In her eponymous play, Medea, in the name of revenge for Jason’s betrayal, kills her own children. I will argue that Medea’s actions are, in fact, logically justified because they are rational when viewed on a cosmic scale. First, Jason’s severest and highest offense is his violation of his oath to the gods, and therefore the best form of justice for this is on a divine level in return. Medea carried this out after deliberating in a “divine” manner, which is unencumbered by human emotion and is evidenced by her lineage of gods and rulers, and this allowed her to give Jason the most objective retribution possible. I will cement my argument by positing that the gods’ inaction against Medea’s deeds throughout the play and their giving help to her after she commits the murders constitutes obvious support for her; because they are enforcers of justice, they seem to believe that the double infanticide is appropriate retribution for Jason’s betrayal. However, to work my way to this point, I will need to start with why Jason deserved divine punishment in the first place.
When Jason broke his divine oath to Medea by leaving her and his children, he not only wronged her, but he wronged the gods as well. The latter offense was objectively much more serious because it concerned the rulers of the universe, and therefore simple human justice in retaliation would not do. In the beginning of the play, the Chorus establish the gravity of a divine oath, saying that Jason broke a “promise sealed with his right hand (the greatest pledge there is)” and that because of this, Medea entreats the gods to recognize the extent of his betrayal (Medea 25-29). Both Medea and the Chorus, which represent the women of Corinth, obviously know this as a severe transgression. Jason obviously knew this as well, because when Medea confronts him about his actions, she says, “What puzzles me is whether you believe those gods (the ones who heard you swear) no longer are in power, or that the old commandments have been changed? You realize full well that you broke your oath” (Medea 499-503). This knowing snub against the gods most likely angered them and put a divine target on his back as someone who needed to learn his place. Medea seems to agree, as although she talks about her personal issues with him in addition to this, she places a heavier emphasis on his violation of the oath, which suggests that she views this as his greatest crime. This is also supported by the Nurse’s observation that Medea prays to Themis, a goddess who enforces order, and Zeus, who enforces oaths (Medea 170-171). The prioritization of these specific gods as opposed to possible others (for example, a god of love, rage, or other human emotions) is indicative of her “divine” and big-picture thinking.
Like a god and a ruler, Medea deliberates over her situation objectively, and she decides to mete out appropriate cosmic justice for Jason, even at great personal cost and in violation of human taboo. In the beginning of the play, while Medea grieves about Jason’s betrayal, the Nurse remarks that “rulers are fierce in their temperament […] They’re harsh, and they’re stubborn” (Medea 124-127). Medea is descended from such a ruler: a noble father. She is a princess herself. Her genealogy also includes a godly grandfather: Helios, the god of the sun (Medea 414-415). Both of these ancestors and their distinct thought process could have given Medea a “genetic” predisposition for objective, logical thinking—thinking that from the Nurse’s human perspective seems harsh. The Chorus feel this way as well, and they tell Medea multiple times that although they agree that Jason was unjust and deserves justice (Medea 596-598, 258-273, and 1255-1259), they are horrified at the methods she chooses for that justice. They even beg her to spare her children, saying, “since I want to help you, and since I support the laws of mankind, I ask you not to do this” (Medea 835-836). This choice of language directly implies that Medea is breaking human laws by murdering her children and therefore also implies that Medea’s form of retribution is inhuman since she looks past those laws. An additional difference in thinking is that the Chorus emphasizes Medea’s misfortunes rather than the oath-breaking that Medea is fixated on (Medea 258-273). They are much more focused on the human aspect of Jason’s betrayal—his abandonment of his wife and children—than Medea is. Medea knows this, and is also aware of their horror, but still refuses to change her course (Medea 837-838). With her elevated, unemotional thinking, she does not consider taboos (infanticide and murder, in this case) or the loss of human life the way that humans (like the Nurse and the Chorus) do. In the context of her decision, Medea’s sons were predominantly a way that Jason’s legacy could live on. She wants to destroy this legacy as well as hurt him by destroying his “beloved” children. Although they are her beloved children too, her divine logic allows her to overcome human emotions such as grief and trepidation, at least for the necessary moments, in order to commit the murders. At one point she hesitates, thinking of the future pain she will cause for herself, but then thinks of the punishment that must be administered to Jason and goes through with the murders. She even calls herself weak for letting emotion briefly cloud her judgement (Medea 1043-1075), and this further supports the facts that she prizes objective thinking and attempts to think unemotionally. Medea was partly influenced by human emotions (such as rage at Jason) in her decision to murder her children, yes, but the fact that she was ultimately able to push past her emotional hesitation and even thought that being swayed by emotions is weak shows that she does not let emotions govern her thinking. Therefore, most of the thought process for this instance of revenge is logical on a big-picture scale.
Medea uses her cosmic-level logic to act on the behalf of the gods, who implicitly and openly support her enforcement of order. They are obviously aware of what she is doing, as she appeals to “Zeus, and Zeus’ Justice, and the light of Helios” so that she can be victorious in her pursuit of justice (Medea 785-789). Yet, even though they are aware of her plans, they take no action against her. This inaction, despite the fact that most humans in the world of the play view infanticide as wrong, and despite the fact that different characters such as the Chorus and Jason plead with the gods at the end of the play (Medea 1276-1291 and 1459-1461), shows the gods’ implicit support for the double murder. It appears that not only are they aware of Medea’s intent and are passive regarding it throughout the story, but they also outright help her with her plotting, as Medea confesses this to the Tutor before she kills her children (Medea 1034-1035). The final, most revealing evidence of their support happens at the end of the book, when Medea rises above her house in a flying chariot, holding the bodies of her children. She explains to an enraged Jason that she is protected by the chariot because it is her father’s (Medea 1363-1367). This is tangible evidence for the gods’ support—if they did not approve of the murders, they would not allow her to escape punishment, much less actually help her with a chariot and protection afterward. They must believe that it is an appropriate form of justice for Jason’s crime, because their primary motivation is justice. This is evidenced by the Chorus’ final statement and ending lines in the book: that “Zeus on Olympus enforces all things” and that the gods contrive events that they want to happen (Medea 1464). This means that it was Zeus’ will for Medea to kill her children, and that her intention of retribution for Jason was also Zeus’ will, because she gets away with the murders without punishment.
In essence, despite the horror of the Chorus, Jason, and even perhaps the audience, Medea was logically justified in killing her children because their murders make sense from a cosmic viewpoint. Jason betrayed Medea by breaking a divine oath, and since this most serious transgression was divine, he deserved a divine form of punishment. Medea metes this out for him, thinking about his punishment from a god’s perspective. This type of thinking is devoid of human bias or taboos, and although Medea’s retribution was brutal, it was objectively fair. She wanted to destroy Jason’s future legacy and hurt him by taking away the children that he claimed to love. Despite the fact that it is possible that her motivations were emotional, Medea carried out this justice regardless of great personal cost, suggesting a greater motive than simply herself; the gods’ inaction and outright support also suggests that this is true. Therefore, Medea acts on their behalf in order to punish Jason and show him his place. The broader implications of these conclusions regarding punishment are thought-provoking: is our own system of justice and punishment fair? Or do our emotions limit us—is true punishment or retribution devoid of human bias? If there was no bias in our justice system, would this objective motivation behind the punishment override the methods we would use to punish?