Medea:Looking For 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
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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