Tragic plays often reflect the spirit of the time and challenge it. One play that depicts Athenian values is Medea by Euripides. The protagonist, Medea, experiences betrayal of her husband, Jason, and in retaliation she kills her noble children, representing the tragic nature of the play. A dilemma is also demonstrated with the difficulty of allocating sympathy between Jason and Medea, leaving the audience or Athenian males to evaluate and consider the consequences.
The shift in sympathy between both characters are illustrated in the dichotomy of reason and emotion in how the characters are presented. Additionally, Euripides reflect the importance of balance and the heroic code of honour by also challenging the patriarchal society that Athenians value in Medea.Medea and Jason are constructs created by Euripides to convey the importance of balance that is valued by Athenians through the dichotomy of reason over emotion. Jason’s actions within the play use reasoning despite its cruelty in betraying Medea. Although he has broken an oath, Jason describes his decision as “wise, not swayed by passion, and directed towards / Medea’s interests and my children’s” (pg. 33).
This represents the role of reason in Jason’s decision making skills, specifically being that his marriage with the royal family is for refuge. This idea is repeated throughout the play as Jason reminds Medea that the marriage is “To ensure Medea’s future, and to give my children brothers / Of royal blood, and build security” (pg. 35). Similarly, Jason states the reasons and rationalises his actions by attempting to make sense of it. However, Medea is a contrast between Jason, intended by Euripides to illustrate this balance in Ancient Greek society. Medea’s emotions are dominant and in control over her actions. This is demonstrated in Medea’s plan when she announces that she “will leave Corinth / A murderess, flying from my darling children’s blood” (pg. 41).
Medea’s anger and desire for vengeance motivates her to commit a sin of killing her children, her husband and his mistress. Thus, it is evident that Medea does not use any reasoning, being the opposite of Jason. Again, Medea with emotion and Jason with reason is how Euripides chose to construct the two characters in order to convey the value of balance in Ancient Greek society.
Euripides reflect the Heroic Code, valued by Athenian society, in his construct of Medea. Since heroism is a masculine endeavour, Medea proceeds past the limitations of a female at that time and adopts masculinity as represented in the heroic nature of her actions. Medea demonstrates the heroic code of honour as she is motivated through the fear of being humiliated by her enemies, to react violently against offense and impeachment of honour, conveyed through the killing of her innocent children. This can be supported by the dialogue where Medea says that “I’ll not leave sons of mine to be the victims of / My enemies’ rage.” (pg. 50), foreshadowing her vengeance upon Jason, one who has dishonoured her before Jason becomes an obstacle that humiliates Medea.
Thus, Medea is constructed as a heroic figure due to the determination in reaching her final act despite the horrifying nature of murdering her children. Additionally, Medea’s skill of words allows her to attain the high position of power supported by Euripides’ use of agons dominated by Medea. However, Medea uses softer words with Jason for manipulation in order to succeed in her revenge at the second agon where Medea announces that “I have wrenched your heart as I had to do” (pg. 44) by defeating Jason in a war filled with words. Medea retaliates by depriving him of his honour because for Medea, success means status and honour as a heroic figure. Thus, Euripides constructed Medea to represent the value of the heroic code in Ancient Greece.Although Medea reflects the Heroic Code of Honour, Euripides challenges the value of a patriarchal society in Ancient Greece.
This is due to the reversal of gender roles conveyed in the dialogue where Medea states that “I’d rather stand three times in the front line than bear / One child.” (pg 25). The social hierarchy between Athenian men and women portrays the lack of power and control of women in Greek society, represented in the submission to men through being forced into marriage without having a choice.
However, the ambiguity of Medea’s behaviour threatens to upset the male-dominated world in Ancient Greece, also stimulated by the frightened and confused leaders like Creon and Jason throughout the play. The King with the highest position of power initially appears authoritative and strong however Medea appeals to his emotion and states “Show some pity: you are a father too” (pg 27) as a way of manipulation, establishing the King as inferior through dramatic irony. Additionally, the stichomythia at the second agon of the play challenges the power and control of men in Athenian society due to the Medea’s increasing success through exploitation and murder, in contrast to Jason’s weak character. This can be supported by the stage direction where “Jason batters at the door. Medea appears above the roof, sitting in a chariot drawn by dragons…” (pg 58). The difference in position also conveys the reversal of roles with Medea in a state of higher power than Jason, contradicting the patriarchal society that Euripides challenges.
To conclude, Euripides play, Medea, reflect the Athenian cultural values of balance and the Heroic Code of Honour through the constructs of his characters. The balance is established with the dichotomy between the role of reason found in Jason betraying Medea to marry Princess Glauce, and emotion in Medea’s act of killing her children. Despite committing a sin, Medea is motivated through the fear of humiliation and reacts violently in response to offense or impeachment of honour as a heroic figure. However, Euripides challenge the patriarchal society of Ancient Greece by placing Medea, a women, as heroic and with more power in comparison to male leaders such as Jason and King Creon.