, enjoyed every freedom, including complete sexual liberty (Flaceliere 66). The men of Athenian society were known for their extreme arrogance, as we see in a statement by Thomas Rosenmeyer, “It is told of Socrates– or Plato– that on rising every morning he gave thanks he was born a Greek and not a barbarian foreigner, a freeman and not a slave, a man and not a woman.” (Rosenmeyer 123) This is the exact attitude of superiority Euripides embodies in Jason, Medea’s Greek husband. We see this same smug outlook when Jason tries to convince Medea that he has done more for her than she for him by bringing her out of her barbaric homeland and into Greece. Jason represents the typical Greek male and typically, he would be more likely to play the part of the hero. However, Medea is not a typical work and Euripides was challenging convention. We are told that Euripides “loved Athens but loathed her arrogant exclusiveness, loathed her imperialist ambitions, loathed war.” (Rosenmeyer 152) For this reason, Euripides set himself to attack the vanity in Athenian society.Feminism can be difficult to define. One view which is specific to this particular work is that “women have the same capacities, whether good or evil, as men” (Durant 362). In the case of Medea, feminism has to do with power. Who exercised power in Athenian society? Certainly, men did. Who exercises power in Medea? When she is betrayed she does not lie down and give up, she fights the only way she knows how. If Medea’s response had been a half-hearted protest, no one would have listened. Modernist writer Flannery O’Connor, as part of her distortion theory, once said that “for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (qtd. in Lauter); Medea does just that. Because of her inferior position, her retaliation must be extreme. After the loss of her family and homeland, her husband, and now her new home, Medea is left with nothing but revenge. Her pride has been wounded, and she vows never to be humiliated again by Jason. The feminism in Euripides’ Medea has nothing to do with the equal social status of women, but rather the power gained after long being repressed. This power is not available to all women, only to Medea, who must obtain it through extreme acts.Medea gains control of the power through use of her many faculties. Medea is clever, charming, deeply in love with Jason and, most dangerously of all, she is oppressed. Because she is clever, she is feared, as is shown in King Kreon’s words to her, “I am afraid of you…You are a clever woman, versed in evil arts, and are angry at having lost your husband’s love” (Euripides 441. 280-84). Medea uses her womanly charm to acquire permission from King Aigeus for a place to live after she flees, and again to convince Jason that she is no longer angry but that she understands his decision to remarry and wants peace.Medea’s flaw is her excessive love for Jason. The muses, in the first lines of the play, state that her heart is “on fire with passionate love for Jason” (Euripides 435. 8). Because of this love she performs many terribly violent acts, including the murders of her two sons. In the introduction to Euripides on page 434, it speaks of one theme of Medea, “Euripides’ theme, like Homer’s, is violence, but this is the unspeakable violence of the oppressed, which is greater than the violence of the oppressor and which, because it has been long pent up, cannot be controlled” (Mack). Medea, as a woman in Athenian society, is oppressed by tradition and current opinion. Medea becomes the tragic hero through the combined effects of her cleverness, charm, uncontrollable love, and unwillingness to simply accept her fate as a woman.The traditional view of Euripides as a misogynist stems from the fact that some of Euripides characters, such as Medea, are vile murderesses who often excite detestation. Medea, herself, is willing to point out the wickedness of which her sex is capable, “And women, though most helpless in doing good deeds, are of every evil the cleverest of contrivers” (Euripides 444. 405-06). In addition, there is a shaky tradition that Euripides had an unhappy married life (Bates 119). If critics believed him to be a hater of women, it most likely was due to their own incomplete look at his female characters, for although he created vengeful and violent characters like Medea and Phaedra, other plays of his included gentle and upright women, such as Macaria and Iphigenia (Bates 119). Moreover, the fact that Euripides knows the faults of the female sex and exposes them quite realistically by no means is indicative of any sort of contempt for women. In fact, many agree that he, out of all playwrights of antiquity, best presented the case for women and supported “the dawning movement for their emancipation” (Durant 416). The former view of Euripides as a hater of women is based upon shortsighted thinking and has a weak foundation.Furthermore, Euripides excites much more sympathy for Medea than for the unfaithful Jason. The muses proclaim, “And poor Media is slighted, and cries aloud on the vows they made to each other, the right hands clasped in eternal promise. She calls upon the gods to witness what sort of return Jason has made to her love. She lies without food and gives herself up to suffering, wasting away every moment of the day in tears” (Euripides 436. 