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"Medea" Analysis: How Ancient Tropes Were Challenged in Euripides' Revenge Tale

Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

 Georgette Lockwood portrays Medea

Georgette Lockwood portrays Medea

Overview of Medea

Medea by Euripides is an ancient play that explores ideas such as revenge, gender inequality, and tropes within ancient literature. The main character, Medea, has her heart broken by her husband (Jason) who cheats on her and plans to marry a princess while he is still married to her. As a result, she is exiled from her home. For this, Medea embarks on a voyage of revenge that will cost the lives of her children. This text was controversial at the time it was released and the ending today is also debated by scholars.

Euripides' Medea - Plot Summary

Explaining the Ending

Medea ends with Medea murdering her children to get back at Jason. What shocked the audience at the time was how she did not face any repercussions for her actions. Instead, the gods send her a chariot to fly away from the situation. There has been a lot of discussion about why Euripides ended his play like this.

It is my opinion that Euripides lets Medea get off scot-free because the text is an allegory that shows how rebellion can result from oppression. He does this through shocking the audience. Arrowsmith explains that Euripides liked to contrast realism with myth in order to create a clear juxtaposition, whether it be the character’s multidimensional nature or the use of deus ex machina. This is used as a dramatic technique of dramatic juxtaposition to catch the audience off guard.

This was used to challenge his own culture, to expose a myth or reality (Arrowhead 1963, p. 39). This was implemented by this abrupt use of deus ex machina where he, “He attempts to put the problematic in the place of dramatic resolution” (Arrowhead 1963, p. 39). This forces the audience to think about their ethical alignment when judging the ending. Arrowsmith continues to explain,

There can be little doubt, for instance, that Euripides meant his Medea to end in a way that must have shocked his contemporaries, and which still shocks to day. His purpose was, of course, not merely to shock, but to force the audience to the recognition that Medea, mortally hurt in her eros, her defining and enabling human passion, must act as she does, and that her action has behind it…

— Arrowhead 1963, p. 43

This creates a multifaceted ending where the meaning of it depends on the ethical standing of the audience. For instance, a feminist reading of the text would argue that Medea’s revenge includes symbolic acts of rebellion against the primary roles of Ancient Greek women: motherhood and wifehood.

Feminism means “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” The raw emotion Medea feels from heartbreak and betrayal drives her to murder her children. The murder of her sons is symbolic of her rebellion against motherhood and society since she was stopping another generation of potential oppressors from gaining power.

Her sons also signified Medea’s failed marriage and the legacy Jason would pass down. A feminist would argue that Euripides allows Medea to get off scot-free to show the audience how the inequality in the laws and customs was partially responsible for her actions. Through this perspective, the text becomes an allegorical comment on literature and female oppression.

"Jason and Medea" by John Williams Waterhouse

"Jason and Medea" by John Williams Waterhouse

Catharsis in Medea

Medea can be considered as cathartic in the face of the unfairness she encounters. Euripides positions her as a victim that faces public humiliation, exile and heartbreak.

A tone of distress, fear and sorrow is created by the nurse’s concern of Medea’s murderous and suicidal thoughts:

“She lies there without eating, surrendering to pain, dissolving in tears time and time again, knowing her husband has wronged her” (Rayor 2013, pp.3-4)

“I fear she may silently enter the house where the marriage bed is laid and stab her heart with a sharp sword, or kill the king and the bridegroom,” (Rayor 2013, p.4)

This provokes the mood of sympathy from the audience and turns the text into an allegory about how oppression results in rebellion. Euripides sets this up in order to make Medea’s actions a reaction to the injustice she faces. This is shown through how the anger, sadness, and feelings of betrayal make her become obsessed with revenge.

