Like many Greek tragedies, Euripides’s Medea explores themes about society and human nature. One of the main themes presented in Medea is the role and condition of women in ancient Greek society. Both of the main characters, Medea and Jason, possess qualities that conform to the gender expectations of ancient Greece, and it would be unsurprising if audiences of this play in ancient times viewed the two characters as traditional portrayals of a woman and a man. However, many parts of the play suggest that Medea is a feminist figure who challenges the gender and social norms of her time, and many aspects of the tragedy revolve around issues of women’s rights and the marginalization of women in society. Careful analysis reveals that Medea is not a stereotypical woman but a woman who understands that there is an imbalance of power between a man and a woman and resists this injustice.
Medea’s monologue to the women of Corinth in the beginning parts of the play is a powerful proclamation of the unjust marginalization of women in society. Still in anguish over Jason’s betrayal of her, Medea cries out, “We women are the most beset by trials of any species that has breath and power of thought.”1 She publicly states to all of the women in the city that the condition of being a woman is difficult and full of struggles. Medea then goes on to say that the burden of being a woman is not just difficult but also unequal to that of being a man. She presents marriage as an example of the imbalance of power between a man and a woman. Getting married and having a husband is inextricably tied to a woman’s reputation, Medea argues. Therefore, if a husband leaves his wife, Medea states that death is better than living with the repercussions.2 For men, however, marriage does not bind them in any way. If a man is ever “irked with those he has at home, he goes elsewhere to get relief and ease his state of mind.”3 When a man leaves his wife, his city, his family, and friends will not desert him and view him as an outcast. On the other hand, a woman who is deserted by her husband is likely to face humiliation and a decrease in status. The story of Jason and Medea is the ultimate example of this inequality between men and women because Jason, after abandoning Medea, does not experience any consequences while Medea is exiled from her city, deserted, and degraded.4
Medea denounces that women essentially live in a system in which they must get husbands to be reputable and deemed valuable by society, but in exchange must submit to being objectified by their husbands. She states that women are, “obliged to buy a husband at excessive cost, and then accept him as the master of our body.”5 Her speech of dissent manifests Medea as a woman going against the status quo. That the speech is addressed to the “women of Corinth” also suggests that she is urging the other women to realize their collective plight.6 Furthermore, Medea pushes against gender norms by challenging the idea that the activities and lives of men are more strenuous and dangerous that that of women’s. She claims that she “would rather join the battle rank of shields three times than undergo birth-labor once,” arguing that the typical duty of men, warfare, are not more arduous or even more dangerous than the typical duty of women, birth-labor.7 This is yet another example of Medea chipping away at the stereotypical and unfair depictions of women and their experiences in society. Medea’s monologue is powerfully feminist because it clearly identifies the inequality between men and women in society and passionately expresses and decries the lamentation and pain that accompanies the condition of being a woman.
Shortly after Medea’s monologue against the gender norms in society, Creon banishes Medea from Corinth and calls her a “Grim scowling scourge against your husband.”8 Creon then goes on to say, “I am afraid of you” to Medea.9 The moment when Creon, a man of authority, banishes Medea, a woman who publicly denounced gender inequality, seems emblematic of a man being fearful of a woman who goes against the status quo. Creon getting rid of Medea is an instance of the powerful suppressing dissent in order to maintain the existing power structure. In this sense, Medea’s experiences of state oppression after being abandoned by her husband, not only presents the marginalization of women, but also suggests that the gender norms of society are systematically maintained. Women cannot break out of the manmade mold of what a proper woman should be without fear of being ostracized or discarded by society and the powerful.
The dialogue between Medea and Jason is significant in that it shows the obliviousness of men to the plight of women. Jason criticizes Medea for her “fiery temper” and says that her anger and emotions were what brought upon her banishment.10 He then justifies his betrayal of Medea by saying,
My motive is the highest of priorities: that is for us to live a prosperous life, and not run a mile from those who are impoverished. I wish to raise my children as befits my noble house, and father brothers for these sons I’ve had by you; to put them on a part to unify the line, and so achieve a happy life.11
Jason’s justification for his actions is that he did what was best for everyone. By abandoning Medea and marrying into a noble house, Jason argues that their children will be able to live comfortable lives. His argument, however, is completely ignorant of the experience of Medea as a woman losing her husband. Jason, as a man, doesn’t realize that Medea’s life, reputation, and status in society were decimated due to him abandoning her because he didn’t face any of the same repercussions. He believes that Medea is angry at him merely because of the loss of a bedmate and finds this disgusting saying,
You women go so far to believe, as long as your sex life goes well, then everything is fine; but then if some misfortune strikes the realm of bed, you count what’s best and finest as your deepest hate. I say it should have been a possibility for mankind to engender children from some other source, and for the female sex not to exist. That way there’d be no troubles spoiling human life.12
Jason’s male privilege blinds him to the gender inequality that exists in society. He cannot comprehend that Medea’s anger derives from the loss of status, value, and dignity as a human being and reduces her emotions to an issue of sex, thereby falling victim to the stereotype of women being innately immoral creatures. This dialogue between Jason and Medea suggests that inequality that is deeply embedded in a society and culture is difficult to recognize because it is presented as the norm. Moreover, it signifies that the group who benefits from an imbalance of power cannot truly understand the struggles and plight of the marginalized.
Euripides ends Medea by employing a deus ex machina in which Helios, Medea’s grandfather, sends her a flying chariot which she takes, with the bodies of her dead children, to Athens. This ending provides a clear resolution to the tragedy. Whether or not the chariot signifies that the gods have sided with Medea, the condition of Medea in comparison to that of Jason at the end of the play seems to indicate the moral of the story. Jason, after abandoning Medea, loses everything. His newly wed wife and his children are dead. And he’s left in a state of utter despair. He, in the end, has to face the consequences of his actions. Medea, unlike Jason, is given a vehicle to flee from any consequences that may arise from her actions. Although she also suffers from the loss of her children, she was able to achieve the justice that she thought was proper. She was able to punish Jason for his actions even when society refused to. And before flying away, Medea says to Jason, “You can’t have thought that you could spurn my marriage bed and then proceed to live a life of pleasure, reveling in mockery of me?”13 Medea represents the inevitable implosion of society when a group of people are oppressed and made subservient. She is the personification of the collective anger and pain of women living in a man’s society. The violence and the chaos she creates is symbolic of the unleashing of the pent-up rage of women that has built up in society for generations.
- Euripides, Medea, Euripides 1, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, translated by Oliver Taplin (University of Chicago, 2013), 230-231.
- Euripides, Medea, 243.
- Euripides, Medea, 243-245.
- Euripides, Medea, 255.
- Euripides, Medea, 234.
- Euripides, Medea, 214.
- Euripides, Medea, 250-253.
- Euripides, Medea, 271.
- Euripides, Medea, 282.
- Euripides, Medea, 447.
- Euripides, Medea, 558-565.
- Euripides, Medea, 569-575.
- Euripides, Medea, 1356.