20-23). In addition to this description of her grief, the reader is already aware of the many sacrifices Medea has made for Jason, and the many bridges she has burned in order to be with him. Jason, on the other hand, is a truly unsympathetic character. He is weak, selfish, and rather childish in his explanations to and treatment of Medea. The reader cannot help but dislike Jason for this poor treatment, for his archetypal Greek maleness, and for his character in general. Even when Medea’s vengeful actions are extreme, one hardly feels sorry for Jason. Furthermore, Euripides uses Medea to communicate his own voice on the subject of the modernist writing styles. This occurs in Medea’s speech to King Kreon in lines 290-303 of the drama in which she speaks to him about the difficulties of being clever. Certainly Euripides would not have spoken a message of such personal importance through the mouth of a character whom he loathed.Euripides’ recognized the drama and power of female emotions and he used them, reflecting his creative genius (Bates 119). Medea’s first emotion, love, turns to jealousy and then to hate as the plot unfolds. Medea is not an ordinary woman of the time, she is superior, somewhat elevated. Her rage swells from stanza to stanza. The nurse expresses her fear that something terrible will happen, “Great people’s tempers are terrible, always having their own way, seldom checked, dangerous they shift from mood to mood” (Euripides 438. 119-21). Both Medea and her emotions are larger than life.Thus the tragic hero is no longer a king, but a woman who, because she finds no redress for her wrongs in society, is driven by her passion to violate that society’s most sacred laws in a rebellion against its typical representative, Jason, her husband. She is not just a woman and a foreigner, she is also a person of great intellectual power. Compared with her the credulous king and her complacent husband are children, and once her mind is made up, she moves them like pawns to their proper places in her barbaric game” (Mack 434).In the end, although Medea’s actions are vile, she is the victor.Furthermore, there are no consequences for Medea’s actions. She merely escapes in a chariot with the divine aid of her grandfather, Helios. This further upsets convention. This foreign woman who holds no status performs truly heinous acts against Jason, the symbol of a Greek ideal, and she merely flies away untouched, with help from a god no less. One may wonder at the meaning of this, especially if the one wondering is a fifth century Athenian male warrior who has just enough time between making his sacrifices to the gods and paying a visit to his concubine to catch a quick performance of Medea at the theater. The reason for the portrayal of the gods in this manner is due to Euripides’ late fifth century [B.C.] skepticism and also his questioning of “traditional religion and morality and criticism of contemporary society” (Marowski 104). This lack of order in the universe is unsettling to readers now, and no doubt it was quite disturbing to contemporary audiences.Euripides is an iconoclast who attacked the aforementioned Greek traditions of male-dominance, war and imperialism, the superiority of Greeks, and their religious practices. By creating a heroine who is both a woman and a foreigner, Euripides is challenging male-dominance and Greek superiority. Through the character Jason, an ideal of Greek heroism but in this case a truly unsympathetic character who is ultimately defeated by Medea, Euripides is challenging Greek ideals. By letting Medea escape, Euripides is throwing the errors of the Greek religious tradition in the face of the Greeks who believed in it. By championing the underdog, Medea, Euripides challenging the errors of Greek tradition.As I have argued, Euripides Medea was a powerful piece in which a woman exercised power over men, something which was, to say the least, unusual in Athenian society in 5th century B.C. While at the same time challenging other Greek traditions and ideals, such as the ideas of Greek superiority and belief in the gods, Euripides challenged the Greek ideal of male-dominance wherein women held no more rights than slaves. Due to early, inaccurate speculation, some critics and scholars believed the Euripides was a