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Greek Civilization, Essay Example

Pages: 9

Words: 2472

Essay

Introduction

Euripides’ Medea has never known an era in which it was not newly translated and performed since the play’s debut in 431 BC, and it is the enormous power of the central issue of filicide that continues to both grip and horrify audiences. There is no real parallel to it, in those works of the stage or in novel form that have survived through the ages, for no other work of this stature approaches the unspeakable action of a mother’s deliberate slaying of her own children.

Moreover, the play holds the extraordinary element of reserving judgment on Medea herself. Euripides does not present her as a purely evil construct, or even strictly as a pawn in a divine game, as was often the role of characters in ancient Hellenic tales. She carries out the actions she herself determines upon, and she does so with the audience knowing full well, if not necessarily sympathizing to, her reasons.

In the following, the question of whether Euripides actually seeks to condemn Medea as a vile murderess, or as a somewhat understandable victim of treachery driven to extreme ends, will be examined. Arguments for both motivations on the playwright’s part have long been put forth, and substantial reasoning exists to support either. Ultimately, however, Euripides makes his own sentiment known, and in a manner that incorporates both interpretations. His Medea is indeed a monster but, with the infusions of divine activity and apparatus within the play and forming an important subtext to the action, he means more for her to be seen as an agent of retribution. In mortal terms, Medea’s course is unthinkable. In the context of the play, she represents the dreadful consequences of ignoble behavior. Euripides’ Medea is simultaneously unsympathetic murderess and victim, and it is this very duality that gives the tale its enduring force.

The Character and Her Motivations

A great dilemma within evaluating the character of Medea as represented by Euripides lies in a frequent obfuscation, or even ignoring, of her background. Viewed as merely a mortal mother, the horror of her crimes is overwhelming, and this factor alone serves to explain why the character’s history and nature tend to be shunted aside; it is simply more dramatically effective if she is divested of divine attributes.

The Medea Euripides wrote, however, is not stripped of her arcane being, for her story was an old one before he interpreted it. Moreover, it was never one rooted in completely mortal affairs. Medea was a legendary sorceress, niece of Homer’s enchantress Circe and a granddaughter to Helios, the god of the sun. A priestess of the goddess Hecate, no version of Medea presents her as anything but a dark witch, with gifts of varying ability: “Ovid’s Medea is a witch painted in baroque colors; Seneca’s is even more fantastic” (Vessey 243).

It is therefore crucial to consider this arcane and fundamental quality of her as instrumental in what occurs in the play. Euripides, while taking care to place his story of love and vengeance in human terms, does not by any means strip Medea of her dark powers. A strong component in the betrayal she feels when Jason abandons her for the daughter of Creon is blatantly manifested in her righteous anger at the ingratitude for what her powers achieved for him. Out of love and/or obsession for Jason, Medea struck a bargain with Jason in their history preceding Euripides’ tale. She would use witchcraft to aid him in his obtaining of the Golden Fleece if he would marry her. This agreement is telling, both in laying a groundwork for Jason’s callousness to Medea later and in, again, reinforcing that this was never any ordinary maiden.

Medea is, in Euripides and elsewhere, a witch. She is bound to dark forces. What makes this so compelling, then, in Euripides’ play is that this acknowledged fact is never permitted to eclipse the actions she takes as a mortal mother, certainly not as audiences have always received the play. It would seem that Medea’s history and ties to arcane and typically destructive spells would serve to explain her decision to murder her own children; she is a dark sorceress, after all, and that would be in keeping with so dark a nature.

Euripides, however, employs Medea’s sorcery and history in a very deliberate fashion. He does not present these elements as necessarily dictating what paths his character will take. Rather, he uses them, as he has Medea use them, simply as tools. These are resources she can turn to as a wronged woman, and little more. As her abilities were to Jason’s benefit in the past, she will merely apply them in a retributive fashion when he discards her.

