Medea by Euripides
Euripides’ contemporaries and classical scholars alike point out the non-Aristotelean elements in Medea, this might intimidate today’s reader. Euripides, instead of following the guidelines established by Aristotle in his Poetics, has ? stirring psychological truth of human nature. This is clear when we examine the monologues given by Medea during the play. Each speech develops the character and creates certain audience empathy. (Cousin 117-28) Medea is not ? tragedy of ? good person with ? flaw. It is the tragedy of what eruptions occur in oneself and one’s society when morality is annihilated. However, his tragedy is not only ? violation of ? moral code, but also an act in violation of human rationality and dignity. While the culture and politics of Ancient Greece have changed over the centuries, the basic human emotions such as anger, fear and passion that Euripides has written about have not. (Cousin 117-28)
This makes his work more widely accepted and understood today than that of his contemporaries. (Arnds 415-28) Aristotle states that one of the vital elements in ? successful tragedy is Character: “There will be an element of character in the play, if . . . what ? grandee says or does reveals ? convinced moral reason; and ? good constituent of character, if the purpose so revealed is good. Such goodness is possible in every type of personage, even in ? woman or ? slave, though the one is perhaps an inferior and the other ? wholly worthless being”(Aristotle 242). It is clear from the outset that Euripides has not created the protagonist of whom Aristotle speaks. Medea’s purpose is not good. This is evident in her first exchange with the Chorus:
But ? am deserted, ? refugee, thought nothing of by my husband, something he won in ? foreign land. For in other ways ? woman is full of fear, defenseless, dreads of the sight of cold steel; but, when once she is wronged in the matter of love, no other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood (Euripides 746). Medea’s motives are nurtured by her passionate love for Jason, which he has brushed aside. Despite her suffering, she is neither concerned with the how and why of her agonizing, nor does she question the gods’ permissiveness. From the beginning, Medea wants revenge. (Templeton 3-8)
Beyond ? moral purpose, Kitto has noted other traits of Character in Aristotle’s treatise, which are also lacking in Medea: Aristotle’s tragic hero is like us, for we should not feel pity and fear for one unlike us. He must not be ? saint, or his ruin would be disgusting, nor ? villain, whose ruin might be edifying but would not be tragic. He has to then be transitional, better somewhat than worse, and find his ruin through some hamartia. (Cousin 117-28)
Through the abolition of guilt, false justification is built. There are three types of justifications shown. Firstly, justification through intentions which is shown by Jason; secondly, justification through fear which is shown by Kreon, and thirdly, justification through hurt feelings, which is shown by Medea. These justifications condemn Jason to ? fate worse than death. (Smethurst 1)
The first type of justification, which is shown by Jason, is justification through intentions. Jason first tries to justify his betrayal of Medea through the account of his intentions. Through this account he hopes to escape certain death, but in trying to do so, he ensures the death of his new wife, father in-law and children. Jason justification for his engagement is as follows: “this was the main reason, that we might live well, and not be short of anything […] also that ? might bring my children up worthy of my position. Through this excuse Jason hopes to calm the nerves of the raging Medea, as well as escape any retribution she might seek to claim. Jason’s justification is not without cause. His cause is his guilty conscience. Jason feels guilt for what he has done to Medea and feels that by offering previsions and ? justification for his previous actions, this guilt will be absolved. If Jason feels like he did nothing wrong, then he would not have to provide ? justification for his actions, but in doing so he tries to reassure himself that his decision was ? wise one. (Corti 55-59)
Further on, Jason reaffirms his justification, not for the sake of Medea’s well being, but for the well being of his honour. He insists that “it was not because of ? woman ? made the royal alliance in which ? now live, but, as ? said before, ? wished to preserve you and breed ? royal progeny to be brothers to the children ? have now, ? sure defense to us.” (Lines 581-585) More than Jason’s life is at stake, for if Medea were to spread the word across the land that “Jason is ? worthless man”, his family honour would also be at risk. By justifying his actions through his intentions, Jason rids himself of his guilt and his new wife and father. (Arnds 415-28)
The second type of justification, which is shown by Kreon, is justification through fear. Kreon uses fear as his justification for exiling Medea. Kreon openly admits that he fears for his life and the life of his daughter, and has good reason too. After Medea’s open threats that she would seek revenge on Jason new bride and father-in-law, Kreon fells it safer to banish her rather than risk death. Kreon uses Medea’s violent threats as an excuse to abolish all of Jason’s distractions which would prevent him from paying less then 100 percent of his attention to his daughter. (Templeton 3-8)
