Medea, a play by the Greek playwright Euripides, explores the Greek-barbarian dichotomy through the character of Medea, a princess from the “barbarian”, or non-Greek, land of Colchis. Throughout the play, it becomes evident to the reader that Medea is no ordinary woman by Greek standards. Central to the whole plot is Medea’s barbarian origins and how they are related to her actions. This article will answer questions such as how Medea behaves like a female, how she acts heroically from a male point of view, why she killed her children, if she could have achieved her goal without killing them, if the murder was motivated by her barbarian origins, and how she deals with the pain of killing her children. As an introduction to the play, the status of women in Greek society should be briefly discussed.
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In general, women had very few rights. In the eyes of men, the main purposes of women in Greek society were to do housework such as cooking and cleaning, and bear children. They could not vote, own property, or choose a husband, and had to be represented by men in all legal proceedings. In some ways, these Greek women were almost like slaves. There is a definite relationship between this subordination of women and what transpires in the play. Jason decides that he wants to divorce Medea and marry the princess of Corinth, casting Medea aside as if they had never been married. This sort of activity was acceptable by Greek standards, and shows the subordinate status of the woman, who had no say in any matter like this. Even though some of Medea’s actions were not typical of the average Greek woman, she still had attitudes and emotions common among women. For instance, Medea speaks out against women’s status in society, proclaiming that they have no choice of whom to marry, and that a man can rid themselves of a woman to get another whenever he wants, but a woman always has to “keep [her] eyes on one alone.” (231-247) Though it is improbable that women went around openly saying things of this nature, it is likely that this attitude was shared by most or all Greek women. Later in the play, Medea debates with herself over whether or not to kill her children: “Poor heart, let them go, have pity upon the children.” (1057). This shows Medea’s motherly instincts in that she cares about her children. She struggles to decide if she can accomplish her goal of revenge against Jason without killing her children because she cares for them and knows they had no part in what their father did. Unfortunately, Medea’s desire to exact revenge on Jason is greater than her love for her children, and at the end of the play she kills them. Medea was also a faithful wife to Jason. She talks about how she helped Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, then helped him escape, even killing her own brother. (476-483). The fact that she was willing to betray her own family to be with Jason shows her loyalty to him.
Therefore, her anger at Jason over him divorcing her is understandable. On the other hand, Medea shows some heroic qualities that were not common among Greek women. For example, Medea is willing to kill her own brother to be with Jason. In classical Greece, women and killing were probably not commonly linked. When she kills her brother, she shows that she is willing to do what is necessary to “get the job done”, in this case, to be with Jason. Secondly, she shows the courage to stand up to Jason. She believes that she has been cheated and betrayed by him. By planning ways to get back at him for cheating on her, she is standing up for what she believes, which in this case is that she was wronged by Jason, but in a larger sense, she is speaking out against the inferior status of women, which effectively allows Jason to discard Medea at will. Third, she shows that she is clever and resourceful. Rather than use physical force to accomplish her plans, she uses her mind instead: “it is best to…make away with them by poison.” (384-385) While physical strength can be considered a heroic quality, cleverness can be as well. She does in fact poison the princess and the king of Corinth; interestingly, however, she does not poison them directly. “I will send the children with gifts…to the bride…and if she wears them upon her skin…she will die.” (784-788) This shows her cleverness because she is trying to keep from being linked to the crime, though everyone is able to figure out that she was responsible anyway. In a way, though, she is almost anti-heroic because she is not doing the “dirty work” herself, which makes her appear somewhat cowardly.
inally, there is the revenge factor. Many times heroes were out for revenge against someone who did them or a friend wrong, and in this case Medea is no exception, since she wants to have revenge against Jason for divorcing her without just cause. There are two main reasons why Medea decides to kill her children. The first, and more obvious one, is that she feels that it is a perfect way to complement the death of the princess in getting revenge on Jason. When she tells the chorus of the plans to kill the children, they wonder if she has the heart to kill her children, to which she replies, “[y]es, for this is the best way to wound my husband.” (817). This shows that she believes that by killing her children, she will basically ruin Jason’s life, effectively getting her revenge. The second reason for
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