In Medea's first long speech to the chorus (lines 213-261), she claims that women are afflicted with the most "wretched" existence on earth. How is gender explored in the play? Does Medea emerge as a champion of women's plight through either positive or negative example?
An answer to this question should emphasize that no clear, black and white portrayal of gender relations emerges in the play. Using Medea as a mouthpiece, Euripides does highlight within the cited speech many of the injustices suffered by women in ancient Athens, especially their lack of a public life or autonomy in marriage. Men were free to divorce women on a whim, and thus wives suffered the insecurity of having no control over their own futures. Medea argues that the reputation women have acquired for deception and backhanded manipulation, embodied by her own personal history and practice as a sorceress, derives from the only avenues of power left available to them by society. Women are bad, but they are made bad by circumstances they cannot control. The course of revenge Medea pursues in the play depicts the mythical answer to a hypothetical question: what would happen if a woman were possessed of the conviction and means to avenge the wretchedness caused by her circumstances? The chorus considers this possible comeuppance equivalent to a reversal of the natural order (lines 413-431). Jason, who begins the play by abandoning Medea and exercising his cultural prerogative as a male to remarry, suffers a complete emasculation in the play. He continually reveals himself to be a weak and whiny character, inconsistent with his reputation as a hero (i.e. an ideal ancient Greek male). Thus, Euripides unmasks men's supposed entitlement to authority and prominence as a buffer for their own insecurity. Jason presumes an enlightened purposefulness to his actions that we recognize as vacuous. Yet Medea should not be considered a mere showcase for women's protest against masculine exploitation. Medea's horrifying murder of her children demonstrates the danger of responding to any form of victimization with an indulgence in unnatural violence. She cultivates a rage surpassing the measure appropriate to her offense and allows it to become an instrument for gratuitous cruelty. Thus, even as Euripides recognizes the injustice of gender roles in his time, he also refuses to blame external circumstances for all manifestations of evil. Appeals to social injustice can become excuses for the loss of personal accountability.
To what extent does Medea, protagonist of the play, fit the mold of a tragic hero?
Medea lacks most of the traits of a tragic hero or displays them in a highly skewed fashion. Traditionally, tragic heroes remain generally sympathetic characters stricken with some overwhelming flaw, especially "hubris" or pride, that causes them to suffer and eventually repent for their errors, yet without ever returning to their initial state of greatness. Medea, while obviously proud, never really apologizes for her excesses, and the play actually concludes with her dramatic escape from any negative consequences to her actions. Rather than move from a state of noble confidence to humble despair, she actually demonstrates the opposite transformation in the play. While her plight does elicit some sympathy, most of the admiration she inspires derives from her refusal to compromise herself and her commitment to an unnatural principle of revenge; we actually applaud her (nervously) as she pursues her frightening and seemingly impossible plans to murder her own children. Lastly, whereas most tragic heroes are the victims of fate, Medea can either be considered mistress of her own destiny or the vehicle of fate's vengeful justice. Despite these many discrepancies, the central function of any tragic hero remains the demonstration by example of some unacknowledged truth about suffering. Medea's case does vividly illustrate the unnatural crimes that an ignored passion can unleash.
As Medea prepares to send off her children with the crown and dress to Glauce's bed-chamber (1041-1081), she wavers five times over whether to proceed in a plan that will end with their deaths. What other evidence in the play justifies her indecision at this moment, and, conversely, what demonstrates a fixed resolve throughout?
It can be argued that Medea seals the certainty of her children's death from her opening cries: after passing through a momentary response of suicidal helplessness (lines 95-96) to Jason's divorce, she immediately wishes the destruction of every remaining trace of their love, including the two boys (lines 110-114). The nurse ominously foreshadows that Medea will not relinquish her rage until it upsets the balance of the city, and Creon admits to banishing her simply out of fear for the possible consequences of her negative mood. Euripides also carefully reveals the elements of Medea's past that demonstrate her readiness to sacrifice family to pursue her intractable will; Jason and Medea's original tryst, for example, required that she kill her own brother. While it can be argued the children's deaths are fated from the beginning, it nevertheless remains true that such a fate represents the triumph of perverse forces within human behavior. To reach the point of infanticide, Medea's basic human nature has to be transformed, ushering in conflict of some type. Consequently, Medea's eventual indecision and motivational conflicts manifest the warping of natural sentiments. For example, Medea considers a natural, common sense course of action when she debates fleeing with her children to Athens, where they can renew their lives with guaranteed protection. Such a life would probably provide the most happiness out of the possible alternatives Medea contemplates, yet her decision-making process has left behind debating over personal profit and loss. Her only loyalty is to her "anger"(1076), which has sprung out of her love and needs to vindicate itself through revenge. Abandoning her plan to punish Jason as severely as possible would be equivalent to denying the seriousness of her emotions and the offense they have suffered. From the beginning of the play the seeds of this cruel revenge have been planted, but the natural obstacles of a mother's love still had to be surmounted.