The Sanctity of Oaths in Medea
How it works
In Ancient Greece, Zeus is the guardian of oaths and to break a sworn oath is not simply to violate a contractual obligation it is also to deny the greater power of the gods altogether. The whole sequence of actions in Medea is prompted by an oath forsworn before the play even begins. Medea and Jason swear an oath that in return for her aid in capturing the Golden Fleece, they will marry. After they are successful, they flee to Corinth, and there Jason decides to leave Medea and marry the princess Glauce.
This decision sparks a violet reaction from Medea, who ultimately murders her and Jason’s sons and flees to Athens. This one original oath may spark the plot but it is propelled by many others that take place along the play. The analysis of these oaths allow for a deeper assessment of the characters and an understanding of Euripides view of oaths. Euripides presents oaths as holy and deserving and the breaking of an oath would be a disturbance of the natural order and a crime against the gods. But in the genre of “tragedy” Euripides seems to in fact insinuate a much more nuanced opinion on the subject.
The play opens not with the eponymous character nor the antagonist but, instead, with their servants. The Nurse and the Tutor serve as messengers of the views of their masters and establish a central conflict: “what is the sanctity of oaths?”. The Nurse presents the indirect views of Medea. She believes Jason is “guilty: he has betrayed those near and dear to him.” (54-85). The juxtaposition of the word “betrayed” with the rhyming “near and dear” portrays the sentiments of Medea, who feels blindsided by someone she loves. Furthermore, the Nurse calls upon the gods: “tell my mistress’s wrongs to earth and heaven.” demonstrating how the Nurse is capable of seeing their power and how the wrongs by Jason are not merely done against Medea but all the way against the highest order of the natural world. Thus, the Nurse comprehends the oath between Jason and Medea as something of great value. On the other hand the Tutor present a much more cynical view of Jason’s actions. Immediately Euripides establishes the Tutor as “the tutor of Jason’s sons” (17-53); therefore, he is an ally of Jason. He reasons that Jason’s choice is an innate human tendency. That like the seasons come and go, “Old love is ousted by new love” (54-85). And it is only natural “That everyone loves himself more than his neighbor” (86-116). This understanding of the natural order is ironic. Jason, by indulging in this selfishness, is going against the oath he swore to Medea and, thus, breaking the natural order that which it upheld. But where does Euripides stand on these two views? It is still unclear due to the extremes of each stance.
Discussion of each main characters’ fate reveals the divine power of oaths. Jason easily engages in thoughtless blasphemy by deciding to marry Glauce. He is evidently more interested in his power and status. He sees his royal marriage as an opportunity to “ensure [Medea’s] future, and give [his] children a brother of royal blood, and build security for us all.” (593-662) Medea, who would be exiled, could not possibly benefit from this marriage, so this is solely an opportunity for Jason to embetter his position. This selfishness and disrespect of oaths culminates in his final dialogue with Medea: “Jason: The curse of children’s blood be on you! Avenging Justice blast your being! Medea: What god will hear your imprecation; Oath-breaker, guest-deceiver, liar” (1376-1405). Since he is now defined as an oath-breaker, he cannot curse Medea for the murder of his children because the gods are on her side. While, Jason fails, Medea rises. Medea has the passion of the gods which is immediately established through her initial characterization: “She is a frightening woman; no one who makes an enemy of her will carry off an easy victory.” (17-53). This passion carries her on a journey to avenge the broken oath to protect the natural order. Her correction of the natural order and vengeance of the oath breakers is ultimately supported by the gods since Apollo sends his chariot on which Medea escapes to Athens. Expectedly both characters meet their justified ends at the hands of the extraordinary power of oaths, thus, establishing their sanctity. Jason sees his downfall while Medea triumphs. But where is the tragedy in all this? Yes, Jason meets his tragic end but Medea succeeds in her mission contradicting the very genre of tragedy.
The tragedy in fact lies in the extremes: the obsession of oaths and the lack of respect for them. Jason represents the devaluation of oaths, and there is no disagreeing he is in wrong. He is selfish. He lacks empathy. He is disloyal. His punishment fits his wrongs. While, Medea represents the other side of the spectrum: the obsession and demand for oaths as the necessary guarantee of truth. Medea in the end is not that much of a hero as she is the executioner of the gods. The image of the hand demonstrates her need to write the wrongs of the oath-breakers. The one anchor holding her back from accessing her complete passion is the duality of her character. This is the mother in her: “a lioness guarding her cubs” versus her divinity: “a mad bull”. Medea would rather uphold the sanctity of oaths than spare her children. Thus, to correct the broken oath and kill her children she must strip away her maternal side, her heart: “Oh, my heart, don’t, don’t do it! Oh, miserable heart, Let them be! Spare your children!” And use her hand: “My accursed hand, come, take the sword.” (1222-1256).
In doing so Medea forgets simple human morals and human nature of mistake and becomes blinded by her need to execute the plans of the gods. Second, Medea even exhausts the use of oaths to ensure the completion of her schemes. She commands the silence of the Chorus, she has total command of the oath sworn by Aegeus, she even requires an oath to herself: “For, by Queen Hecate, whom above all divinities I venerate, my chosen accomplice, to whose presence my central hearth is dedicated.” (386-423). Every action and decision, all of Medea’s authority rises from her web of oaths. Her overuse of them contradicts the idea that they are sanctious. This is the tragedy. Yes, oaths are powerful. Therefore, they should not be disregarded. However they should not cloud our innate human decency nor be abused. These very extremes result in a rather disturbing resolution to the breaking of oaths: dead children. This is the tragedy, young innocent lives become entangled in the oaths of those responsible of them.
Through the weeds of this underlying debate emerges one character; Aegeus, who represents the radical notion that there can be truth-telling and trustworthiness without oaths. When, Madea comes to him to guarantee asylum in his country. He tells Medea that if she can make it unaided to his country, he for his part will protect her from all her enemies, and that is what he intends to do. Medea still sets great stock in oaths, and she asks for a pledge from Aegeus. Aegeus’ response to this request shows just what kind of man he is: “Why? Do you not trust me? What troubles you?”(704-734). It does not occur to him that an oath would bind him more securely to his word. Aegeus stands out as model between Medea and Jason. He is honest and loyal in glaring contrast to Jason. And in opposition to Medea believes in the power of the mortals word in opposition to the supervision of the gods. Appearing in the middle of the play, he has a refreshing sanity to the chaos that surrounds him, and seemingly reflects the view of Euripides in the sanctity of oaths.
Euripides completely understands the value and power of oaths. He demonstrates that those who chose to disrespect them will meet their punishment, and that those who chose to protect them will be rewarded by the gods. But he argues that there exists a certain human decency so that loyalty and honesty do not need to be overwatched by the heavens. When all trust is put in to oaths, the gods will listen and their decisions to right the wrongs may be even more devastating than expected.