Here is where the duality of the Euripides’ creation is most evident. She is both victim and murderess undeserving of sympathy because she is both wife and mother, and dark sorceress. The divine and eerie powers Medea possesses as a character allow Euripides an opportunity no playwright dealing in strictly human scenarios can exploit; he is free to offer her up as both willful and consciously aware mortal female, and agent of a greater and usually malevolent force beyond human control.

Medea as Symbol

To complicate further the issue of Medea as sympathetic victim or true villainess, the larger scope of myth must be examined. Euripides was of course writing in an age when all Grecian story-telling had a mythical foundation; no matter the actual creeds of the people, it was expected that plays translate human concerns with a substantial measure of divine interaction and influences added to the mix. In this particular regard, Medea gains in sympathy because she is less woman and more instrument of fate. Ironically, she as well becomes less sympathetic because, seen in this way, she is no longer just human and therefore removed from human reaction.

The essence of Euripides’ Medea is not the murder of her children. That is a consequence, albeit perhaps the most striking ever presented in the theater. The real story of the play, however, is retribution for a bargain not honored, and it is one exhaustively used in Hellenic theater and myth. The gods of the ancient Greeks were notoriously watchful for any sign of disrespect and/or ingratitude, or in fact of anything that appeared to disrespect them. Arachne weaves as skillfully as Athena and is transformed into a spider for her ability. Hera, a distinctly more tame version of Medea herself, was perpetually wronged by Zeus and just as dependably showered his lovers with as much misery as was within her power. For the Greeks of the time, it seems that there were few crimes more dire than that of betrayal, be it of a romantic nature or in a more pragmatic circumstance of a battle, or competition.

Medea may then be seen as an instrument of the gods themselves, one which will inflict upon him as terrible a punishment as can be deceived. Jason as written by Euripides is a hero much in keeping with the surprisingly honest portrayals of such men in other legends and plays of the period. He is no brilliant and essentially noble man, despite an impressive background of daring and achievement. He is predominantly ambitious, and that appears to be his great guiding principle. He has no real greatness; he has avarice, and this too was typically doomed to be met with disfavor by the reigning deities.

Comparisons between Medea and Nemesis, awesome and dread Greek goddess of righteous vengeance, have often been drawn. Referring to Medea’s departure at the play’s close, as well as Jason’s lack of interest in the future in his children by Medea, is this typical analogy: “Like Nemesis in the Hesiodic parable, Medea was flying away from a society corrupted by a perjurer who denied his own sons’ legitimacy” (Burnett 223).

Nemesis herself was usually brought in to punish hubris, the seemingly rampant arrogance of heroes such as Jason, when they sought to elevate themselves to nearly godlike status. Given Jason’s trajectory, including the blatantly loveless match he consents to in order to achieve his ends, Medea and Nemesis may as well be one. Viewed in this context, Medea’s actions are only cloaked as those of a wronged wife and betrayed partner. She is, in this sense, both actual victim of the betrayal and the greater power which must avenge it.  She may trigger sympathy, but she is ultimately removed from it by virtue of this greater and divine role she is to play.

Modern Interpretations v. Euripides’ Framework

It is not surprising that, in a time when recent decades have brought forth a widespread awareness of why battered and abused women react with violence, Medea would gain in popularity. This is not to say that, in today’s world, she is an icon for repressed womanhood; even the most militant feminist would draw a line here, considering Medea’s crimes. Nonetheless, the character has been the subject of a great deal of psychological exploration in this regard, most of which seeks to account for actions as the insane response of a woman driven to the edge.

In Euripides’ Medea, this may be entertained. His Medea loses little time in bemoaning Jason’s outrageous treachery and ingratitude: “He, even he, whom to know well was all the world to me, hath proved most evil” (Euripides, Murray 15). Again and again, and ignoring the saner cries of the chorus, she recounts all she has done for him and how he has wronged her. This lays out a substantial foundation for explanations which cannot justify her murdering of her children, but can place them in a psychologically explicable light.

This Medea, the mortal and injured Medea, is pure victim and she does to some extent exist in Euripides’ play. Research abounds that ties extreme emotional abuse to acts of violence committed by women who would otherwise never exhibit such tendencies. There is a far greater understanding today of why women, long repressed and/or subjugated into unnatural states of submission by a single man, may revert to unprecedented behaviors.

