How unsettled would the male Athenian audience have been by Euripides' Medea?

Emma Bentley - Guest Writer

Editors Note: Emma writes her own blog discussing politics, literature and classics which can be found by clicking here

Euripides’ Medea centres around an eponymous protagonist who, angered by her husband leaving her to marry a Corinthian princess, murders her own children in an act of vengeance. Despite being the most frequently performed Greek tragedy of the 20th century, and one of ten Euripidean plays to be canonised in the library of Alexandria, Medea and its tetralogy placed last in the 431 BC City Dionysia (Griffith, 2013, 1-2). Athenian citizens ranked the competing tragedies, suggesting that Medea’s reputation among them was unfavourable, perhaps because of the protagonist herself. One can thus argue that Euripides’ male audience were unsettled by Medea, a figure with heroic stature and rhetorical power who rejects traditional womanhood and transcends beyond the limits of human mortality. Alongside the combination of intelligence and sexual jealousy, it is this that arguably caused audiences to view the character of Medea as deeply disturbing.

Medea’s rejection of traditional gender roles must first be explored at length. In the prologue, Medea enters as a suicidal force capable of exclaiming “to hell with the family, all of the house” (114). This declaration attacks the oikos, a Greek word for the integral Athenian institution of the household and its property. Maintaining the oikos was a primary role for married women, so by dismissing this, Medea rejects the patriarchal function of women in Athenian society. When one considers the relationship between women and citizenship to Athenian society, Medea arguably becomes a threat to the state at large. The introduction of Pericles’ citizenship laws of 451 dictated that a man could only be a citizen of Athens if both his parents were citizens, and, without being a citizen, a man was unable to participate in democracy. Similarly, the legitimacy of children, something connected to patrilineage and inheritance, relied on the faithfulness of a woman. Medea’s critique of the institution that ensured the production of heirs and citizens would likely be incredibly menacing to Euripides’ audiences, even though Medea herself was a foreigner and the action takes place in the mythical past of Corinth. Medea’s murder of Jason’s new bride, the daughter of the Corinthian king, as well as her own children, is a further threat to the state. Moreover, within the first episode Medea addresses the women of Corinth and attacks the male demand for servile wives whose primary function is reproductive labour, and one could view this as a shockingly radical call to arms. It’s possible that Medea’s decision to murder her own children was a Euripidean addition to the original legend. This new Medea, a woman capable of murder just to spite her husband, would be incredibly unsettling, and men would have found it hard to sympathise with a figure who rejected maternal responsibility in the most extreme way conceivable.

Similarly, Medea’s sexual jealousy, caused by her husband marrying another woman, would have been received as vulgar. After all, many Athenian objections to Euripides were a result of his representation of female passion (Griffith, 2013, 1-2). Jason claims that Medea is “stung by thoughts of sex” (568) and throughout the tragedy both he and Creon attack her supposed sexual motives. Marriage itself was an institution that primarily ensured financial security and the production of legitimate heirs; there was no place for sensuality or female agency, both of which threatened the legitimacy of possible children. Perhaps Euripides’ use of bestial imagery to describe Medea reflects how it was easier to compare a woman to an animal than view her as a naturally sexual being. Whilst some argue that Euripides was some kind of proto-feminist who critiqued societal misogyny, it is more likely that he explores the rejection of societal values and institutions (which was typical of tragedy) without condemning these superstructures himself. The depiction of Medea as unpredictable and volatile is closely linked to her sexuality. Medea’s nurse relates her passion to fury and to the motif of fire, dangerous precisely because passion was viewed as an uncontrollable ill inflicted onto a passive subject. Whilst one can argue that Medea is calculative and reasoned even when she is at her most violent, Athenian men would certainly fear her and contend that sexual jealousy has no place within a good woman.

