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The play Medea offers the audience a difficult choice on deciding which character, Medea or Jason, holds the tragic hero role of the play. In regard to Aristotle’s Poetics and the structure of tragic play design, both Medea and Jason displayed character qualities that could easily be perceived as that of a tragic hero, such as both characters having a reversal of fortune. Ultimately, I decided that Jason is the tragic hero of Medea due to Jason’s better embodiment of Aristotle’s elements of tragedy.
One element that Aristotle discusses in his Poetics is the nature of a tragic hero. Aristotle explains that a character will be good if the purpose is good. Although both characters of Medea follow what they believe to be a good purpose, I believe that Jason is acting with a more acceptable set of moral values than Medea.
How it works
At the beginning of the play the audience is informed that Medea is a loyal wife who was betrayed by Jason as he is arranged to marry the princess of Corinth. The audience regards Jason’s actions of marrying another woman as despicable, and we, the audience, are encouraged to empathize with Medea, especially as she is also fated to a life of exile. Jason seemingly discards Medea and his family in favor of a better life. Jason’s disloyalty towards Medea is the catalyst of the play.
However, the reason that Jason states for his decision to marry the Corinthian princess was in order to secure status and wealth for himself and his family. Jason recognizes that his actions have caused Medea emotional pain, yet his intentions behind his unfaithfulness were not hateful or spiteful. He even says that he did not leave Medea “for the new hot model” and he has no desire for more children, with the exception of the additional sons he will sire as they will prove to be a benefit. Throughout the play, Jason continually behaves in a way that he believes to be in the best interest of his family. Jason is a “good” character in that he follows his perceived sense of morality consisting of not abandoning family.
Conversely, Medea behaves in a way that is vindictive towards Jason. Medea’s vengeful personality prompts her to conspire against Jason by taking away everything that Jason loves, namely his new family and his two sons. Additionally, Medea’s spitefulness is highlighted by her decision to murder her two sons because she would rather have her sons dead than to “let [her] enemies laugh”. This moment provides a stark contrast between the characters in that Medea is driven by a nature that is crueler than Jason’s. While Medea may be acting in what she believes to be a morally justified manner, Medea acts with the intent to hurt and punish Jason for his indiscretion; Jason acts free of malicious intent, but rather with the goal to help his family.
Jason displays a fatal flaw, i.e., arrogance, which contributes greatly to the tragedy. As an example of Jason’s arrogance, when Medea expresses her anger regarding Jason’s new marriage and her exile Jason disregards her remarks and instead believes that she is behaving irrationally due to a sex issue; Jason also reasons that “Any normal wife would allow this”. This fatal flaw strengthens Medea’s hatred towards Jason, thus securing Jason’s reversal of fortune.
During the arc of the play, both Medea and Jason experience another element of Aristotle’s Poetics: a reversal of fortune. Jason’s reversal of fortune is his transition of him having an established family, as well as acquiring the prospect of a royal marriage, but proceeds to lose everything at the hand of Medea. This process may have begun when Medea lied to him about her change of heart regarding his marriage to the princess. Jason, in his arrogance, does not recognize that Medea is lying and accepts her speech at face value. This reversal of the situation produces recognition for Jason because his ignorance of Medea’s sudden change in the heart leads to the death of his loved ones. Jason’s love for his family is replaced by grief and hatred for Medea as she is the root cause for all of his suffering.
An additional element for a tragic play that Aristotle lists is the unity of the plot. Unity of plot is the concept that if the action, time, or place of the tragedy were to be altered then the composition of the tragedy will be drastically changed. For example, Jason may have been spared his enormous loss if the timing of the events were altered. If the king of Corinth did not give Medea an additional day to remain in the city before the exile, then Medea would not have had the opportunity to enact her revenge. The removal of that extra day would have effectively removed the possibility of the tragedy occurring.
The last element of a tragedy that Aristotle discusses is that characters need to evoke a sense of pity or fear in the audience. Jason evokes pity from the audience in that he lost everything important to him: both of his wives, one by death and the other from spite, the potential to rule the kingdom, and both of his sons. Medea authenticates an underlying fear within the audience that one day a woman, who is associated with docility and weakness, can decide to act on her vengeful and powerful spirit, resulting in a real-life tragedy.
To conclude, Jason is the tragic hero of Medea because his character demonstrates a more complete representation of Aristotle’s criteria of what constitutes as a tragic hero. Despite Jason’s disloyalty, he is a good character that does not act inhumanely or with vindication. He also experiences a tragic flaw that leads to his reversal and recognition of his situation. Additionally, the elements of the plot itself, the unity and audience catharsis, is also achieved by Jason’s presence and actions in the play.
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