Medea is a woman of extreme behavior and extreme emotion. For her passionate love for Jason, she sacrificed all, committing unspeakable acts on his behalf. But his betrayal of her has transformed passion into rage. Her violent and intemperate heart, formerly devoted to Jason, now is set on his destruction. The Greeks were very interested in the extremes of emotion and the consequences of leaving emotion unchecked; they also tended to see strong passion and rage as part and parcel of greatness. Medea is an example of passion carried too far, in a woman perversely set on choosing rage over mercy and reason.
The seductive appeal of revenge is part of the play's enduring popularity. Medea is willing to sacrifice everything to make her revenge perfect. She murders her own children, paradoxically, to protect them from the counter-revenge of her enemies; she also kills them to hurt Jason, although in slaying them she is dooming herself to a life of remorse and grief. But part of Medea's appeal is its power as a revenge fantasy; just like Medea, all have at one time or another been beset by enemies whose power is institutionally protected and unfair. And like Medea, we have fantasized about the satisfaction of a perfect revenge. Like the Chorus, we watch Medea with a mixture of horror and excitement.
Greatness and pride
The Greeks were fascinated by the thin line between greatness and hubris. Throughout their literature, there is a sense that the same traits that make a man or woman great can lead to their destruction. Euripides plays with the idea of greatness here, often to surprising effects. Medea has some of the makings of a great hero, but Euripides distorts and dislocates these traits, twisting some of the conventions of his art. Her greatness of intellect and self-absorption are beyond doubt, but the reduced field for these talents makes her into a monster.
Pride, closely connected to greatness, is likewise distorted. While many tragedies give us a kind of clean satisfaction in the tragic, any satisfaction gained from watching Medea takes perverse form. Medea's pride drives her to unnecessarily brutal action. There is a tremendous sense of waste. She fully exacts her revenge, and then takes the brutality a step further, beyond the bounds of myth, by slaying her own children (Euripides' addition to the story). Hers is the damaged and distorted pride of a woman, condescended to for her sex and her barbarian origin, who is nonetheless superior to everyone around her. After all she has suffered, in some ways Medea is most infuriated when she is ridiculed by fools.
The position of women
Euripides was fascinated by women and the contradictions of the Greek sex-gender system; his treatment of gender is the most sophisticated one to be found in the works of any ancient Greek writer. Medea's opening speech to the Chorus is Classical Greek literature's most eloquent statement about the injustices that befall women. He also recognizes that the position of women, and their subordination to men, is inextricable from the very core of social order in Greece. Greek society functions thanks to injustice. Athens, a city that prided itself as a place more free than the neighboring dictatorships, was nonetheless a city that depended on slave labor and the oppression of women. (The typical apology offered by admirers of Athens is that all ancient societies were sexist and dependent on slave labor; this generality is untrue. Many societies were more generous in their treatment of women than the Greeks were; and many societies functioned, even in the ancient world, without slave labor.) Euripides was aware of these hypocrisies, and he often pointed out the ways that Greek society attempted to efface or excuse the injustices it perpetrated.
At the same time, Medea is not exactly a feminist role model. Euripides shows the difficulties that befall women, but he does not give us tinny virgin heroines. He gives us real women, who have suffered and become twisted by their suffering. What we see is not a story of female liberation, but a war between the sexes in which all emerge scarred.
The Other is a key theme. Medea's foreignness is emphasized from the start: the Nurse, from the very opening lines, reminds us that Medea comes from a distant and exotic land. Several points should be born in mind when reflecting on this aspect of the play. Remember that the Other is a complex and multifaceted concept: it comprises the foreign, the exotic, the unknown, the feared. The Other is also essential for self-definition: as the Greeks ascribe certain traits to barbarians, they are implying certain things about themselves. Barbarians are savage; we Greeks are not. Barbarians are superstitious; we Greeks are rational. But throughout the course of the play, Euripides destabilizes these easy binaries. He will show, as he does in other plays, that the Other is not exclusively something external to Greece. The ideas Greeks have about themselves are often false. There is much, for the Greeks and for us, that we do not know about ourselves.
Modern audiences have difficulty conceiving of how horrible exile was for the ancient Greeks. A person's city-state was home and protector; to wander, without friends or shelter, was considered a fate as horrible as death. Medea, for the sake of her husband, has made herself an exile. She is far from home, without family or friends to protect her. In her overzealous advocacy of her husband's interest, she has also made their family exiles in Corinth. Because of her actions in Iolcus, Jason cannot return home. Their position is vulnerable. Jason, hero of the Golden Fleece (although Euripides emphasizes that Medea was the true agent behind the success of the quest) is now a wanderer. His marriage is shrewd and calculating: he takes a bride of Corinth's royal family. He is faithless, but he has a point when he argues to Medea that something needed to be done to provide their family with security.
Euripides links the themes of exile and the position of women. When emphasizing the circumstances women must bear after marriage (leaving home, living among strangers), Medea is reminding us of the conditions of exile. Her position, then, is doubly grave, as she is an exile in the ordinary sense and also an exile in the sense that all women are exiles. She is also a foreigner, and so to the Greeks she will always be "barbarian."
Euripides emphasizes Medea's cunning and cleverness. These traits, which should be admired, also cause suffering for Medea. This theme is linked to the theme of pride and the theme of woman's position. Medea tells Creon that it is better to be born stupid, for men despise the clever. Part of her difficulty is that she has no real outlet for her gifts. Eleanor Wilner calls Medea "a Machiavel without a country to rule" (4). Her force, her intellect, and her strength of will all exceed her station. The Greeks, though they have some respect for her, often treat her smugly because of her sex and her barbarian origins. She is surrounded by people less intelligent and resourceful than she, but social power and respect is theirs. Remember that Aristotle considered the "unscrupulously clever" woman so distasteful as to be a subject unfit for drama; his statement reflects typically Greek attitudes. Medea is despised for talents that should win her praise; she is also terrifyingly free. Because she is an outsider to normal order, she behaves without restraint or morality. Her genius, denied an empire to build, will instead be used on the smaller playing field of personal revenge.
Manipulation is an important theme. Medea, Jason, and Creon all try their hand at manipulation. Jason used Medea in the past; he now manipulates the royal family of Corinth to secure his own ends. Creon has made a profitable match between his daughter and Jason, hoping to benefit from Jason's fame as the hero of the Golden Fleece. But Medea is the master of manipulation. Medea plays perfectly on the weaknesses and needs of both her enemies and her friends. Medea plays to Creon's pity, and to the old king's costly underestimation of the sorceress. With Aegeus, she uses her skills as a bargaining chip and takes advantage of the king's soft-heartedness to win a binding oath from him. Against Jason, she uses his own shallowness, his unmerited pride, and his desire for dominance. She plays the fawning and submissive woman, to her husband's delight and gratification. Jason buys the act, demonstrating his lack of astuteness and his willingness to be duped by his own fantasies.
Medea Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Medea is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.