Euripides’ Medea as a Sympathetic Character
While no one condones Medea’s actions, one can sympathize with her unappreciated sacrifices and investments in Jason’s ascension, her suffering at the hands of Jason’s pride and hubris, and future of a scorned and divorced woman in Greek Society. The action follows as Medea argues her position with the chorus, Creon and Jason. Medea’s magic enabled Jason to defeat the impossible task to reclaim his birthright. Yet, when the opportunity arose with a new marriage, Jason’s pride enables him to toss aside Medea’s love and commitment. Scorned and soon to be divorced, Medea faces a life as “property to be traded and set aside” (Medea PowerPoint, Jones). Medea seeks revenge against an unjust society. In Euripides’ Medea, we can sympathize with a woman whose husband’s ambition destroyed their love, their history, and their future.
“Why did the pines in the dells of Pelion ever fall to the ax and fill the rowing hands of heroes sent by Pelias to fetch the Golden Fleece?” Medea’s nurse laments of what is to be her tragedy. (Medea, 564). Raised by his mother in another land, Jason returns to claim his throne twenty years after Pelius murdered his father. Pelius has no intention of giving up his power so he sends Jason on an impossible mission to obtain the Golden Fleece in exchange for the throne. Jason and the Argonauts travel to Colchis, where the Golden Fleece is “hung up in a grove sacred to Ares, guarded by a serpent…” (Medea, PowerPoint, Jones). Medea’s tragedy begins when Jason arrives in Colchis, Medea’s homeland. Medea and Jason fall in love and she abandons and betrays her family to aide Jason in his quest. When they return with the Golden Fleece to Iolcus, Pelius refuses to relinquish the throne. Medea avenges Jason by subjecting Pelius to “a horrid death, perpetrated through his daughters—and overturned their home” (Medea, 592). As murderers they cannot remain in Iolcus. They travel to Corinth, settle down and raise a family of two sons and obtain a reputable name. When Jason is presented the opportunity to marry the daughter of the king, he abandons and betrays Medea in pursuit of a crown. Medea is left with exile or death as her only options. Instead, she chooses revenge.
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Medea is sympathetic because she is not only a woman, but also a foreigner in a land where her children would never be citizens. Athenian laws and traditions allowed very few rights for women. The woman’s role was to be at home. Women did not have a voice or a vote either in politics, military or any civil matter, “[W]e bid the highest price in dowries just to buy some man to be dictator of our bodies…divorce is a disgrace (at least for women), to repudiate a man, not possible.” (Medea, 577). Marriage normally raised a woman’s position. Divorce and exile would be the opposite. “She has been abandoned by her husband who made a sworn oath to the gods to be there for her.” (Medea, Powerpoint, Jones). Scorned and divorced, Medea faces a life as “property to be traded and set aside” (Medea PowerPoint, Jones). Athenian law permitted citizenship to children only if both parents were native Greeks. Because she is a foreigner, Medea’s children would never be recognized or achieve their birthright. Medea argues with the chorus. “Your case, however, and mine are not the same. You have your city. You have your father’s home. Life offers you the sweet fellowship of friends. I am alone, without a city, wronged by a husband, uprooted from a foreign land.” ( Medea, 578). The chorus is silent in sympathy.
The notion of taking care of the children falls heavily upon eliciting sympathy from Creon. He believes her motives to be that of a scorned woman and Medea protests her innocence, “And yet it frightens you: you think I’ll strike some death knell on your house. No, I’m not like that. Creon, forget your fear, I have no criminal intent against a king. For how have you wronged me?” (Medea 581). When that does not work, Medea convinces him for one more day to make provisions for her children. “Just let me stay this single day to…to arrange my exodus from here and make provision for my children; whose father cannot bring himself to care. Be kind to them. You are a father too.” (Medea 583). Even Creon cannot deny a mother this wish and the audience would sympathize making safe passage for children, especially male children.
Medea pulls on all the themes together when arguing with Jason. The traditional reason for leaving a marriage was absent. “Had you been childless, this craving for another bedmate might have been forgiven.” (Medea, 592). Medea’s convictions and in fact, that of the Greeks, were that you fear the gods as there could be grave consequences for not carrying out your oath. “But no: faith in vows simply shattered. I am baffled. Do you suppose the gods of old no longer rule?” She brings up exile and being the foreigner again, “Home to my father, perhaps, and my native land, both of whom I sacrificed for you? Or to the poor deprived daughters of Pelias? They would be overjoyed to entertain their father’s murder” (Medea, 593). Medea is playing to the traditional sympathies of Greek society. The audience would be sympathetic to a woman who sacrificed so much and endangered her own life to be betrayed by her husband.
Jason’s response would bring out even sympathy. He credits Aphrodite and not Medea for saving him on his voyage and mocks their love as mere lust “it was infatuation, sheer shooting passion, that drove you to save my life.” (Medea 595). Then he exalts his royal marriage as an “act of common sense, secondly, unselfish, and finally a mark of my devotion to you and all the family” (Medea (596). “No, it was simply that I wanted above all for us to live in comfort and not be poor. I wanted our children to be reared in a manner worthy of my ancestry; and begetting others, brothers for your sons, to knit them all together in one close happy family.” (Medea, 597). Jason’s response brings sympathy because he makes his betrayal out as something better for her, him and their children. Medea should be grateful for the new marriage. The Leader states what the audience knows, “but say what you like, it is not right to sacrifice your wife.” (Medea, 598).
Euripides’ Medea is a tragic figure trapped between the divine world and humanity. Up until the moment of revenge, she is the sympathetic heroine. She is gifted with supernatural powers but is powerless against the betrayal of love. She is an outsider who abandoned her home for love. She sacrificed her position to live as a foreigner with no birthright for her children. Her contributions are unappreciated by her husband and society. While she is so much more, she is feared as a vengeful woman. And when the only choice is death or exile, she becomes what they fear.