Euripides’ Medea challenges the dominant views of feminity in the patriarchal society of Greeks. While pursuing her ambition Medea disregards many of the feminine characteristics of the patriarchal Greek society. By focusing on the character portrayal of Medea, this paper argues to prove Medea a feminist text. And such tragedies represent Euripides feminist and liberal views as well relative to the society he lived in.
Many literary evidences, primarily from comedy, tragedy and oratory, show that ancient Greece were very patriarchal and mysoginistic. Women rights were limited. Their primary role was to marry and bear children. Nevertheless, there have been numerous attempts to salvage voices from the classical world at least sympathetic to the plight of women. The ancient texts and archeological remains have been culled and analyzed repeatedly in the often vain attempt to find authentic feminine and feminist voices from the overwhelmingly negative evaluation of women by patriarchal Greece. Too often these attempts have been wholly, or at least largely, abject failures, and many have turned elsewhere (such as to Celtic people) in the hopes of finding feminist voices in the ancient world (Hutton 250-51). Nonetheless, many continue to peruse the Greek literary tradition and archeological remnants for non-misogynist voices. Euripides, at least within fairly recent history, is for many just such a voice.
Euripides, one of the greatest Greek tragedians, is generally categorized with Sophocles and Aeschylus, yet his works are very different than those of most Greek writers. The characters crafted by Euripides tended to be more realistic than those found in most plays, including strong female leads and intelligent slaves that was against the Athenian ways of thinking. His lead characters were mostly people from middle class, unlike the characters of Sophocles, who mostly portrayed the people of Elite class such as the King Oedipus and Creon.
Euripides’ writing style is very different than most of the other authors, that is why he is identified with theatrical innovations that have influenced drama in modern times. Instead of just basing all of his works on the deeds of powerful people in society and those with outstanding traits or something of the likes, he actually focused on the realistic side of the story. His plays weren’t so much based on spectacle or any events, but more so on how people actually lived their lives and the problems that they would most likely encounter. He also did not focus so much on how detailed and complex his language was, what each word meant and what occurred as a result.
Statement of the problem
In this paper, I attempt to show that Euripides’ play Medea is feminist, not misogynist. The portrayal of such character shows Euripides’ viewpoint on women, proving him to be a feminist and not a misogynist. He was well aware of the problems faced by women in 5th century B.C. Athens was aware of the tension concerning women within Athenian society. Through his work he was able to make his audience, made up of Athenian male citizens, aware of these issues and prompted them to ask their own beliefs, values and ideologies about women by protecting these views back at them through his tragedies. Euripides didn’t furnish his audience with a solution, rather, he was attempting to facilitate debate in attempt to remedy issues in society that needed to be addressed, perhaps to make a social change and to facilitate understanding within Athenian society, particularly for women.
Euripides utilized what would have been considered deviant female characters, from popular myths such as Medea, Phaedra, and Helen. These women were villain in tragedies that preceded Euripides’ treatment of them in Medea, Hippolytus and Helen. Medea is well known from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts in which she killed her brother and betrayed her father to help Jason and the Argonauts in which she killed her brother and betrayed her father to help Jason, her lover. By portrayal of such character, he challenged the patriarchal stereotypes and his women defied the social norms and values in Athenian socio-political culture.
Euripides is considered relatively liberal and feminist as compared to other ancient Greek writers. For such advocates of Euripides, the verdict ranges for him as ‘in no way…a misogynist’ (March 63) to Euripides as ‘a champion of woman’s equality’ (Wright 7). If the evidence indeed points to Euripides as somewhat of a proto-feminist, his play Medea is the best play to start an examination of pro-feminine views. In no other play does Euripides portray a woman who so completely subverts feminine norms and overcomes masculine bonds. His mythic figure survives today as a figure of the sacred feminine (Johnson 61; Percovich 35-6), even becoming a part of feminist ritual in Wicca and other neopagan spiritualities (Ravenwolf 114, 297).
