In the play Medea, Euripides portrays Medea, the lead character, as a round character with a complex, multifaceted personality. Medea emerges as a docile, subservient woman and adheres to the feminine standard of behavior in ancient Greek culture. Alternately, she dons her armor, and takes on a masculine persona—adhering to the heroic code of pride. At other times, she appears beast-like and predatory—prompting other characters in the play to compare her to animals or beasts. Euripides steers us through an incredible journey where we ride up and down a roller coaster of emotion as Medea displays the traits of male, female, beast, murderess, and loving wife and mother.
Both the audience and other characters in the play wonder whether they should sympathize with Medea’s situation as a pitiable, oppressed foreigner—rejected first by society and now by her husband or become shocked and enraged by how far she will go to carry out her revenge. A close inspection reveals that Medea has always exhibited traits that are characteristically masculine and beast-like.
The only time Medea’s feminine side surfaces is when she deceivingly turns on her womanly charms to gain sympathy and achieve her own goals.
In the opening scene of Medea, the nurse takes the audience back to an earlier moment in time when Jason and Medea first met. The first forewarning heard about Medea’s violent past comes through the nurse’s dialogue when she reveals that Medea “persuaded Pelias’ daughters to kill their father” (Euripides 12).
As Medea’s long time servant and confidante, the nurse is fully aware of Medea’s brutal tendencies and expresses concern about Medea’s state of mind over Jason’s betrayal of her.
NURSE. I’m afraid she might be plotting something.
Her mind is fierce and she will not endure
ill treatment. I know her. I’m petrified
to think what thoughts she might be having now:
a sharpened knife-blade right through the liver—
she could even strike the royal family, murder
the bridegroom too, make this disaster worse.
She’s a terror. There’s no way to be
her enemy and come out as the victor. (43-51)
Later, the nurse warns the tutor to keep the children away from Medea because “she looks fiercer than a bull” (Euripides 99). She also refers to Medea’s beast-like nature when she cautions the chorus that “her glare is as fierce as a bull’s” (Euripides 189) and “she’s wild like a lion who’s just given birth” (Euripides 190). The nurse is not alone in her perception of Medea’s reckless nature. Jason has also seen Medea in action and witnessed her volatile temper. After Medea has slain their children, Jason compares Medea to a monster and tells her, “You’re not a woman; you’re a lion, with a nature more wild than Scylla’s, the Etruscan freak” (Euripides 1389-91).
Jason also describes Medea as a barbarian—a synonym for beast. The comparison of Medea to animals suggests her predisposition towards violence and her demonstration of masculine traits. A bull represents manliness, rage, strength, and determination. A bull is aggressive and charges his opponent. The lion, often known as “king of the jungle” or “king of beasts,” is territorial and represents raw power, strength, courage, and pride. Like a predatory animal, Medea stalks her prey before she strikes and kills and like the male lion, Medea kills her cubs. Medea’s “inner beast” or ego continually needs bolstering and she places high value on her reputation. Medea’s motto is “I will not let my enemies laugh at me” (Euripides 818). Medea repeatedly reminds us that she is all about saving face. As John W. Jacobs observes in the American Journal of Psychotherapy, “Medea believes that being a victim is worse than being a perpetrator no matter what the outcome” (312).
In a critical essay entitled “Women on the Tragic Stage,” Bernd Seidensticker discusses Medea’s masculinity, and theorizes that “the destruction of her happiness as a wife and mother forces her, like Clytemnestra, into a masculine role” (83).While that sounds good in theory, a peek into Medea’s past reveals that she has a history of masculine behavior. For instance, Medea arranged her own marriage—unquestionably a brazen breach of tradition in fifth century Greece. Brian Lush describes the bond between Medea and Jason as more of a “contract between two aristocratic male warriors more than a typical marriage, in which the bride’s father arranged the union by negotiation with either the groom or the groom’s father” (30). Medea also has a long history of violence. When she kills, she kills brutally—like a man.
After helping Jason secure the Golden Fleece, she kills her brother, chops him up, and throws his body parts into the sea. When Pelias fails to give Jason the throne of Iolchus in exchange for the Golden Fleece, Medea retaliates by convincing Pelias’ daughters to boil him alive. Medea becomes a serial killer and goes on to commit other heinous acts of murder. After she poisons Jason’s bride and her father, Medea finds great pleasure in listening to the messenger’s account of the hideous details surrounding their deaths. The final and most shocking murderous action is when she slaughters her own children with a sword. As one source reports, “Maternal retaliatory filicide, while not unknown, is considered rare, a fact that supports critics’ claims of Medea’s masculinization (sic), as does her use of a weapon” (Mackay 70).
John W. Jacobs writes, “Jason is at best an opportunist: (309). If Jason is, indeed, an opportunist then Medea is the master of manipulation. When the situation warrants (and it suits her needs), Medea can turn on the tears and play the part of the injured spouse to garner the necessary support to carry out her plans. In an essay entitled “Tragic Wives: Medea’s Divided Self,” Helene P. Foley maintains that Medea “cleverly mimics Jason’s own mode of ethical reasoning and feigns female subservience in order to deceive her adversary”. However, Jason is not the only one to fall prey to Medea’s trickery. When Creon threatens to banish Medea and her children from Corinth she skillfully defrauds him into allowing her to stay “just one more day” (Euripides 349) by appealing to him as a parent.
MEDEA. Take pity on them. You yourself have children.
It’s only right for you to treat them kindly.
If we go into exile, I’m not worried
about myself—I weep for their disaster. (353-56)
Afterwards, Medea mocks Creon’s ignorance and remarks to the chorus, “Do you think I could have ever fawned on him like that without some gain in mind, some ruse?” (Euripides 376-78)
Aegeus unconsciously becomes an accomplice to Medea’s scheme when he allows her to lure him into offering her exile in Athens. Despite all of this role-playing Medea “fundamentally repudiates the gender role assigned to her as a woman in fifth-century Greece” (Hall 87).
Medea is undeniably complex. Like an Athenian actor, she plays many roles and changes her masks between scenes. In fact, in fifth-century Greece, a male actor likely played the part of Medea. Like someone with multiple personality disorder, she may exhibit distinctly different temperaments. We visualize her as a damsel in distress. We see her as an oppressed member of society—without a voice. We envision her as a male warrior. We perceive her as a raging bull—without control. She weeps like a woman. She has the strength of a man. She roars like a lion. Medea’s role may rapidly change but at the end of the day, Medea wants to be a man.