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Greek conception of woman, citizen and family Essay

The Greek tragedy ‘Medea’ by Euripides examines the Greek conception of woman, the foreign, family and citizenship. He emphasize on the subjugation and the oppressive condition of women in general in Greece. Thus he reveals the existence of ancient cultures (other than Greece) that were more generous in their treatment of women. Medea is also in some respect, different from general Greek women. She is clever and resourceful and also has the courage in her endeavor to take revenge on Jason for his wrong deeds.

Also, through the character of Medea, Euripides exposes the bankruptcy of popular Greek ideas of heroism. My granting a woman the qualities that were considered heroic, he questions the sacred ideas of heroism. The element of the foreign in the play comprises of the foreign, the exotic, the unknown and the feared. He also showed that the foreign is not external to Greek and there is much for the Greeks to know about themselves. Medea represents the foreign, the attractive and the priceless possession of Jason. The foreign also represented the adventure undertaken by the Greek heroes.

The foreign also symbolized danger and which could lead to chaos. Medea, a foreigner and an outsider to the normal order is free to behave without restrain or morality. Thus she manages to commit the dreadful crime of murdering her own children. Through the elements of the foreign, uncivilized and barbaric, Euripides questions the concepts and definitions of civilizations, primitiveness, ethics and morality. Whereas Jason seeks power, Medea, the foreigner longs for love and caring. Greek valued family and the exile from his was horrible to the ancient Greek.

A person’s city-state was his home and protector and to wonder without friend and shelter was thought as a fate as horrible as death. Medea exiles herself because of her love and passion for her husband. Her position in Corinth is double grave as she is both married to be exiled from family and also as she herself has broke connections with her family to be with Jason. Also, she is a foreigner who will remain a barbarian in the eyes of the Greeks. However, Madea forces Jason into exile by wiping off his entire family. Greek law forbade Greek men to marry any other than Greek women.

Also the children of Greek man and foreign woman were not considered as official citizens of Greece. Similarly, the children of Jason and Medea were not official citizens of Corinth, but Creusa and Jason’s offspring would fully enjoy the benefits of Corinthian citizenship. So Jason is justified in his argument that to gain power and position and to protect and their position, he married into the royal family. Thus these elements of the foreign, plight of Greek woman, citizenship and family combine to propel the action of the tragic play ‘Medea’.

In the Greek tragedy ‘Medea, Euripides elaborates on the status of woman in Greek society. The Greek women in general had few rights. According to the men, the purpose of women in Greek society was to engage themselves in household duties like cooking and cleaning and giving birth and taking care of children. They did not have the right to vote or own property. They could not go outside without an escort. They had to be represented by men in all legal proceedings. Greek women only under exceptional conditions could obtain a divorce, but any Athenian man could get rid of his wife by simply publicly renouncing his marriage.

Marriages were arranged by the parents without any participation of the daughter; thus Medea’s flight with Jason was scandalous. If the family was wealthy, the daughter came with a substantial dowry. After marriage, the woman served her husband the entire life by caring for the children and slaves, the legal property of her husband. They were not given any education and lived in separate quarters, away from their husbands. The ideal woman “spoken little as possible among men, whether for good or for ill”. Greek women never experienced independence during their lives and in some respect they were just like slaves.

Medea accurately describes the conditions of married life for women when she says how a woman has to adjust to the new rules and customs of the new home and work hard to understand her husband and consequently live in peace. However if the marriage does not work, then death is the only solution for the woman. When Jason decides to terminate his marriage with Medea and marry the princess of Corinth, Jason cast aside Medea as if they were never married. This type of action was accepted by Greek standards, which reveals the subordinate status of woman who did not have any say in these matters.

Even though some actions of Medea are not similar to that of average Greek women, she posses certain attitudes and emotions which are common among women. Medea in her first speech to the Chorus (when she comes out of her house) expresses the plight of women in society: “For a divorce loses women all respect, yet we can’t refuse to take a husband”, (Euripides, lines 271-272). She further adds that when a man gets tired of the company at home, he can seek relief outside the home, but a woman have to always look at one man.

