Medea's Revenge

Essay by oussamalara May 2004

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Medea's Revenge 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. In this paper, I am

attempting to 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. 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 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. Finally, 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 Medea killing her

children has nothing to do with revenge. If she left her children with Jason, they would be

living in a society that would look down upon them since they have partly barbarian

origins. She did not want her children to have to suffer through that. Also, if her children

are mocked for being outsiders, then this reflects badly on Medea, and she said that she

does not want to give her enemies any reason to laugh at her. (781-782) Since she does

not want to leave her children with Jason, they really have no place else to where they

could go, being barbarians in a Greek city: "[m]y children, there is none who can give

them safety." (793) For these two reasons, Medea decides that killing her children is the

best way to accomplish her plan: getting revenge and keeping her children away from

Jason. Whether or not Medea could have accomplished her goal without killing her

children is debatable. On one hand, if we look at Medea's objective only as seeking

revenge against Jason, then she could have accomplished that without killing her children.

Killing the princess, Jason's new wife, would cause enough grief for Jason so that her goal

would be accomplished. We can infer that the death of Jason's wife would be more

damaging to him than the deaths of his children because Jason was going to let Medea

take the children with her into exile and did not try to keep them for himself. Therefore,

once the princess was dead, killing the children, while it causes additional grief for Jason,

really is not necessary. Even though Medea does not seem to believe it, killing her children

probably causes more pain for her than Jason. She just does not see it because she is so

bent on revenge against Jason. On the other hand, if we define Medea's objective in two

parts, one being revenge, and the other to keep the children away, then it is possible that

she had to kill her children. As for the revenge part, it was not necessary that she kill her

children for the reasons just discussed. However, she may have needed to kill them to

keep Jason from getting them. If Jason decided he wanted his children, there is not much

Medea could do about it, other than kill them. Also, it is possible that she did not want to

take them with her into exile because they could make it more difficult for her to reach

Athens. For whatever the reason, however, it is probable that she needed to kill her

children to carry out her plan, since she accomplished two different goals through their

deaths. The murder of Medea's children is certainly caused in part by her barbarian origins.

The main reason that Jason decides to divorce Medea to marry the princess is that he will

have a higher status and more material wealth being married to the king's daughter.

(553-554) In other words, Jason believes that Medea's barbarian origins are a burden to

him, because there is a stigma attached to that. In his mind, having the chance to be rich

outweighs the love of a barbarian wife. Medea's barbarian status is a burden to herself as

well. Once separated from Jason, she becomes an outsider with no place to go, because

the barbarians were not thought too highly of in Greek society. Had Medea not been a

barbarian, it is likely that Jason would not have divorced her, and therefore, she would not

have had to kill her children. But since she is a barbarian, this sets in motion the events of

the play, and in her mind the best course of action is to kill her children. Just because she

is non-Greek does not necessarily mean that her way of thinking would be different from

the Greeks; in other words, her way of thinking did not necessarily cause her to kill her

children. Medea deals with the pain that the deaths of her children cause her quite well.

She does this by convincing herself that her revenge against her husband was worth the

price of her children's death. When asked about killing her children, she replies, "So it

must be. No compromise is possible." (819) This shows that she is bent on revenge, and

that she is justifying their deaths to get her revenge. However, she does struggle with her

decision to kill them. She is sad that she must take their lives, but also tells herself that it is

in their best interests, as evidenced by what she says to her children: "I wish you

happiness, but not in this world." (1073) She does not seem to have a problem with killing

her children once it comes time to actually carry out the act. But her motherly instincts

will not allow her to totally abandon her children after they are dead, as she decides to

hold a yearly feast and sacrifice at their burial site. (1383-1384) But in the end, we can see

that she dealt with the pain surprisingly well. Two main themes are present in Medea:

Medea's barbarian origins, and her desire for revenge against Jason. Her barbarian status is

really what starts the actions of the play. It is what makes her a less desirable wife to Jason

than the princess, and causes him to leave her. This then leads to her thoughts of revenge

against Jason, and her decision to kill her children as a way to exact that revenge. As far as

revenge goes, Medea is heroic in that she is standing up against an evil done to her.

Throughout most of the play, she spends her time plotting her revenge against Jason,

waiting until the right moment to unleash her plan. She uses her cleverness to trick Jason

and the others into believing that she was not upset with him. In the end, we can see that

Medea's barbarian origins were a major factor in the play, and that Medea