MEDEA. Annotation by Susana Cook
Euripides. The Medea: The Complete Greek Tragedies. Translated by David Grene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.
Medea is considered by some people to be a feminist icon. She rejects normative images of femininity, motherhood, and love. She shows strength and power. She is not a passive, submissive wife; she is excessive in the social scheme by acting out of bounds. She acts violently and she threatens patriarchy. The action of the play moves with her passion, her wrath, her anger. Her ire approaches, galloping furiously even before the play starts. Act one finds Medea already at the apex of her anger, and with everybody around her terrified of the possible outcome of her actions, wondering how far would she get with her intentions for revenge and destruction. We can hear her yelling and crying inside the room. There’s a magnifying effect created by the fear and whispered comments of the nurse and the tutor and everybody who had heard about her curses, threats and deep pain. Medea is seen as a strong woman who transgresses boundaries. She is threatening, she is howling, and her grief cannot be contained. But is this “strong?”
In my opinion Medea is just one more construct of an image of woman created by a man; one that becomes imprinted in our culture as a primal idea of womanhood. I see Medea as the epitome of the sexist depiction of women. She embodies a very visceral fear of women by men. Her position is ambivalent: she is a product, or a construct of the patriarchal system but she is also breaking it.
The construction of her character is based on extreme passion. She loves Jason so much that she kills her father and her brother to help him. When they arrive to Athens, Jason leaves her to marry the princess, daughter of Creon. When she is scorned she goes on a rampage and nothing can stop her from trying to destroy Jason, Creon and his daughter. Medea then kills her rival, the princess, with a poisoned dress. The image of women killing each other over a man is a clear patriarchal construct. The princess is the stereotype of the frail victim and Medea is the stereotype of the scorned woman, the dangerous one. Both of these stereotypes deny women’s complexity: a complexity that is, however, available to male personas.
The play provides many (sexist) definitions of women that are drawn from Medea’s behavior. “You were born a woman”, says Medea to herself, “And women, though most helpless in doing good deeds, are of every evil the cleverest of contrivers.” (72) Medea claims Hecate, a three-faced goddess associated with witchcraft and curses, as her “mistress, guidance and partner…In craft and silence I will set about this murder… I swear it by her” (72). Medea’s destiny, as a woman, has been marked by a long line of dangerous conniving women. Everybody who interacts with Medea or hears her painful and threatening laments also feels fear and also comes to the following conclusions about women: “It would have been better far for men to have got their children in some other way, and women not to have existed. Then life would have been good.” (77). This is Jason’s comment, and it limits women’s roles to being the bearer of children and in addition reveals how male believe that alternative ways of giving birth would liberate men from the burden of having to deal with women at all.
Medea’s anger and desperation drive the main action of the play. While drowning in jealousy she is seeking for revenge as the only relief for her intolerable pain.
I would like to focus on her motives; Medea kills her brother and her father to keep Jason close to her, and when she loses him, she kills his new bride, her father and her own children to relieve her thirst for vengeance.
The motive behind the killing of her family is to keep Jason and his love, and the motive behind killing the princess and her own children is to take revenge on him, caused by the uncontrollable anger she feels after losing him .
The Greeks, considered the “Fathers of Western Civilization” gave us as legacy: the ideas of State, Polis and Religion. But we also inherited their ideas of gender. Medea is one of the most resonant images of women in literature, and many of the motifs of Western psychology and philosophy is based on her story of jealousy, desperation and vengeance.
In summary, Medea is part of a larger legacy of images of the femininine constructed to help perpetrate a patriarchal system, devoted to oppressing and controlling women, who appear as hysterical, frenzied creatures capable of so much death and destruction under the thralls of obsessive passion, when all they want is a man’s love. In my view, Medea is a constructed image not of feminist liberation, but of masculine oppression.