Tragic heroes from Greek tragedies almost always share similar characteristics. Medea from Euripides’s play Medea and Clytemnestra from Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon display and share tragic traits. They are both vengeful wives who share similarities in the cause of their vengeance but have some differences in their chosen means of revenge; as a result of successfully exacting their revenge both Clytemnestra and Medea cause their own downfall.
Both Medea and Clytemnestra seek to hurt their husbands for betraying them. Medea uses the best source of revenge ever. She uses Jason’s own children against him. For her own pride, not to look like a fool in front of anybody, Medea kills King Creon’s daughter Glauce, who is to be married to Jason, and her two children. She kills Glauce by sending her children with poisoned clothing for the princess, which also leads to the murdering of her children. She tells Jason “They died from a disease they caught from their father” (Medea 2). Killing her children is the revenge she chose because it was the best one. A woman cannot take a man’s children away from him. Men become so weak when they loose their children, especially sons.
Medea says “Never again alive shall he see the sons he had by me, nor any child by his new bride of his poor girl, who has to die a wretched death poisoned by me”(Medea9). She leaves Jason with no one. By killing her sons, there is no one left to take the throne, or to carry on his name. To take a man’s sons, is the worst thing a woman can do because it takes the masculinity out of them, and they feel low. Medea knew this, and that is why she killed her sons, so he could feel horrible forever.
Clytemnestra single-handedly plots the murder of Agamemnon and Cassandra, his concubine. When she is successful, she celebrates her triumph by professing it loudly, “I have had long enough to prepare this wrestle for victory… I stand where I struck, over the finished work” (Agamemnon 157). Clytemnestra firmly believes her actions are ethical and fair. Standing before the Chorus, she strongly adheres to her beliefs that she was justified in killing Agamemnon. The Elders are torn between devotion to their king and the moral issues and defense Clytemnestra passionately presents before them. The entire Trojan War was based on a superfluous act of hatred and vengefulness, spawned from the seduction of Helen. The audience can only feel sympathy for a broken hearted mother whose rage drove her to kill her husband and his concubine.
It is not Agamemnon’s unfaithfulness that has spawned Clytemnestra’s hatred for her husband, but rather “a mother’s love for a daughter, and a wife’s determination to avenge that death by killing her husband” (Agamemnon 252). Clytemnestra and Medea both feel that death is the only justifiable action for what their husbands have done. The difference is that Medea does not kill her husband, instead wants him to feel the pain of the death that surrounds him. Both Clytemnestra and Medea use words to set up their victims but they do not carry out the sentences entirely in the same way. Clytemnestra mostly uses brute force where Medea uses her knowledge of poison to do the major damage. In the end though, Medea does use brute force to kill her children.
After getting her revenge Medea seems triumphant but Euripides and Medea herself suggest that she suffers worse than Jason. Medea’s life becomes miserable after she kills her own children and when she realizes she will never know love again. Medea realizes that she has done something wrong by acknowledging that she is going to feel the anguish over the death of her sons. She says “then forever you may mourn; for though you will kill them, they were very dear to you” showing that she is sad that she is going to kill them (Medea 576). She realizes that she does a terrible thing and will remember it forever as she “will bring myself to Hera’s temple” (Medea 1021.) She is also devastated after being exiled from her home city. Her pain and suffering are made known when she says, “But I…..but this is an unexpected blow which has befallen me and has broken my heart” (Medea 876).
Medea’s regret contrasts her to Clytemnestra who feels no regret even up to the time of her death. Clytemnestra believes that she was in the will of the gods because she was seeking revenge not only for her sacrificed daughter, but Agamemnon’s cousins (the brothers of Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover). She was carrying out punishment for being unfaithful. According to her, she was “allowed” by the gods because of these and other repeated sins toward them (i.e. walking on the tapestries) as well as carrying out the curse of his household. This situation arouses mixed emotions in the Elders and perhaps the same in the readers.
But if the audience would put themselves in the time and culture of the Greeks, was a person not shunned unless revenge was taken for their loved ones. The entire Trojan War was based on one act of vengefulness after another, spawned from the seduction of Helen. So in that sense the reader can offer only sympathy for a broken hearted mother whose rage encouraged by her culture drove her to kill her husband and his concubine. And with this same tradition of revenge for one act to another, she too will face a day when she is killed for revenge by her son, and the cycle will continue.
Many similarities exist between Euripides’ story and Aeschylus’. Both Clytemnestra and Medea are strong, passionate women who commit a horrendous crime. But then the similarity stops. In Agamemnon, we understand why Agamemnon did what he did, but somehow we feel that Clytemnestra was completely justified in planning ten years worth of bitterness against the man who killed her child. And under her circumstances, we completely sympathize with her desire to kill the man who separated her of the daughter she loved. Part of the reason we have so much sympathy for Clytemnestra is that we feel her pain, she does not seem insane to us.
In the other hand, with Euripides’ Medea is the opposite. In the opening speech the Nurse warns us that Medea is dangerous; she is not presented like a suffering creature as much as the wrong woman to mess with. The reason why we can forgive Clytemnestra but not Medea is based in the innocence or guilt of their victims. Medea has killed her brother; she kills her husband’s new bride; and later she kills her children. One cannot sympathize with these acts; they are all out of proportion to Medea’s reasons for doing them; and they clearly show Medea to be out of her mind.