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The Female Discourse and Patriarchal World of Medea

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The Female Discourse and Patriarchal World of Medea essay
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Although Euripides was known for his propensity to challenge tradition and complacency, his Medea was quite controversial when it was introduced in 431 B.C. in Classical Greece (ca. 479-323 B.C. ). Athenian society, a man’s world by organization, had no place for women outside of the home. When a girl was young, she was ruled over by her father, and after he chose whom she would marry, her new master was her husband, and she “received much male advice on the subject of staying home and being quiet” (Bowra 85). Women basically shared an equal status with slaves in Athenian society, having no privileges and certainly no power other than that power held within the home over servants. The culture expected women to display great virtue and to fully submit to their husbands. Not only is Medea a woman, she is also a foreigner, placing her at an even lower status. Nevertheless, she exercises power over her husband as well as every other character whether female or male, and she does so using extreme violence. Written in what certainly could be called a male-dominated society and time, Euripides’ Medea is a feminist piece and Euripides’ himself, traditionally believed to be a misogynist, is quite the opposite.

Athenian society was certainly a man’s world in which women were expected to run the household and to stay out of sight. Quite often, many marriages were arranged for religious, political, or economic purposes, and rarely for love. Many times husband and wife never met until the wedding. Once the marriage was final, the woman was basically limited to the wifely practices of managing the servants, weaving on a loom, and rearing the children. Medea’s negative feelings toward this are revealed when she exclaims, “A man, when he’s tired of the company in his home, goes out of the house and puts an end to his boredom…What they say of us is that we have a peaceful time living at home, while they do the fighting in war. How wrong they are! I would very much rather stand three times in the front of battle than bear one child” (Euripides 441. 246-49). This is not only the voice of Euripides mocking male selfishness and society’s lofty view of war, but also one clue to Medea’s dissatisfaction with the confines of her sex.

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Men, on the other hand, including married men, enjoyed every freedom, including complete sexual liberty (Flaceliere 66). The men of Athenian society were known for their extreme arrogance, as we see in a statement by Thomas Rosenmeyer, “It is told of Socrates– or Plato– that on rising every morning he gave thanks he was born a Greek and not a barbarian foreigner, a freeman and not a slave, a man and not a woman.” (Rosenmeyer 123) This is the exact attitude of superiority Euripides embodies in Jason, Medea’s Greek husband. We see this same smug outlook when Jason tries to convince Medea that he has done more for her than she for him by bringing her out of her barbaric homeland and into Greece. Jason represents the typical Greek male and typically, he would be more likely to play the part of the hero. However, Medea is not a typical work and Euripides was challenging convention. We are told that Euripides “loved Athens but loathed her arrogant exclusiveness, loathed her imperialist ambitions, loathed war.” (Rosenmeyer 152) For this reason, Euripides set himself to attack the vanity in Athenian society.

Feminism can be difficult to define. One view which is specific to this particular work is that “women have the same capacities, whether good or evil, as men” (Durant 362). In the case of Medea, feminism has to do with power. Who exercised power in Athenian society? Certainly, men did. Who exercises power in Medea? When she is betrayed she does not lie down and give up, she fights the only way she knows how. If Medea’s response had been a half-hearted protest, no one would have listened. Modernist writer Flannery O’Connor, as part of her distortion theory, once said that “for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (qtd. in Lauter); Medea does just that. Because of her inferior position, her retaliation must be extreme. After the loss of her family and homeland, her husband, and now her new home, Medea is left with nothing but revenge. Her pride has been wounded, and she vows never to be humiliated again by Jason. The feminism in Euripides’ Medea has nothing to do with the equal social status of women, but rather the power gained after long being repressed. This power is not available to all women, only to Medea, who must obtain it through extreme acts.

Medea gains control of the power through use of her many faculties. Medea is clever, charming, deeply in love with Jason and, most dangerously of all, she is oppressed. Because she is clever, she is feared, as is shown in King Kreon’s words to her, “I am afraid of you…You are a clever woman, versed in evil arts, and are angry at having lost your husband’s love” (Euripides 441. 280-84). Medea uses her womanly charm to acquire permission from King Aigeus for a place to live after she flees, and again to convince Jason that she is no longer angry but that she understands his decision to remarry and wants peace.

Medea’s flaw is her excessive love for Jason. The muses, in the first lines of the play, state that her heart is “on fire with passionate love for Jason” (Euripides 435. 8). Because of this love she performs many terribly violent acts, including the murders of her two sons. In the introduction to Euripides on page 434, it speaks of one theme of Medea, “Euripides’ theme, like Homer’s, is violence, but this is the unspeakable violence of the oppressed, which is greater than the violence of the oppressor and which, because it has been long pent up, cannot be controlled” (Mack). Medea, as a woman in Athenian society, is oppressed by tradition and current opinion. Medea becomes the tragic hero through the combined effects of her cleverness, charm, uncontrollable love, and unwillingness to simply accept her fate as a woman.

The traditional view of Euripides as a misogynist stems from the fact that some of Euripides characters, such as Medea, are vile murderesses who often excite detestation. Medea, herself, is willing to point out the wickedness of which her sex is capable, “And women, though most helpless in doing good deeds, are of every evil the cleverest of contrivers” (Euripides 444. 405-06). In addition, there is a shaky tradition that Euripides had an unhappy married life (Bates 119). If critics believed him to be a hater of women, it most likely was due to their own incomplete look at his female characters, for although he created vengeful and violent characters like Medea and Phaedra, other plays of his included gentle and upright women, such as Macaria and Iphigenia (Bates 119). Moreover, the fact that Euripides knows the faults of the female sex and exposes them quite realistically by no means is indicative of any sort of contempt for women. In fact, many agree that he, out of all playwrights of antiquity, best presented the case for women and supported “the dawning movement for their emancipation” (Durant 416). The former view of Euripides as a hater of women is based upon shortsighted thinking and has a weak foundation.

