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Despite her violent transgressions, Euripedes paints Medea as a victim from the start to the end of the play. Even Medea’s most violent act, the murder of her own children, is made complicated by Euripides’ appeal to the reader’s sympathy for her situation. Medea’s goal for revenge is permanently intertwined with the sympathetic presentation that Euripides shows at the start of the play. By introducing readers to Medea first as a victim, Euripides paves the way for a complex but indeterminate line of thought regarding the morality of her actions. Euripides ensures that the reader will question not only Medea’s gruesome revenge, but his or her induced sympathy for Medea as well. Euripides employs this manipulation by presenting Medea as victim to Jason’s cruelty and indifference. The reader’s response is complicated by the fact that, with respect to Euripides’ initial portrayal of Medea, her actions may sway towards justified.
By presenting readers first with the image of Medea suffering a great loss, her later plot for revenge is made less black and white. Euripides opens the play with a nurse lamenting Medea’s current morose state. Through this nurse’s monologue Medea is described as the once compassionate wife of Jason, who now suffers severely from his betrayal. Euripides immediately calls upon our sympathy when the nurse details both Medea’s love for Jason and her pain because of it: “Then my mistress/ Medea, never would have sailed away/ to the towers in the land of Iolcus/ her heart passionately in love with Jason” (9-12). Interestingly, Euripides doesn’t dispel the possible issues taken with Medea’s violence even in this introductory scene. In fact, he manages to present Medea’s past misconduct in the midst of his appeal to the reader’s sympathy. The nurse continues, “She’d never have convinced those women/ Pelias’ daughters, to kill their father/ and she’d not have come to live in Corinth/ with her husband and her children- well loved/ in exile by those whose land she’d moved to./ She gave all sorts of help to Jason” (13-18). In these lines Euripides provides an account of Medea’s cruelty juxtaposed with her compassion, devotion, and aid to Jason. Euripides paints an honest picture of Medea’s violence, but skillfully paints it aside the picture of her as a loving wife and mother. In this way, Euripides leaves the reader responsible for weighing Medea’s crimes against her suffering even at the play’s introduction.
The nurse compels the reader to weigh Medea’s suffering as more potent as she continues: “Their fine love’s grown sick, diseased, for Jason/ leaving his own children and my mistress/ is lying on a royal wedding bed” (22-24). These lines further the reader’s sympathy for Medea but also introduce Jason as the unjust cause of her suffering. Euripides employs Jason’s character as a stark contrast to the wounded Medea. The nurse describes Medea’s current state: “As for Medea/ that poor lady, in her disgrace, cries out/ repeating his oaths, recalling the great trust/ in that right hand with which he pledged his love/ She keeps calling to the gods to witness/ how Jason is repaying her favours” (26-31). As this lamentation continues, so does the description of the severity of Medea’s state. By describing Medea as disgraced and dishonored, Euripides also establishes a sense of injustice. Emphasis is placed on Medea’s anguish but more importantly on her betrayal. In addition, the lines read that Medea calls upon the gods for an explanation of the injustice of the situation. The described betrayal and Medea’s invocation to the gods make the need for retribution all the more pressing. Once Medea’s place as victim has been solidified, Euripides complicates the reader’s response further by developing Jason as the cruel source of her misery. Jason meets Medea with callous indifference: Now is not the first time I’ve observed/ how a harsh temper can make all things worse-/ impossibly so. It’s happened often” (524-526). Here Jason antagonizes Medea by disregarding her anger, an anger that was presented as justified at the start of the play. He continues, “Now you’re exiled for your stupid chatter./ Not that I care” (530-531). Jason continues to invalidate the hurt and betrayal that has left Medea so distraught. Since Euripides followed Medea’s hurt and betrayal with a compromising image of Jason, Medea’s thirst for vengeance simply becomes more and more justified.
The reader’s sympathy for Medea is brought into critical question when, at the play’s close, she kills her children and escapes with the help of the gods. Her final and most severe act of cruelty immediately creates a tension in readers. Euripides establishes Medea as deserving of our sympathy but grants her revenge in a most gruesome way. More importantly, her call to the gods for justice is seemingly answered when they help her flee at the play’s close. Euripides’ employment of sympathy, his characterization of Jason as uncaring, and Medea’s assistance from the gods would typically demonstrate that justice has been served. However, the sacrifice of Medea’s children undoubtedly strikes the reader as unforgivable. Euripides ultimately leaves the morality of Medea’s actions, as well as the intended moral compass for the play as a whole, up for debate.
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