Medea – a Founder of Medicine and Science
In the play Medea, the historical context effects and deepens the understanding of culture, identity, and community. During this period women had no place in society except in the home taking care of family and being looked down at all the time. The Athenian society expected women to submit to their husbands having no privileges and absolutely no power. Madea on top of being a woman was an outsider giving her a lower status within the Athenian Society being viewed as a foreigner before a human. As Madea is mistreated because of her status she challenges the ideals, eventually leading her to kill her kids.
Throughout this play, Medea depicts the way women in ancient Greek society treat and view women. Medea challenges these patriarchal views while questioning the way women get treated, using her voice, ” We women are the most unfortunate creatures. For there is no easy escape for a women, nor can she say no to her marriage” women in this society were in a way trapped; if they ended up with a man who mistreated them, there was no good way out. If they were able to leave their man they got rejected by the rest of society not being accepted by anyone. Power is something unheard of for women, Medea is portrayed as someone with strong power, a desire which results in her being portrayed as crazy. Even a woman like Medea, who is powerful and different from the norm wondered ” any man would afford me home in a country safe for living?” The point that a woman like Medea still feels like she needs a man by her to protect her shows the very strong patriarchal view of Athenian Society that Euripides was challenging in his play.
Medea is also viewed as an outsider first before a human being. As Jason stated that, “This is not the first time I have noticed how hopeless it is to deal with damage done by barbarous rage” Jason explains and shows how a normal man in this society would view a woman like Medea. Medea is not able to comfortably say that this is her home and it is hugely because of the divide and tension between Jason and Medea. Medea betrayed her father to support Jason in capturing the Golden Fleece. Being an outsider, she bravely decided to become isolated from the society and mistreated. Once she had given up everything for Jason, He saw her as someone who has nothing left to offer him. Jason Could not move up in this world with an outsider like Medea by his side. He was able to use her witchcraft to his advantage to get what he wanted, but moving forward, she would become a burden to him as the people of Greece will not approve of Medea. Resulting in Jason not being able to get the throne as he wished for all his life.
Throughout the entirety of the play, Medea shows and depicts the biases of women and outsiders challenging the way they are viewed in the Athenian Society. Medea in this play is able to exercise her power over a man which was unheard of in this society.
Comparison Between Medea And Satan
Both Medea and Satan are self-centered, static characters who are motivated by revenge for their recent loss, who use exploitation to achieve their goal, and who have a moment in their journey where they self-reflect. Medea and Satan are both centered around self-pity. For one, Medea cannot let go of the fact that Jason has taken another lover while she has kept her oaths. She makes this known many times. Instead of thinking of her children and their well-being, she is solely focused on hurting Jason in a way that mirrors how hurt she is.
Additionally, Satan reminisces on the fact that he was once glorious. He is adamant with the idea that if he is stuck in Hell then he will use all his power to bring humanity into Hell too. In looking at the motives for both characters, what fuels the two is their thirst for vengeance. Satan wants to retaliate against God for sending him to Hell whereas Medea wants to get back at Jason for being a poor husband. For Satan, whether it is waging another war against God or simply disrupting his plans, he has decided that he has the rest of his time to think of novel ways to get back at him.
In Medea’s case, she will not sulk and stand idly by while Jason lives this new life that he has created for himself. Even when it came time to kill her kids, she told herself that she had to forget they were hers for the moment and only after it was done could she mourn them. Nothing would hinder either of them from retaliating. Moving along to how they took advantage of those around them, Satan fulfills his goal by exploiting Eve’s innocence. He fools her into thinking that not eating from the Tree of Knowledge was a test of her independence from God and that he has gained power by eating the fruit himself. Medea, on the other hand, carries out her plan by exploiting her children. Her husband and his other lover had no reason to keep their guard up around the children so, Medea uses them to deliver the poisoned robe and garland. Even though they are set on their ways, they find a moment to reflect. Satan asks himself why he couldn’t give God the thanks he was asking for. God had already provided so much for Satan and all he had asked was that Satan express his gratitude.
Moreover, he reveals that it was his pride and desire to rule that got the best of him. For a moment, Medea reconsiders her initial plan and thinks about the possibility of taking her kids with her. However, being that they are static characters, we see that neither of them act on this thought and follow through with their initial plans.
