Medea and the Myth of Feminism

7 July 2016

“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.

Medea and the Myth of Feminism Essay Example

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 has molded a woman for women.

Unfortunately, while the presentation of this piece could certainly cause a discomfort among male audience members, it equally might encourage greater suspicion and scorn by males of females. Euripides’ Medea questioned prevailing norms and beliefs, primarily those of the heroic masculine ethic, though perhaps at the expense of women, and not in their support. The meaning of Euripides’ words cannot be deciphered simply by picking and choosing sections of the play to analyze. To understand his intent there is the need to understand the totality of the narrative as well as the audience he wrote for.

Playing to a primarily male audience, Euripides does not introduce Medea immediately but has the chorus and nurse tell of her first, giving the audience a misconception of just how much power the woman holds. In fact supported by Medea’s cries of anguish heard offstage she is first represented as emotional and submissive. By Euripides’ authorial intent, he lulls the audience into a state of pity where there should be fear. “Skillfully contrived is the choral passage in which we first hear the agonized voice of Medea from offstage.

If we had been prepared to see a woman of monstrous power and witchery, a being of preternatural passion and resource, we are deceived” (Musurillo 54). Medea is first painted as nothing other than what you would expect of a woman, a merit of pity though not empathy, however when first seen she shifts to reasonable and calculating. Returning to analyis of her first speech, one can more deeply apply what she is saying to her situation. “Her eloquent first speech on the wrongs of women deceptively applies only in part to herself.

For Medea is far from the passive victim of marriage and masculine brutality that she claims to be” (McDermott 259). Within the world of the play Medea’s deception makes sense in winning the approval of the chorus, however to spectators the mismatch of her words to her situation carries a different meaning. It paints a new picture and a new woman who is willing to exaggerate and lie in order to achieve her goals. It becomes clearer as the play progresses that Euripides initial portrayal of Medea serves as a baseboard for growth from helpless to dangerous, parallel to the audience reaction as it stems from pity to loathing.

An ancient Athenian audience would have found little to no fault in Jason’s actions, “by a public standard, Jason satisfied his marital obligation toward Medea and returned favor for favor by bringing her to Greece” (Walsh 295). This leaves it to Medea’s character to be the cause of any unsettlement. Her ultimate action of killing her children, “makes her most terrifying, for she is not a victim and not vulnerable—that is, not feminine—yet she has been identified as and with other women” (Rabinowitz 132). With this information, only fear is struck by Medea in the name of women.

Regardless of Euripides’ intent, proto-feminist, misogynist, or most likely of all neither, his audience rests at the wrathful hands of a powerful woman, but empathy is unlikely. It is important however, to take into account various audiences beyond simply that of Euripides’ time. A present audience interprets a performance of Medea much differently than ancient Greeks would have and there are countless Medea inspired adaptations which ancient Greeks never had the chance to experience. It is these productions and these audiences that are next to be studied on the road to feminism.

To approach from another end of the spectrum, a drastically different style of performance than that of western culture may be studied. Carol Sorgenfrei provides this with her 1975 work, Medea: A Noh Cycle Based on the Greek Myth. Noh theatre, like many traditional Japanese theatre forms, prioritizes stylization above realism in performance, a practice that aligns well with a myth of murder and revenge. The stylization draws away from the brutal acts, allowing the audience a chance to accept Medea for her motives instead of unquestionably condemning her.

“By adhering to the structure of Noh, Sorgenfrei creates a world where time, place, and gender are transcended in favor of larger-than-life emotions and issues” (Edelson 1). It is also worthy of note to state that Noh theatre is an all-male performance style (as it would have been in ancient Greece as well). One might take it upon themselves to understand by this knowledge that the theatre form is inherently sexist, “yet, since the 1960s, theater practitioners have drawn on these traditional forms to rediscover feminine and feminist messages” (2).

Furthermore the stylization and art that go into the intricacies of embodying a female are no joke within the ritualistic practice. As denoted in the title, Sorgenfrei’s piece is a cycle play referring to the five different plays that would be performed in a traditional Noh performance. These plays are thematically based, in the order of God, Warrior, Woman, Frenzy, and Demon. Drawing inspiration from Noh style, Sorgenfrei’s Medea, “develops the Medea myth through her play’s five scenes, which progress through the different traditional categories despite the thematic linkage” (2).

As for the audience of this particular performance, it is no surprise that not only is it drastically different than that of Euripides’ and ancient Greece but also vastly different than that of Zeami’s and the fifteenth century (the roots of Noh theatre). Sorgenfrei writes very consciously for a feminist audience in 1975. This retelling of the Medea myth from a female point of view in a beautifully feminine style of Japanese theatre, despite its male performance history, allocates the piece among cultural feminism, praising what is feminine while still acknowledging the differences among men and women.

“Feminine”, however, is not the same as “feminist”. For that title we might analyze Medea in the fourth scene, the frenzy play, where Medea gives birth to herself as the Sun God. In one sense, “the birth metaphor is emblematic of the mother/daughter bond, but its glorification of motherhood also implies that a woman’s self-fulfillment can best be attained by fulfilling her biological capabilities” (Dolan 30).

