Medea: Stranger to Herself

The tragedy Medea is one of the best-known works of the Greek playwright Euripides. It is the story of a woman who wants to wound her husband so badly that she murders her own children in order to cause him pain. In Medea, as well as some of his other plays, Euipides takes an approach unusual for Greek dramatists of the day: he sympathizes with and legitimizes the grievances of women. There seems to be, therefore, a legitimate case for describing Euripides as a sort of early feminist playwright. However, when Medea,as ostensibly his strongest feminist play, is more closely examined, the evidence in the text leads to an altered conclusion.

Anyone wishing to explore feminist themes in Euripides' work must inevitably come to Medea,simply because it is a play which so directly addresses women's issues. Thre are at least two other prominent Euripides plays, Hecabe and Electra,which feature women as the central characters and which use all-female choruses, but the tragedies in these works are not caused or directly affected by the gender of their main characters, given the time and place in which the dramas occur. Hecabe murders in order to avenge the death of her son, an action and a motivation open to any parent, not just a mother. She is more a victim of defeat in warfare than a victim of patriarchy. A male slave faced, like Hecabe, with the treachery of Polymestor, would be in a similar position. Electra acts to revenge her father, along with her brother Orestes, and while their motivations may vary to some degree, her participation in the death of her mother is far more filial than feminine. Orestes is as powerless as his sister, exiled to another country. The only significant way in which Hecabe and Electra are affected by their gender is that it adds to their powerlessness in the face of injustice.

Medea, on the other hand, suffers from particularly masculine persecution. She is a woman who has betrayed her father and her country, committing murder to be with Jason, whose ambition prompts him to desert her and marry the princess Glauce. This could never happen to a man in ancient Greece, still less to a man in the world of Greek legend. Medea has, by her bettrayal, made herself into more of a vulnerable Greek woman than the citizens of Corinth would believe. The ideal Greek woman stays at home, is ashamed even to be seen by strangers, and must be in all matters dependent on and subservient to her husband. In Electra,the chorus of Greek women echoes this, telling us that "A wife ought in all things to accept / Her husband's judgement, if she is wise"(141). Medea, despite being a strong-willed and "clever woman, skilled in many evil arts"(26), has effectively put herself, as a Greek wife should, at her husband's mercy. By betraying her home, she is dependent on his continued support of her. Through marriage and motherhood, Medea has become feminized in at least some acceptably Greek ways - Demosthenes tells us that the purpose of wives is to "bear us legitimate children," which Medea has done. And while Medea is not wholly submissive in her marriage, she cannot affort to rebel, either. Medea is therefore more challenged by her womanhood than Hecabe or Electra when her troubles begin.

Much of Medea's motivation for revenge can be seen as rising from her status as a woman, as well. While all of the different causeds for her actions form a complicated tangle of motive, there are definitely "weak" feminine motivations implied. Creon, Jason, and even the chorus accuse her of sexual jealousy, Creon stating that she has been angered by being "barred from Jason's bed"(26), adn Jason lamenting over her jealousy, "If only children could be got some other way, / Without the female sex!"(34). Also, it could be argued, her need for revenge stems from the unique position of a disenfranchised woman, the cause of her problem. Her pride, which she cites as the main reason for her revenge, might well have been satisfied by societally-appointed justice if such a recourse were available to her. But because she has become a politically powerless and dependent woman, immoderate revenge becomes the only way for her fierce pride to be appeased.

Despite all of these plot points revolving around Medea's femininity, there remains a problem with classifying Medea's triumph as a feminist one. It is theoretically possible for a male to be placed in her powerless position as well - and her revenge is ultimately not taken as a woman. Throughout Medea, we watch the title character gradually deny her womanhood, growing further and further away from her role as wife and mother and alienating herself from the initially sympathetic chorus of Corinthian women. When the chorus first speaks with Medea, it treats her as a woman like themselves to whom the unimaginable has happened, expecting her to be like them in moderation: "Check this passionate grief over your husband / Which wastes you away"(22). Their tone is sympathetic and resigned, agreeing that "To punish Jason will be just. / I do not wonder that you take such wrongs to heart"(25). Just after Creon has declared her exile, the chorus pours forth its greatest sympathy for Medea, pitying her alienation and sorrowing that women are maligned as the deceitful sex when it is men who lie. Medea prays to Hecate, goddess of the moon, the underworld, and witchcraft, and her actions are approved by the chorus. This is possibly the most highly feminized moment in the play, with Medea and her concerned neighbors united in her invocation of a symbol of feminine power and their united recognition of the unfairness with which they are treated.