As aforementioned, one can argue that Medea is not irrational and unintelligent. On one hand, Euripides’ use of sung anapaests in Medea’s conversation to the Nurse conveys intense emotion as this metrical foot was conventionally used in passages in a higher emotional register. Scholar Helene Foley summarises the arguments of Anne Burnett and Albrecht Dihle, stating that they interpreted the monologue where Medea debates her decision to kill her children as a ‘gendered’ internal debate between ‘what the audience would have read as a masculine, heroic and public self and a feminine, maternal self’ (Foley, 1989: 62). One cannot deny that Medea loves her children, and this is made evident in this monologue, but Medea’s maternal instinct is secondary to her thumos. Yet, whilst she is motivated by vengeance, Medea’s actions are premeditated. In the words of Foley, she is ‘proud of her intelligence and unashamed of the complex and emotional motives that she has’ (Foley, 1989: 64). This makes her more threatening as she is not a victim of uncontrollable passion, but a purposeful transgressor. It is worth noting that the concept of rationality itself was, and still is, inherently gendered, whereby women are considered less susceptible to reason by nature and more emotionally driven. Whilst this can be seen within Euripides’ writings, Medea’s level of awareness conveys agency. She refers to her hands as “wretched” whilst picking up the sword, but the knowledge of her crimes does not prevent her. Whilst Medea does reason that her children will die by someone’s hand, even if it is not her own, she argues her case logically and intelligently. Perhaps this awareness makes her even more alarming.

Furthermore, Medea’s rhetorical ability, a quality that Athenians viewed as masculine, would be perceived as threatening by Euripides’ contemporary audience. Rhetoric was essential to 5th century democracy, whether it be within the philosophical, political, or legal spheres. Medea uses rhetoric to manipulate Jason, and does so by exploiting the patriarchal view of feminine inferiority. She thus enters the gendered sphere of rhetoric and emerges superior, especially as Jason proclaims that he will “prove myself as an orator” (522), but is ultimately fooled by her and overcompensates with metaphor in an attempt to prove himself. Moreover, Medea’s emotive declaration that she will “drag through […] bitter, painful days” (1037) without her children may trigger pathos within audiences, who would be unsettled by the invitation to sympathise with such a dangerous figure. Similarly, Creon declares “I am afraid of you” because of her intelligence and secretive nature. Bernard Knox points out that men ‘really fear and hate [superior intelligence] in a woman.’ Sophos, a clever man, is bad enough, bot sophe—a clever woman!’ (Knox, 1979: 313). Therefore, part of Medea’s power is her sophia, unsettling because it is unmatched, and transgressive because she should not possess it. It is understandable that both Creon and Euripides’ male audience would fear Medea as she occupies the space between masculinity and femininity, and dominates the tragedy both rhetorically and physically. It is her words, just as much as her actions, that make her dangerous.

Furthermore, Euripides depicts Medea in the style of a male Homeric or Sophoclean hero. Knox explores Medea’s heroic qualities by comparing her to Sophocles’ Ajax (Knox, 1979: 297-298). As Knox describes, both Medea and Ajax are characters who ‘fear the mockery of their enemies’, and Medea’s thumos and ‘determined resolve’ are all qualities of a Sophoclean hero (1979: 298). This is exhibited when Medea claims to be “deadly to my enemies, supportive to my friends” (809), perhaps ironic as murdering children is hardly the same as supporting them. The Chorus argues that Medea is “made out of iron, or out of granite” (1280-1281), and this metaphor encapsulates her defiance and stubbornness. From this, it can also be inferred that Medea cannot be swayed by empathy and morality: she is reminiscent of Achilles avenging Patroclus and disrespecting Hector’s body in ‘The Iliad’, unaffected by guilt. One can argue that Medea’s heroic qualities are her hamartia, as without these she may not have taken her jealousy to such a violent extent. Knox also highlights Euripides’ use of bestial imagery, and Medea reclaims this by declaring that she does not care if Jason calls her a “lioness” (1342). Describing male heroes with lion imagery was common, but female predatory ferociousness was not considered admirable. However, Knox goes on to argue that, for heroes, it was ‘expected that their revenges, when they felt themselves unjustly treated […] would be huge and deadly’ (Knox, 1979: 300). The presentation of Medea as a determined heroic figure is proleptic of the infanticide she commits to spite Jason, and would create a dire sense of foreboding within an audience familiar with the heroic tradition. Still, Medea is not a Sophoclean or Homeric hero, but a foreign woman motivated by sexual jealousy. This is what makes her different from her male counterparts, especially because her heroism represents everything that she should not be.

