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Euripides' Medea: Tragic Heroine or Malignant Villain? - by Lucy Moore

Medea on her Golden Chariot –  by Germán Hernández Amores
Medea on her Golden Chariot – by Germán Hernández Amores

Key Terms

  • Euripides: Greek tragedian

  • King Aeetes of Colchis: Son of Helios, brother of Circe and Pasiphae

  • Jason: Greek mythological hero, leader of the Argonauts, husband to Medea

  • Golden Fleece: Golden wooled fleece belonging to the winged ram Chyrsomallos

  • Eponymous: Naming something after a person

  • Psychoanalytical: Investigating the interaction between consciousness and unconsciousness

  • Feminist Theory: Explanation of how gender systems work

  • Proto-feminist: The use of modern feminism when feminism as a concept was unknown

Euripides’ Greek tragedy ‘Medea’ was first composed in 431 BCE and explored the psyche and behaviours of Medea, the daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis and wife of Jason. The plot revolves around Medea’s descent into a complete rage infused revenge journey after her husband beds the Princess of Corinth. Her vengeance comes by murdering the princess and also the sons she shared with Jason. Euripides’ play has been dissected through many literary lenses throughout history: through the mediums of Psychoanalytical discovery, Feminist Theory and politics, just to name a few. Coming from a feminist point of view, the depiction of Medea can be seen on two polarising panels: on one side, she is a proto-feminist who is used to highlight the misogynistic attitudes of the contemporary periods and how women were simply restricted within their domestic sphere; however, on the other side she is the epitome of all that men feared that women could become: murderess, temptress and seductress. For many years the scholarly argument has raged whether Euripides’ intention was to portray his eponymous character as the ‘Tragic Heroine’ or the ‘Malignant Villain’ – was he trying to highlight societal and gender woes of the time, or was he simply a part of the patriarchal system that silenced the voices and freedom of women?

Medea’s main redemption as the tragic heroine is through the lens of feminism. Throughout the play, Medea defends her behaviour through her advocating for the rights of women as an extension of her own gender. Due to the patriarchal perspective of the period, women were seen as ‘mad’, with the idea that their womb would rage havoc around their body and would be tamed once they were impregnated – once again subconsciously highlighting the idea that a man was the only remedy to calm and tranquilise a woman. From the beginning of the tragedy, it is seen as one of Medea’s main motives to fight against the injustice women faced. When in public, to ensure she is listened to and respected, she restrains her temper and instead presents a logical and reasoned argument on behalf of women, as at the centre of Medea’s heart, she truly believes “there is no justice in the world for censorious eyes”. The idea of Medea as a tragic heroine through the lens of feminism would be an effective analysis from a modern-day point of view – perhaps Euripides did wish for the audience to sympathise and feel Medea’s pathos, or it could be his attempt to humanise the already demonised Medea to give her an arc, or simply to just make a mockery of Medea’s attempt to rationalise her fervent behaviour.

Medea’s relationship with her husband affects both her presentations as the tragic heroine and as the malignant villain. When Medea finds out about her husband’s disloyalty, her wails are heard offstage, which divides the attention between Medea’s heartbreak and Jason’s behaviour; full-fledged attention is not placed upon Medea’s outburst. On one hand, Euripides portrays Jason as a callous, cold-hearted husband but on the other, the playwright chastises Medea for her deception towards Jason. Throughout the play, Jason’s nature is unemotional but also manipulative: he finds pride in his tempestuous ploys but is naive enough to fail to recognise the deceit that is playing around him. Within the story of Medea and Jason, it is hard to dispute that Medea (in the beginning) did remain dedicated and loyal to her husband; she made significant sacrifices in regard to retaining the Golden Fleece and she undermines her own family values so Jason can fulfil his wish of wealth and security.

However, Euripides makes sure to remind the audience of Medea’s equal manipulative persona which leads her to the characterisation of the malignant villain. Medea is aware that Jason desires an obedient, calm, respectful wife to have as his trophy prize and therefore in order to conceal her plans, she pretends to be submissive which causes Jason to not suspect anything from her behaviour. Her main intention is to destroy Jason’s livelihood, which no longer consisted of her, just as he destroyed her trust and security and in the eyes of society, got off scot-free. Even though Medea’s deceit and manipulation are made explicit to the audience, it can be an honest revelation of how the suppression of female femineity within the domestic sphere can cause bubbling madness for an individual. Medea’s emotions are constantly suppressed by Jason’s dismissive nature towards her by labelling her grievances as sexual jealousy, and therefore she finds herself falling down into a gendered manmade rabbit hole of madness and tragic decline.

Medea’s own psychology and approach to the world around her is a monumental part of the weighing scales of her character trope. The only main indicator that Medea is aware of her destructive state is through her outwitting King Creon in order to accomplish her vengeance. Despite this, the rest of Medea’s psyche can be seen as her deterioration into madness. Her zealous exclamations to the Nurse and the Tutor, in particular, are key examples of the protagonist’s heartfelt despair and anger at her current situation – most predominately in a domestic space, as this is where women were confined to. It can be seen really that Euripides’ main intention is to show the psychological damage that extreme anguish and hatred can have upon someone’s behaviour and rational thought: the despondency paralyses Medea’s thought processes which leaves her causing and inflicting pain on others without realising it.

Overall, even though Euripides does attempt to portray Medea as the malignant villain, under all the layers, especially to a modern audience, she is truly the tragic heroine. The mental and domestic suppression Medea suffers at the hands of Jason and the patriarchal society causes her to spiral and become the villain the Greek audience would have deemed her as. But from a modern perspective, with a better understanding of sexist attitudes and misogynistic feelings, today’s audience can see that Medea truly is the tragic heroine and also, a victim of societal and domestic gendered abuse. A woman who held ascendancy as a princess became the archetype of evilness in female identity, when in fact, her nature and morality should have been seen as the product of her environment, not her own desired intentions.

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