Furthermore, Euripides excites much more sympathy for Medea than for the unfaithful Jason. The muses proclaim, “And poor Media is slighted, and cries aloud on the vows they made to each other, the right hands clasped in eternal promise. She calls upon the gods to witness what sort of return Jason has made to her love. She lies without food and gives herself up to suffering, wasting away every moment of the day in tears” (Euripides 436. 20-23). In addition to this description of her grief, the reader is already aware of the many sacrifices Medea has made for Jason, and the many bridges she has burned in order to be with him. Jason, on the other hand, is a truly unsympathetic character. He is weak, selfish, and rather childish in his explanations to and treatment of Medea. The reader cannot help but dislike Jason for this poor treatment, for his archetypal Greek maleness, and for his character in general. Even when Medea’s vengeful actions are extreme, one hardly feels sorry for Jason. Furthermore, Euripides uses Medea to communicate his own voice on the subject of the modernist writing styles. This occurs in Medea’s speech to King Kreon in lines 290-303 of the drama in which she speaks to him about the difficulties of being clever. Certainly Euripides would not have spoken a message of such personal importance through the mouth of a character whom he loathed.

Euripides’ recognized the drama and power of female emotions and he used them, reflecting his creative genius (Bates 119). Medea’s first emotion, love, turns to jealousy and then to hate as the plot unfolds. Medea is not an ordinary woman of the time, she is superior, somewhat elevated. Her rage swells from stanza to stanza. The nurse expresses her fear that something terrible will happen, “Great people’s tempers are terrible, always having their own way, seldom checked, dangerous they shift from mood to mood” (Euripides 438. 119-21). Both Medea and her emotions are larger than life.

Thus the tragic hero is no longer a king, but a woman who, because she finds no redress for her wrongs in society, is driven by her passion to violate that society’s most sacred laws in a rebellion against its typical representative, Jason, her husband. She is not just a woman and a foreigner, she is also a person of great intellectual power. Compared with her the credulous king and her complacent husband are children, and once her mind is made up, she moves them like pawns to their proper places in her barbaric game” (Mack 434).In the end, although Medea’s actions are vile, she is the victor.

Furthermore, there are no consequences for Medea’s actions. She merely escapes in a chariot with the divine aid of her grandfather, Helios. This further upsets convention. This foreign woman who holds no status performs truly heinous acts against Jason, the symbol of a Greek ideal, and she merely flies away untouched, with help from a god no less. One may wonder at the meaning of this, especially if the one wondering is a fifth century Athenian male warrior who has just enough time between making his sacrifices to the gods and paying a visit to his concubine to catch a quick performance of Medea at the theater. The reason for the portrayal of the gods in this manner is due to Euripides’ late fifth century [B.C.] skepticism and also his questioning of “traditional religion and morality and criticism of contemporary society” (Marowski 104). This lack of order in the universe is unsettling to readers now, and no doubt it was quite disturbing to contemporary audiences.

Euripides is an iconoclast who attacked the aforementioned Greek traditions of male-dominance, war and imperialism, the superiority of Greeks, and their religious practices. By creating a heroine who is both a woman and a foreigner, Euripides is challenging male-dominance and Greek superiority. Through the character Jason, an ideal of Greek heroism but in this case a truly unsympathetic character who is ultimately defeated by Medea, Euripides is challenging Greek ideals. By letting Medea escape, Euripides is throwing the errors of the Greek religious tradition in the face of the Greeks who believed in it. By championing the underdog, Medea, Euripides challenging the errors of Greek tradition.

As I have argued, Euripides Medea was a powerful piece in which a woman exercised power over men, something which was, to say the least, unusual in Athenian society in 5th century B.C. While at the same time challenging other Greek traditions and ideals, such as the ideas of Greek superiority and belief in the gods, Euripides challenged the Greek ideal of male-dominance wherein women held no more rights than slaves. Due to early, inaccurate speculation, some critics and scholars believed the Euripides was a misogynist. However, when one looks more broadly it becomes clear that quite the opposite is true. Euripides often sides with the underdog, including women, in his strong disagreement with many of the traditions of Greece. Although he sometimes brings to life very dark and disturbing characteristics using women characters, he also paints pictures of virtue in other of his female characters. Euripides simply recognized the creative possibilities lurking within the female psyche, and he used them to create characters who may have shocked and infuriated audiences of the time, but who have remained eternally within the canon of great literature, and who remain long within the mind of the reader. By giving Medea, a woman among hordes of raging male egos and thousands of years of Greek tradition, the sympathy and power over every other character, Euripides forever speaks a powerful message about those beliefs with which he so strongly disagreed.

Works Cited

  1. Bates, William Nickerson. “Euripides: A Student of Human Nature.” Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Ed. Daniel G. Marowski. Detroit: GALE, 1998.
  2. Bowra, C.M. & The Editors of TIME-LIFE BOOKS. Classical Greece. New York: Time Incorporated, 1965.
  3. Durant, Will. The Life of Greece. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
  4. Euripides. “Medea.” Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: Norton, 1997. 435-465.
  5. Flaceliere, Robert. Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles. New York: Macmillan, 1967.
  6. Lauter, Paul. “Flannery O’Connor.” Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. 2112-2113.
  7. Mack, Maynard. “Euripides.” Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: Norton, 1997. 433-434.
  8. Marowski, Daniel G. “Medea.” Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Ed. Daniel G. Marowski. Detroit: GALE, 1998.
  9. Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. “The Masks of Tragedy: Essays on Six Greek Dramas.” Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Ed. Daniel G. Marowski. Detroit: GALE, 1998.

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