Medea the Myth of Feminism
“It is only males who are created directly by the gods and are given souls [...] it is only men who are complete human beings and can hope for ultimate fulfillment; the best a woman can hope for is to become a man” (Plato 90e). Euripides’ Medea was written in a time where even the word “feminism” did not exist and yet he gave Medea a role of substance and a stature of strength. It is a wonder whether or not Euripides knew just how much power he put into the hands of this woman as well as many more in the creation of her character. Perhaps not in his time and perhaps not by intention, but since then Medea the play and Medea the woman have filled a symbolic role in the area of feminism, the debate being for or against it. In countless cultures and streams of media, the woman stands timeless. What this paper intends to explore is the levels of the performance and how they stack up to the idea of feminism by framing Euripides’ possible intent, understanding various audience response to various productions, and finally studying Medea herself to see whether her roots of vengeance are in feminism or rather immorality.
At the beginning of our quest we find the author, alive at a time in which ancient Greece was overwhelmingly patriarchal, but where did Euripides find himself? Is it possible to suspect that he may have allied himself among other voices which held sympathy for the plight of women? Could he have been the model of a proto-feminist or was he a misogynist? In either case, Medea seems to be the place to look. While pursuing her ambition, Medea disregards many of the feminine characteristics of the patriarchal Greek society. She questions the inequality of women, contradicts Jason’s chauvinist beliefs, challenges the stereotype that women are weak and passive and ultimately completely disregards the feminine role of motherhood. Euripides portrays a woman who completely subverts feminine norms, overcomes masculine bonds and, “given that his depiction of Medea was highly influential and replicated to some extent by most later authors, the Medea viewed as a figure of feminine power in modernity is at least in part dependent on Euripides” (Mastronarde 52). Honing in on the text, one might examine Medea’s opening speech, “a fine feminist harangue” (Hadas 81), showing that, “Medea has been treated unjustly by men, and her eloquent indictment of women’s lot is never denied” (Foley 265). This speech is the first introduction to Medea as a strong and independent woman, but the words are not hers alone. “These lines have sometimes been seen as Euripides’ bitter reflections on his own isolation as an advanced and intellectual poet. There is much truth in this view, but the lines are also Medea’s, the complaint of a woman of great intellectual capacity who finds herself excluded from the spheres of power and action” (Knox 314). It is this exclusion that leads her to the inexcusable action of killing her children, or is it so inexcusable? When focusing on Euripides’ intent one might see that:
Euripides made Medea herself choose to murder her children as the
most hurtful part of her revenge against Jason. It perhaps sounds at
first as if this might tell in favor of the idea that Euripides was hostile
to women. But in fact
it turns out to have quite the opposite result,
because of the way Euripides
treats his material [...] Euripides has
created this new Medea who chooses to kill
her own children. He
shows us with painful insight and utterly without condemnation the
mind of the woman who has the ability to do such a murderous deed:
the torment before the final decision, the ultimate grief, and, here in
the final scene, the inevitable results. Medea is now finally untouched,
untouchable by human hands and by human emotions
(March 35-36; 43).
By this evidence it would appear that Euripides...
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