Euripides’ Medea (first performed. 431 BCE) is based upon the myth of Jason and Medea. Playwrights often borrowed from myths and produced brilliant works of art; Euripides produces a string of unsettling events which shock and disturb the reader. The text was lost and then rediscoved in 1st Century CE Rome, and was later adapted by the Roman tragedians Ennius, Lucius Accius, Ovid, Seneca the Younger and Hosidius Geta among others. It was rediscovered again in 16th Century Europe, and has received many adaptations in the 20th Century theatre, notably Jean Anouilh’s 1946 drama, Médée which focuses more on male-female relationships. Euripides humanises the myth while also radicalising it. The same technique is used by many modern adaptors of the play. For instance Black Medea (an anthology of six adaptations of the Euripidean tragedy by contemporary American playwrights) presents Medea as a woman of colour, a voodoo princess, uses the backdrop of the Carnival, and reveals many more interesting interpretations. The space of the Bacchic festivals allowed for such experimentation but even then the audience was not too receptive of this particular tragedy. Tragedy had a didactic function in Greek society. According to Aristotle in his Poetics (335 BCE), the moment of catharsis was the sole purpose of a poet. Euripides denies his audience this experience by presenting a complex female protagonist. In doing so he takes a proto-feminist stance by highlighting the problems of Athenian democracy through a bold, intelligent, and wilful woman. In Women in Classical Athens in the Shadow of North-West Europe or in the Light from Istanbul (2006), Jorgen Christian Meyer writes that the Athenian democracy “was a democracy of the minority. Women, foreigners and slaves had no influence or true civil rights… Men held a monopoly on politics and influence in the public sphere, and women lived in a society completely dominated by men.”
Meyer strengthens Medea’s disadvantaged position as an outsider, domestic slave, and woman. In spite of having more than one points of oppression, Medea enjoyed the life of a ‘barbaric princess’ if you will. However, she still remains an outsider. Xenophobic Corinth views her as the ‘other’ who will never be part of their society. The more startling fact is that Medea has no desire to merge with the people of Corinth. She embraces her ‘otherness’ and becomes a kind of blind spot because she cannot fit into any ‘category’ of the Athenian polis. She inhabits a combination of exclusions and highlights the problems with such rigid stratification of society. It forefronts the loopholes in the rationality of the Greek system devised by its elite men (a small section of society). She becomes a hysteric, as Lacan explains the term in his theory of the Discourse of the Hysteric, in that she is split between Corinth and Colchis. Corinthian law disregards Medea’s marriage which allows her husband, Jason, to decide to marry another woman, the daughter of the king, Creon. Medea, infuriated, brings about the doom of her own family along with royal family. She is subject to no law by the very virtue of her exclusion. This makes space for a massive revolt.
Medea could have lived a comfortable life with her children as Jason’s concubine, it was a common practice at that time of male supremacy and corruption. Medea instead chooses to ruin Jason’s whole house by killing his children and new wife. “That they are her children too is unfortunate, but not enough to deter her from her plan”, says H. D. F Kitto in Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study (1939). She refuses to be overpowered by the violence of the State and in turn out-violences this violence. Her conflict at the moment of culmination is evident as she sways between her desire for revenge and ‘justice’, and her love for her children. She says, “No, for one day, one fleeting day, forget your children; there will be the rest of your life for weeping” (lines 1247-1249). In this she becomes whole. The will of a person supersedes the heart of a mother and Medea thus proves that she is not limited to her femininity. However, such an act of murder is also ethically questionable. Euripides provides his audience with a play which is problematic at many levels. For Jason to live unpunished is dissatisfactory while for her to take such extreme measures for his punishment is also distressing. Does she have the right to decide and execute justice? If she hadn’t taken things into her own hands, would Jason be punished? Should Jason be punished? Euripides raises issues of justice and punishment along with illuminating the troubles within the conjugal bond and family values of the entire Greek culture.
