Medea, a play by the Greek playwright Euripides, explores the Greek-
barbarian dichotomy through the character of Medea, a princess from the
“barbarian”, or non-Greek, land of Colchis. Throughout the play, it becomes
evident to the reader that Medea is no ordinary woman by Greek standards.
Central to the whole plot is Medea’s barbarian origins and how they are related
to her actions. In this paper, I am attempting to answer questions such as how
Medea behaves like a female, how she acts heroically from a male point of view,
why she killed her children, if she could have achieved her goal without killing
them, if the murder was motivated by her barbarian origins, and how she deals
with the pain of killing her children.
As an introduction to the play, the status of women in Greek society
should be briefly discussed. In general, women had very few rights. In the
eyes of men, the main purposes of women in Greek society were to do housework
such as cooking and cleaning, and bear children. They could not vote, own
property, or choose a husband, and had to be represented by men in all legal
proceedings. In some ways, these Greek women were almost like slaves. There is
a definite relationship between this subordination of women and what transpires
in the play. Jason decides that he wants to divorce Medea and marry the
princess of Corinth, casting Medea aside as if they had never been married.
This sort of activity was acceptable by Greek standards, and shows the
subordinate status of the woman, who had no say in any matter like this.
Even though some of Medea’s actions were not typical of the average
Greek woman, she still had attitudes and emotions common among women. For
instance, Medea speaks out against women’s status in society, proclaiming that
they have no choice of whom to marry, and that a man can rid themselves of a
woman to get another whenever he wants, but a woman always has to “keep her
eyes on one alone.” (231-247) Though it is improbable that women went around
openly saying things of this nature, it is likely that this attitude was shared
by most or all Greek women. Later in the play, Medea debates with herself over
whether or not to kill her children: “Poor heart, let them go, have pity upon
the children.” (1057). This shows Medea’s motherly instincts in that she cares
about her children. She struggles to decide if she can accomplish her goal of
revenge against Jason without killing her children because she cares for them
and knows they had no part in what their father did. Unfortunately, Medea’s
desire to exact revenge on Jason is greater than her love for her children, and
at the end of the play she kills them. Medea was also a faithful wife to Jason.
She talks about how she helped Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, then
helped him escape, even killing her own brother. (476-483). The fact that she
was willing to betray her own family to be with Jason shows her loyalty to him.
Therefore, her anger at Jason over him divorcing her is understandable.
On the other hand, Medea shows some heroic qualities that were not
common among Greek women. For example, Medea is willing to kill her own brother
to be with Jason. In classical Greece, women and killing were probably not
commonly linked. When she kills her brother, she shows that she is willing to
do what is necessary to “get the job done”, in this case, to be with Jason.
Secondly, she shows the courage to stand up to Jason. She believes that she has
been cheated and betrayed by him. By planning ways to get back at him for
cheating on her, she is standing up for what she believes, which in this case is
that she was wronged by Jason, but in a larger sense, she is speaking out
against the inferior status of women, which effectively allows Jason to discard
Medea at will. Third, she shows that she is clever and resourceful. Rather
than use physical force to accomplish her plans, she uses her mind instead: “it
is best to…make away with them by poison.” (384-385) While physical strength
can be considered a heroic quality, cleverness can be as well. She does in fact
poison the princess and the king of Corinth; interestingly, however, she does
not poison them directly. “I will send the children with gifts…to