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The dictionary defines feminism as “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.” Many would argue that Euripides’ Medea is an early representation of feminism. While this is true, as evident by Medea’s independence and quest for equality, Medea does not exhibit feminist qualities until her first exchange with the women of the chorus. Many believe that Medea’s bold decision to abandon her fatherland and fight with Jason shows that she is a feminist; however, the betrayal of her family just to be with a man demonstrates that Medea is more interested in having a husband than being an independent woman. When Medea loses Jason, she experiences grief that turns into rage, which sparks the feminism that motivates Medea to seek justice. Medea’s exchange with the Chorus exhibits her transformation into an early feminist as she uses sympathy, gender inequality, and a quest for justice to persuade the women of the chorus to take her side.
In order to gain the chorus’s trust, Medea lures them in with the woes of her life and future in order to earn their sympathy. Pity is a powerful thing; it can cloud people’s judgment and leave them vulnerable to manipulation. Medea uses this knowledge as a tool to prompt the chorus to feel sorry for her. Medea first exclaims, “Unexpected trouble/ has crushed my soul. It’s over now; I take/ no joy in my life” (Euripides 226-228). This dramatic testament of unexpected betrayal leaves her miserable and unhappy, allowing Medea to make the chorus feel her pain and thereby drawing them into her plight.
How it works
Medea wants them to understand that her life has become worthless; she wants them to know what a struggle each day has become and even goes as far as to proclaim “my friends, I want to die” (Euripides 228). Medea fills the chorus with sadness for her, gaining their sympathy as well as their trust. She shows the Chorus that she trusts them enough to confide in them about her thoughts of suicide, but she also wants them to know how isolated she feels and that she may be better off dead. This tactic of both pushing them away and drawing them in gives Medea the upper hand over Jason with the Chorus, as they now feel bad for her and blame Jason. With the Chorus’s full attention and fear for her life, Medea can begin to fully sway them to her side by complaining about gender-based double standards to spark hatred within the chorus.
Medea begins to exhibit true feminist qualities when she uses gender inequality to encourage anger within the chorus, thereby further persuading them to take her side. The all-female chorus is predisposed to take Medea’s side, making it easy for Medea to stress Jason’s betrayal and hard for the chorus to defend him. This opening allows her to launch into a critique of marriage. Medea starts by reminding the chorus of how awful finding a husband can be. Medea complains, “First of all, we have to buy a husband:/ spend vast amounts of money just to get/ a master for our body—to add insult to injury” (Euripides 233-236). This is a frustrating reminder that women cannot escape married life and even when they do decide to enter it, they are not in control of anything, not even their own bodies.
This alone is aggravating enough to bring Jason down to the lowest respect of the chorus because Medea’s marriage to Jason can be directly related to the general idea of marriage that Medea has just described. However, Medea doesn’t stop there; she quashes any doubt of injustice when she points out that “if a woman leaves her husband, then she loses her virtuous reputation. To refuse him is just not possible” (Euripides 238-240). The word ‘refuse’ emphasizes the double standard of virtue between men and women. A man’s virtue is almost always positive. Everything a man does is out of courage and selflessness. On the other hand, a woman’s virtue is only honored if she is obedient and compliant. If a woman does anything out of emotion or desire, her virtue becomes immediately obsolete.
Medea obeyed Jason and betrayed her own family out of love for him because if she didn’t, she would lose everything. But as it turned out, she lost everything anyway because “a man, when he gets fed up with the people at home, can go elsewhere to ease his heart” (Euripides 247-248). Jason left and, without a husband, Medea is nothing. This is another double standard Medea brings to light. Because he is a man, Jason is free to do what he wants and go where he pleases, and no one questions him. In contrast, society does not justify Medea’s anger and misery and even exiles her because of those feelings. In light of such double standards, Medea embraces a kind of feminism. She describes total gender inequality and professes that it is not fair. Now that she has educated the chorus about gender inequality, Medea is ready to tell them what she is going to do about it.
Medea shows the Chorus that marriage is a bad deal for women and especially for her, and now she must test their loyalty by requesting their silence. Medea does not have a fully formed plan yet, but she knows she wants to take action. So she asks the Chorus: “if [she] should find some way, some strategy to pay [her] husband back, bring him to justice, keep silent” (Euripides 265-267). Medea does not have anything worked out for her revenge, but she wants the Chorus to understand that she deserves to seek payback. Furthermore, she does not use the word ‘revenge’, rather she uses ‘justice’. This simple substitution makes her plan less an act of emotional rage and more a quest for justice and gender equality.
The battle for justice is much more respectable than the battle for revenge. Medea knows this and evidently, she also convinces the chorus. After hearing everything Medea has to say, the chorus responds, “I’ll do as you ask. You’re justified, Medea, in paying your husband back. I’m not surprised you grieve at your misfortunes” (Euripides 272-274). This indicates that Medea not only gains their sympathy but also sparks an understanding of justice within the chorus. After everything they’ve heard, the chorus feels that Medea deserves to get justice and they even agree that she has a right to grieve. With the chorus’s blessings, Medea is now free to carry out her plan for revenge.
An early form of feminism became Medea’s driving force in gaining the trust of the chorus. Through her use of sympathy, gender inequality, and a desire for justice, Medea was able to persuade the chorus to her side. Once Medea had garnered pity from the chorus, she knew they would no longer favor Jason’s side. However, that was not enough to secure their silence when she decided to act on her rage. Medea knew she needed more than just sympathy, so she incited anger towards Jason by emphasizing gender inequality and the inherent unfairness faced by women. Once Medea had the chorus understand gender injustice, she could enlist their help in executing her plan for justice. All Medea needed was the chorus’s silence if her plan proved successful. By aligning the women of the chorus with her cause, Medea achieved just that. Employing sympathy, illustrating gender inequality, and formulating a plan for justice, Medea exhibited feminist qualities that prove an injustice in the bedroom is precisely the catalyst a woman needs to discover the feminism within her.
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