The Characteristic Of Medea By Euripides
Medea by Euripides
Medea premiered in 431 B.C and although it only got the third place of the annual poetic contest, the criticism coincides in that we find ourselves before the best work of the Greek tragic. We are presented on the scene to Medea, a foreign woman, from a distant country, with customs and rules very different from those of the Barbarians, she has left everything for Jason, who has not hesitated to betray and abandon her; in the same way has united in marriage to Glauce, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. Medea feels captivated by a fury and resentment that she cannot control and guided by these feelings she plans with absolute coldness the destruction of Jason, Glauce and her father (Creon). But our heroine will go even further when she confesses that in order to do more harm to her husband, she will murder her own children so that her revenge is complete.
In the work, we are shown the theme of love from several perspectives: in the first place it is presented as outraged love; and the humiliation that this entails to awaken the hate of the protagonist towards Jason and her consequent desire for revenge, so this feeling will prevail over the other type of love: the maternal one. The abandoned woman, the spiteful lover prevails in front of the mother; the monologues of the work are the ROJAS 2 resource that Euripides uses to show us the recesses of a soul tormented, humiliated, full of hate and desirous of revenge; at the same time it is evident that these feelings are found and manifest in a permanent inner struggle. Through the work, Euripides makes the exposition of themes and subjects proper of the daily reality of the Athenians at the moment and that they were not a normative subject in the classic tragedy: the matrimonial conflicts, the sexual relations, the despised situation of the women, the suffering of the slaves and the rejection of foreigners by the Greeks.
The central point of the work perfectly illustrates this aspect, the irremediable conflict arises from the confrontation between the cold and calculating selfishness of Jason and the crazy and immense love of Medea, that is, a marital and / or sexual problem that is aggravated by the situation of disadvantage that Medea lives due to her condition as a woman and as a foreigner. He has failed to all the promises he made to the Barbarian witch and this will not hesitate her to contravene the female roles of Greek society, in order to achieve her revenge. Furthermore, she reminds us how he owes everything to her and that without her help he would have achieved none of his exploits, in this way the betrayal of perjured Jason becomes a vile and despicable act. Also, Euripides’ characters are very real because they are not stable and immutable or perfect as the Gods, no, they are round beings that evolve according to the situation and circumstances that surround them, they doubt, suffer, hesitate and change their minds on many occasions. But they always show us feelings and credible states with which the reader of any era can feel identified.
Medea doubts when she makes the decision to kill her children: “That’s the easy part, all thought out and what follows is ROJAS 3 more than unspeakable. I must kill my children…”(Lines 781-783) Medea through her monologues tries to prove her innocence and the guilt of the other, she justifies her performance since she has been humiliated, she will not consent to be the mockery of others, she has lost everything for Jason, and he, on the other hand, abandons her: “I can’t restore my home and country. I was wrong to leave my father, wrong to let a Greek seduce me with is promises” (Lines 791-794). These elements perfectly illustrate the character of the author and of the Euripidean work; both of these reflect the moment in which Greek society lived, a change from very rigid, deeply religious and traditional schemes to an environment deeply influenced by the democratic mentality that flooded all human areas. The characterization that Euripides gave Medea shows the internal emotions of passion, love and revenge. Medea is widely read as a pro-feminist text insofar as she sympathetically explores the disadvantages of being a woman in a patriarchal society. In conflict with this sympathetic background or reinforcing a more negative reading is Medea’s barbaric identity, which would antagonize a Greek audience of the fifth century. ROJAS 4
- Euripides, Michael Collier, and Georgia Machemer. Medea. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Theme of Feminism in the Euripides’ Play Medea
Medea is arguably one of the first pieces of feminist literature. Written around 431 BCE, the playwright, Euripides was only awarded third place out of three at the annual Athenian Dionysia festival. However, Medea has since become an iconic example of female empowerment through the history of literature, and has become a staple in many educational programs worldwide. Euripides seems fascinated by the hypocrisy and discrimination within the Greek Athenian Gender-Sex system. Athens, was an infamous ancient city that prided itself on its advanced views on social justice issues for the time. They saw themselves as exceptionally free and more tolerant than the neighboring communities such as Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes. Despite these in-house beliefs, the city state of Athens was still exceptionally dependent on the oppression of slaves and women. Euripides uses Medea, to symbolically call out Greek Society on its hypocrisy with respect to their treatment of women.
