Medea, a play by the Greek playwright Euripides, explores the Greek-barbarian dichotomy through the character of Medea, a princess from the”barbarian”, or non-Greek, land of Colchis. Throughout the play, it becomesevident to the reader that Medea is no ordinary woman by Greek standards.
Central to the whole plot is Medea’s barbarian origins and how they are relatedto her actions. In this paper, I am attempting to answer questions such as howMedea behaves like a female, how she acts heroically from a male point of view,why she killed her children, if she could have achieved her goal without killingthem, if the murder was motivated by her barbarian origins, and how she dealswith the pain of killing her children.As an introduction to the play, the status of women in Greek societyshould be briefly discussed.
In general, women had very few rights. In theeyes of men, the main purposes of women in Greek society were to do houseworksuch as cooking and cleaning, and bear children. They could not vote, ownproperty, or choose a husband, and had to be represented by men in all legalproceedings. In some ways, these Greek women were almost like slaves. There isa definite relationship between this subordination of women and what transpiresin the play. Jason decides that he wants to divorce Medea and marry theprincess of Corinth, casting Medea aside as if they had never been married.
This sort of activity was acceptable by Greek standards, and shows thesubordinate status of the woman, who had no say in any matter like this.Even though some of Medea’s actions were not typical of the averageGreek woman, she still had attitudes and emotions common among women. Forinstance, Medea speaks out against women’s status in society, proclaiming thatthey have no choice of whom to marry, and that a man can rid themselves of awoman to get another whenever he wants, but a woman always has to “keep hereyes on one alone.” (231-247) Though it is improbable that women went aroundopenly saying things of this nature, it is likely that this attitude was sharedby most or all Greek women.
Later in the play, Medea debates with herself overwhether or not to kill her children: “Poor heart, let them go, have pity uponthe children.” (1057). This shows Medea’s motherly instincts in that she caresabout her children. She struggles to decide if she can accomplish her goal ofrevenge against Jason without killing her children because she cares for themand knows they had no part in what their father did. Unfortunately, Medea’sdesire to exact revenge on Jason is greater than her love for her children, andat the end of the play she kills them.
Medea was also a faithful wife to Jason.She talks about how she helped Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, thenhelped him escape, even killing her own brother. (476-483). The fact that shewas willing to betray her own family to be with Jason shows her loyalty to him.
Therefore, her anger at Jason over him divorcing her is understandable.On the other hand, Medea shows some heroic qualities that were notcommon among Greek women. For example, Medea is willing to kill her own brotherto be with Jason. In classical Greece, women and killing were probably notcommonly linked. When she kills her brother, she shows that she is willing todo what is necessary to “get the job done”, in this case, to be with Jason.Secondly, she shows the courage to stand up to Jason.
She believes that she hasbeen cheated and betrayed by him. By planning ways to get back at him forcheating on her, she is standing up for what she believes, which in this case isthat she was wronged by Jason, but in a larger sense, she is speaking outagainst the inferior status of women, which effectively allows Jason to discardMedea at will. Third, she shows that she is clever and resourceful. Ratherthan use physical force to accomplish her plans, she uses her mind instead: “itis best to…make away with them by poison.
” (384-385) While physical strengthcan be considered a heroic quality, cleverness can be as well. She does in factpoison the princess and the king of Corinth; interestingly, however, she doesnot poison them directly. “I will send the children with gifts…to thebride.
..and if she wears them upon her skin…
she will die.” (784-788) Thisshows her cleverness because she is trying to keep from being linked to thecrime, though everyone is able to figure out that she was responsible anyway.In a way, though, she is almost anti-heroic because she is not doing the “dirtywork” herself, which makes her appear somewhat cowardly. Finally, there is therevenge factor. Many times heroes were out for revenge against someone who didthem or a friend wrong, and in this case Medea is no exception, since she wantsto have revenge against Jason for divorcing her without just cause.There are two main reasons why Medea decides to kill her children. Thefirst, and more obvious one, is that she feels that it is a perfect way tocomplement the death of the princess in getting revenge on Jason.
When shetells the chorus of the plans to kill the children, they wonder if she has theheart to kill her children, to which she replies, “yes, for this is the bestway to wound my husband.” (817). This shows that she believes that by killingher children, she will basically ruin Jason’s life, effectively getting herrevenge. The second reason for Medea killing her children has nothing to dowith revenge.
