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”Medea” by Euripides and ”A Doll`s House” by Henrik Ibsen

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  • Category: Play

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            Clearly, the concept of rationality, as associated with gender, and as pertaining to through the conservation of personal political and economic power, was of extreme consequence to both the ancient and modern worlds. In Euripides’ celebrated play “Medea,” as in Henrik Ibsen’s equally celebrated but much later play “A Doll’s House” the depiction rationality and irrationality as pertains to a gender-specific accumulation of personal power and longing for universal justice comprise a central motive of expression, as well as informing the writers’ respective philosophical and historical visions.

            Because the ancients regarded justice as a power in itself, and one that was divinely inspired and maintained, peculiar ironies are made in Medea’s monologues which seem to indicate a kind of irrational personal corruption on behalf of the gods themselves:

Don’t say that. Even the gods, they claim,
are won by gifts. And among mortal men,
gold works more wonders than a thousand words.
Her fortune’s on the rise. Gods favor her.
She’s young, with royal power to command.

            Thus, the dichotomy between justice and power is established on grounds of personal corruption. If even the Gods are “won  by gifts;” if gold “works more wonders than a thousand words” (we may presume these “words” are those which would, perhaps, entreat justice) we see a sustained cynicism in these lines, where Medea begins to envision the position of the individual appeal for justice, unsupported by objective power, to be ineffectual and tragically ignored.

             In other words, the rational world operates under a set of condition: foremost among them being the glorification of personal wealth, which is, itself, unjust and irrational measured against the emotional and psychological needs of the individual. There is a sense of self-liberation beginning with objective, rather than abstract, conceptions of power. Thus, Medea’s murder of her children represents her taking action on plane of rational and pragmatic action (the desire for self-empowerment) by way of a means, which envisioned through the male-dominated and prevailing social and political points of view is irrational and insane. (Hall)

            When Medea reflects on her own dichotomy between personal power and justice — she realizes with tragic consequence that her power, like the political power used to oppress her –- emerges out of some unsavory sacrifice of personal morals.

But to spare my children banishment,
I’d trade more than gold. I’d give my life.
Now, children, when you get inside the palace,
you must beg this new wife of your father’s,
my mistress, not to send you into exile.
When you present these gifts, your must make sure  she takes them from you herself, in her own hands.

            To achieve justice, one must stoop to immoral or personally degrading ends: “you must beg” and “present these gifts” so as not to be sent “into exile.” Similarly, Medea must, herself, choose the murder of her children to achieve justice, which defies all accepted moral and ethical standards of her society, but which simultaneously preserves individual political and social power.

            In Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” a similar representation of gender-based social and political restraint is portrayed, as is a similar discarding by the play’s heroine of conventional mores and standards which seem to obfuscate the individual liberties and power of women. “The late nineteenth century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen both guides and haunts the struggle for the emancipation of women” (Schwarez 3) with this play, but he also deals, as Euripides did in Medea with the themes of rationality and justice.

            In both plays women are viewed as socially and morally inferior to men and yet they are put into positions where there pragmatic power over events is ensured. This power is only insured, however, by the heroine’s ability to break with traditional moral boundaries and social norms. Nora, unlike Medea, does not kill her children, but she abandons them, and she commits other unlawful and irrational acts as well: “Thorvald Helmer fell seriously ill and needed a long holiday abroad; Nora forged her father’s name on a promissory note and raised the funds required for that holiday, then slaved and saved enough behind her husband’s back to pay to Krogstad the instalments of the debt as they fell due.” (Downs 119)

            As a “forger,” Nora breaks not only the law, male law, which has kept her in a state of powerlessness, but she breaks the more ineffable but no less stringent law of valuing herself above her social standing, her obligations to her family, husband, or children. Because caring for children and a family is the rational and accepted behavior for women in both the ancient age of Medea and the more modern age of A Doll’s House, both heroines, in pursuit of self-individuation resort to socially irrational or unacceptable behaviors.

            Like Medea, Nora “ embodies the individualist alternative. In her, Ibsen depicts the full glory of a woman who finally finds herself in opposition to all social norms.” (Schwarez 3) Also, Like Euripides, Ibsen chooses to end his play with ambiguity and social alarm rather than harmonious closure.

             For both Ibsen and Euripides, the awakening of individual aspiration within the play’s heroines brings about a crises of conflict with established, patriarchal social norms which serve to place women at a political, economic, sexual, and social disadvantage. “The play ends with the dramatic sound of a door slamming shut. Nora walks away from the security of her household and from all traditionally sacred values of marriage and motherhood. She leaves to face an uncertain but compelling future of self-becoming.” (Schwarez 3)

            Ambiguous endings which prompt more questions than answers renders each of the plays as indicating an idiom which in many ways rejects traditional dramatic form. In this way the identification of both playwrights with the “irrational” or ambiguous moral theme readily discernable in their respective heroines is clear. The form and endings of the plays partakes in as much bending and breaking of protocol as do the heroines of the plays themselves.

            By conventional wisdom, it may be “ unfair to replace one problem by another and leave the solution of the second to us–that is what, in effect, the conclusion of A Doll’s House comes to.’ Ibsen’s defense against accusations of this order was peremptory. He denied the proviso. By submitting the problems to debate–and, it is fair to add, by presenting them honestly–he had done all that was expected of him: ‘I choose to ask: it is not my mission to answer.’ (Downs 121)

            By choosing to address themes of rationality, justice, individual empowerment, and gender— and by rendering their plays in emotionally resonant and creatively original forms, Euripides and Ibsen each crafted dramatic works of art which starkly and with a still socially relevant viewpoint portray the political, moral, and economic subjugation of women in a predominantly male-empowered cultures.


Hall, E. (1997). Introduction. In Medea: Hippolytus ; Electra ; Helen (pp. ix-xxxiv). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Schwarez, Vera. “Ibsen’s Nora: the Promise and the Trap.” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 7.1 (1975): 3-5.

Downs, Brian W. A Study of Six Plays by Ibsen. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1950.

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