To be sure, Medea is not featured solely in Euripides, but given that his depiction of Medea was highly influential and replicated to some extent by most later authors (Mastronarde 52), the Medea viewed as a figure of feminine power in modernity is at least in part dependent on Euripides. Other evidence pointed to in support of Euripides as a proto-feminist is his creation of Medea’s personality and his portrayal of her as a strong and independent woman. She is difficult to see as ‘a meek and subdued Hausfrau’ (McDermott 47). ‘Medea is clever, certainly, as she herself admits, a woman of great intellectual capacity’ (March 38).
In short, it appears there is a good deal of evidence to support the view that Euripides’ desire was not only to portray Medea as a beleaguered woman desperate to overcome adversity, but also to illustrate how grievously women in his society are injured by an oppressive patriarchy. Unfortunately, all the various excerpts, speeches or scenes which critics have leapt upon as evidence that Euripides was sympathetic to women’s oppression in his society rely on misconstruing the author’s intent, misinterpreting his meaning and tearing various lines free of the overall narrative of the play. Once all of these excerpts touted as evidence of the proto- feminist nature of the Euripides are reinserted into the play’s overall narrative, Euripides’ actual intent maybe understood.
Let’s consider Medea first. The play focuses on the eponymous heroine , and centres around her calculated desire for revenge against her unfaithful husband, Jason, which she achieves by killing his new wife and her own two children, then fleeing to start a new life in Athens. Medea is undoubtedly a strong and powerful figure who refuses to conform to societal expectations, and through her Euripides to an extent sympathetically explores the disadvantages of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Because of this, the text has often been read as a proto-feminist by modern readers. In contrast with this, Medea’s barbarian identity, and in particular her filicide, would have greatly antagonized a 5th Century Greek audience, and her savage behavior caused many to see her as a villain.
The characterization of Medea prominently represented in myth is that of a diabolical and ruthless woman. The myth that prominently features Medea is the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, which dates back to Archaic Greece. It is a story Euripides’ Athenian audience would have known and from which they would have drawn assumptions about the character of Medea.
Medea in this tragedy is still a very powerful, strong and wilful and proud woman. However, while the Medea in Euripides’ previous tragedies, Peliades and Aegueus, is a fearsome and dangerous woman, the Medea of Medea is respected, honorable, loved by the people and sympathetic. She is well respected by her Nurse and the Corinthian women. She is, as the Nurse states, ‘an exile loved by the citizens to whose land she had come’ (1-11). The Nurse, the Chorus and the audience can sympathize with her and understand Medea’s situation and her reaction to it. She is facing the loss of her husband, family and homeland, as well as the life she has worked hard to create. For the time that she has been in Corinth, which would be about ten years depending on the age of her children, she has been living life as a typical Greek wife. She has raised children, formed a home, made friends with the Corinthian women, and settled herself into a happy life. When Jason chooses to remarry, everything that Medea had formed in Corinth is lost. She is left bereft of a home and family due to the fact that she can not return to her homeland after betraying her father for the benefit of Jason. She states: ”Where an I now to return? To my father’s house, which like my country I betrayed for your sake when I came here? Or to the wretched daughters of Pelias? A fine reception they would give me in their house since I killed their father! This is how things stand: to my own kin I have become an enemy, and by my services to you I have made foes of those I ought not to have harmed’ (502-508).
By such portrayal of Medea’s character, Euripides beings to the attention of his audience the troubles that women face as mothers and wives, and gives women their own voice. He has, in this tragedy, cast Medea as a typical women who is faced with extraordinary circumstances brought on by the man she has tied herself to. This is especially prominent in Medea’s speech in the first episode of the tragedy. Here she clearly describes the position of women in Athenian society, as well as the vulnerability of women in marriage in terms of their husband’s power over them and the reliance that women had on their husbands. Medea begins by stating that, ‘Of all creatures that have breath and sensation, we women are the most unfortunate’ (230-231). Then she goes on to explain the troubles of women such as the down and control of the husband, stating that women have to buy a husband and accept him as a master of her body. (232-234). Whether or not her life is good or bad depends on the husband that she takes (241-243). He could be a good man, and they could have a loving and honorable relationship, or he could be the sort of man who goes and sleeps with other women. However, women are restricted to only their husbands, as Medea states, ‘But we [women] must fix our gaze on one person only’ (247). She also highlights the nature of divorce and not being married, stating that divorce is dishonorable and refusing marriage is hardly any option (236-237). This speech clearly would have been understood by Euripides’ audience because it reflected marital practices in Athens. It also depicts the role of women as hard and unfair and illustrates prominently the double standard between men and women. This speech not only makes Medea sympathetic but all women.
