The Enemy Within: The Heroine’s Downfall in Euripides’ Medea
“Nothing in excess” is inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi. As the cornerstone of Greek philosophy, this creed was embraced through a lifestyle of moderation and self-restraint. In spite of this ideal, in his tragic masterpiece Medea, Euripides tackles the brooding inner workings of the human psyche as he explores the dangers of emotional superfluity in his titular heroine. In explicit defiance of feminine conventions, Medea portrays the havoc that unrestrained emotions play in society. Yet, is Medea’s spiral into unrestrained, murderous passions attributed to the rigid structure of her environment, or is she merely a victim of individualized instability as her vexation overwhelms any principles of temperance? At the play’s culmination, the reader is left to consider the circumstances that led to the heroine’s degradation, and whether any preventative measures might have been explored. Ultimately, Medea’s lack of confidence in her own sex eliminates any prospect for achieving emotional balance or restraint, and leads to a new “worst case scenario” of defying stringent Greek social decorum.
The constraints of ancient Greek society lauded temperance and discipline as its foundation in order to obtain a “happy” lifestyle. Indeed, Euripides constructs these conventions during the preamble discourse of the play: “Moderation wins the day first as a better word for men to use, and likewise it is far the best course for them to pursue” (96). Evidently, in response to Medea’s sons’ unaffected attitudes, the Nurse recognizes how “’tis better then to have been trained to live on equal terms/. . . not in proud pomp, but in security” in order to achieve the optimum that life in a stable Greek society offered (98-9). Indeed, the subsidiary character of the Nurse accredits how a compliance with stable equality—between sexes, emotions, and lifestyle choices—concludes with the epitome reward of “security.” Therefore, how then can a nonconformist like Medea successfully attain the benefits of this balanced civilization? Evidently, the unequivocal subversion of the prescribed conventions favoring moderation as “far the best course” yields overwhelming emotional and societal turmoil.
Sprinkled in the play, Euripides cleverly incorporates public views of his play’s nominal heroine in the many evocative, disparaging characterizations of her by the Nurse, her husband Jason, King Creon, and even the Chorus. Indeed, Medea is curtly characterized as a woman with a “heart of stone” (216). From this initial distinction, Medea’s role as a heroine is in overt subversion to Greek constructs of emotional balance. Indeed, as a “wretched suffering woman” with a “loathed existence,” Medea is markedly personified as “ accursed” and even “vile” (188, 319, 324). Throughout the play, Medea’s unorthodox depiction validates her nonconformity to Greek societal expectations. As the play progresses, Medea disgraces her position—both as a woman in an ancient Greek civilization and as a heroine by devaluing her sex. If she smears her own femininity and reputation, is not the reader left to question the mere credibility of her as a heroic figure? Moreover, Medea recognizes the debasing prominence given to women, asserting that, indeed, “women, though by nature little apt for virtuous deeds, are most expert to fashion any mischief” (427). Furthermore, in candid denunciation of her own sex, Medea refuses to act as a representative of a “debased” community, and instead voices her criticism that echoes a masculine perspective.
More than elemental foreshadowing, Euripides integrates this internal monologue in order to demonstrate Medea’s lack of conviction in her own sex. In the same way, her qualms towards her own gender are subject to prominence of emotional mayhem: “[A] woman is a weak creature, ever given to tears” (512). Indeed, faithless in the possibility of a woman securing a secure place in society, our heroine underscores her sex’s incapacity of restraining emotions. Moreover, Medea contends that “of all things that have life and sense, we women are the most hapless creatures” (499). Indeed, Medea refutes any possibility for women to maintain stability within this demanding society. Her very position as a heroine forsakes all that the Greek civilization embodies in terms of the ideal of maintaining equilibrium. Assuredly, throughout Medea, Euripides explores the restrictive constraints of marriage in an ancient Greek society.
Our heroine’s straightforward outrage towards the very institution itself highlights the overwhelming burden of the union within a society that is thus suppressive. Consequently, Medea itemizes the selection process, giving the reader a perspective of the society’s expectations: First must we buy a husband at a great price. . . herein lies the most important issue, whether our choice be good or bad. For / divorce is not honourable to women, nor can we disown our lords. . . If haply we perform these tasks / with thoroughness and tact, and the husband live with us, without resenting the yoke, our life is a happy one; / if not, ’twere best to die (447-50, 453-5). In this passage, Medea explores the nature of marriage as ultimately eternal as divorce cannot be an alternative measure—it is, in fact, “not honourable.” Similarly, the heroine presents the transitive quality of the arrangement that holds its female counterparts to enter a contract of “perform[ing] these tasks with thoroughness and tact” in order to achieve a “happy” life. Indeed, such “tasks” accentuate the laborious undertones of marriage: “Next must the wife, coming as she does to / ways and customs new, since she hath not learnt the lesson in her home, have a / diviner’s eye to see how best to treat the partner of her life” (450-2). In terse criticism of a “typical” Greek upbringing, Medea virtually asserts that a new bride is unprepared “since she hath not learnt the lesson in her home,” further affirming the non-adaptable attitude of women towards “ways and customs new.” Indeed, Medea’s disapproval of a woman’s readiness in her home life evinces an inadequacy in society. If, as she contends, a woman is so unprepared in her youth, that she is ill-equipped to enter into an eternal binding of marriage, does this not suggest a societal void—or type of preventative measure—that must be addressed? Therefore, Medea’s argument of the “unreadiness” of women emphasizes a lacking in the societal constructs.
