Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Medea, the Embodiment of the New Female in Greek Society

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In Euripides’ Medea, the protagonist, portrayed as the main character, abandoned the gender roles of ancient Greek society. As a result of this, Euripides invented a new version of the gender female. Medea defied perceptions of gender by exhibiting male characteristics while existing in the bounds of the “female mentality. Medea brings a sense of manly courage to womans gender by slaying Creon and Creusa. She brings power and hubris, decidedly male characteristics, to a womans role by slaying her own children, in a society where women’s identity was dependent on having a husband and bearing children. Finally, Medea does not commit suicide, as do the other Greek heroines of the time but she takes on male behavioral characteristics as she exhibits intelligence and an ability to control herself emotionally as she designs her plot for retribution. Medea is determined not to let herself become the traditional female victim in a Greek tragedy. She insists on her right to do what her male counterparts have traditionally done in the past.

In ancient Greek society, murder is commonly associated with male protagonists, in fact, the crimes that Medea commits are no worse than the kinds of butchery committed by the great male heroes of tragedy and epic commonly associated with women. One of these crimes is the courageous slaying of her brother which she claims she has done for the sake of Jason, lamenting, “Oh My Father! Oh my country! In what dishonor / I left you, killing my own brother for it” (6, 4-5). She further goes on to justify and rationalize her plans for the murder of Creon and his daughter Glauke, and she does not have any remorse but feels it is just retribution for her dishonor. “If I can find the means or devise any scheme / To pay my husband back for what he has done to me-/Him and his father-in-law and the girl who married him-/…For in other ways a woman / is full of fear, defenseless, dreads the sight of cold / Steel; but when once she is wronged in the matter of love, / No other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood” (, -). When Medea says that she is one who can hurt my enemies and help my friends (6, 6), she is essentially justifying her actions according to certain “code” of behavior traditionally set aside only for male heroic, just and courageous actions. Medea represents herself as the “new female”, she attempts to strike at the very heart of the patriarchy in which she is bound, and seeks to destroy Jason’s identity as he destroyed hers.

In ancient Athenian society, women could only aspire to a single identity--that of a wife and mother. She loses this semblance of an identity when Jason marries Creons daughter. Medea has none of the traditional male options available to her to regain her lost honor, such as personal combat or duel with her enemy or rushing into battle. Women at this time had only one destiny and one fate--to marry and have children. When her honor, her very identity, is taken from her, she refuses to lay down and die and be the traditional victim, she strikes back at her oppressor with cunning ruthlessness and a surprising lack of moral fortitude, using her children as pawns to cause hurt in return of the pain caused by her enemy “…for I shall kill my own children…For those children he had from me he will never / see alive again…” (6 , 0-1). Her guile and absolute refusal to view herself as a victim is apparent when she says, “Let no one think me a weak one, feeble-spirited, / A stay-at-home, but rather just the opposite.” (6, 5-6). Medea displays extreme pride, which is stereotyped as a male characteristic. She is willing to sacrifice everything, including her children, to restore her reputation. She is fully cognizant in what she is planning to do. “I know indeed what evil I intend to do, / But stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury / Fury that brings upon mortals the greatest evils” (5, 10-1). It is a common belief that a woman’s weakness is her children, but this is not the case with Medea. Her sense of pride prevails over her maternal instincts. Medea seeks vengeance with the same forceful determination to rectify the situation as a man would. A woman seeking revenge challenges society’s view of women as weak and passive. Medea will go to great lengths to hurt Jason for the wrongs he committed against her in order to restore her honor. In doing so, she defines her new identity.

At first, in realizing that her identity had been taken away, Medea dwells in self-pity until contriving a scheme that will avenge her hurt. Wallowing in self-contempt is generally a quality attributed to women by society, it also is the tragic flaw that is set up to illicit pity and sympathy for the protagonists of Greek tragedy. They must suffer some incredible pain in order to be justified in their actions to avenge themselves. Medea at first, is so distraught after her marriage with Jason ended that she wanted to die, crying out to in a speech to her female friends, “My friends, I only want to die / It was everything to me to think well of one man” (8, 4-5). As her soliloquy continues and she begins to hear herself, she begins to embody more of what is considered to be “male characteristics” saying, “I would very much rather stand / Three times in the front of battle than bear one child” (, 1-14), indicating she is less willing to “play the victim” role than what was previously intonated. Until finally, she realizes that she must avenge her honor and punish those who did her harm, “If I can find the means or devise any scheme / To pay my husband back for what he has done to me…” (, -4). It is at this point Medea acknowledges that she will not take the “traditional” route and kill herself in answer to her suffering. She will, in fact, do quite the opposite. She instead begins to use her guile and cunning, which involves emotional control not traditionally assigned to female characters in Greek tragedy, in order to form her plot for retribution. This is evidenced in her dealings with Creon, in her “bargaining” for one extra day before she and her children are forced into exile when she pleads, “Allow me to remain here for just this one day, / So I may consider where to live in my exile” (1, 5-6). Meanwhile, she it is clear she is using him for her own gain when she rhetorically asks the Chorus, “Do you think that I would have ever fawned on that man / Unless I had some end to gain or profit in it?” (1, -). Medea, then, as a result of her intelligence, emotional control and cunning, differs dramatically from any other “heroine” of this time, embodying decidedly male characteristics.

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Medea defied the society’s stereotypes of male and female characters, and simultaneously defined a new view of women in that society. Throughout Euripides’ Medea, the protagonist exhibited the tendencies of the epic male hero while revolting against the more “female” aspects as realized in Athenian society. As a result of this, she stands apart from other women as they were portrayed then, and stands closer than ever to her male counterparts in Greek tragedy.

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