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Character Analysis in The Medea

Medea: The title character and protagonist of the play, Medea is a proud, self-possessed, and powerful woman who moves from suicidal despair at the beginning of the play to homicidal revenge. A powerful sorceress, she single-handedly grants Jason success in the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece. In The Medea, it’s easy to sympathize with her plight and understand her anger at being abandoned. However, while her choice to murder her children, Glauce, and Creon can paint her as the villain of the play, to an audience in ancient Greece, her actions might have seemed slightly more rational. She ends Jason’s family line, a punishment that fits the crime he commits in breaking his vows to his family for personal gain. The chorus does protest Medea’s actions, which suggests that they are not entirely condoned. But unlike other heroes in tragedies, Medea is not ultimately punished for her crimes: her grandfather, the god of the sun, gives her a chariot pulled by dragons to escape Jason’s vengeance. Her ability to commit the murders and rise into the sunset at the end of the play suggest that the audience is supposed to sympathize with Medea.

Jason: Jason is the King of Iolcus and husband of Medea. In many readings of this story, Jason is the main antagonist. His ambition and faithlessness cause the tragic events of the play to unfold. He defies the ancient Greek concept of oikos and therefore destroys his own honor. Since oikos is the contract of the home, the man’s role was to faithfully protect those who lived under his roof; the woman’s role was to raise children and care for the home. In abandoning Medea for his own social advancement, Jason abandons his role as head of the household and breaks his word. The story can be read as a warning to men who seek to defy oikos by breaking their vows for personal gain. Like Jason, they will be condemned not only by fate but by society as well.

Creon: This is the King of Corinth and the father of Glauce, the woman for whom Jason abandons Medea. This is not the same Creon who ruled Thebes in the legend of Oedipus. Creon of Corinth was featured in more of Euripides's plays. However, there are no extant copies of these manuscripts. Modern audiences only know about these plays through the Bibliotheca, a compendium of Greek myths and legends written in the second century CE. Creon is kind to Jason and Medea. His decisions to exile Medea and allow Jason to marry his daughter set the events of the play in motion.

Character Analysis Examples in The Medea:

The Medea

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"Yet underneath . . . nay, all the tale of it Were graceless telling; how sheer love, a fire Of poison-shafts, compelled thee with desire To save me...."   (The Medea)

In Greek mythology, Eros (God of Love), son of Aphrodite, is portrayed as a boy with a golden bow who shoots arrows of desire at mortals and immortals alike. Not even Zeus can resist these arrows. Here, in reaction to Medea’s claim that she is responsible for her husband’s fame and for saving his life, Jason argues that it was Aphrodite’s son Eros that is responsible for her actions, and therefore he is relieved of all fault for remarrying and forsaking her. Jason finds a way to discredit all of Medea’s actions and relieve himself of any debt to her.

"I saved thee. I saved thee— Let thine own Greeks be witness, every one That sailed on Argo..."   (The Medea)

Notice how Euripides plays down Medea's powers as a sorceress by not explicitly stating how she helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece with magic. Here Medea calls attention to all she has done to help Jason achieve the success she is largely responsible for, going as far as to state that he owes his life to her.

"clinging to Creon..."   (The Medea)

Medea replicates the actions of a suppliant, or someone who makes a plea to someone in power. A suppliant often knelt and took hold of the knees of the person in power to show their lower status.

"And the voice of my brother's blood..."   (The Medea)

Medea laments the sacrifices that she made to secure Jason’s escape from Colchis and acquisition of the Golden Fleece. She remembers the shores of her mother’s home and her brother’s blood, a reference to the story of the Golden Fleece in which Medea kills and dismembers her brother to stop her father’s army from pursuing Jason and the fleeing Argonauts. This lament shows either that Medea regrets her choices and brutal actions, or that she is mortified by her actions because of Jason’s treachery.

"They shall not take my little ones alive To make their mock with!..."   (The Medea)

This is one instance in which Euripides suggests that Medea’s vengeance is also a form of excessive pride, or hubris. She decides to punish Jason by killing her children, but in doing so she also causes herself an enormous amount of pain. Here, she decides that the pain she would feel if someone used her children to mock her would be worse than the pain of losing her children. This suggests that like Jason, Medea is full of hubris. Hubris was the downfall of many Greek heroes.

"For never child of mine shall Jason see Hereafter living, never child beget From his new bride..."   (The Medea)

Medea decides to kill her children so that Jason will have no heirs to his name and legacy. Having killed his wife and slaughtered his children, Medea will leave Jason with nothing. She considers this action the absolute form of revenge for the wrongs Jason has committed against her.

"Now God in heaven be witness, all my heart Is willing, in all ways, to do its part For thee and for thy babes...."   (The Medea)

Notice the irony in Jason’s speech. Jason claims that he will do anything for his children, however, his selfish actions are the cause of their need for support. Jason cannot recognize that his pride, selfishness, and desires are the sole cause of his children's peril. This blindness and inability to recognize his guilt will cause his downfall.