Medea’s monologue to the Chorus illustrates the injustices that befell women of that current system:
Of all creatures that have breath and sensation, we women are the most unfortunate. First at an exorbitant price we must buy a husband and master of our bodies. [This misfortune is more painful than misfortune.] And the outcome of our life’s striving hangs on this, whether we take a bad or a good husband. For divorce is discreditable for women and it is not possible to refuse wedlock. And when a woman comes into the new customs and practices of her husband’s house, she must somehow divine, since she has not learned it at home, how she shall best deal with her husband. If after we have spent great efforts on these tasks our husbands live with us without resenting the marriage-yoke, our life is enviable. (lines 230-243).
Medea illuminates the struggle of the Athenian women and housewife of that time. For women, there was no escaping the oppression. Marriage was inevitable, divorce would destroy your reputation, and this created a stuck-in-between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place-situation for women.
The play sets Medea apart from the other female characters. The Chorus (composed of three other women) are externally split on the morality of Medea’s actions. They verbally condemn Medea’s actions, yet also pity Medea and her circumstances. Whereas internally, they appear to admire her and never physically interfere or interject upon Medea’s actions. The Chorus’s admiration of Medea creates the metaphor, that by committing such decisive actions, Medea is symbolically defying a patriarchal system that oppresses women. By cutting all ties of dependence to Jason, Medea symbolically cuts all dependence on a patriarchal male, giving her the appearance of being a powerful and fearless woman.
As the protagonist of the play, there is cause for Medea to be labeled as a tragic character, but she does not fit the criteria to be considered a heroine. Medea hamartia (flaw or error of judgement) comes when she kills her children just to spite her estranged husband. Killing your children is barbaric, and even though Ancient Greece was akin to barbarians and violence, the cold-blooded murder of your own offspring was still looked upon as shocking and unforgivable. Due to her kids’ deaths, Medea experiences a peripetiea and she changes. Pre-murder Medea was a hate filled yet powerless female lead that is still a part of a patriarchal society. Post-murder Medea became a powerful, independent, and fearless women who defies the Athenian social norms and patriarchal society. Medea also experiences hubris throughout the play. Her excessive pride is one of the driving forces behind her extreme actions. Her pride forces her to suffer through Jason’s actions and they are a reason why she felt so much pain.
Medea is a raw representation of the extremes that women in a patriarchal system can be pushed to. Euripides shows the difficulties that befall women, but he does not give us a simple cliché heroine. He gives us a real woman, who has suffered and become twisted by her suffering. Medea is less about female empowerment, but more a war between the sexes in which everyone emerges scarred.
A Case Of Mental Disease in Medea
In the Greek Tragedy Medea by Euripides, the play follows Medea’s development as the Anti-Hero’s mental state originates as feelings of betrayal and despair, but soon ultimately turns into a state of insanity and madness fueled by her dire revenge against her ex-husband, Jason. These feelings of rage are enacted when Jason decides to leave Medea in favor of marrying the King of Corinth’s daughter, Glauke to provide stability for himself. Medea, being the barbarian that she is, does something to which no ordinary woman would do during this time and rises to the occasion of enacting revenge against Jason, the princess, and Creon. Medea formulates a plan by poisoning a gossamer gown and a golden crown to give to the princess. Not only does she succeed with this endeavor by killing the princess, but Creon also dies as he embraces his daughter while wearing the poisonous garments which poisons him as well. Knowing that her children won’t be safe due to the merciless deeds she committed, Medea’s test ends up making the ultimate sacrifice by killing her children because she would rather herself commit the murder than someone else who did not love and care for them the way Medea did. Medea is an Anti-Hero because she is cunning, brutal, and ruthless in her endeavors to get back at Jason. She isn’t necessarily evil as she didn’t choose for the events that happened in the play to happen towards her and her sympathy for her children gives her a redeeming virtue and makes the reader appreciate Medea to an extent rather than scorn her.
The hero type that would change the Hero’s Test associated with the play entirely would be that of an Epic Hero among Medea. If Medea were born as an Epic Hero, her unusual circumstance of birth would be a quality that people would praise her for rather than belittlement and ridicule. Her greatness would be further heightened by helping Jason obtain the Golden Fleece. As a result, Medea and Jason would be treated as royalty by the common people and would spend the remainder of their days traveling throughout Greece and the city-states going on multiple adventures with the intent of winning the Peloponnesian war for Greece. Thus, bringing Greece into a state of peace of prosperity for many years to come. This type of legacy that Medea would have on Greece culturally would leave the men of Greece to break their stereotype about the women of Greece and would view women as being just as powerful as themselves bringing equality between both genders which would impact the rest of Europe in terms of gender equality.