Seeing as Medea is a mother to herself though, it would appear that Sorgenfrei’s intent is that, “birth is a metaphor for revealing one’s “true self,” becoming oneself, independent of a partner or parents. Not only does Sorgenfrei’s Medea serve as the antithesis to the “glorification of motherhood,” but she also subverts the concept of birth as something that can be successfully and independently accomplished without the aid of man” (Edelson 6). If this transformation is not convincing enough, then the transformation of Jason’s character in the final demon play certainly thrusts the play into feminism.

At this point in the cycle play Jason and the children reveal themselves as demons and, “by displacing Medea and focusing solely on Jason’s (and the children’s) transformation in “Demon Play,” Sorgenfrei forces the viewer to explore the cause of Medea’s suffering instead of only investigating the effect of her actions” (7). The audience, throughout Sorgenfrei’s production, due to the stylization of noh performance as well as the cycle transformations, is able to question Medea’s past and her motives instead of assuming the worst from the start.

Sorgenfrei’s as well as many other variations of Medea’s tale open the doors to inquiry for viewers. As performances vary, so does the message of femininity, but it really comes down to the character herself and the motivation behind her actions. If her strength is solely for the sake of revenge then women lose merit, however if she acts in defiance to a patriarchal society she is a voice for feminism. In studying the woman we might discover hints as to whether or not she, as a character, is a feminist. The obvious first argument is that “feminism” is not an option for Medea as a character.

The time period in which she is set in the play and in which her character was created do not allow such a term. However, for the sake of this paper and staying true to the idea that characters never die, it is now assumed that she is still alive today and thus feminism exists. Now, to discover whether Medea is a feminist or not it seems vital to set aside any notions of her being simply a victim of patriarchy. To see her only as such is to exclude very important aspects of her character which tie her to humanity.

It is her darkness that is relatable and takes her beyond a pitiable subject to be observed. It is the independence throughout her struggles that makes her more than two dimensions. Medea is a compelling character. “Through plays, ? lms, operas, paintings and novels, we have heard her story told again and again and we remain fascinated by her. Our fascination is not without reason, for Medea brings us face to face with darkness that lurks within anyone and catastrophe that can befall any marriage. We watch and listen to her because she speaks to us of ourselves” (Fuller 3).

Her story is not uncommon, the betrayal of a spouse and the desire for revenge. This theme can be found reinterpreted within films such as War of the Roses and The First Wives Club. Both embody the spirit of Medea, the story of a woman who gives up everything for a man only to be left for a younger woman. So it is seen that the character lives and changes as time passes. What these film adaptations lack is the darkness that individualizes Medea and the accumulation of this darkness to the point of murdering her children.

However, this theme too may be found in literature such as “La Llarona” and even in history such as the Andrea Yates trial. It’s clear that Medea, even in her darkness, is an influence to art and to life, but another question rises in this darkness. By throwing her maternal nature aside does she also discredit the female race or does the strength it takes to murder one’s own children become commendable? Motive is the question at hand and Medea does herself no favors at first glance.

The decision to murder her children in return for the joy she will receive in witnessing Jason’s anguish gives Medea little respectability. “It is precisely at this point, where rage and pain and revenge come together, that Medea creates a problem for feminism” (5). She flaunts her immorality, showing no remorse whatsoever for her actions. While it is admirable of a woman to overcome her situation, Medea’s display of heartlessness after the fact of murdering her children leaves her alone, independent, and selfish.

On the other hand it is so difficult to grasp the understanding of killing a child and the action is so inconsistent with Medea’s prior feminism. Her original revenge was upon Creon, Jason, and his bride. It is reasonable to consider based off this knowledge that Medea’s hand was moved by the authorial intent of Euripides rather than by her own will. Perhaps this was essential though, perhaps with a loss of darkness comes a loss of complexity and then what need would there be to discover why this troubled woman acted as she did.

There would be no question of her feminist nature because there would be no care. A last note on Medea herself, she is not human, at least not fully. She is a mythical creature who by the end of the tale is taken into the sky by a chariot. So, take into account the action that takes place within other greek myths, birth from Zeus’ thigh, rape by Zeus in the form of a swan (among other animals). By these mythological standards is child murder something that can be judged by mankind?

By keeping in mind that Medea has a part of the divine within her, her actions become less of an atrocity and more of a symbol. “Seen in this light, that Medea’s are not the acts of a literal person but rather are symbolic, the child murders then become more understandable” (11). Her children too then become a symbol of her marriage which is destroyed and thus the children must be destroyed. Seldom do women, let alone feminists, act out so much as to murder their children over the betrayal of their husbands, but divorces and custody battles do not stray too far from it.

Medea’s actions, when taken literally, may be unforgivable by a feminist society, but symbolically she hits right on target. “Children become the battleground for the parents’ rage and disappointment and most often they are the collateral damage in the marital wars” (13). Medea lives on, struggles on with a voice unafraid to speak out against the wrongs done to her. This is the voice that feminists cling to while they avoid acknowledgement of the rash action of murder. When it comes down to it though, Medea is studied because she is relatable, darkness and all.

In order for a woman to know herself, she must come to terms with her own capacity for darkness, rage, and power and this is what Medea has to offer. There has yet to be an adaptation in which she experiences the same pain and anger without the result of destruction, but maybe that is the standing lesson. Medea continues to struggle because women continue to struggle and as women evolve so shall she as she has before. In order to stand for women, it is not essential to be a model woman, only to continue on in the struggle, to continue fighting, and so she does.

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