Unfortunately, Euripides eviscerates this potential rationale in his own work, and by means of an implacable fact: Jason never loved Medea, he simply took a bargain she introduced out of her desire for him, and his treachery is therefore lessened. In harsh terms, Medea’s outrage is unfounded. She consciously appealed to Jason’s ambition because it was the only way to secure him to her, and she was quick to offer up her powers to bind him to her. Jason may not have been a laudable or very fine man, but it is evident in Euripides that he did not actually deceive her, certainly not in terms of withdrawing a deep love he once professed. In a cynical but not invalid manner, it could easily be said that Medea should have anticipated nothing else but this infidelity he would pursue for gain. It was how she won him to begin with, after all.

This, more even than the symbolic element of Medea’s wrath, reduces her sympathy for an audience. She may be felt for as a betrayed woman, but only in a limited way, and even extreme feminist views do not as a rule rush to accommodate or justify the actions of women who are calculated themselves in the very circumstances of which they claim to be victims. Euripides’ Medea largely undermines her own case because, essentially, she was as guilty of the hubris and callousness she despises Jason for.

Conclusion

Euripides’ Medea is a play about betrayal, culminating in a grotesque revenge which takes the form of a mother slaughtering her two sons solely to punish her errant husband. No matter is an audience, currently or in the past, is inclined to take a more understanding view of Medea’s murders, the inescapable fact remains that the deed itself is among the most monstrous ever to be perpetrated in the eyes of any society at all. In this, ultimately, lies the duality in Euripides’ perception and portrayal of Medea.

It is likely that only the crime of matricide is as unthinkable as that of filicide, and it is not coincidental that both crimes are maternally driven for, in the latter case, this degree of horror to be manifest. As unnatural and appalling as a father’s murder of his children may be, it is nonetheless not entirely removed from the brutality historically associated with men in general, and is therefore less shocking. Matricide or a mother’s murder of her children, however, violates the most deeply held and insoluble bonds humankind possesses; it is a violation on a universal level, a perversion of creation and an abnegation of a love deemed, usually, as inviolable.

This allows Euripides to exploit an element in his story-telling that has in fact served defenders of mothers who murder in courtrooms. That is, the crimes is so outrageous as to be incomprehensible, and when a third party cannot actually fathom a crime, reflexes of some other accountability must come into play. In other words: no woman could possibly be so evil as to kill her own children to spite the man who is leaving her. If the scenario cannot exist, neither can that degree of evil. Thus is Medea, ironically, given a victim-hood status. She is given this, by Euripides and by his audiences, simply because the alternative cannot be.

Then, Euripides also takes advantage of the larger aspect of retribution as delivered by an outside force, and this serves as well to ameliorate Medea’s position. If she is less the actual mother and more an expression of divine wrath against an arrogant and false husband, the murder of the children is still disturbing and tragic, but there is less blood on her own hands. This viewpoint, equally present in the theme of the play, somewhat removes Medea from the scene of the crime and grants her the righteous sympathy the audience wants to feel for her.

That Medea has enjoyed thousands of years of popularity is not surprising. It combines the  artistry of poetry with the less noble appeal of the barbaric, and it touches upon the most primal emotions humans possess. So too is its appeal enhanced by the extraordinary conundrum within the title character; it will never fail to generate argument, and this is because Euripides selected a myth of an absolutely singular nature to explore in verse, one with no clear resolution available. He gives us a Medea who is a vengeful monster, and he gives us, in the same pages, a tragically wronged and vulnerable woman. Euripides’ Medea is simultaneously unsympathetic murderess and victim, and it is this very duality that gives the tale its enduring force.

Works Cited

Burnett, A. P.  Revenge in Attic and Later Tragedy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998 Print.

Euripides, and Murray, G. The Medea. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1910. Print.

Vessey, D. Statius and the Thebaid. New York, NY: University of Cambridge Press, 2010. Print.

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