"Poor, poor right hand of mine, whom he Did cling to, and these knees, so cravingly, We are unclean, thou and I; we have caught the stain Of bad men's flesh . . . and dreamed our dreams in vain...."   (The Medea)

Medea begins to speak to her body parts as if they are not part of herself. In fragmenting her body, she distances herself from that actions that these body parts have taken. This fragmentation will become important as she begins to seek revenge and commit heinous actions.

"Here am I To help thee, woman, pondering heedfully Thy new state...."   (The Medea)

Jason speaks about Medea’s “new state” as if he is not the one who caused her state to change. He casts himself as a benevolent man who selflessly helps her with her plight. However, this offer to help comes across as patronizing, condescending, and belittling: Jason’s blindness to the pain that he has caused will bring about his downfall.

"essay..."   (The Medea)

In this context, the noun “essay” means attempts, or endeavours. Medea mocks Creon and his sympathy: he had the power to exile her immediately and ruin all of her plans. Instead, he granted her one day to carry out all three murders. This speech shows that Medea was lying in all of her previous speeches and gives the audience a view of her internal thoughts: she seeks total revenge and cares only for the justice she desires.

"Not that! Not that! . . . I do but pray, O King . . ...."   (The Medea)

Medea seems to have a change of heart half-way through this line. At first she pleads not to be exiled, or forced to leave by Creon’s soldiers. Then, after the ellipsis, her tone changes. She becomes ingratiating, using formal language such as “O King.” The careful reader might notice this change and conclude that Medea is plotting something. Creon does not seem to notice the change.

"Nor all thy crafts shall help thee..."   (The Medea)

Notice the confidence with which Creon states that Medea’s sorcery will not help her. Creon believes in the power of his position as a king and therefore believes that he has control over Medea’s actions. This hubris however blinds him to the reality of Medea’s power: she is a sorceress who does not need to follow the rules of a mortal man.

"Ah, him out of my heart I hate; but thou, meseems, hast done thy part Not ill. ..."   (The Medea)

It is unclear to the audience whether or not Medea is genuine in this moment. She claims that she only hates Jason for his actions and that she does not blame Creon for the marriage. However, Creon claims that Medea has been making threats against his daughter as well as Jason. If the audience believes Creon, Medea’s lines can be interpreted as overt lies used to trick Creon.

"Which, ere yet it be too late, I sweep aside. ..."   (The Medea)

It may strike the reader as odd, or even ironic, that Creon expresses these worries after condoning the marriage between Jason and Glauce. If he knew about Medea’s power before the marriage, he must have known that she would seek “doom of vengeance” and might have chosen a different partner for his daughter. This ill-considered decision followed by the belief that he has the power to get rid of this sorceress reveals one of the main themes of the play: male hubris, or dangerous, arrogant pride. Creon believes he has more power than Medea, and it will cause his downfall and doom for his child.

"Hellas..."   (The Medea)

In Greek, “Hellas” means Greek. By this line the chorus means that Medea’s oath to Jason, here called “faith,” caused her to cross dark seas and travel to Greece. The chorus again highlights the difficulty and sacrifice that Medea endured to be with Jason. This in turn underscores the wretchedness of his betrayal and the depth of her despair.

"Yet her eye— Know ye the eyes of the wild kine, The lion flash that guards their brood?..."   (The Medea)

The noun “kine” means a herd of cows; “wild kine” is a group of rabid, or wild cows. Within this first section of the play, the images and metaphors used to describe Medea align her with a savage monster or an animal. This suggests that Medea’s rage has turned her into a beast; she has shed her humanity.

"That fell sea-spirit, and the dire Spring of a will untaught, unbowed. Quick, now!—Methinks this weeping cloud Hath in its heart some thunder-fire,..."   (The Medea)

Notice that the nurse describes Medea as if she were a beast or threatening monster. She compares Medea to a “sea-spirit,” a “weeping cloud,” with a “frozen heart” and “thunder-fire.” All of these images imply that Medea is a monster that cannot be controlled and will be dangerous.

"Oh shame and pain: O woe is me! Would I could die in my misery!..."   (The Medea)

The first lines the audience hears from Medea are about her shame and her pain. She enters the play as a woman full of suicidal despair and misery.

"He dreameth of the bed Of this new bride, and thinks not of his sons...."   (The Medea)

This exchange presents Jason’s sins to the audience. Rather than keeping his vows and protecting his children and wife, Jason thought of himself and his own desires. The attendant signals that this selfish sin is widespread in their society. This suggests that Euripides’s play tells a story with a broader moral message: it is a warning to men who might betray their vows and destroy their oikos.

"Of father, and land, and home, forsook that day For this man's sake,..."   (The Medea)

When Jason and the Argonauts reached Colchis, the goddess Hera asked Aphrodite to make Medea fall in love with Jason so that the powerful sorceress would protect him in his impossible quest. Medea betrayed her family to give him an ointment that would make him invincible during his challenge, and she warned him when her father Aeetes was going to have him killed after he defeated the challenge. She secured the Golden Fleece and helped the Argonauts escape Colchis and Aeetes’s pursuing army by killing and dismembering her own brother so that her father would have to stop the pursuit to collect the pieces of his body. The nurse references this story to remind the audience how much Medea has sacrificed for this man who has betrayed her.

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