Gender Roles in Medea by Euripides
To better understand Euripides’ approach to the representation of gender roles in Medea, it is necessary to analyze the current attitudes to women in the society that was contemporary to the author. Greek women did not enjoy any social, political or economic rights and they could not act independently in any more or less significant situations. They need the approval of the man (husband, father, brother, etc) for almost everything. The segregation of women was not only social, but also to some extent physical as ancient Greek houses had a “women’s part” called gynaeceum where women spent the most part of their lives. It was not considered proper for a woman to walk in the streets or go to the market, so women of middle and high social status rarely left the territory of their houses.
In his play Euripides shows a very critical approach to the gender roles in the Greek society. He is absolutely realistic in depicting the discrimination of women and tries to urge the audience to think about the causes and repercussions of this situation. Medea is one of few ancient Greek female characters who stepped out of the assigned gender role. She does not only fearlessly speaks about the oppression and discrimination she and all other women suffer in that society, she revenges to her husband and makes him suffer in the same way as she did. At the first opening speech the audience sees the situation of Medea from the words of her nurse. The old woman complains about the evil brought to Medea’s life by Jason. The most important aspect of this speech is the fact that the nurse interprets this situation not as problematic relations between some specific man and woman, but as a general reflection of the typical relations between sexes. The nurse tells how Medea behaved with Jason. She says, “She complied with Jason in all things. There is no greater security than this in all the world: when a wife does not oppose her husband”.
Later Medea draws the audience’s attention to the fact that the woman is measured not according to her achievements, features of character, etc, but by her relations with her husband. She says, “If a woman leaves her husband, then she loses her virtuous reputation”. In this monologue Medea gives a detailed description of the discrimination and oppression she, as well as any other woman in Greece, had to suffer from. However, the most powerful part of this speech is not even this list of mistreatments, but the way Medea depict the future of a woman who does not agree to obey the superiority of the man. She says, “If not, it’s best to die”.
Medea in this play is a typical Greek woman in terms of the situation she finds herself, but she is in no case typical in her character and internal strength. In fact Euripides makes Medea much more “masculine” than Jason. The first feature of Medea that was considered exclusively male is her excessive pride. Women were supposed to suppress their wishes as they, in the ancient Greek society, did not have any significance for the men who ruled the community life. However, Medea speaks in public and talks to other men about the injustice that was done to her. Another male aspect of Medea’s behavior is her readiness to fight for her rights till the end. She does not want to accept her defeat, so she chooses to murder her sons as a response to the pain she felt from Jason’s decisions.
In contrast to Medea who is not able to choose her way, Euripides shows that men possess all the rights and can be free not only with their own lives, but with the lives of the women who depend on them as it happened in case of Medea. In fact, Jason used Medea for his purposes. She helped him to get the Golden Fleece by betraying her family and going against the rules and traditions of her own land. She left her homeland with Jason as she both fell in love with him and was not able to stay at home because she was considered a traitor.
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It is very interesting that Jason is absolutely sure that Medea is the cause of all her troubles. He says, “You are now an exile because of your own foolish words”. It proves that the idea of male superiority were so deeply engraved into the behavioral patterns and psychology of ancient Greek men that they were not able to see any other reasons of women’s problems than their own inappropriate behavior. In addition, the shift of the blame to Medea was rather advantageous for Jason as he gets an additional support to his moral and legal rights to leave her and get a new wife who could bring him higher social and economic status.
At the end of the play Jason seems to be defeated by Medea. He is at a complete loss and Medea leaves Athens saying to Jason to stop pleading her. She says, “You are wasting your words”. Medea leaves the scene in a chariot of Helios who is her divine relative. Her revenge is successful and she believes that the scope of Jason’s grief would become even bigger when he grows old and understands what he ruined. Nevertheless, this end of the play is quite difficult to interpret from the perspective of the then Athenian society. Euripides shows Medea as a victor, but at the same time her insane behavior is obvious. The author does not give any univocal answer to the question of how the audience should judge Medea and Jason. He urges them to think about the consequences of the discrimination and the negative effect they will have on both sexes.
However, Medea, as depicted by Euripides, is in no case a role model for feminists. Medea is not a portrayal of female liberation, but a realistic account of a terrible and devastating war between sexes where both sides have great losses. The author is aware that the consequences of this war can be extremely negative for the harmonization of the society and exerts every effort to draw the public attention to this problem. At the same time Euripides does not fully support the oppressed side (i.e. females), but rather speaks in favor of equality in general. In this play the chorus addresses Jason by pointing out to the injustice he committed. “You have betrayed your wife. You’ve been unjust” (qtd. in Damrosch). However, Medea is not portrayed as a hero. At the end of the play she becomes a fury, a metaphoric infernal goddess who is able to kill her own sons to cause the maximum pain to Jason. Therefore, to communicate the message about the terrible consequences of discrimination to the audience, Euripides focuses on the negative aspects of these tensions between sexes. He shows that both males and females begin to behave in an inappropriate manner and, as a result, make their interrelations even more difficult.
To conclude, Medea by Euripides is a perfect example of realistic representation of the traditional gender roles in ancient Greek society. Medea, as the embodiment of all suffering that Greek women had to bear with, struggles against oppression and discrimination, but the pain and insult turned out to be so great that her behavior becomes inhuman and she kills her sons from Jason to revenge him. In contrast, Jason as portrayed by Euripides as a master of his life and a person who is free to rule the life of the woman, dependant on him.