Medea’s behaviour is arguably godlike. The misogynistic comparison made between Medea and Scylla, the notorious sea monster of Homer’s Odyssey, recalls images of grotesque and unhuman female beasts. Furthermore, Medea aligns herself with the divine by stating: “the gods and I, with my bad thoughts, have engineered this outcome” (1013-1014). When analysing this, Knox remarked that Medea ‘sees herself as their instrument and associate’ (Knox, 1979: 302), and this concept would likely disgust Euripides’ audience as she aligns murder to divine intention. Here, she transcends the boundaries between humanity and divinity. The motif that encapsulates godlike Medea is the image of her atop Helios’ chariot, fleeing without physical punishment. The staging of Medea above Jason, alongside her divine behaviour, metaphorically places her above humanity and elevates her to a godly level, calling into question the motives of the gods themselves. This is enforced by Knox’s argument that ‘Medea shows the same merciless […] attitude towards Jason that characterises the Euripidean gods’ (Knox, 1979: 304). The City Dionysia was rooted in religious contexts, and the image of a foreign woman assuming a godly demeanour is wholly transgressive. Medea doesn’t just challenge societal institution, but the order of reality.

However, in the final episode Medea also claims that she will “make her way to Athens” (1384), drawing the action from Corinth to the home of Euripides’ audiences. Whilst critics like Page DuBois argue that Medea is irrelevant to Athenian society and its issues ‘because she is a […] barbarian’ (Knox, 1979: 306), one can contend this does not create enough disconnect between Medea and the audience to render her unthreatening. If anything, as she is linked to Athens when she is staged as her most imposing and godly, Euripides may have intended for audiences to be unsettled by his protagonist. Knox criticises DuBois’ argument, concluding that ‘Euripides’ Medea, in her thought, speech, and action is as Greek as Jason, or rather, as Ajax and Achilles’ (1979: 311), proved by her rhetorical skill and heroic presentation. Furthermore, DuBois also claims that ‘above all, the inhuman quality of the child murderess was a typically foreign quality’ (1979: 309). When one considers typical Athenian xenophobia (after all, the word xenophobic itself comes from the Greek xenos, meaning foreigner or stranger), it is unsurprising that Medea’s nationality is called into question. Her actions consistently contrast against democratic ideals, emphasised by the socio-political context of Athenian tragedy. The pre-play ceremonies of the City Dionysia proved that, in the words of Jon Hesk, ‘a citizen’s self-sacrifice would be […] would be met with state sponsored recognition’ (Hesk, 2007: 73). Medea acts in accordance with individual will rather than for the benefit of the oikos orthe polis. This Medea – a defiant, vengeful force who ultimately rejects the very purpose of womanhood in the eyes of a Greek audience – is travelling to Athens, where everything she criticises is held so dear.

Ultimately, Euripides’ male Athenian audience would have found Medea extremely unsettling as she challenges institutions integral to the foundations of Athenian society, and is depicted as a sexual, murderous, and godly figure. What sets her apart from heroes such as Ajax and Achilles is her womanhood: she is someone who doesn’t operate within the heroic code, but infiltrates it as a feminine and foreign outsider. For, if all women behaved like Medea, the institutions most important to Athenian men would be directly at threat.

Arnson Svarlien, D (2008). ‘Medea’
Euripides, Griffith, M., Most, G. W., Lattimore, R, and Grene, D (2013). ‘Euripides I’. 3rd edn. Chicago
Foley, H (1989). ‘Medea’s Divided Self’, in ‘Classical Antiquity’ Vol. 8, No. 1
Hesk, J (2007). ‘The socio-political dimension of ancient tragedy’. In: M. McDonald, & M.J. Walton, ‘The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre’. Cambridge
Knox, B (1979). ‘The Medea of Euripides, from Word and action: essays on the ancient theater’. Baltimore
Ober, J (1996). ‘The Athenian Revolution: Essays On Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory’. Chichester
Rabinowitz, N.(1993). ‘Vindictive Wife, Murderous Mother: Medea’, from ‘Anxiety veiled: Euripides and the traffic in women’. Ithaca, N.Y
Photo Credit - Hans Reniers -


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