, aka Yavin Koenigsberg
Original essay available @
In Aristophanes’ ancient comedy, Thesmophoriazusai, the playwright Euripides is attacked by the women of Athens for slandering their names by portraying evil women, like Medea, on stage in his “misogynistic” plays (March 32). To the modern reader, this strikes us as an anachronism. How could the man who wrote Alcestis, The Medea, and The Trojan Women be labeled a misogynist, if all of these plays are about the mistreatment of women in the ancient world? In Thesmophoriazusai, the women of Athens are especially upset at Euripides for his depiction of Medea as an evil sorceress and murderer of her own children. To some, Medea is just the philanderer’s worst nightmare, a “vengeful ex-wife and sorceress who drives a dragon-drawn chariot,” (McDonald 297). To others, Euripides’ Medea has a “heroic dignity,” and is a spokeswoman for the rights of all women (Williamson 26). From either perspective, the Medea is far more than what Radio & Television Producer Frank Pierson called, “just another child custody case,” (Lexis-Nexis). The Medea represents a change in the view of women in ancient Greece. It presents us with a horrendous murder that can be justified by the suffering that was imposed upon Medea herself. Furthermore, it is not the misogynistic work as suggested in Thesmophoriazusai, but rather a work which contained revolutionary social ideas which threatened the men of ancient Athens so much that they had to write a biting satirical play denouncing Euripides for his so called slandering of all women. Through a close, legal analysis of Euripides’ the Medea, I will try to prove that Medea was justified in murdering her own children, and that through this act of infanticide she liberated herself in a way that no other woman since has been able to achieve.
In Apollonius’ epic, The Argonautica, Medea pleads Jason to take her with him when he returns to Greece in return for the Golden Fleece. Jason accepts the fleece and says, “May Olympian Zeus himself, and Hera goddess of marriage…witness my oath that I shall make you my lawful wedded wife in my home,” (Hunter 101). This episode represents the first major difference between Medea and other ancient women, because oaths did not form part of either the betrothal or the actual marriage ceremony in either Bronze Age or 5th century Greece (Williamson 18). In Euripides’ play, Medea laments that it is a woman who must “buy a husband and take for our bodies a master,” (Warner 67). In contrast it would be the woman’s father or guardian who engaged in the transaction with the husband, not the woman herself, as in Medea’s case (Williamson 18). The dowry, rather than being exchanged for a husband, would both accompany her and, if she was divorced, return with her (19). Therefore Medea represents a new system where it is the husband and the wife who initiate and contract the marriage, instead of the society around them, as was the case in ancient Athens.
In the play, Medea is upset because Jason has taken a new wife in order to marry his way into the royal house of Bronze Age Corinth. When Euripides wrote his play, he must have been very aware of a law which existed in his native Athens, that stated that a man had the legal right to marry and have children by a citizen woman, while keeping a foreign, noncitizen woman as a concubine (McDermott 45). Divorce laws in Athens were just as lenient, for once a man wished a divorce, “he had only to repudiate his wife formally and send her, dowry in hand, back to her father or other male guardian,” (44). Jason’s divorce of Medea would therefore appear to be completely legal under Greek law, right? Wrong, because Jason swore an oath by the Zeus and Hera that he would wed Medea, and by divorcing her he has broken this solemn oath to the gods. Furthermore, when Jason divorced her, she had no where else to go since it was she herself who contracted her marriage, not her father. Therefore, Medea was justified in seeking revenge against Jason for their divorce because he had broken his oaths to the gods, and because in marrying him she gave up the possibility of ever returning to her father’s home.
Since Jason took on a new wife in order to breed new offspring, Medea realized that the only way that she could completely destroy him was if she destroyed not only his new wife, but her own children as well, so that he would be left childless despite all of his efforts. At first thought, this might seem to be an overreaction to the situation, but take into consideration the fact that Medea was facing banishment from Corinth, which in most cases meant death. With this in mind, consider the words of modern feminist Andrea Dworkin when she said that a woman “has a constitutional right to a gun and a legal right to kill if she believes she's going to be killed,” (Dworkin, “Trying to Flee”). In her essay “Terror, Torture, and Resistance,” Dworkin goes on to ask for political support for “women who kill men who have been hurting them.” Is this not the case we have here? Has not Medea been hurt by Jason? Has he not, in effect, tried to kill her by having her banished from his kingdom? “But what about her children?” you may ask. Immediately after Medea poisons Jason’s new wife and father-in-law, Jason comes looking for the children because he fears that the royal house of Corinth might seek “vengeance for their mother’s wicked deed,” (Warner 103). Medea knew that her children would be endangered by her vengeance, and in order to save them from death by the hands of her enemies, she killed them herself because she knew that this was the only way to escape the vengeance of her enemies, and that this act would hurt Jason the most.