However, some critics state that this speech was a mere ploy. According to their arguments, Medea is manipulating the chorus and audience to have pity for her by imitating a typical woman and downplaying the fear that is often associated with her. These arguments emphasize that Medea is not really a normal woman, and is actually the dangerous Medea that is known from the myth, who is playing the part so that she can gain support, sympathy and the ability to justify her revenge. Granted, she might still be the same Medea from the myth; hot tempered, wilful, and very powerful, however in this tragedy she might be playing the part but for a different reason. The speech might be a ploy on the part of the character but still it was written to be a very revealing look at the situation of the typical Athenian woman that might have made the audience question what was really happening in their society.
In giving Medea a voice and giving her the motivation to take action against her oppressor, Euripides is reversing traditional male ideology. He is calling attention to the deceit and lies of men rather than focusing on the terrible things that women are capable of as previous poets as Hesiod and Semonides did. He is overturning the assumption of these poets who have slandered women, giving women a voice which was not given to them before, as the Chorus says: ‘The poetry of ancient bards will cease to hymn our faithlessness. Phoebus Lord of song never endowed our minds with the glorious stains of the Iyre. Else I could have sounded a hymn in reply to the male sex. Time in its long expanse can say many things of men’s lot as well as of women’s’ (421-430).
Medea, even though, she has adopted this heroic code, is still a woman and a mother, she has a feminine maternal nature and struggles to reconcile this nature with her heroic nature. Medea decided to make her children a part of her plan for revenge by killing them, this action would utterly destroy Jason. However, her maternal nature struggles with her decision, she naturally feels love towards her children. But soon after her heroic nature returns and spurs her on. She refuses to suffer mockery and let her enemies go unpunished. She puts the tender feelings aside, forgetting about her heart (1049-1064). When she decides on this plan she forfeits her feminine nature and fully adopts the heroic masculine nature. Boedoker states, ‘At this point, the protagonist presents herself clearly and not for the first time, in terms of male heroism, focused on achieving, honor, vengeance and fame.’
Similarly Foley states, ‘Medea exposes male suppression of women in marriage and the tragic results of a male refusal to recognize in women the capacities, feelings and need that they accept for themselves; and it shows the corrupting effects of this mistreatment on a woman of tremendous feeling and intelligence.’
Thus, by sketching the character of Medea, Euripides tried to uncover the struggles of women. These struggles included the restrictions that women were placed under through marriage and the lack of acknowledgement of the capabilities and needs of women by men. Euripides takes
Medea’s struggle to extreme limits, making her actions and the consequences of those actions fearsome, essentially making Medea a monster in the end. However, by pointing out these issues and taking them to the extreme, Euripides causes his audience to question their own society. Through Medea, Euripides was prompting his audience to consider their own relationships with the women in their lives, the sense of honor and capabilities that women possessed, and the restrictions that women faced in their lives and relationships.
A close examination of the female characters and their actions in myth and tragedy shows that Euripides, rather than being a mysoginist, was aware of the struggles of women. He was particularly aware of women’s struggle for recognition and understanding in 5th century B.C.
Euripides through his work is able to give his audience a new perspective. The Athenian male citizens that made up his audience could see the views and assumption that they held about women projected back at them and were able to see the struggle of women more clearly through Euripides’ tragedies. He was able to show them that there were tensions, misconceptions and issues concerning women that needed to be addressed in Athenian society. Euripides placed those issues before his audience and prompted them to question their own beliefs, conceptions and ideologies, particularly those about women. However, he did not give them a solution or tell them how to feel or view those issues. He wanted his audience to think for themselves, and to address the issues that they saw before them by talking about them. As each says, “the purpose is not to find a final solution, but to facilitate debate on these matters.” Euripides felt that social change was in order , however, he didn’t take sides, rather, he aimed to facilitate understanding through his works, particularly through his female characters in Medea, Hippolytus, and Helen.
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