In this Greek tragedy, Euripides crafts a tale that centres around the complexities of Medea’s character: her cleverness, sorcery, murderous tendencies, and her status as a foreigner. Euripides takes these traits and elevates them to new heights in his play. The playwright puts Medea’s otherness on full display in his text, granting complexity to this characteristic of Medea; she is not only a foreigner because of her birthplace, but also because she destroyed said home, leaving her untethered to the land of her ancestors.
The Other is a complex and multifaceted concept: it comprises the foreign, the exotic, the unknown, the feared. The Other is also essential for self-definition: as the Greeks ascribe certain traits to barbarians, they are implying certain things about themselves. Barbarians are savage; the Greeks are not. Barbarians are superstitious; the Greeks are rational.
Medea falls under the category of an “extreme Other”. Extreme Others are not only outsiders in their society, being female, but they also transgress the established boundaries which keep masculine and feminine apart. Medea exhibit masculine ways of speaking, using rhetorical, logical arguments in her defence, and often perform acts of bloody violence. She uses feminine tools at first to try and get her way (manipulation, subterfuge, trickery, poison), but in the end she resorts to masculine means to destroy Jason by killing her children. Medea is the most threatening of the extreme Others as she is a barbarian, sexually active woman who is renowned for her ability as a witch who can control natural elements (in the form of potions and poisons) and who has the support of her grandfather Helios in all her endeavours. This implies that she is able to control her mercurial emotional qualities which traditionally separate the feminine from the masculine. These qualities are non-threatening as they prevent women from being a threat to masculine physical and rational power, but at the same time they are dangerous due to their volatile nature which is inexplicable to the dominant males.
Medea’s betrayal to her homeland/ Medea’s history
Medea’s foreignness is emphasized from the start of the play through the Nurses’ voice which reminds us that Medea comes from a distant and exotic land. This speech is the first instance of characterizing Medea based on past events; a narrative construction that Euripides uses to establish Medea’s Otherness.
The geographical gulf that separates Greek from ‘barbarian’ is emphasized in the Nurse’s opening words, where she speaks of the passage of the Argo through the Symplegades. “If the Argo’s hull never had winged out through the grey-blue jaws of rock and on towards Colchis!…Then neither would Medea, my mistress, ever have set sail for the walled town of Iolcus, mad with love for Jason.” The Argo had to physically leave its shores and go through a tumultuous journey to reach Medea. This act of departing one’s homeland to follow adventure to far-off places furthers the association of Medea as a foreigner. The playwright has thus developed a core attribute of Medea’s mythological persona—her status as outsider—by locating her origins at the far (and hazy) limits of the Greek world.
Euripides represents Medea’s foreignness by her physical separation from her homeland and lack thereof. The names of the cities, Colchis and Iolchus, reaffirm the separation between the two kingdoms, emphasizing the otherness of Medea’s native Colchis. Jason, through his quest, removes her from her homeland and brings her to a new, inherently Greek land, Iolchus. The passage continues to reference her birthplace, and thus lack of a current place to call home, “have come with Jason and her children to live here in Corinth; where, coming as an exile, she has earned the citizen’s welcome.” Here, Euripides states Medea is an ‘exile”, meaning she has travelled far from where she once called home and cannot return. The playwright places a distinct emphasis on distance, both literal and figurative, as Medea is physically removed from her homeland, cutting her off completely from Colchis, and thus her family and culture. This passage quickly establishes and reinforces Medea’s foreigner status.
Intriguingly, Medea criticizes herself when she delivers an incredibly self-aware account of her story and her status. Pg25,30.39 She is acutely aware of both her perception in the confines of the play and how the audience, Ancient Greek citizens, perceives her at this point in her mythological history. This is an elaborate and effective narrative construction on the part of Euripides, who was undoubtedly aware of the nuances and intricacies of Medea’s past and deploys that information into his work, effectively characterizing Medea by utilizing her past history. This use of Medea’s history as a way to construct the present action of Medea a characterization of her as a foreigner or as someone in exile.
Other references to Medea’s outsider status in the text highlight her foreign nature: “Above all, a foreigner must not resist the general will, but be compliant with the city’s wish- though I do not mean to praise or to excuse the citizen who is self-willed and lacks civility.” 69 Here, Medea’s foreign status once again defines her. The citizens of Corinth are unable to see Medea as anyone other than a barbarian foreigner who wreaks havoc across the foreign soil she inhabits. This quote takes the Corinthian’s xenophobia towards Medea a step further, stating that Medea lacks “civility.” Medea is not only a foreign entity, but she lacks even the basic manners and human skills to survive in the great society of Corinth. This Corinthian attitude implies that her past, her homeland and her background, was uncivilized, barbaric, and savage in nature: an accumulation of traits depicting how the citizens of Corinth truly see Medea.