This moment, however, does not last. If deceit truly is, as the chorus claims, the tool of men, Medea learns how to wield it well. After a confrontation with Jason and a lucky meeting with Aegeus, during which the chorus continues to support her, she finally tells them just what her plans of revenge entail. It is at this point that Medea begins to assert her independence of Greek womanhood and her total embrace of something other. Her plans are exotic and "Asiatic," involving arcane knowledge of poisons strange and frightening to the Corinthian women, and her intention to kill her own children begins their rejection of her as a woman, as they ask "How will Athens welcome / You, the child-killer / Whose presence is pollution?"(43). What Medea declares here as her motivation for the deed - her pride - dismisses the accusations of woman's sexual jealousy proposed by Creon and Jason: "I can endure guilt, however horrible; / The laughter of my enemies I will not endure"(41). This is a statement that might be made by a Greek soldier going to war, more likely than an outraged housewife.

Her change from nobly outraged woman to the sort of "eloquent Greek," skilled in manipulation, that she accuses Jason of being, causes the chorus to turn on her. They begin to pity "unhappy Jason, ill-starred in marriage"(47), and turn finally on Medea, accusing her, as did the men, of sexual jealousy. Medea has traveled, at this point, so far from what a Greek woman ought to be that even the passive chorus of previously sympathetic women seeks to control and discredit her by making her grand revenge nothing more than "jealousy of your marriage-bed"(47). After her final struggle over killing her children, in which Medea declares proudly, "I'll not leave sons of mine to be the victims of / My enemies' rage"(50), Medea and the chorus occupy opposite ideals. Medea has thrown away the last of her Greek-style womanhood, reveling pitilessly in the details of the death os Creon and his daughter, while the Corinthian women become more emotional and sentimental about death and family. The chorus mourns "Death / Bearing off your child into the unknown"(51) and names Medea no longer a woman but a "Bloody-handed fiend of vengeance"(56). At the same time, Medea clearly and intentionally states that she is no longer a woman in this moment, and that to be a woman would only be to succumb to weakness:

My accursed hand, come, take the sword;
Take it, and forward to your frontier of despair . .
No cowardice, no tender memories; forget
That you once loved them, that of your body they were born.
For one short day forget your children. (55)

The chorus has no choice but to renounce her, to name her other than human, and definitely not female. They call her "stone and iron," and wail, "What wickedness, what sorrow you have caused on the earth"(57).

Medea's final escape and conversation with Jason show how completely she has changed from the woman she was at the beginning of the play to the pitiless avenger she has become. Where before she prayed to Hecate, goddess of the moon and symbolic mother of her talents, she now rides in the chariot of the sun god, depending on her own violent masculinity and literal male ancestor to save her. She no longer speaks of herself to acknowledge her status as wife and mother, speaking of herself in the third person when such terms are used. She tells Jason the children were dear "to their mother" and totally renounces her relationship with him, telling him that his wife - Glauce, murdered by Medea herself - "waits to be buried." She is no longer his wife, and she is no longer a woman that can be moved by emotion, refusing him even the comfort of touching his dead sons. Jason becomes a weeping mother, Medea an immobile stranger.

Medea is not truly a feminist play. Although the power of right on the side of injured women may briefly draw together Medea and the chorus, nothing comes of female power but defeminization. Medea is victorious, but she has had to renounce so much of her identity - wife, mother, woman - in order to achieve that victory, that it is a triumph that rings hollowly for those who would seek a strongly feminist ending.

Works Cited

(Note: Any and all links in this section lead to web-published versions of these texts, which have different citations than the ones listed here.)

Euripides. Medea and Other Plays Trans. Philip Vellacott. New Yrok: Penguin Books, 1979.

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