Medea: bitches, they crazy

April 6, 2009

The principle of helping friends and hurting enemies is central to Euripides’ Medea; her every action is intended to hurt those who she considers to be her enemies: Jason, Creon and Glauce. Conversely, she is enraged and the chorus is troubled by the notion that Jason has engaged in activities which are harmful to his near and dear ones, namely abandoning his wife and children for another woman. This perversion of the accepted ethical standard creates a dilemma for the audience: are we meant to sympathize with Medea and approve of her vengeful actions, or are we meant to be repulsed by the murders that she coldly plans and executes?

Several factors seem to argue for a sympathetic reading of the character, for the most part. First, a number of the other characters in the play–such as the nurse, Aegeus and the chorus–consider her to be a victim of circumstance and feel sorry for her. She herself repeatedly makes the compelling argument that she has given up everything for Jason–her home, her family, and to a certain extent her identity–only to have him repay her by tossing her aside like a used tissue. Jason himself, when he arrives to justify his actions, comes across as vain, haughty and callous toward his soon to be ex-wife and children. Creon also appears to be unduly harsh by banishing her and her children from his kingdom, although we later learn that his concerns were well founded, and Glauce is described as hiding her face and turning away from the children when they arrive to give her the gift that is supposed to win her good will. By making her enemies unlikeable, Medea is in turn rendered more pitiful. In short, Medea has helped her near and dear ones, but Jason has harmed them, and thus he becomes Medea’s enemy along with the king and princess.

However, one thing arguably blemishes the clear line between treatment of friends and enemies: Medea’s murder of her children. Within the context of the play, she states that she is killing them to harm Jason, which is consistent with the need to hurt one’s enemies. He is undoubtedly harmed by the action, as he is left alone without even his own flesh and blood to comfort him after the loss of his new bride and all the power and money that would have come with the marriage. Nonetheless, Medea is murdering innocent near and dear ones who have done nothing to deserve their fate, but merely had the bad luck to be related to an unscrupulous man and an intractable woman. Moreover, she is also harming herself, subordinating her own small measure of happiness to exacerbate Jason’s misery. Finally, the chorus does not approve of her actions, despite their prior support for her other revenge schemes.

Medea herself is a complex character; she is by turns a frantic, jilted lover, a caring mother, a pitiful suppliant and a cold, calculating killer. Which is the real Medea? Can they be reconciled into a cohesive person, and is that person sympathetic or not? If we accept that she has successfully managed to hurt her enemies, what does her victory say about the very notion of reciprocity? At what point does the cost of hurting your enemies become too high to be ethical? Would her actions be considered a form of justice, or merely retribution? Finally, given that she literally gets away with murder and escapes, leaving Jason to deal with the aftermath, can she really be considered a tragic hero?

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