This eradication of Jason’s divided attention might also be to further Jason’s and Kreon’s political alliance. This exploitation of insincere threats is exposed when Kreon states that “you are ? clever woman, versed in the evil arts, and are angry at having lost your husband’s love. ? hear that you are threatening, so they tell me, to do something against my daughter and Jason and me, too.” (Lines 283- 287) Through this excerpt it is seen that Kreon, who has merely heard through ? third person that Medea is spewing threats, would rather dispense with Medea now rather then risk ? weak alliance. Kreon’s fear might have felt real but would not have come to pass had he not acted upon it. Through this it is concluded that which is most feared will only come to pass when it is repressed as opposed to confronted. Kreon’s fear of Medea is not evident throughout their interaction, which raises the question as to whether or not this fear is existent. Through lines such as “your words are wasted, ? will never be persuaded” and “Go, it is no use” ? sense of fearlessness is portrayed, as opposed to ? sense of fear which he claims to possess. Although Kreon justifies Medea’s expulsion with his fear of death, Kreon never gives any indication of fear, and rather, comes across as fearless. (McCall 164)
The third type of justification, which is shown by Medea, is justification through hurt feelings. Medea justifies all her actions throughout the play by bring notice to the wrong doings which have been committed by Jason against her. Through these justifications she hopes to achieve moral support as well as ? sense of self-righteousness. (Smethurst 1) This need for glorification stems for Medea’s insecurities about living in ? civilized world. As ? representative of ? barbaric homeland, she feels the need to be right in everything she does. Even in the murder of her children, she feels that she has the support of the gods, and this notion is affirmed when she takes flight in her grandfather Helios’ chariot, drawn by dragons. Medea’s justification through her hurt feelings is present through the whole play, and is found in every dialogue she engages in. (Corti 55-59)
During her conversation with Kreon, Medea goes so far as to blame her actions not on her feelings, but on Jason. This blame is apparent when she say “o god, do not forget who is the cause of this.” (Line 329) Through this quote it is concluded that Medea’s hurt feelings are the product of Jason’s actions, and because of these hurt feelings Medea caries out her serial murder. Through these justifications she hopes to achieve moral support as well as ? sense of self-righteousness. This need for glorification stems for Medea’s insecurities about living in ? civilized world. As ? representative of ? barbaric homeland, she feels the need to be right in everything she does. (Arnds 415-28)
Even in the murder of her children, she feels that she has the support of the gods, and this notion is affirmed when she takes flight in her grandfather Helios’ chariot, drawn by dragons. Medea’s justification through her hurt feelings is present through the whole play, and is found in every dialogue she engages in. (Billington 1)
During her conversation with Kreon, Medea goes so far as to blame her actions not on her feelings, but on Jason. This blame is apparent when she say “o god, do not forget who is the cause of this.” (Line 329) Through this quote it is concluded that Medea’s hurt feelings are the product of Jason’s actions, and because of these hurt feelings Medea caries out her serial murder. Euripides role of female characters to sympathize with Medeas heartache in the beginning, and magnify the unscrupulous murder of her children in the end is brilliant. The reason for the female support is evident. If the Nurse or Chorus had been ? male servant or ? mixed crowd in society the plot of the play would have been lost. Medea is ? woman suffering from ? broken heart, and it seems only fair that she be given sympathy and judgment from peers who can relate. Hell hath no fury like that of ? woman scorned! (Templeton 3-8)
All of the justifications used by the characters of Medea are created in the hopes of protecting themselves from harm. Jason justifies his engagement to avoid physical harm as well as ? soiled reputation. Kreon justifies his disembodiment of Medea to avoid physical damage as well as to prevent future damage to the marriage of his daughter and Jason. Medea justifies her actions in order to prevent damage to her pride and ego. (Cousin 117-28) Justifications lead to confrontation and eventually destroy those they were meant to protect. Dramatic irony is ? technique, very important to Medea’s forceful character. Therefore, that places her on ? pedestal, which is higher than ? normal human being. Dramatic suspense is used throughout the play to draw interest to Medea’s persona. Her true power and presence is revealed through her will to complete her revenge with the death of her children. She suffered through weak emotions but her will and strength came through, increasing Medea’s character dramatically. (McCall 164)