With regard to the lasting ideals of marriage, Medea contends that when a naïve, even “timorous” bride “finds her honour wronged, no heart is filled with deadlier thoughts than hers” (453). Clearly, a marital arrangement is assigned a perilous cost—without the “fallback” option of divorce, the bride is originally placed in the compliant, unassuming position in the relationship with an unlikely opportunity for elevation. Thus, at the threat of infidelity—regardless of which partner is at fault—it is the woman’s honor that is “wronged,” filling her heart with thoughts that are unpredictable and even “dead[ly].” Here, Medea’s social criticism challenges the very validity of such a contract, suggesting that society’s rigid constraints offer little to the wife’s advantage. Later in the play, even Jason alludes to the hazardous cost of marriage: “You women. . .think all is well so long as your married life runs smooth” (512). The optimal status given to marriage illustrates how many facets are subject to interpersonal success—oversimplified as it may seem, if one achieves marital favor, “all is well.” As the play proceeds, Medea’s emotional instability correspondingly progresses, causing her peers to diagnose her debilitating mentality. At this juncture, Medea’s mind and will are perverted with the encumbrance of exile—at such a violent degree, she is virtually unable to attain any emotional balance or restraint. Indeed, her husband Jason boldly alleges that in Medea’s eyes “all is evil” (577). Evidently, this declaration underlines an evident lack of impartiality that is coupled with emotional stability. Instead, Medea’s perspective has been jeopardized antipathetically, abandoning any likelihood of achieving moderation. In the same way, Medea grapples with the abhorrent notion of murdering her two sons at the play’s climax. As the voice of reason imbues her thinking, Medea exudes her instinctual maternal qualities in celebration of the young lives before her: “O my babes, my babes, let your mother kiss your hands. Ah! hands I love so / well, O lips most dear to me! O noble form and features of my children, I wish / ye joy. . .” (488-90). In marvel of her sons’ physical attributes, Medea allows their youthful manifestations to be overwhelmingly unacknowledged as she remembers her initial intentions, bidding that her children “go, leave [her]” as she “cannot bear to look upon [them] for [her] sorrow wins the day” (500). With these instructions, it is clear that Medea’s choice of emotion over logic is a conscious one, as she professes that “at least I understand the awful deed I am about to do; but passion, that cause of direst woes to mortal man, hath triumphed o’er my sober thoughts” (501-2). Here, Medea validates how unrestrained “passion,”—which is the “case of direst woes,”—has overwhelmed clearheaded balance. Indeed, when this “cursed witch” confesses to the brutal murder of her two young sons, she despicably justifies that the slaying was in order to “vex thy [Jason’s] heart” (477). Clearly, such grounds are depraved, illustrating how Medea’s corrupt actions are a result of her crippling mental state.
Lauded as the crux of Greek philosophy, moderation was an ideal that this society adopted in regards to achieving a lifestyle that was emotionally balanced. Yet, in Euripides’ tragedy Medea, the playwright explores the very antithesis—what would happen if one conceded to unrestrained emotions? The answer is directly personified via the tragic heroine Medea’s spiral into uncontrolled, violent passions that sustains as extreme as murder. Indeed, as a candid nonconformist to society’s rigid expectations, Medea allows her instability to overwhelm any possibility of temperance. Yet, from the beginning, Medea’s refusal to act as a representative of her sex through her criticism of women’s inherit potential for emotional disorder, emphasizes the theme’s relevancy. By exploring the stringent constraints of the institution of marriage and the inadequate role ancient Greek society played in childhood, the reader is left to consider how these fixed environment and influential deficiencies could, indeed, catalyze emotional havoc. At the play’s culmination, Medea’s character has been ultimately transformed into one whose mind and will has been jeopardized, regretfully leading to the detestable murder of her young sons. Therefore, Euripides explores an alternative lifestyle that blatantly defies rigorous Greek conventions—the results are catastrophic.
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