From what was said in the preceding paragraph placing Medea into the role of a contrasting hero type, Medea being an Epic Hero would not be the most beneficial role to the original period in terms of the period and culture practice for various reasons. This age in time is the period just after Epic Heroes flourished in society. Most people during this time might not sympathize with Medea being an Epic Hero. Since this play is also during the Peloponnesian War, many of the men going to war may think they are fulfilling some heroic deed as being courageous so the people of Greece are used to seeing all kinds of alleged “war heroes”. These citizens would most likely sympathize with a hero who stands out from these men and is different from this role such as a misfit or an anti-hero.
Another reason why this hero type would not work during this period is because Medea is a woman. Although Medea does break many stereotypes that are targeted at women all throughout this play, when most people picture an Epic Hero, they think of someone such as Superman or Hercules who are male, dominant characters. The culture of this period was still extremely patriarchal and female Epic Heroes were rather uncommon. The role of most women during this time was to mend the home and children while the men were off at war. That is why Medea being an Anti-Hero is crucial to this play. She takes on an important, independent role for the sake of women everywhere in Athens. Medea being an Anti-Hero gives women an opportunity to break the subservient stereotypes associated towards them and are given the chance to stand up for themselves. Medea may be brutal in her pursuits against Jason, but one cannot doubt she is extremely cunning and smart in the way she executes her plan to get revenge. All women can be just as smart in this fashion if given the opportunity and with the legacy that Medea leaves, women begin to realize this new role to which they can take on thus creating more independent females in this society.
A Mystic Hero Of Medea
Euripedes’ Medea is known for its antiheroine, the mystic and murderer, Medea. In the play, Medea infamously murders her previous husband’s, Jason’s, new wife and the two children that Jason fathered. However, Medea only has one reason for these murders: revenge on Jason and Creon for changing her into a refugee. Interestingly, she brings new life to Aegeus when he offers her a new life in his kingdom. Medea, therefore, reciprocates what the men in the play place on her. The perceptions of Medea as a foreigner and woman and sorceress greatly affect how the men in Euripedes’ Medea treat the titular character. When Jason rejects her and Creon exiles her, Medea is unwelcome because she is foreign and underestimated because she is a woman. Conversely, when Aegeus welcomes her into his kingdom, Medea is welcomed because she is a sorceress.
Before delving into how Jason rejects Medea, it is worth examining why he chose to reject her. In Medea, Jason strives to start a new life for himself and his sons as the future rulers of Corinth by allying himself with Creon through marriage to Creon’s daughter. However, he cannot be a future ruler of Corinth if the Corinthians do not perceive him as Corinthian. Consequently, Jason must distance himself from Colchis-born Medea, because xenophobic fear directed towards her could be redirected towards him. Medea’s existence is a threat to Jason’s rise to power.
Jason attempts to convince Medea to leave Corinth on her own accord through a series of false, albeit rational and kind, statements. However, he does not suspect that Medea would use this tactic against him. Jason knows Medea is an enchantress and a liar, but fails to recognize that she could be lying when she uses motherly affection as a disguise for her actual intentions. When Medea offers gifts to Jason’s new wife, he assumes that Medea had a change of heart; he rationalizes her change of heart because “it is…natural to the female sex to vent their spleen against a husband when he traffics in other marriages….” He does not suspect that the gifts are poisonous because she gives them to protect her children. Jason assumed that female, motherly instinct outweighs Medea’s constant rule of reciprocation. Furthermore, Jason assumed that Medea’s motherly instinct will keep his children safe, despite that the sons would be future heirs of Corinth if he married the princess.
Jason assumed incorrectly. Medea makes Jason pay for transgressions towards her because her foreignness by removing all ties that Jason could have to the crown and to a family. She murders his new wife and his children and his future.