misogynist. However, when one looks more broadly it becomes clear that quite the opposite is true. Euripides often sides with the underdog, including women, in his strong disagreement with many of the traditions of Greece. Although he sometimes brings to life very dark and disturbing characteristics using women characters, he also paints pictures of virtue in other of his female characters. Euripides simply recognized the creative possibilities lurking within the female psyche, and he used them to create characters who may have shocked and infuriated audiences of the time, but who have remained eternally within the canon of great literature, and who remain long within the mind of the reader. By giving Medea, a woman among hordes of raging male egos and thousands of years of Greek tradition, the sympathy and power over every other character, Euripides forever speaks a powerful message about those beliefs with which he so strongly disagreed.Works CitedBates, William Nickerson. “Euripides: A Student of Human Nature.” Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Ed. Daniel G. Marowski. Detroit: GALE, 1998.Bowra, C.M. & The Editors of TIME-LIFE BOOKS. Classical Greece. New York: Time Incorporated, 1965.Durant, Will. The Life of Greece. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.Euripides. “Medea.” Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: Norton, 1997. 435-465.Flaceliere, Robert. Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles. New York: Macmillan, 1967.Lauter, Paul. “Flannery O’Connor.” Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. 2112-2113.Mack, Maynard. “Euripides.” Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: Norton, 1997. 433-434.Marowski, Daniel G. “Medea.” Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Ed. Daniel G. Marowski. Detroit: GALE, 1998.Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. “The Masks of Tragedy: Essays on Six Greek Dramas.” Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Ed. Daniel G. Marowski. Detroit: GALE, 1998.
Formal Comparison of Euripides’ and Seneca’s Versions of ‘Medea’
Originally written by Euripides, Medea is an ancient Greek tragedy based upon the myth of Medea and Jason. After encountering Jason during his quest for the Golden Fleece, Medea falls in love and abandons her homeland to help him throughout his journey with her sorceress powers. The two become lovers and are sentenced to exile in Iolcus, eventually seeking asylum in Corinth. Their relationship suffers when Jason is unable to remain faithful to Medea in their marriage, thus causing her to seek revenge on him in unthinkable ways. Seneca’s Medea is the other one of two surviving ancient versions of this tragedy and contains stark differences to Euripides’ version although maintaining a similar plot. Euripides and Seneca each offer a unique interpretation of Medea’s process of plotting her revenge against Jason. This is best shown through Medea’s behavior at the beginning, her plea to King Creon of Corinth, and her disturbing decision to kill her children in both plays.
In Euripides’ Medea, Medea is portrayed as a devoted wife that is wronged by her husband Jason and so, in the act of retaliation, causes the deaths of his new bride, his father-in-law, and her own two children. However, her exact plans for revenge are not quite obvious at the beginning of the play. Before Medea comes out to speak to the chorus, the Nurse explains her situation and states, “Poor Medea, mournful and dishonored, / shrieks at his broken oaths, the promise sealed with his right hand” (p. 4). Here, Euripides begins to show Medea as being pitiful and in a constant weeping state because of Jason dishonoring her by abandoning their oath. She is heard from within the house, crying out “Aaaah! I’ve suffered so much, / worth oceans of weeping. O children, accursed, / may you die―with your father! Your mother is hateful” (p. 8). While it is clear that she is upset and hurt based on her moaning in the background, it only seems that she is acting out because of her inability to control her feelings about what she has been through. Euripides introduces the possibility of Medea harming those who have hurt her when the Nurse says, “I’m afraid she might be plotting something. / Her mind is fierce, and she will not endure ill treatment” (p. 4-5). Despite this statement, it is important to notice that the Nurse is merely vocalizing her fear that Medea may seek revenge, and that it is still unclear to the audience how far Medea is willing to go to hurt those who have wronged her. Medea is deeply hurt over Jason’s betrayal and complains at first, but then she uses her feelings of grief and pain to strategize the perfect plot to pay him back for his unfaithfulness. Her acts of reprisal are improvised and further developed as the play progresses.