It is likely that this attitude was shared by most Greek women as evident from the reaction of the Chorus Leader who sympathize with her: “I’m not surprised you grieve at these events”, (Euripides, Line 310). The nurse reveals the fact that Medea out of her love and deep passion for Jason has retrieved the Golden Fleece for him and defied her household. In return, she is deserted by Jason who betrayed her by breaking the vows of marriage and now “She calls out to the gods to witness/ how Jason is repaying her favours”, (Euripides, lines 30-31).

However, her situation worsens further when Creon informs her that he is forcing her into exile. The Chorus identifies with the pitiable condition of Medea. It recognizes the heroic traits of Medea and admires her as an avenger for all women. Chorus soothes Medea’ sorrow by saying that God will be with her in her endeavor. Thus the chorus believes her cause is good and worthy of God’s support. Medea as a victim of ill fate is supported by the Chorus. Even though the Chorus makes this statement before finding out Medea’ brutal scheme, it should be noted that the Chorus reaffirms its support for Medea after she reveals her plan.

After the monologue of Medea, where she reveal her plan and think of ways to implement it, the chorus delivers an ode on the oppression of women: “The waters in the sacred rivers/are flowing in reverse. /And all well-ordered things/are once more turning on themselves. / Men’s plans are now deceitful,/their firm trust in the gods is gone…. /Honour’s coming to the female sex. /slander will no longer injure women, (Euripides, Lines 487-496). Through this ode, the chorus condemns the oppression of women and encourages Medea to carry out her plan.

It views her plan as a rare opportunity for women to avenge all the wrongs done by men on them and to turn the hierarchy around, putting the men at the mercy of women. In the play it is evident that the Chorus support Medea in her endeavor to avength the betrayal of Jason till the section where she thinks of ways and machinery to make her plot successful. But the Chorus withdraws their support the point where Medea reveals her plan to murder her own sons. After the verbal fight between Jason and Medea, the Chorus asks for moderation: “I pray that moderation,/the gods’ most beautiful gift,/will always guide me”, (Euripides, Lines 756-758).

After they come to know Medea’s plan to kill her children, they try their best make her understand her folly in her taking such an action and they urge her not to commit such a crime : “I want to help you,/holding to the standards of human law”, (Euripides, Lines 963-964). Euripides by examining the treatment of women in the play ‘Medea’, points at the injustices of his society. He recognized the fact that the subordinate position of women to their male counterpart is impossible to extricate from the core of social order in Greece.

The typical explanation offered by the admirers of Greece is that all ancient societies were sexist and dependent on slave labor. This generality is untrue as there were many societies who were more generous in their treatment of women than the Greeks and many societies functioned in the ancient times, without slave labor. Euripides who was aware of these hypocrisies, often pointed out how Greek society attempt to excuse the injustices perpetrated by them. Jason tells Medea that no Greek women would have done as she has done. In this respect, the Chorus should be considered who stood by mutely and allowed the slaughter to take place.

However, Medea shows some heroic qualities that were not common among Greek women. Medea is clever, resourceful and has the courage to stand against Jason and take revenge for his betrayal. She does not stay long inside her home as a subjugating housewife lamenting and shedding tears for wrongs incurred on her. She comes out her hearth and faces the Chorus and Creon. She acts like a man and plots and execute her plan. Euripides goes farther, through the character of Medea, he exposes the bankruptcy of popular Greek ideas of heroism. Medea has many traits that would be admirable, if only she were a man.

She is ruthless, brilliant, cunning, and powerful. But she is in a weak position: she is not a ruler or a warrior of any battlefield. Euripides gives the qualities that are considered heroic, in a woman and thus reduces the scale. He makes the playing field one of marriage and spurned love. The fine Homeric speeches of warriors on the verge of combat are reduced to the bickering of an enraged wife and a petty husband. Euripides in this play, questions our sacred ideas about heroism. Consider, for example, the character of Agamemnon as portrayed by Aeschylus in the Oresteia.