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Euripides makes her actions symbolic, allegorical, and direct reactions to the types of unfairness she faces. For example, Medea explains it is expected of the women of Corinth to take the position of a submissive mother and wife:

We women are the most unfortunate. First, we need a husband, someone we get for an excessive price. He then becomes the ruler of our bodies… For a divorce loses women all respect, yet we can't refuse to take a husband. We women have to look at just one man…

— Rayor 2013, p.12-13

Medea’s revenge against Jason is in direct defiance of these roles and the oppression females faced. As Arrowsmith states, Medea is placed into a difficult, oppressive society where she is subjected to, “harsh necessity, human nature, but in a startling new range of behaviour, chaotic and uncontrollable” (2013, p. 34).

This is shown through the way the murder of her children is symbolic acts of rebellion against motherhood.

The acts are cathartic to the original audience since they were made of Athenian women. The rebellion Medea poses against the expected roles of women would have allowed the women of the ancient period to relate to her, thus gain a cathartic release from her actions.

The rebellious nature of Medea corresponds with the rebellions that were happening in Ancient Greece at the time, showing how her vengeance would not have transpired if it were not for the inequality that created her malevolence.

Thus, the way her inner turmoil and her reaction against the expected roles of women build up to Medea’s revenge allows the audience feels a cathartic release. This is since the women within Ancient Greece during this period were heavily oppressed.


Challenging Tropes in Ancient Texts

Furthermore, in Ancient Greek texts such as The Odyssey, women were only presented as flat characters and means to achieve the classical hero’s ends. Jason symbolizes heroic Greek values such as ambitiousness, authority and intelligence.

Medea’s characterisation and narrative voice show how Jason’s ambitiousness to marry another for status came at her expense, “Add insult to injury since you (to Jason) have refuge, but I will be in exile from this land, abandoned” (Rayor 2013, p.26).

Euripides positions her as a victim that faces public humiliation, exile and heartbreak. By letting her off scot-free, he allows the ending to metamorphose her into a cruel order of justice.

In contrast, another would argue that Medea was unstable, and the ending was to unsettle the audience. Either way, the intention of Euripides’ ending was to shock the audience and force them to think critically about the text and of their own ethical systems.

Charles André van Loo, "Jason and Medea" (1759)

Charles André van Loo, "Jason and Medea" (1759)

The text lacks a cathartic release in an ethical sense, but not in an emotional sense. Even during the time, the murder of her children was received as highly controversial at the time. The lack of consequence for this action does not allow the audience to reach an ethical catharsis. I believe this is intentional and the end acts as a satirical response to The Odyssey (Homer 700 BC., pp. 365-378).

In the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus murders the suitors for flirting with Penelope. However, he also kills all the maids because most of them were sexually assaulted by the suitors. This was something out of their control, however, Odysseus executed them. Odysseus does not have any consequences for this action either and is saved by Deus Ex Machina, the same way Medea was.

Odysseus’ actions were brushed off by the text and he was still positioned as the hero, just like Medea. The parallels between the two texts and how they were created around the same time lead me to believe Euripides made the text end this way to point out the ethical implications of positioning characters such as Odysseus and Medea as heroes.

I believe Euripides wanted to showcase a cathartic release in the emotional sense for Medea. I believe it was to create the point that vengeance is a selfish and a personal act. For this reason, it would be difficult for the audience to feel a cathartic release themselves.

Reference List

Homer 700 BC, The Odyssey, tran. Samuel Butler, Digireads, United States. Pdf retrieved 23 October 2017.

Merriam-Webster 2017, Feminism, Merriam-Webster, Springfield, viewed 13 November 2017, <>

Rayor, J. Diane (ed.) 2013, Euripides' Medea: A New Translation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. eBook version, retrieved 22 September 2017, from LTR110 Resource List.

Arrowhead, William 1963, ‘A Greek Theater of Ideas’, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 32-56.

Homer 700 BC, The Odyssey, tran. Samuel Butler, Digireads, United States. Pdf retrieved 23 October 2017.


Robinreenters on December 08, 2017:

Looks very nice good read thanks

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