Medea’s acts are cruel, but they are just. Jason, motivated by fear of being associated with a foreigner, committed the first act of cruelty. However, Jason could have gotten away with his xenophobic actions if he had questioned Medea’s actions; he failed to do this because Medea is a woman and therefore assumed incapable of causing harm to family. His fallacy offered a direct method for Medea to kill the princess and created a span of time for Medea to commit filicide. If Jason had chosen not to reject Medea because her foreignness, or if Jason had removed any chance Medea had to cause harm through earlier exile, incarceration, or death, Medea would not have been able to derail his future. His prejudices against Medea ironically result in his downfall and her success.
Corinthian King, Creon:
Similarly, Creon’s prejudices against Medea result in his own and his daughter’s death and her victory. He too attacks Medea because she is foreign and underestimates her because of her assumed maternal instinct. However, Creon’s xenophobic prejudices have a stronger effect on the play than Jason’s cautious distancing. Again, it is worth examining Creon’s intentions in the play to understand his xenophobia. Creon, King of Corinth, lacks a male heir. When Jason, a mighty hero, comes to Corinth, Creon sees a potential heir. The trouble is that Jason is foreign and married to a foreigner, and will therefore be perceived as a foreigner by the Corinthians. To combat these assumed assumptions, Creon chooses to exile Medea from Corinth.
Although the decision to remove Medea from Jason’s life is logical, the choice to exile reveals Creon’s xenophobic tendencies. Creon could have naturalized Medea to remove her foreignness or could have imprisoned or killed Medea to neutralize her as a threat forever. Instead, he chose to remove Medea from her new home, which essentially was a message to her that she did not belong in his or Jason’s kingdom. This exile looms over the play and gives Medea cause for revenge. Arguably, if Creon had not forced Medea to leave Corinth or had not forced Jason to marry his daughter so to become heir, the conflict in the play would not exist.
Creon’s decision to exile Medea was dangerous, and he was aware that Medea may seek her revenge. However, he makes the same mistake as Jason: Creon assumes Medea’s primary motivation is that of motherly instinct. He gives Medea a day to prepare her children for exile; in that day, Medea seizes the opportunity to kill her own children and Creon’s child. Creon, who witnesses his daughter’s death by poisoned and fiery garments, dies too when he throws himself on the flames as they consume her. The irony of his death is palpable. He exiled Medea so to grow his lineage through a male heir, but now he, his family, and his lineage is obliterated. Medea’s revenge is again fitting and complete.
Foreign King, Aegeus:
It may appear at this point that Medea is only a vehicle of revenge. However, her interactions with Aegeus prove that Medea is a vehicle of reciprocation, and not simply revenge. This is proven through Aegeus’ treatment of Medea.
Aegeus, similarly to Creon, has the same motivation: Aegeus wants a male heir. However, Aegeus and his wife are unable to conceive by themselves, so Aegeus needs the help of a sorceress. Consequently, when Aegeus meets with Medea, he does not scorn her for being foreign and nor does he ridicule her for being a woman. He values Medea because she is capable. Furthermore, he values Medea’s thoughts and inquiries about her well-being. When he learns of Medea’s exile, he offers her a home in his kingdom. Most interestingly, Aegeus is the only man the only person in Medea who the titular character does not attempt to deceive. Aegeus respects, befriends, and aids Medea, and therefore Medea reciprocates.
At the end of the play, Aegeus leaves with a promise from Medea that she will help him have a child, and Medea flies to her new and protected home in Aegeus’ kingdom. Although it is not stated in the play, myths state that Medea was true to her word. Aegeus and Medea have a child, Medus, and Aegeus is the adoptive father of another great hero, Theseus. Creon’s and Jason’s family may have been destroyed, but fair Aegeus’ lineage continues.
Although Medea undoubtedly committed horrific acts, she was not alone in their creation. Nor was she entirely a villain. She is an equalizer. What treatment she was given, she returned in kind.
Given that Medea follows the law of reciprocation, the true catalyst in the play is the unfair action placed towards her. If Jason or Creon had chosen to stop the xenophobic prejudice towards Medea, she would not have acted. Furthermore, if Jason and Creon had given Medea the credit she deserved as a sorceress and have refrained from devaluing her because of her womanhood, then they could have avoided Medea’s reciprocation. Trouble does not come only when Medea is valued, welcomed, and respected; instead, Medea brings good to the benefactor. Perhaps this is the hidden warning that Euripedes hoped would be discovered through Medea: regard each other at their full value. Otherwise, be prepared to face the potential consequences of transgressions and underestimations.
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.
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“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.