It is this act of infanticide which has brought most of the criticism against Euripides in his portrayal of Medea, for how could a woman kill her own children? Consider then the words of Marianne McDonald when she said, “I see Medea’s act of infanticide as heroic, and all the more so because she is a woman and must suffer as a woman: no one suffers the loss of a child more than that child’s mother,” (304). By killing her children, Medea becomes a heroine for all women who refuse to be confined to the mere role of a breeder (303). The children can thus be seen as “the product of one who violated her,” so by sacrificing them, she is destroying Jason’s seed (301). The result is that Jason will neither see his sons by Medea alive for the future, nor will he father more children on his new bride, and thus will pass childless to “a lonely and sorrowful old age,” (March 37). The infanticide then can be seen as Medea’s passionate desire for revenge carried to its logical conclusion: that which will hurt Jason most (41). Therefore, Medea was justified in killing her children because it was the best way that she could punish Jason.
The scene in Euripides play where Medea puts her own children to the sword marks what can be seen as the apotheosis of Medea. The murder has changed her, hardened her, and one doubts “if she will ever weep again,” (March 42). After the murder, Medea appears above the stage on the dragon-drawn chariot of her paternal grandfather Helios (the Greek god of the Sun) where she “speaks with a god’s tone; she acts as the gods act, giving judgement, prophesying the future, announcing the foundation of a religious ritual,” (43). Usually, when a character in a Greek play appears in an elevated position on the stage, it almost always a god whom is being depicted. By positioning Medea in this area of the stage, Euripides is, in effect, turning Medea into a goddess (42). By killing her children, Medea became more than just one oppressed woman, but a spokeswoman for all oppressed women everywhere.
If Medea can be seen as an ancient political figure in Greek Tragedy, then Euripides must have been using The Medea as a means to progress a political agenda. Within the play, “there are appeals made to ways of thinking about relationships which are fundamentally different (from 5th century Athens); and Euripides effect is to put them all into question,” (Williamson 24). Euripides used the Medea as an outlet to present the fears and pressures faced by ordinary 5th century Athenian women to a predominantly male audience (McDermott 43-44). For this reason, his play was feared by the men of that time period, because if Medea was like all women, “then perhaps all women are capable of the same abominations as Medea,” (50). It was feared that the play would cause the women of Athens to burst out into “destructive flashes” in protest of the heavy societal restrictions that were placed upon them by Athenian society (50). For this reason, his play was seen as slanderous to women. How could Euripides possibly suggest that the good natured wives of 5th Athens were capable of such atrocities? How dare him! It was this sort of societal backlash against Euripides that prompted the creation of Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusai, which was the first work to call Euripides a misogynist out of the fear that Euripides’ plays, especially the Medea, could bring about in Athenian society (March 32).
Euripides, in his play the Medea, utilized the heroine of ancient myth as a conduit to disseminate radical ideas about the equal rights of women, and for this he was wrongly attacked and labeled a misogynist for his radical ideas. The Medea was both revolutionary for its time, and a revolution within itself, for it illustrated that when the oppressed come to power through revolution, they often perpetuate the abuses they have suffered (McDonald 302). Without a doubt, Medea is the strongest female character in all of Greek mythology, and it is no wonder that the myths tell us that in the Underworld she became the wife of Achilles, the greatest of all the Greek heroes (Seyffert 386). Euripides could have taken the myths about Medea and written any number of plays about her and Jason. Many other epic poets did just that: Ovid glossed over her mythology and glorified Jason in his Metamorphosis, Apollonius immortalized the sailors of the Argo (who took Medea from Colchis in the first place) in his Argonautica, but only Euripides had the courage to take this mytho and transform it into a play that instead of glorifying the deeds of Jason, glorified the heroism of Medea for having the courage to stand up against the patriarchal society in which she lived.
Apollonius. Jason and the Golden Fleece: Argonautica. Trans. Richard Hunter.
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Euripides. The Medea. Trans. by Rex Warner. Euripides I: Four Tragedies. Ed. David Grene and Richard Lattimore. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1995.
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McDonald, Marianne. “Medea as Politician and Diva: Riding the Dragon into the Future.” From Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art. Ed. James J. Clauss, Sara Iles Johnston. Princeton University
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McDermott, Emily A. Euripides’ Medea: The Incarnation of Disorder. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park 1989.
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Williamson, Margaret. “A Woman’s Place in Euripides’ Medea.” Taken from:
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