As anyone familiar with ancient Greek society will know, its culture is deeply patriarchal at its core, and even misogynistic at times. Yet, one of the most powerful, respected, and admired pieces of literature this culture has left us with is Euripides’s tragedy Medea, whose fierce protagonist remains a feminist icon to this day. This might seem unusual, considering Euripides is one of the most important playwrights in Greek literature, but it’s also one of the reasons why Euripides’s work is still so relevant today. He is considered one of the fathers of the Western theatrical tradition, after all.
So, what is it that makes Medea such a memorable character? Mainly, it’s the fact that she’s a powerful, educated, foreign woman who’s coming face-to-face with the social norms of Greek society, and she is winning. Only seventeen, she flees her native country and be- trays her family to follow Jason – the man she loves – to the city of Corinth. They go on to have two children together, despite the difficulties Medea encounters because of her origin. Suddenly, however, in an attempt to gain political power and public respect, Jason begins arranging his wedding to the King’s daughter and rejects any bond that he ever shared with Medea.
Understandably, Medea is terribly enraged and decides to take her revenge on Jason by killing his young bride and her father, the King. However, this still isn’t enough to satisfy her thirst for revenge and she arrives upon an excruciatingly painful resolution: to punish Jason, she will kill her own two sons. And yes, this terrible crime makes the play incredibly dark. It is a tragedy, after all. The next natural step – the ending the audience would expect now as well as back then – would be for Medea to be punished for her actions. However, this certainly doesn’t happen; in the final scene of the play we see her fly away on a magic chariot pulled by dragons, looking more like a vengeful goddess than a mere mortal.
This unusual finale could be a way to underline the tragic nature of the situation, flipping Medea from protagonist to villain of her own story. If you decide to take her side, it’s the final triumph of justice for a betrayed woman. In both cases, her incredible power and untameable heart are what shines through the most. Medea is the kind of woman that says what she thinks and doesn’t hesitate to call Jason out on his bullshit reproachable behaviour. These characteristics are presented in the play as typical of a barbarian woman, who doesn’t submit to her husband’s will like any other respectable Greek wife would. The difference is repeatedly underlined, and Medea herself is aware of it. That’s why she makes a passionate speech about the condition of women to the chorus of Corinthian women, asking them for their silence as she carries out her revenge.
The speech, which would still be a perfect fit at a Women’s Rights March today, starts with a simple statement: “But sure among all those / who have with breath and reason been endued / We women are the most unhappy race.” Harsh words, certainly, but in her situation, fair enough. She then moves on to specific complaints: how women are forced to essentially buy a husband with their dowry; how then they have no way of knowing if he’ll be “worthless or virtuous” unless they can see the future; how if it ends badly, divorce is not an option for women, as it would irreparably damage their honourable position in society. Moreover, women are forced to stay home under the pretence of being kept away from the dangers of real, male-dominated life, but Medea’s not having it: “Rather would I thrice, / Armed with a target, in th’ embattled field / Maintain my stand, than suffer once the throes / Of childbirth”.
It’s hard not to agree on the points Medea makes, especially considering some of the issues she brings up are still a hot topic of discussion in many parts of the world. But as much as her reasons are valid, her cruel actions remain essentially unforgivable for the audience, be it from 5th century BC Athens or 2019 Glasgow. Medea herself is aware of this, but despite the unbearable pain it causes her she goes through with her plan.
She’s an extraordinarily complex character: not fully a hero, not fully a villain. A foreigner, a woman with knowledge her society does not understand, completely left alone with her grief and her pride after being deserted by the one person who was supposed to take care of her. She’s extremely ambiguous, and therefore unbelievably real. Her success over the centuries has a lot to do with these characteristics, as she embodies an experience that resonates with many categories of people, but especially with women. It’d be easy to reduce her to a plainly evil, scorned lover looking for revenge, but the special point of view she incarnates makes it impossible to simply colour her black or white. Medea speaks as a woman, to other women, about their condition; she asks all the important questions and reminds us to keep asking them as well. So yes, she might be a fictional character from thousands of years ago, but she’s also a reflection of an ongoing struggle for women to be recognised as just as powerful as they truly are. And maybe she can help us win, too.
[Isabel Ferrari – she/her]