Medea clearly states the extent of women’s oppression, “In the first place, at great expense we must buy a husband, taking a master to play the tyrant with our bodies (this is an injustice that crowns the other one)” (lines 231-234). Through Medea, Euripides elucidates (perhaps for the first time ever) the tyranny of patriarchal expectation. Women must offer dowry in order to gain an oppressor who views her like a mere object. Thus, she must become the agent of her own oppression and work to maintain her husband’s estates and produce heirs while he enjoys the company of concubines and often even young boys. Medea might prefer death over such slavery, and to contrast this stance Euripides employs the character of the nurse. She wants to live in moderation which means she desires a continuation of the ongoing system, “Certainly what I want for myself is to grow old in secure and modest circumstances” (lines 125-126). In this, she is also desiring the continuation of her own oppression as it is. Although Medea herself is a non-subject, yet she is the one who oppresses the nurse and her other slaves. Further, the text seems to be interrogating itself through the nurse as she questions, “why do men raise their voices in unnecessary song?” (line 201). Euripides brings to our attention why he chooses to write “a play of dark revenge and child slaughter, one of the most powerful and horrific of all Greek tragedies”, as described by Richard Rutherford. He could’ve brought Jason to repentance and restored Medea’s home or could’ve ended the play in Medea’s execution for murdering the king and his daughter. But these alternatives would defeat the purpose of this jerk that is Medea. The play as it is almost gives caution to oppressors as well as the oppressed. He articulates the dangers of such an exclusive society which could drive the oppressed to commit such deeds; not only harm others but also take the lives of their own loved ones for a certain sense of justice or revenge. The modern proverb, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” fits well into the scheme of Medea. On the one hand, classical Greek audience might criticise Medea for her actions as she transgresses her private space in her wit and manipulation, kills her own children along with the royal family, and has no desire to be accepted into Corinthian society. On the other hand, as post-humanists we are capable of viewing the situation more subjectively. Medea’s actions are definitely questionable, but does she have any other way to assert herself? In doing what she did, Medea sheds new light to morality by reacting to the shortcomings of Greece altogether.
While Medea is plotting her revenge, the Chorus stands by failing to perform a significant attempt at saving their amiable king. It is possible that Medea represented the repressed sorrow of the women of all of Greece and with Medea’s exemplary intelligence and persuasion, the Chorus is also witnessed denouncing men, “Never shall he be friend of mine” (line 662). However, to kill her own children is too radical for the Chorus as well. They summon the law on mankind at this point implying that laws of mankind supersede political laws. They try to invoke guilt, humanity, mercy in Medea but she is resolute. “Often, the dialogue between the actor and chorus served a didactic function, linking it as a form of public discourse with debates in the assembly. To this day, drama in all its forms still functions as a powerful medium of communication of ideas.” Now the question that arises is, does Medea owe humanity to mankind? She is non-existent in that she is a part of no part. She responds to the Chorus, “you have not suffered the treatment I have” (line 815). Euripides comments on the plight of the excluded and the oppressed. He posits will fuelled by the hate for not just one person (Jason), but an entire culture. The chorus points out, “To be denied one’s native land is a misery beyond all others” (lines 651-652). Driven by love, Medea betrays her father and kills her brother destroying her entire city. When her husband betrays her, she is overcome with rage. This rage manifests in revenge. It is interesting to note how love can be of extremes for a character like Medea whose love for her father is overpowered by her love for Jason, and later, her hate for Jason overpowers the love for her children. Euripides’ tragedy lays down the pattern of literature that revolves around betrayal and revenge such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1602).
Although Medea is a social commentary in a certain way, specially on women’s issues, within the space of the Greek theatre it might have been simply perceived as a woman’s irrational rage. Rutherford writes, “Medea’s speech to the chorus of Corinthian women (23 off.) is a prime example of the dramatist’s willingness to see, and give voice to, the women’s case”. A bold, intelligent, resolute, and fearless woman like Medea was played by a male actor while women were at large not allowed to enjoy the pleasure of theatre beyond the Dionysiac festival. Men ruled Athens, explicated well by Aristophanes in his Comedy Lysistrata (411 BCE) wherein the playwright develops female characters with great potential but negates these implications in the end when order is restored. Euripides does not do this. He does not allow his audience the satisfaction of an agreeable ending in sort of way. In this we could argue that the form of the tragedy differs from that of a comedy, but Euripides’ audience does not derive the effect of a tragedy either. This is so because one fails to associate with a radical blind spot like Medea. We pity her children but that is the extent of our association with them. Euripides exploits themes of betrayal, revenge, extremities of love and desire along with highlighting problems with the city state, the rulers and the elites, the status quo in society, the values of marriage and most importantly the plight of the oppressed. Medea becomes whole woman, she is as feminist as we understand it now in her determination to assert her being, apart from taking revenge. In spite of being non-existent she proves to be the strongest female character in the history of literature.
- Medea by Euripides, 431 BCE
- Médée by Jean Anouilh, 1946
- Black Medea: Adaptations for Modern Plays by Kevin J. Wetmore, 2013
- Poetics by Aristotle, 335 BCE
- Women in Classical Athens in the Shadow of North-West Europe or in the Light from Istanbul by Jorgen Christian Meyer, 2006
- Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study by H. D. F Kitto, 1939
- Preface to Medea by Richard Rutherford, Medea, Penguin Classics, 2003
- Hamlet by Shakespeare, 1602
- Lysistrata by Aristophanes, 411 BCE
 Preface to Medea, Medea, Penguin Classics, 2003
 Preface to Medea, Medea, Penguin Classics, 2003