Agamemnon also kills his own child; and although he is not admired for this act, after his death Aeschylus grants him his due of a great man and hero. The reaction of the audience to Medea’s infanticide is that of horror. Euripides gives unlimited self-absorption and ruthlessness to a woman and thus exposes the true worth of these traits. The audience becomes aware of the double standards that we use for heroes and heroines. In Greek mythology Medea was princess of colchis and the granddaughter of Helios the sun God. She had affinities with magic and was the priestess of Hecate.

Medea helped Jason to steal the Golden Fleece from her father and even dismember her brother to delay the pursuers of her lover. Also, she turned the daughter of Pelias into murderers to win back his rightful place in Iolcus, In return, Jason betrayed her trust and re-married into the royal family. The fact that Medea is a foreigner is emphasized from the beginning. The Nurse, in the opening lines, tells the audience that Medea hails from a distant and exotic land. Certain points should be remembered while reflecting on this aspect of the play.

The foreigner or the Others is a complex and multifaceted concept: it comprises of the foreign, the exotic, the unknown and the feared. The foreign is also essential for self-definition of the Greeks. The Greeks ascribe certain traits to barbarians in opposition to certain traits about themselves. Barbarians are savage but Greeks are not. Barbarians are superstitious while Greeks are rational. But Euripides through the play undermines these easy binaries. He shows that (the foreigner) is not something external to Greek. Also, there is much for the Greeks to understand about themselves

Moreover, the (the foreign, the exotic, the terrifying) is an essential for adventure. Jason’s quest, and also the quests of other Greek heroes, would not be possible without their visit to strange and fearsome lands. Medea’s foreignness may be the reason behind Jason’s attraction for her. Although we cannot be sure if Jason was really attracted to her or used her for his own ends or both. May be Jason was drawn to her by her uniqueness. The play stresses on the fact that Medea is different from Greek women. Jason’s marriage to Medea can be seen as an attempt on his part to bring the adventure home.

Medea describes herself as “something he won in a foreign land”. The marriage can also be seen as Jason’s attempt to subordinate the foreign to the Greek, woman to man. In Medea, the foreign lead to chaos. Medea as a foreigner is also terribly free. As she is an outsider to normal order, she behaves without restraint or morality. Her genius is thus used for personal revenge. She sends gifts of a finely woven robe and a tiara of twisted gold smeared with deadly poison and succeeds in killing both Creon and his daughter. Next she murders her two sons to teach Jason a lesson that the oppressed can also take actions against the oppressors.

Medea as a foreigner comes from a tribal nativity, where sophistication is not the normal thing. She does not know how to “well behave” and speak “with a soft tongue”. Her culture and race is primitive and for this she is often blames by Jason. However, while Jason seeks power, Medea longs for love and caring. She leaves behind her culture, native land, parent, and the family as a sacrifice to marry Jason. So the ‘uncivilized ’Medea cannot accept nor understand Jason’s argument in favor of his second marriage and Jason posses all the skills required to argue in his favor.

This raises several questions regarding the concepts and definitions of civilizations, primitiveness, ethics and morality Another factor is the Greek conception of family and the separation or exile from them. Modern audiences can find it difficult to understand how important family and how horrible exile was for the ancient Greek. A person’s native land was his home and protector and to wander without friends or shelter, was thought of as a fate horrible as death. The chorus chants: “there’s no affliction worse/ than losing one’s own country”, (Euripides, Lines 774-775). Medea made herself as exile for the sake of her husband.

Medea tells about her plight to the Chorus: “you have a city, /you have your father’s house, enjoy your life/with friends for company. But I’m alone. /I have no city, and I’m being abused/by my own husband. — I have no mother, brother, or relation,/to shelter with in this extremity”, (Euripides, Lines 291-299). Additionally by her overzealous advocacy of her husband’s interest, she made their family exiles in Corinth. Due to her actions in Iolcus, Jason is unable to return home and so their position is vulnerable. Jason who is the hero of the Golden Fleece (of course with the help of Medea) became a wanderer.

