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Essay/Term paper: Medea's revenge

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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 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. 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
was no ordinary woman in Greek terms.


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