The use of the chorus assists in the construction of Medea’s compelling persona. Throughout the play (and right up to the very end), they support, scheme with her, and urge her on. Traditionally, the chorus is the voice of the general population, hence portraying the idea that most of Corinth supports her actions and damns those of Jason. Well do it. You are right. To punish him in this statement, the chorus is agreeing with Medea and they go as far as to promise not to tell of her plan. The chorus approval makes Medea appear stronger and more right in her actions. (Smethurst 1) The chorus also idolizes Medea to ? certain extent. After her passionate rant on the tyranny of men, the chorus figure that women are demoralized and need to stand up for their rights. Now the water shall flow uphill, /Men should recognize our power, the chorus, excited by Medea’s speech, agree and even advocate feminism. Medea’s role is heightened by the chorus admiration toward her. She is seen to be clever to order people, creating ? sense of authority. (Templeton 3-8) The Nurse is also significant in portraying Medea’s overwhelming attendance. She mourns the wrongs against Medea on Jason’s behalf, forcing the audience to sympathize and make ? connection between protagonist and viewers. This association makes Medea ? forceful character. (Cousin 117-28)
All of the justifications used by the characters of Medea are created in the hopes of protecting themselves from harm. Jason justifies his engagement to avoid physical harm as well as ? soiled reputation. Kreon justifies his disembodiment of Medea to avoid physical damage as well as to prevent future damage to the marriage of his daughter and Jason. Medea justifies her actions in order to prevent damage to her pride and ego. Justifications lead to confrontation and eventually destroy those they were meant to protect. Anouilh also depicts that Antigone does not want covet such fate, the ‘tomb’ as ? metaphor for bed therefore may connote to fear and emptiness which fills her up. And yet when she is about to be saved by Haemon, she kills herself and triggers off the unnecessary deaths of others. (Corti 55-59)
Anouilh’s use of contrast emphasizes the tragic heroism: ‘Chorus: Only the guards are left and none of these matters to them. It is no skin of their noses’. The irony conveyed here is that life still goes on regardless, that Antigone has died for her ideals, yet it made no alteration in the life on common people. As well as using this to prove the terrors of Nazism at the time, that people were simply archetypal cogs in ? Tragedy Machine, playing roles that allow no deviation, he appeals to his audience with this contrast because it highlights that Antigone’s actions made no difference, they were simple self-sacrifice due to tragic passion; her heroism, like the heroism of Colette, made little distinction. (McCall 164)
The two tragic heroes have been fully fostered by Euripides and Anouilh gradually, abiding by Aristotle’s legendary definition. Both playwrights ingrained their protagonists with ? tragic flaw: that of passion and hubris. Nonetheless, Medea’s and Antigone’s characters diverge in terms of their motives. Medea is ? more experienced woman, stimulated by the desire for vengeance and uncontrolled passionate ferocity; she goes about by killing her own children. (Smethurst 1) Antigone’s character is tragic calmly, her heroism is well-defined: she goes against her own will too. Both Euripides and Anouilh have used the art of prolepsis to develop tragedy in the two ‘martyrs’ and finished off with irony in order to polish the tragic heroes; lives could have been saved, but the miscalculations and to some degree fate did not allow it. (Arnds 415-28) While Anouilh makes ? rebellious statement about Nazism: the horrors of ? state where self sacrifice was ineffectual, Euripides has unusually for his time defended the interests of the suppressed female population, through Medea’s controversial arguments. Accordingly both tragic heroines convey ? revolutionary purpose and debatably, emphasize the sheer blindness of society in 1940’s as well as that of ancient Greece. (Corti 55-59)
Aristotle. The Poetics, in the Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle, trans. W. Rhys Roberts and Ingram Bwater: New York: 1954, 210-59.
Euripides. Medea, in The Norton Anthology World Masterpieces, trans. Rex Warner.
New York: 1992.
Billington, Michael, ‘Medea’s modern slant- and rant’, 2001, The Guardian,
Thursday 1 February, http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/O,4273,41248444,00.html.
Cousin, Geraldine, Women in Dramatic Place and Time: Contemporary
Female Characters on Stage, London: Routledge, 1996, 117-28.
Templeton, Fiona. ‘Resisting Memorialisation: an interview with Fiona
Templeton by Andrew Quick’, 2000, Performance Research, 5: 3-8.
Corti, Lillian, the Myth of Medea and the Murder of Children (Westport,
Connecticut: Greenwood Press) 1998, 55-59.
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