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The image of Medea presented by Euripides in the exodos is undoubtedly largely horrifying and appalling to the audience. Medea manifestly presents her desire for revenge and it is difficult to sympathise with her character. However, in many respects her character fits the image of a tragic hero. Although, it is widely controversial to associate Medea with heroic aspects in modern days, from an ancient Greek’s perspective her actions and personality might well match aspects of the tragic hero such as consistency, appropriation, noble state, and tragic flaw.
This essay will explore whether her presentation in the exodos as well as her actions in other circumstances justify her tragic hero status. First of all, Medea has always enjoyed a good reputation and high-rank in society. Her heroic identity symbolises the fact that she is a grand- daughter of the Sun. Moreover, Medea was a princess of Colchis and displayed a vast knowledge of enchantments and medicine. When Jason abandons her in a foreign land she becomes a ‘stateless refugee’ and her pride suffers. It has also been stated by the Chorus in the play:
‘Of all pains and hardships none is worse Than to be deprived of your native land’. [L. 651-652] It seems intolerable for her to be rejected & homeless in a foreign land. We can infer this by the use of words such as ‘pains and hardships’ which emphasises her dramatic position through an accumulation of two similar meanings. Also, the word ‘deprived’ implies that Jason has taken her land almost physically. Here, the role of chorus modifies the structure in the play as they appearance break up the acts in the play. Thus, Euripides attaches an important role of the chorus to construct the play.
Her behaviour has been farther explored by E. R Dodds who states that members of an ancient Greek society acknowledged ‘anything which exposes a man to the contempt or ridicule of his fellows, which causes them to “lose face,” … as unbearable’. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero must hold noble, respected social status. It can be argued therefore that Medea’s murder of her children in exodos was a desperate and impulsive response to ‘the pressure of social conformity’ (Dodds) and a diseased attempt to gain back her reputation.
Such actions are common in Greek tragedies such as The Oresteia where Atreus admitted an even larger horrific act of revenge against his brother who had affair with Atreus’s wife. Similarly, while Medea loses face when Jason abandons her, Atreus’s reputation suffers when his wife commits adultery. Nevertheless, later Atreus’s takes care of his brother’s son. This, as opposed to Medea, can be considered as tragic hero’s sense of guilt or, perhaps, the way to dispense justice. On the other hand, Medea doesn’t regret her actions. Her sense of guilt does not exist.
Contrarily, she seems to be proud of her murder as she uses cynical and sarcastic techniques while she responds to Jason’s accusations in stichomythia: ‘Go home; your wife waits to be buried. ‘ The mention of Jason’s would-be wife is extremely cruel and tactless as previously, Medea mercilessly murdered her. In the exodos, Medea and Jason have a short and sharp exchange after Jason sees the dead bodies of his children. Questionably, Medea appears here to be extremely exultant, victoriously using cynical techniques untypical for the tragic hero such as ‘You grieve too soon.
Old age is coming’. It is clear that Medea identifies her murder with a triumph over Jason. This opposes the fact that Medea can be regarded as a tragic hero because members of an ancient Greek society, despite their desire for high reputation, had a sense of guilt and justice which is described by E. R Dodds as a ‘gradually growing sense of guilt… which transformed into a punishment’ and ’embodiment of cosmic justice’. This implies that Medea as a tragic hero should regret her actions however, this never occurs.
Instead, at the ending of the play, Medea and the bodies of her children are taken away by the gods in the shape of Deus ex Machina. Up until the exodos, Medea has had some features of a tragic hero. However in the exodos, the absence of any kind of regrets opens up a debate over whether Medea’s presentation can be truly regarded as a tragic hero. Here, the gods seem to appear strangely sympathetic in her murderous sufferings and surprisingly shocking in supporting Medea’s actions and punishing Jason.
It can be argued that the gods support Medea and Deus ex Machina occurs in order to dispense justice by not allowing Jason to bury his children and leaving him unsatisfied. Although, the gods not always seem to make ‘right’ decision and sometimes their will performs as cruel and unmoral. It isn’t just the fact that Medea kills her children that seem to be questioning Medea’s heroic aspects. It is also true that Medea does not die. The play is in fact the only surviving Greek tragedy where the tragic hero doesn’t die.
Furthermore, Medea is a woman driven by ‘male desire’. Her desire for revenge leads to her overcoming the sense of maternal instinct. Therefore, the Greek audience couldn’t completely regard Medea as a tragic hero and ‘yet the audience (… ) shudder at the ruthless of her anger and passion for vengeance’ (Easterling). It is unclear whether Medea aims to portray herself as a woman or to employ the “heroic ‘male’ weapon”. She often sympathise with females as a group ‘We were born women – useless for honest purposes.