Fear of Medea due to her “foreignness”
Other characters in the play repeatedly stress the fear they have of Medea: “Who knows what she will undertake before this rage is spent?“; “we fear her harm to those inside”; “Well, I see no reason at all to hide the fact that I’m afraid for my daughter, of what you might do to her, what deadly harm, as you have all the means- your cleverness, your skill in evil arts, and certainly the record shows what you can do.” 77 78 79 In this last quote, Creon speaks to Medea as he threatens to exile her from Corinth. He is explicit in his fear of Medea, regarding the likelihood of his daughter, the new bride of Jason, as the next target of Medea’s wrath. This passage exemplifies the fear that Creon, and the whole of Corinth, has of Medea based on occurring before the events portrayed in the tragedy; there is no action, vocal or physical, that transpires within the play to suggest anything violent on the part of Medea. References to Medea’s violence always recall acts that happened previous to the action of the play. The fear that Creon so rightly feels toward Medea is not based on anything unfolding onstage currently, but rather, this fear is due to her well-known past. Euripides uses Medea’s past, her violent and murderous acts specifically, to create the omnipresent fear that circles her in the play This fear thus characterizes this “current” version of Medea as a violent person, someone to be wary of. Yet, this “current” representation is based on acts and events that happened before the play, meaning this current Medea has not voiced or acted on such tendencies yet. If the past was not referenced and this fear not built on her previous actions, this Medea would not have any reason to be seen as villainous or a woman to be feared. By the same token, without the past and the fear it generates, the audience would be unable to recognize this Medea.
Until line 874, the declaration of the impending murders against her children, Medea has done nothing explicitly violent, malicious, or given any indication of her magical ability. Yet, there is a fear that penetrates the play regarding Medea; she has done nothing in the play to warrant that fear, but her past is made up of more than enough evidence to hold against her.
Murdering of her children
Theme of otherness and gender are further emphasised by Jason at the end of the play. Jason talks about how he chose Medea instead of a Greek woman: ‘not a woman in Greece…marry you” and he describes her personality as ‘a nature more savage than Tuscan Scylla’s’. After she has killed her sons, a devastated Jason tells her that no Greek woman could have done such a thing (1339-1340). The implication of Jason’s statement is that it is Medea’s ‘otherness’ as a ‘barbarian’ that allows her to commit such a crime.
Other theatrical moments highlight Medea’s foreign character. Regarding Medea’s children, the nurse claims, “I have seen her turn a savage look their way, and my heart quailed.” 68 Euripides characterizes Medea as a “savage”, implicating that because she is a foreigner, she is also a savage, a barbarian, bordering on an inhuman level. This line hints at Medea’s foreign, violent nature and foreshadows the actual violence she enacts against her children later in the play.
The image of a murdering mother both interests and disturbs its audience. A mother who kills her own children exists far outside of normality, inverting the nurturing, caring, childrearing woman into a monstrous witch who takes her child’s life. Motherhood equates to granting life, so when a mother takes that child’s life, it completely inverts and perverts the expectations of both mothers and women, turning Medea into a spectacle.
In Euripides’ play, the betrayal of her husband Jason, who is taking the daughter of the King of Corinth as his new wife in order to raise his station, is unacceptable to Medea. Twice, she is compared to beasts so as to emphasize the savage and animalistic aspects of her barbarian nature. Her eyes are described as “glinting at her children like a bull’s” and “she darts on her servants/ the wild glance of a lioness with young” Rage is focussed on her children and Jason.
‘You’re a clever woman, skilled in many evil arts’
Acknowledges medeas intelligence.
However, instead of admiring that trait, they fear it as they are unfamiliar with it
Her intelligence is associated with evil arts.
Could creon have been more benevolent?
Medea is a barbarian, woman and a sorceress hence she seems to epitomize several Greek figures of otherness at the same time. Medea defines herself as a foreigner and barbarian. Consequently, her position as an alien ostracizes her to the point that Jason considers the debt her owes her for saving him whilst in Colchis repaid by bringing her to Greece “by saving me you…whim of the mighty” this quote highlights the idea that the barbarians are considered to lack rules and regulations.
Medea’s marginalization is emphasized by her isolation, as she is “a desolate woman. No relative at all”. Women in Greece needed a male relative as their guardian and as an alien in Corinth, Medea also needs her husband as a sponsor, which is why his rejection put her in a very delicate situation. She is particularly isolated because, prior to the action of the play, she killed her brother and betrayed her father and her country in order to help Jason in his quest for the golden fleece. Medea’s fratricide and infanticide appear more horrific than her other murders as they violate “an important component of the Greeks own self-identity” namely “the importance attributed to philia, the friendship which bound different individuals, families and states together” However, in Euripides’ play, one can find several murders committed by Greek characters that breach this constitutive element of Hellenic identity, therefore levelling the difference that supposedly exist between Greeks and barbarians.