“Manly Medea” An analysis of Euripides’ “The Medea”
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When writing The Medea, Euripides challenged the social norms by abandoning the gender roles of the ancient Greek society. The main characters, Jason and Medea, are atypical characters in many ways. Medea defies perceptions of the normal attitudes of men and women by overcoming her “female” emotions and performing acts that the ancient Greeks considered manly. Meanwhile, Jason seems to be much more meek and diminished. These gender anomalies are apparent through Medea and Jason’s character traits, actions, and reasoning. Medea pushes the limit of the stereotypical restrictions on her gender by committing murderous acts; while her husband Jason acts very womanly. The two main characters seem to almost switch or reverse gender roles, and then behave in accordance with the reversed roles.
The most notable “male” characteristic that Medea embodies is pride. After Jason betrays her, she seems all too willing to commit murder for the sake of her reputation and revenge. The Chorus comments:
Things have gone badly in every way…there are still trials to come for the new-wedded pair, and for their relations pain that will mean something…and in this I will make dead bodies of three of my enemies-father, the girl, and my husband. I have many ways of death which I might suit to them, and do not know friends, which one to take in hand (Euripides 364-378).
Medea has obviously not lost her mind, but instead just feels inexplicably drawn to action to avoid being made a fool.
This unnatural pride is typically associated with the male gender, but Medea desires revenge more than any man would. The ancient Greek society often considered women submissive and weaker, but Medea’s character stands directly in opposition of this view. “Now, friends, has come the time of my triumph over my enemies, and now my foot is on the road. Now I am confident they will pay the penalty…listen to these words that are not spoken idly” (Euripides 765-773). Medea is a strong and powerful character, while Jason seems much weaker, so much so that Medea completely destroys Jason’s life in the course of a single day.
After making up her mind that Jason must suffer for betraying her, she goes through amazing lengths to take all the joy from his life. Medea’s desire for revenge is so strong that it enables her to kill her own children. “I weep to think of what a deed I have to do next after that; for I shall kill my own children. My children, there is none who can give them safety. And when I have ruined the whole of Jason’s house I shall leave and flee from the murder of my dear children, and I shall have done a dreadful deed. For it is not bearable to be mocked by enemies” (Euripides 791-796). The length to which Medea is ready to go is a testament to her extreme pride and strength.
Unlike Medea, Jason does not seem to have any delusional attachments to his reputation. In fact, the Chorus rebukes him saying “you have betrayed your wife and are acting badly” (Euripides 578), but Jason does not seem to care. He seems more concerned with gaining power even if he only does it through marriage. His marriage itself is slightly ironic because typically a man is important and gains respect or power through his actions, and a woman has to marry a respected man to be of high class. In his case his marriage will bring him into the ruling class.
After losing her husband, Medea only dwells in self-pity for a short time until contriving a scheme that will avenge offenses. “Wallowing in self contempt is generally a quality attributed to women by society. Medea is so unhappy with herself after her marriage with Jason ended that she wanted to die” (“Medea – An Abandonment of Gender Roles”). Instead of moving on and living out her life in sorrow, Medea takes it upon herself to punish Jason, whereas a more female reaction would have been just to dwell in her sadness. In this example, Medea still has the female mentality but choose a drastic action that is more in accordance to how the ancient Greeks thought a man would act.
Conversely, Jason seems paralyzed by his sorrow at the end of the play and cannot take any action against Medea. “Oh God, do you hear it, this persecution, these sufferings from this hateful woman, this monster, murderess of children? Still what I can do that I will do: I will lament and cry upon heaven, calling the gods to bear me witness how you have killed my boys” (Euripides 1405-1410). Granted, Medea is basically taunting Jason from a flying chariot, but still, all Jason could do was cry to his gods in mourning.
Despite the fact that murder is more often associated with men, Medea commits multiple murders. Medea brutally murders her brother, King Creon, the King’s daughter Glauke, and finally her own children. Any loss of life is tragic, but Medea crosses another line when she kills her children. “In your grief, too, I weep, mother of little children, you who will murder your own, in vengeance for the loss of a married love” (Euripides 996-999). Normally the ancient Greeks held the view that men take away life, while women give it. Once again it seems that Medea and Jason have both forsaken their assigned gender roles. Medea becomes a hardened killer, and Jason stands passively by watching his life crumble around him unable to do anything to stop it.
The ancient Greeks considered women as cunning and conniving, capable of using subtle trickery to accomplish their goals. This is true about Medea, but she is anything but subtle in her actions. She makes no real attempts to cover her trail, but instead seems to almost need it to be known that she did what she did. “Ah come, Medea, in your plotting and scheming leave nothing untried of all those things which you know. Go forward to the dreadful act. The test has come for resolution. You see how you are treated. Never shall you be mocked by Jason’s Corinthian wedding” (Euripides 400-405). Medea kills the King and his daughter with trickery but is not concerned with avoiding_blame.
Even towards to beginning of the play the Chorus argues with Medea about the true nature of women. Medea states that “women, though most helpless in doing good deeds, are of every evil the cleverest of contrivers” (Euripides 408-409). The Chorus counters by sayings “It is the thoughts of men that are deceitful, their pledges that are loose. Story shall now turn my condition to a fair one, women are paid their due. No more shall evil-sounding fame be theirs” (Euripides 414-420). In Greek plays the Chorus normally states what the audience would be thinking. Medea even condemns her own gender as evil, even though a typical Greek probably would disagree.
Medea and Jason step out of their assigned gender roles, but still keep the mentality of their gender. They are atypical but still believable. When comparing The Medea to his other works, one may find it doubtful that Euripides was trying to make a social commentary on the role of women in the society. Euripides fails to take up this theme elsewhere, and Medea seems to be an anomaly. Perhaps Euripides simply felt it was time to take the Greek plays in a new direction.
Euripides. The Medea. Trans. Rex Warner. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1955.
“Medea – An Abandonment of Gender Roles”. BigNerds.com Jan 2004