But in all kinds of evil skilled practitioners’ [l. 406-407] Here, Medea uses first person plural verb in order to become a representative of females. However, the fact that she lacks her maternal instinct and kills her children in ‘reaction to her dishonour’ and ‘her violence, which she herself abhors’ follow the idea of a male desire. At this point, it is difficult to define Medea as a tragic hero because she evidently contradicts the idea of consistency in that she portrays herself sometimes as a representative of oppressed women and sometimes as a ‘male hero’.
It is largely controversial to argue that Medea’s presentation in the play (particularly in the exodos) is ‘good and appropriate’ (Aristotle). The tragic hero’s character should be ‘good if the purpose is good’ (Aristotle). Euripides’s presentation of Medea at the beginning of the play is to make the audience pity her dramatic position however, if we consider the fact that previously Medea has committed two acts of murder in order to marry Jason it is difficult to sympathise her. The murder of her children is a highly horrifying act of the play as the children plead for help (‘Help, help, for the gods’ sake!
She’s killing us! ). The repetitiveness of a word ‘help’ and their imprecations gives us a sense of their desperation. In this way, Medea fits her image of a tragic hero because according to Aristotle, ‘fear and pity must be aroused’ in circumstances in which a ‘tragic incident between those who are near or dear to one another’. Indeed, we pity characters in the exodos as the act of murder has been done at the expense of innocent children pleading for help.
On the other hand, it has been investigated by P.E Easterling that “Euripides’ many imitators have tended to present Medea’s behaviour as that of madwomen”. This is because the way in which Medea murders her children is largely brutal as she uses a sword and seem to be murdering them in a mercilessly pattern. Therefore, even the Ancient Greek audience seems to reject the idea of Medea being ‘good and appropriate’.
In addition, for Medea to fully fit the image of a Greek tragic hero it is essential that she has her tragic flaw which contributes to the downfall. It is necessary for the tragic heroes to be “wrapped in the mystery (…) with that ‘something beyond’ which we can only see through them, and which is the source of their strength and their fate alike… ” (Anderson) Without this, tragedy cannot be regarded as a tragedy itself.
Therefore, in context of Medea, the equivalent of ‘something beyond’ can be considered her excessive pride and obsession with the ‘laughter of my enemies’. Even if the audience does not point out any indication of the ‘laughter’ of Medea’s enemies, she still insists their presence. She does not perceive the support of the women of Corinth (meaning the Chorus) or -perhaps, she does not want to perceive it.
Therefore, Medea’s obsession with the ‘laughter’ of her enemies can be considered as the catalyst of her tragic downfall. However, it might be believed that this obsession cannot be regarded as the catalyst of her tragic downfall because it is clear that Medea fully acknowledges her flaws and in her horrific act in the exodos she recognises that what’s she’s doing is wrong. In the line 1077 she says: ‘I understand The horror of what I am going to do’ Evidently, Medea appears to be aware of her tragic flaw and to accept the consequences.
In this case, Medea cannot be regarded as a tragic hero because she acknowledges her flaws. Therefore, the Greek audience could not be entertained or surprised by Medea’s actions. We do not pity her because she accepts her tragic flaws throughout the play. Medea’s self-awareness of her immorality contradicts Anderson’s belief that ‘the message of tragedy is that men are better than they think they are. The message needs to be said over and over lest the race lose faith in itself entirely’. There is a large distinction between the recognition of a tragic hero in Ancient Greece and the modern world.
We associate heroic aspects with goodness, appropriation and a well-developed sense of forgiveness. The presentation of Medea in the exodos as well as her actions throughout the play, strongly contradict with the principles of Christianity and her character appears as irrelevant to modern ideas. Unfortunately, Medea from the Ancient Greek’s point of view can be regarded as a tragic hero to a significant extent. The horrific act of murdering her children is insane and sickening; however, it is without doubt that it fits with the image of a tragic hero in a several respects.
Aristotle, Poetics. Trans. S.H. Butcher. www.classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics/html
Accessed 5th January 2012
P.E Easterling – ‘The Infanticide in Euripides’ Medea’, Yale Classical Studies, 25(1997) 193-225
Dodds, E.R. The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press, (2000).
Allan, William. Euripides: Medea Duckworth Companions for Greek and Roman tragedy. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, (2002)
Anderson, The Essence of Tragedy
Northrop Frye,” The Mythos of Autumn”