In Euripides’ Medea, one could argue that Medea’s most tragic flaw is her emotions. Medea goes on a quest to seek revenge on her unfaithful husband Jason and her retaliation is her closure. Jason’s betrayal is the fuel for this revenge, and along the way Medea’s emotions overshadow her reasoning. Jason was Medea’s closest friend, comfort, and person she ever truly cared for, and when this is all taken away, Medea goes crazy. Her passion for Jason overrules her actions, and this is ultimately Medea’s downfall. The first example of Medea’s issue of dealing with her emotions is in the very beginning of the play when the Nurse speaks of Medea’s act of manipulation of Pelias’ daughters. The manipulation occurred when convincing them to kill their own father. This is the audience’s first taste of Medea’s malevolence, and it foreshadows the future events. Shirley Barlow’s article Stereotype and Reversal in Euripedes’ ‘Medea’ makes a connection to Medea’s past: “She has killed before and she will kill again without a second thought.” (Barlow 162). After the murder of Jason’s brother Pelias, Medea is betrayed by her husband Jason. Jason soon marries Creon’s daughter, and Medea’s passion for her marriage is demonstrated as the audience hears of her pickiness towards eating, her days spent sobbing, and not being able to lift up her face in such a state of despair. This despair soon turns to anger, as she starts to dislike her children and all things associated with Jason. She begins to have thoughts of seeking revenge, and the Nurse explains some of the rash acts Medea could be thinking about executing: “I’m petrified to think what thoughts she might be having now: a sharpened knife-blade thrust right through the liver—she could even strike the royal family, murder the bridegroom too, make this disaster worse.” (Gainor, Garner, and Puchner 140-141). The perspective of the Nurse is the first way for readers/audience to get the impression of the emotionally distraught state Medea is in, and the Nurse’s overview highlights the ways that Medea’s emotions control her daily interactions and routines.
Medea’s battle with her emotions is so strong, she describes her thoughts as suicidal. In lines 146-149, Medea’s overwhelming feelings take over: “Aaaah! May a fire-bolt from heaven come shoot through my skull! What do I gain by being alive? Oh, god. How I long for the comfort of death. I hate this life. How I wish I could leave it.”. Her plea for early death shows that Medea has hit rock-bottom without Jason. In Stereotype and Reversal in Euripedes’ ‘Medea’, Barlow explains the extremes that Medea was willing to go to: “…she is concerned at humiliation by her enemies, and determined to go to extreme lengths, including her own death if necessary, that her enemies may not laugh at her.” (Barlow 161). In Medea’s mind, Jason was the glue that held together her well-being, and not a single thing or word of advice from the people around her could even attempt to fix her broken heart. The chorus sings out to Zeus when hearing her cries, and the Nurse responds by informing them of how not a single thing can change Medea’s emotional imbalance.
Within moments, Medea’s deep sorrow is quickly turned into vengeful anger. Medea begs Creon to be able to stay with her children in the palace for one day more, in order to be able to find shelter and figure out her living arrangements. Creon agrees, and shortly after their conversation, Medea raves about her ability to manipulate: “…he granted me a single day to turn three enemies to three dead bodies: the father, and the bride, and my own husband.” (Gainor, Garner, and Puchner 148). Medea then initiates her plan, and associates her revenge plan to an act of courage, and also as something she must do in order to be well. Medea soon engages with Jason. Her emotions are quickly turned once again, and their conversation displays her anger and hurt that was caused by Jason’s actions. Medea calls him names, reminds him of all of the ways he had supported her, and of the ways he has been molded into a person with a bad reputation. Jason responds to the conversation in ways that validate his weaknesses and untrustworthiness.