If she left her children with Jason, they would be living in asociety that would look down upon them since they have partly barbarian origins.She did not want her children to have to suffer through that. Also, if herchildren are mocked for being outsiders, then this reflects badly on Medea, andshe said that she does not want to give her enemies any reason to laugh at her.(781-782) Since she does not want to leave her children with Jason, they reallyhave no place else to where they could go, being barbarians in a Greek city:”my children, there is none who can give them safety.” (793) For these tworeasons, Medea decides that killing her children is the best way to accomplishher plan: getting revenge and keeping her children away from Jason.Whether or not Medea could have accomplished her goal without killingher children is debatable. On one hand, if we look at Medea’s objective only asseeking revenge against Jason, then she could have accomplished that withoutkilling her children.
Killing the princess, Jason’s new wife, would causeenough grief for Jason so that her goal would be accomplished. We can inferthat the death of Jason’s wife would be more damaging to him than the deaths ofhis children because Jason was going to let Medea take the children with herinto exile and did not try to keep them for himself. Therefore, once theprincess was dead, killing the children, while it causes additional grief forJason, really is not necessary. Even though Medea does not seem to believe it,killing her children probably causes more pain for her than Jason. She justdoes not see it because she is so bent on revenge against Jason.
On the otherhand, if we define Medea’s objective in two parts, one being revenge, and theother to keep the children away, then it is possible that she had to kill herchildren. As for the revenge part, it was not necessary that she kill herchildren for the reasons just discussed. However, she may have needed to killthem to keep Jason from getting them. If Jason decided he wanted his children,there is not much Medea could do about it, other than kill them. Also, it ispossible that she did not want to take them with her into exile because theycould make it more difficult for her to reach Athens. For whatever the reason,however, it is probable that she needed to kill her children to carry out herplan, since she accomplished two different goals through their deaths.
The murder of Medea’s children is certainly caused in part by herbarbarian origins. The main reason that Jason decides to divorce Medea to marrythe princess is that he will have a higher status and more material wealth beingmarried to the king’s daughter. (553-554) In other words, Jason believes thatMedea’s barbarian origins are a burden to him, because there is a stigmaattached to that. In his mind, having the chance to be rich outweighs the loveof a barbarian wife. Medea’s barbarian status is a burden to herself as well.
Once separated from Jason, she becomes an outsider with no place to go, becausethe barbarians were not thought too highly of in Greek society. Had Medea notbeen a barbarian, it is likely that Jason would not have divorced her, andtherefore, she would not have had to kill her children. But since she is abarbarian, this sets in motion the events of the play, and in her mind the bestcourse of action is to kill her children. Just because she is non-Greek doesnot necessarily mean that her way of thinking would be different from theGreeks; in other words, her way of thinking did not necessarily cause her tokill her children.
Medea deals with the pain that the deaths of her children cause herquite well. She does this by convincing herself that her revenge against herhusband was worth the price of her children’s death. When asked about killingher children, she replies, “So it must be. No compromise is possible.” (819)This shows that she is bent on revenge, and that she is justifying their deathsto get her revenge.
However, she does struggle with her decision to kill them.She is sad that she must take their lives, but also tells herself that it is intheir best interests, as evidenced by what she says to her children: “I wish youhappiness, but not in this world.” (1073) She does not seem to have a problemwith killing her children once it comes time to actually carry out the act.
Buther motherly instincts will not allow her to totally abandon her children afterthey are dead, as she decides to hold a yearly feast and sacrifice at theirburial site. (1383-1384) But in the end, we can see that she dealt with thepain surprisingly well.Two main themes are present in Medea: Medea’s barbarian origins, andher desire for revenge against Jason. Her barbarian status is really whatstarts the actions of the play. It is what makes her a less desirable wife toJason than the princess, and causes him to leave her.
This then leads to herthoughts of revenge against Jason, and her decision to kill her children as away to exact that revenge. As far as revenge goes, Medea is heroic in that sheis standing up against an evil done to her. Throughout most of the play, shespends her time plotting her revenge against Jason, waiting until the rightmoment to unleash her plan. She uses her cleverness to trick Jason and theothers into believing that she was not upset with him. In the end, we can seethat Medea’s barbarian origins were a major factor in the play, and that Medeawas no ordinary woman in Greek terms. Category: English