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Themes in Medea
Vengeance: Medea’s anger in this play is justified: Jason abandons her and proves that he never actually loved her. In myths leading up to this play, Medea betrays her family, sacrifices her brother, commits murder, and abandons the life she built in order to secure Jason’s success. Not only does he leave her for the young, beautiful daughter of the king, he does nothing to stop the king from exiling Medea from Corinth. For all of these reasons, the chorus, the moral center of the Greek tragedy, supports Medea as she plots her revenge. They support her plot to kill the woman for whom Jason leaves her and her decision to kill the king who assented to the destructive union. However, Medea’s vengeance goes too far in the eyes of the chorus when she decides to murder her children as revenge against Jason. The chorus warns Medea that in hurting Jason in this way, she will cause herself far more pain. But Medea declares that the pain she will suffer is worth the horror it will cause Jason. Euripides explores the limits of vengeance and punishment in depicting this perverse, excessive, and horrifying response to betrayal.
Kleos: In ancient Greece, kleos meant renown or glory. It implies hearing or fame that comes from hearing about someone’s heroic deeds. Greek heroes achieved kleos by performing great deeds or sacrificing themselves for larger causes. This fame and honor was passed down from father to son. The son was responsible for living up to his father’s glory and continuing the family line by building on the glory of their father. In killing Jason’s sons, Medea cuts his kleos short. She ends his kleos line, therefore destroying the glory from his heroic acts. This is the ultimate form of punishment that she can leverage against him after his betrayal.
Oikos: In ancient Greek, the word oikos referred to the family, property, and people of which the family was in charge. Oikos was the basic unit that made up society in Greek city-states. The head of the house, the father, was responsible for protecting the family and representing the family’s interests to the wider citizenry. The mother provided for slaves and children, cared for the sick, cooked, cleaned, and made clothes. In wealthier families, the mother was in charge of coordinating all of these activities among her slaves and servants. Since oikos was essential to the stability of the city, fidelity to one’s family and role within that family was extremely important. Adultery was punishable by exile or death and failing or betraying one’s family was a dishonor from which none could socially recover. Jason’s decision to abandon Medea and his children to marry Glauce in order to advance his social position is an egregious betrayal of oikos. This betrayal causes his tragic downfall; he is punished so that the audience learns extreme importance of fidelity to one’s family.
Male Hubris: Throughout the play, male characters Jason and Creon underestimate and disregard Medea. Despite her demonstrated magical powers, both men believe that they can control her in order to achieve their own desires. This can be seen as an arrogant hubris, or destructive pride. This pride blinds both men to Medea’s true aims and prevents them from stopping her revenge.
Themes Examples in Medea:
"Oft have I seen, in other days than these, How a dark temper maketh maladies No friend can heal...." See in text (The Medea)
Notice characters will make a general assertion like this that shapes the rest of their speech. The harsh anger mentioned here is the driving force behind Medea’s destructive actions and the tragic outcome of the play. Euripides seems to warn against this kind of rage as well other emotions that manifest as all consuming passion. The play warns against allowing ourselves to be consumed by our urges by portraying Jason as reprehensible for his ceaseless pursuit of social gain and his hubris and Medea at fault for her passionate love turned passionate hate for Jason.
"Her lord, if he be wearied of the face Withindoors, gets him forth;..." See in text (The Medea)
Respectable Athenian women were expected to stay inside their homes, having very little contact with the outside world except during religious festivals. Medea laments the state of womankind and resents that men who are wearied by staying indoors may go out and seek a merrier place among their peers . The Medea boldly explores the inferior place women held in Athenian society at a time when the concept would have seemed revolutionary.
"And Jason suffers him? Oh, 'tis too sore!..." See in text (The Medea)
Notice how Aegeus echoes the chorus here. Jason’s actions are “too sore”; they are abhorrent to everyone in the play except for Jason. This suggests that the society supports Medea’s anger and sense of betrayal and that Jason has defied social conduct. The wording here carries significance as well. Aegeus seems to imply that Creon has also committed a wrong that Jason chooses to “suffer.” One may assume that this wrong of Creon’s was his choice to endorse the breaking of oikos and Jason’s choice to forsake his familial ties.
"pride..." See in text (The Medea)
Medea’s final words to Jason blame his hubris for the tragedy that has befallen him. While Jason tries to argue that Medea’s actions are to blame, Medea reinforces the theme that male hubris, or arrogant pride, is what brought about the hero’s downfall.
"who didst kill My sons, and make me as the dead:..." See in text (The Medea)
Notice that Jason believes he is “the dead” as soon as his sons are dead. This line touches on the greek concept and theme kleos in which a father passes his glory, honor, and reputation on to his sons. In killing Jason’s sons and wife, Medea ruins his chances to pass on his name and his memory; in essence, she kills him.
"What here Was yours, your father stole...." See in text (The Medea)
Notice how Medea places her murderous actions onto Jason. Since Jason abandoned his family and broke his vows, he “stole” the future prospects of his children. Medea uses the idea of Jason destroying his own kleos to make the argument that Jason also stole his children’s lives. In ruining their reputations and taking away their inheritance, Jason killed them.
"For never child of mine shall Jason see Hereafter living, never child beget From his new bride..." See in text (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.
"He hath not dared to do, Jason, a thing so shameful?..." See in text (The Medea)
Jason’s actions defy the Greek concept of oikos, or the family unit. He has abandoned his family and therefore dared to do “a thing so shameful.” Aegeus’s tone of disbelief suggests that Jason’s actions are outlandish. Notice how the narrative of the play condemns Jason and his actions as it builds towards Medea’s own shocking sin.
"Now God in heaven be witness, all my heart Is willing, in all ways, to do its part For thee and for thy babes...." See in text (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.
"Here am I To help thee, woman, pondering heedfully Thy new state...." See in text (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.
"Nor all thy crafts shall help thee..." See in text (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.
"So hath it been with me. A wise-woman I am; and for that sin To divers ill names men would pen me in;..." See in text (The Medea)
Medea argues that Creon only banishes her because she is wiser than the men in the city and therefore threatening. This claim touches on one of the play’s main themes: male hubris. Medea essentially argues that Creon’s pride in being the most powerful man in Corinth is what drives him to hate her—he fears that she is too clever, too powerful.
"Which, ere yet it be too late, I sweep aside. ..." See in text (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.
"It is but just, Thou smite him...." See in text (The Medea)
The leader of the chorus confirms that smiting Jason for his crimes is just. Notice that the chorus, the moral center of the play, condones Medea’s vengeance. Jason betrayed his oaths and the customs of oikos, thus he deserves to be punished.
"There is no house! ..." See in text (The Medea)
The house was a main component of oikos. The family, its house, and all of the relatives, pets, and slaves who lived in the house were under the family’s protection. Here the house is personified as being able to see “grief” and “joy” and create “love” within the chorus leader. The house becomes the central location of the family and a physical embodiment of their bond. There being “no house” means the family itself, and its oikos, has been destroyed.
"He dreameth of the bed Of this new bride, and thinks not of his sons...." See in text (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.
"Medea calleth up the oath they made,..." See in text (The Medea)
The family was the central unit of Greek society. The concept of oikos, or the importance of the family, is a theme seen in many Greek tragedies and Roman epics. Upholding oikos, remaining loyal to one’s family and performing one’s familial duties, was not only important but socially reinforced. Those who broke oikos were publically shamed or punished, especially women who broke their vows. Jason’s betrayal of Medea would have been seen as a betrayal of oikos and therefore her plans of revenge against him would have been supported by the gods and her society.