In Medea’s next conversation, she talks with an old friend Aegeus, and her mood is once again changed quite quickly. In this scene, Medea is able to mask her emotions and speak with Aegeus in a much calmer demeanor. She asks to stay with him for shelter, and is able to mention her thoughts about Jason in a rational conversation. Medea is able to gather herself in crisis mode, and this show the audience just how willing she is to control her emotions if the circumstances are in accordance to her. Aegeus agrees to let Medea stay with him under the circumstances that Medea finds her own way to his home. Upon Aegeus’ departure, Medea reveals her future plans; which involve the manipulation and murder of all people in connection to Jason. Her emotions of passion, anger, and deep sorrow are so strong, that she desires to inflict pain on the princess in hopes that she will die a terrible death. She then goes on to explain how it brings her deep despair to precede to murder her own children, but admits that the act is necessary in order to ruin Jason and to not be humiliated by her enemies. Immediately following her expression of hatred she has toward Jason and anyone connected to him, Medea has an epiphany, and comes to the conclusion that she is indeed lonely. She comes to terms with knowing that in times of despair and desperation she does not have one person she can turn to. She again, has suicidal thoughts and reveals her regret of leaving her father’s home to be in a relationship with Jason. She is then asked by the chorus to halt her plan, and she responds explaining that there is no other plausible solution other than the murder of the princess and her children in order to hurt Jason emotionally in the worst ways possible.
In lines 1040-1075, Medea reveals her thoughts on the significance of the relationship between her and her two children. She does feel remorse about the fact that she will have to murder them, but again, her revenge on Jason triumphs. Medea’s selfishness specifically shines through on page 164 of Gainor, Garner, and Puchner’s text: “Oh, children, children, you two have a city and home, in which you’ll live forever parted from your mother. You’ll leave poor me behind.”. This is proof that Medea views even her children’s murder as the responsibility and cause of Jason’s actions. She tells the audience of how she will forever be living the rest of her life in sorrow, and views the killing as a sacrifice. She then for a moment has thoughts of hesitation, and has a split second of sanity. The sanity is soon followed by her usual egocentric thoughts, and Medea once again validates her revenge with the betrayal between her and Jason as the cause.
In the act of murdering her own children, it is arguably the most emotional Medea is in the entire play. The scene starts off with Medea’s conversation she has in lonesome: “My friends, it is decided; as soon as possible I must kill my children and leave this land before I give my enemies a chance to slaughter them with a hand that’s moved by hatred.” (Gainor, Garner, and Puchner 169). These lines imply that Medea believes that others have already plotted to kill her children, and in order for them to die with dignity, it is important that she is the first and only person to commit. She convinces herself that it is an act of bravery, and sees it as one of the only ways for her enemies to not view her as ‘weak’. She reminds herself to suppress her emotions of empathy and sympathy toward her children, and views herself as a woman “cursed by fortune.” (Gainor, Garner, and Puchner 169).
In conclusion of the play, Medea sits in a flying chariot upon Jason’s discovery of her murders. In Medea’s conversation with Jason, she repeatedly displays her abomination toward the past events that occurred in their relationship. She explains to him that his actions were to blame in these crimes, and has to make sure that he understands and learns the lesson she intended to teach him. She admits to him that no pain is too great if it means that he will be hurt worse, and even argues that Zeus will never justify the ‘innocence’ that Jason attempts to proclaim. She tells him that his dishonesty and unfaithfulness was the root of her acts of evil, and that he is to blame. Medea and Jason then continue in their argument, and the argument progresses into a shouting match. Medea and Jason both blame each other for the incidents that took place. Medea is ultimately left with what she intended to do from the beginning; to make sure that Jason is left emotionally distraught by the end of her revenge. She denies Jason the rights to bury the children properly, and this in turn leaves Jason even more emotionally shattered. In result, Jason prays to Zeus for recognition of the immense pain Medea has caused him, and at the very end, the chorus reveals that the gods had intended to ensure that Medea and Jason’s fate played out the way it did.
Throughout the play, Medea’s emotions are in no doubt human-like, but the ways her emotions were executed were what made them so heinous and outrageous. Her ability to manipulate her enemies into believing her lies is unnatural, and one could compare her manipulation to the skills of a present-day serial killer. Her emotions bounce from anxiety one minute, to feeling guilty for overturning her matronly values, to being satisfied committing her murders knowing how hurt Jason will be. Her emotions change so quickly depending on the circumstances of her situation, and her mental health is always put on the back burner if it is able to be validated in the conclusion of Jason’s revenge.
Barlow, Shirley A. “Stereotype and Reversal in Euripides’ ‘Medea’.” Greece & Rome, vol. 36, no. 2, 1989, pp. 158–171.
Gainor, J. Ellen, Garner Jr., Stanton, Martin Puchner. The Norton Anthology of Drama: Second Edition. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014, pp. 135-174.
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