On the contrary, Seneca’s Medea has clear motives from the start of the play as she is both passionate and determined to get revenge for Jason’s unfaithfulness. Right from the opening of Act 1, Medea is seen invoking maledictions upon Jason while imploring the blessings of various gods to give her the power she needs to fulfill her plans for vengeance. As she calls out to “powers of feuding vengeance,” she says, “Kill his new partner, kill his new father… For the groom, may something worse remain” (p. 44). Unlike Euripides’ Medea, Medea herself expresses her detestation for Jason, King Creon, and princess Creusa at the start of Seneca’s play. In addition, Seneca chooses to reveal that Medea intends on killing both Jason’s new wife and new father-in-law, but has a different route of revenge planned for Jason himself. Like Euripides, Seneca still doesn’t give away the fact that Medea will sacrifice her children as well as the others to fully destroy Jason’s life. Medea’s thirst for vengeance is further shown when she tells herself, “Medea, bare your rage for fighting, and prepare yourself to kill, work to a frenzy” (p. 46). This demonstrates how Medea is praying to the gods in order to motivate and prepare herself to commit crimes worse than the ones she committed for Jason’s sake. Seneca’s Medea shows herself as being more in control of her emotions because of her fiery desire for revenge, whereas Euripides’ Medea is more emotional and pitiful in the opening of the play. Furthermore, it can be inferred that Medea’s plans for punishing Jason and Creon are already matured from the start of Seneca’s play.
In both versions of the ancient tragedy, Medea is cleverly manipulative as she pleads to Creon to grant her one additional day in Corinth. He eventually gives in to her request, which is a significant element in both plays because it allows Medea the time she needs to carry out the crimes she has plotted during her final day. Seemingly consistent with her behavior throughout Euripides’ play, Medea behaves emotionally and pitifully in order to persuade Creon to let her have one more day in Corinth. Nevertheless, it is crucial to realize that in her dialogue with Creon, Medea knows exactly what she is doing with her language and is doing this on purpose. When Creon bluntly tells Medea that he fears her, she uses that fear to convince him with soothing words that she has no intent to hurt him: “Don’t worry, Creon. I don’t have it in me / to do wrong to a man with royal power” (p. 15). She utilizes strong language to make Creon feel more powerful than her because of his royal status, thus making it more likely for him to grant her the additional day. Medea even goes as far as to kneel before him and grasp his hand and knees in supplication, begging that he “Take pity on them. You yourself have children… I’m not worried about myself―I weep for their disaster” (p. 17). Knowing how dearly Creon loves his children, Medea appeals to him by citing her worries about her own two children. Consequently, Euripides’ Medea is effectively able to convince Creon to permit her one last day in Corinth, allowing him to believe that the sole purpose for this extra time is to make arrangements for her exile and her children’s asylum.
While Creon fears Medea in both versions of the play, Seneca’s Medea uses reason and appeal instead of putting on an emotional act to make Creon grant her an additional day in Corinth. In the dialogue between them, Medea’s goal is not to move Creon with her words but rather to be reasonable within her pleas so that he eventually must give in. She initially reasons with Creon to hear her case for sending her into exile with the same sources that brought her to Corinth in the first place, referring to Jason and the Argo. This plea is ineffective, so she declares her final request which is for Creon to have mercy on her sons who “have done no harm” (p. 58). He responds by telling her to leave, and that he will raise her sons with a father’s love. This response is not what Medea was looking for, so she again pleads for him to allow her a short delay so that she “may be a mother to [her] sons” (p. 59). Although Creon immediately suspects that she wants this extra time for a plot, Medea denies any possibility of this and asks for “a little time for tears” (p. 59). Her pleas prove to be successful as Creon delays her banishment for just one day. Like Euripides, Seneca has Medea appeal to Creon with an emphasis on love for her children, but Seneca’s Medea utilizes less of an inferiority act and instead continuously reasons with him until he has no choice but to give in.