He is very shrewd and calculative in his decision to marry into the royal family. The Tutor points out in the beginning of the play that men always act for their own interest: “What mortal man is not? Don’t you know yet/all men love themselves more than their neighbours”, (Euripides, Lines 107-108). Thus the character of Jason is revealed as an opportunist, a selfish man and the anti-hero who manipulates others for his own ends. Euripides in his play ‘Medea’, links the elements of exile and the lower position of women by emphasizing on the circumstances that women faced after marriage.

She has to leave her home and family and live among strangers. In this respect, Medea reminds us of the conditions of exile. However, her position is doubly grave, as she is an exile in this sense as well as in the sense that she herself has broke all connections with her family. Also, she is a foreigner and will remain a barbarian in the eyes of the Greeks. Greeks valued their family and the close blood relationship they share with the family members. Also they had certain expectation from their family.

Similarly I the play, Jason want his sons to grow up and become leaders in Corinth along their new brother, the sons he wishes to beget from his new bride. He also wants his sons to mature into young men and win victory over his enemies. On the other hand, Medea has few expectations as well. In return for her pains of child birth and the hardship she faced in raising them, she hoped that they will look after her in old age and prepare the corpse with their own hands as all parents’ wishes. However, she sacrifices her expectations and also separates Jason from his family by killing her two sons and Jason’ new bride.

She takes her revenge on Jason by poisoning the royal bride and thus depriving Jason of his wife and the children he wished to beget from her, his family. Also she kills her sons and prevents the fulfilling last hope of Jason, his wish to unite with his family, his sons. She also deprives him of the burial rights of his sons. Instead she performs the rights. In this way, Jason is exiles from his family as Medea was exile from her native land and family. Medea lost her family after she married Jason, in similar way, Jason losses his family at the end of the play.

Another element emphasized in the play is the Greek conception of citizenship. Greek law forbade Greek men to marry no other than Greek women. However, it was common practice among Greek men to keep foreign concubines who were often more educated than the Greek women in general. But the children born from these unions were not considered as official citizens of Greece. Similarly, the children of Jason and Medea were not official citizens of Corinth, whereas Creusa and Jason’s offspring would fully enjoy the benefits of Corinthian citizenship.

Jason may be a shrewd and manipulative man and it is also true that he betrays Medea by breakings the vows of marriage and re-marrying into the royal family. However, the fact remains that Jason was a wonderer and he wanted to gain power and position by creating a relationship with the royal family. Moreover, he was aware of the fact that his children were deprived of the benefits of Corinthian citizenship. As he mentions to Medea, it may be true that he married Creon’s daughter not because he felt attracted towards her as a woman but rather to protect Medea and their children.

Also that he wanted to serve their own interest by having children (royal princes) from his royal bride and thus securing their position in Corinth and giving their children similar power. The Greek conception of woman, the foreign, citizenship and family as examined in the play help in the progress of the tragic action. Medea represents the suppressed and oppressive condition of Greek woman who is cheated by her husband. The foreign element in her character, the exotic, the dangerous and the barbarian instigate her take revenge against Jason.

Jason’s argument in favor of his action is the power and position he wants to achieve for himself and for Medea and their children. He is aware that his and Medea’s children will be deprived of the benefits of Corinthian citizenship. Her separation or exile from family because of Jason infuriates her further and she in turn separates Jason from his family.

Work Citation:

“Analysis of Medea as a Tragic Character”. 8 December 2002. Michael Kliegl. 9 July 2008 <http://www. gradesaver. com/classicnotes/titles/medea/essay1. html> “The Concept of Citizenship”. 9 July 2008 <http://library.thinkquest. org/C004203/political/political02. htm> “Euripides by Medea”. 9 July 2008 <http://malaspina. edu/~johnstoi/euripides/medea. htm> “Medea (Criticism). Carole L. Hamilton. 9 July 2008 <http://www. answers. com/topic/medea-play-8> “Major Themes”. 9 July 2008 <http://www. gradesaver. com/classicnotes/titles/medea/themes. html> “Medea (Indian adaptation of the greek classic”. 9 July 2008 <http://www. lokadharmi. org/medea. htm> “Summary and Analysis of Lines 1- 356”. 9 July 2008 <http://www. gradesaver. com/classicnotes/titles/medea/section3. html>


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