Euripides’ Medea is among a series of play in which stunning, powerful women are featured on the Euripidean stage. The play was formulated at the onset of the Peloponnesian war and sought to point out the plight of women. This play was regarded as one of the most powerful of the Greek tragedies in which the theme of women and love featured most. Medea’s opening speech to the chorus harbors passionate account of the plight of women:
“Surely, of all creatures that have life and will, we women are the most wretched….Still more, a foreign woman, coming among new laws, new customs, needs and the skill of magic, to find out what her home could not teach her, how to treat the man whose bed she shares. And if in this exacting toil we are successful, and our husband does not struggle under the marriage yoke, our life is enviable. Otherwise, death is better”(213-261).
This phrase portrays Medea to be somewhat helpless; a pitiable woman entangled in the constraints of her sex. However, this portrayal is to some extent a pretense because she is not certainly innocent as she asserts to be. Euripides frequently depicted Medea as a wicked woman and at many instances; male audience would probably feel that such a female should be beaten rather than being listened. Medea was scheming and manipulative, and she betrayed those people who trusted her. She murdered four people in the play including her children and father. Despite all these frenzy, passion, and hatred, Medea was no doubt a common woman pleading in opposition to the strict female life she endured.
It is evident that there is no clear portrayal of gender relations emerging in the play. Euripides uses Medea as an instrument to present the many injustices suffered by women in the ancient Athens. More specifically lack public life or freedom of choice in marriage. Men were allowed to divorce women without much ado making wives insecure because they have no control over their futures. Medea points out that the reputation women have gained for deception and indirect manipulation as depicted by her personal history and practice as a sorceress stems from the only avenues of power left available for women by the society. Women in the play are depicted to be bad. However, this is because of the bad circumstances they are put in which they cannot control.
What Medea desires for revenge is the drive behind the action of the play. The horrific outcome of the play where Medea murders her children to exact revenge on her husband Jason who abandons her and exercising his prerogative as a male to marry another woman clearly portrays women as the most wretched. Medea’s hatred towards Jason is barely understandable because Medea abandoned her family, friends, and country for Jason who repays her sacrifices by marrying another woman. Medea believes that killing her children is requisite because she wants to completely destroy her husband’s happiness. Medea believed that if the children lived then, Jason would still have some remaining comfort. Despite the fact that Jason wronged Medea, this does not justify her decision to kill her two sons.
The dialogue that Medea had before murdering the children was chilling. Part of her was unwilling to carry on the revenge. But she convinces herself that she must fulfill the plan. Her hatred for Jason is more powerful as compared to her love for the children. Euripides clearly explains that tragedy happens when hatred overpowers love. Medea seals the fate of her children from her opening lamentation after passing through a period of suicidal helplessness because of being divorced. Medea wishes the crushing of every remaining trace of their love including their children (Lines 110-114). The nurse portentously foreshadows that Medea will not cool her rage until she destabilizes the city, and the King Creon accepts to banish Medea out of the town because of the fear of the possible consequences emanating from her negative mood.
Euripides selectively unearths the elements of Medea’s past that demonstrate her readiness to sacrifice family to pursue her irresistible will. Despite the fact that we can argue that the children’s death are fated since the commencement of the play, it nevertheless holds true that such happenings are a representation of the triumph of perverse forces within human behavior. To reach where her feelings are out of proportion, her intrinsic nature has to be transformed, paving the way to conflict of some type. On the same note, Medea’s ultimate indecisiveness and motivational conflicts shows the warping of natural sentiments.
Medea is depicted as a murderess as she breaks all the divine and social laws by murdering her children. She commits the final crime of passion depicting her as powerful and at the same time weak. Despite this, it is important to note that Medea was not any Greek war hero but rather a lonely woman far away from home, deserted, condemned and feeling betrayed. Euripides was trying to depict the position of women who were under society regulations but are overpowered by their inner turmoil resulting to outer destruction.
Euripides also uses other women in the play to depict the plight of women. The nurse, who was a servant to Medea and Medea’s children, is worried about the child which foreshadows the children’s death. The presence of the nurse is primarily felt at the beginning of the play where she addresses different subjects not all related to the action of the play. The nurse recounts and laments the series of events that occurred resulting to the current predicament in Athens where Medea’s “world has turned to enmity” (Line 15) (McDermott, pg.24). In the ancient drama, a nurse was something of a stock character; a nurse often acted as a confidante of and go-between for women of royal status instead of a slave engrossed in childcare. However, in Euripides, the nurse took the role of confidante and conspirator. The Nurse is loyal and does not approve Jason’s decisions. The nurse speaks of her mistress Medea, but regards Jason acts as those of betrayal. However, the nurse acknowledges the plight of women when he accepts that he (Jason) is the master and that she is supposed to be loyal not only to her mistress but also the oikos. The nurse concern was with Medea; she mentions that the children are victims of Jason’s betrayal. The nurse says “She detests her children and she takes no pleasure even in seeing them, I am afraid that she may devise something unprecedented” (36-7).
Jason abandons Medea for the beautiful young princess. However, she eventually meets her death after accepting the poisoned coronet and dress as a gift (McDermott, pg. 36). The princess presence in the play is consistently felt like an object of Medea’s Jealousy. Medea murder’s Glauce to satisfy her desires of punishing Jason as severely as possible. Euripides is perceived by some individuals to be a first feminist. He shows the audience that the patriarchal system stems destructive inequality, especially when it comes to the double nature that defines the institution of marriage.
There are many instances in the play where the husband had extreme control over their marriage and female partners. Medea’s rage was as a result of being abandoned for another woman. She plots to revenge by not only killing Jason’s new wife, but also their children. Glauce was cruelly murdered despite the fact that she was completely innocent and a victim of circumstances. This signifies Medea’s perspective on the plight of women where women have a much lesser position in the society as compared to their male counterparts. Women had particular functions and expectations. They were expected to be obedient and trustworthy. However, women still experience incidence of adultery and trickery despite these expectations.
Jason’s new pride remains nameless in the play. This signifies the position in which women held in the ancient Athens. On the same note, it shows women’s subordination to men which are inextricable from the core social order in Greece. Greek boasted of being democratic with no dictatorship. However, city practices were dependent on slave labor and oppression of women (McDermott, pg. 44). Many other ancient societies were more kind to women as compared to Greek. These societies also functioned devoid of slave labor.
In conclusion, it is evident that Medea’s actions of killing her family members, children, and Jason’s new bride proof the judgment that women feel desolate and heartbroken. Other female characters in the play also show that women are wretched as put by Medea. Euripides uses all the female characters in the play to explore the plight of women, their position in the ancient Greece, and their subordination to the male counterparts.
McDermott, Emily A. Euripides’ Medea: The Incarnation of Disorder. Penn State Press, 2010.
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