Although Medea becomes torn over the choice of murdering her only two children, she ultimately decides that the sacrifice must be made to hurt Jason most greatly and effectively. Euripides and Seneca approach this difficult decision to kill her children in different ways. In Euripides’ version, Medea introduces the idea of killing her sons while explaining her revenge plot to the Chorus and even though they attempt to talk her out of it, she insists that it must be done to “wound my husband the most deeply” (p. 37). It can be inferred that Medea realizes the need for this brutal act in her previous conversation with Jason, where he states, “Men should really have some other method / for getting children. The whole female race / should not exist. It’s nothing but a nuisance” (p. 25). His statement is obnoxiously inaccurate, as Medea was at home raising their two sons in Corinth while Jason kept them all in the dark about his infidelity. As a result, Medea faces the realization that she must kill her children to “ruin Jason’s household” (p. 36). Instead of killing Jason along with everyone else, Medea finds it more efficient to ensure that he will lose his current children and his new bride, thereby ruining any chance of him ever fathering another child. Likewise to her behavior at the beginning of the play, Medea is still not fully able to control her emotions as she argues with her inner self about killing her children. She says, “Why should I, just to cause their father pain, / feel twice the pain myself by harming them? / … But wait―what’s wrong with me? What do I want? / To allow my enemies to … go unpunished?” (p. 46). As a mother with a genuine love for her children, Medea struggles to muster up the courage to kill her children but quickly changes her mind once she refocuses on her primary goal and purpose, which is to punish her greatest enemy, Jason.
In contrast, Seneca’s Medea realizes from conversing with Jason how much love he has for their children, which makes it easier for her to understand why she must kill them. Their conversation is different from that in Euripides because it gives her a subtle understanding of how Jason can best be attacked through his immense love for his sons. Seneca demonstrates Jason’s fatherly love for his children when Medea asks him to allow her to take their children with her when she leaves Corinth. He refuses her request immediately, stating that “My children are / the reason I live on, the thing that makes / me able to endure the pain / … I would more quickly sacrifice my soul / my body, life itself” (p. 74). This dialogue between Medea and Jason is especially significant because it shows Medea how deeply Jason loves his sons, which places him in a vulnerable position. She says to herself, “Is this how much / he loves his sons? That’s good. Then, he is caught” (p. 74), since she now recognizes that she can use his love for them to her advantage. Similarly to Euripides’ Medea, Seneca’s Medea becomes conflicted about her decision to kill her children because of her motherly instincts. Speaking to herself, she argues, “How can I shed / the blood of my children, my own flesh? / Anger and madness must not come to this!” (p. 92). However, Medea once again changes her mind when she realizes that if she must be torn away from her children due to exile, then Jason surely cannot have them either. As her anger builds up, she says, “To their mother they are / forever gone and lost, so they must be / gone and lost to their father as well” (p. 93). Regardless of how difficult a decision it is for a mother to kill her own two children, both Euripides’ and Seneca’s Medea can convince themselves that the deed must be done in order to guarantee the most gruesome revenge against Jason.
Despite their different stylistics of playwriting, Grecian Euripides and Roman Seneca are able to impressively portray the powerful shift of Medea’s feelings for Jason as his infidelity causes her love to turn into pure rage and fiery. Both playwrights elucidate Medea’s process for seeking revenge in distinctive ways, creating two versions of the same tale that can be interpreted differently. Nonetheless, neither Euripides or Seneca fail to prove to their audiences in the ancient tragedy of Medea that love and passion can ultimately drive anyone to commit the most unimaginable crimes.
Euripides. Medea. Translated by Diane Arnson Svarlien. Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing
Company, Inc., 2008.
Seneca. Medea. Translated by Frederick Ahl. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1986.