July 5, 2004

From Gerald R. Lucas

The Tragedy of Euripides’ Medea

While I have always been aware of the iconoclasm of EuripidesMedea, I was struck even more by it this read through and the moral implications of the play’s status as a tragedy. Is Medea a tragedy? While it does contain many aspects of an Aristotelean tragedy, it seems to lack — at least for me — any semblance of anagnorisis, the tragic hero’s understanding and acceptance of his/her tragic flaw and a greater wisdom that comes from that understanding. Medea does leave the audience with a sense of pity and terror, even perhaps more than Oedipus Rex in its unnaturalness, if that’s possible. Euripides’ play seems to suggest that in order for the patriarchy to understand its inherent double standards, one must strike it at its very center: those who would continue its tradition.

Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse, 1907.

Like Sophocles, Euripides was a product of a new Athens: an intellectual revolution that sought to rid citizens’ minds of superstition and fear of the gods and emphasize humanity’s ability to reason critically: replacing prophecy with confidence in the power of human thought. Reason became the new intellectual standard that tried to displace fear and emotion: rely on your own power to reason rather than an unwarranted apprehension of the universe. Euripides, like Sophocles, was skeptical of this trend, and his plays highlighted his doubts in humanity’s ability to make sense out of even itself.

Medea stands at the center of Euripides’ doubts: reason above emotion takes the form of a mother killing her own children, perhaps an even greater taboo than Oedipus’ incest. While the latter was unaware of his crime, Medea commits hers with a cold, rational efficiency: a dramatized disorder that shocks in its attack on the most sacred laws of society. How can one have faith in the human ability to reason when killing one’s own children seems like a reasonable outcome? Not only does Medea challenge the Athenian intellectual paradigm shift, but it also comments on traditional established canons, like marriage, women, revenge, violence — with patriarchy at the center.

The main theme that struck me reading Medea this time around is its attack on patriarchy: Medea incites the subversive behavior of women against those that keep them oppressed, and those that stand in her way suffer her wrath. For instance, during the exposition of Medea and Jason’s past, we find out that during their visit to Pelias — Jason’s half-uncle and usurper of Iolcus — Medea convinces Pelias’ daughters to cut him up into little pieces. We are not privy to the intricacies of this convincing, but the outcome is the death of the father at the hands of his own daughters, a potent example of one of Medea’s central themes. Medea’s relation with her own father, Aietes, was also turbulent even before the arrival of Jason. Her defiance of Aietes precipitated the death of his son — Medea’s own brother — so that Jason could escape. With the death of the son, the father had no heir, and the patriarchal tradition was disrupted.

Medea, artist unknown.

Medea’s current audience is the women of Corinth who are also victims of the system that is turning Medea out into the cold: Jason seems to be casting her away like one would a used tissue. I’m not sure we can dismiss Jason’s motivations so quickly, but I cannot cover those here. What we do see of Jason is that he appears very rational and cold, responding to Medea’s complaints offensively, as if she is being too emotional and irrational, fitting nicely into a gender stereotype. Kreon is not so dismissive of Medea, but she manages to finagle a day out of him which ends up costing him his life and the life of his daughter. Medea proves that she can be as cold and calculating as a man, but not without wavering several times before the plot is brought to fruition. Her plot is conceived, nourished, and instigated in front of the Chorus, but Medea has them on her side: they never utter a word of Medea’s plan to anyone. This subversive act allows Medea to kill her children, the princess, and Kreon in order to precipitate the “best way to wound my husband.”[1] Her vengeance is bloody and final, leaving Jason alone and pathetic at the play’s end as she jets off on granddad’s chariot to join Aigeus in Athens.

While it might be easy to portray Medea as a heartless monster, she does have moments of doubt and indecision, but they never last long. She, too, is a product of a patriarchal system that has provided a semblance of a conscience, yet she is able to overcome this conditioning when the oppression becomes too severe. While we might disagree with her actions, like the Chorus finally does, we must try to understand why she takes the path she chooses. To dismiss her as purely evil would be as ridiculous as suggesting that terrorists who attack our country are themselves demons sent from hell with no further motivation than to cause the destruction of our citizens and values. It’s much easier to label as evil than to take a look at how that evil came to exist in the first place.

Is Medea a tragedy in the classical sense of the word? Well, perhaps the tragic hero is society itself, for it is the one damaged by the actions of those who maintain it. I think Medea does see her flaw by the play’s end, but she seems to think her actions necessary to save her children from a system that would make them into Jason’s. I’m reminded of Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Sethe would rather kill her daughter than have her taken back into slavery. Perhaps Medea loved too much, and like Sethe, her trials are only just beginning?


  1. l. 801