The Heroic Heroine: More on Gender within Medea and Others

In modern times, Medea can be interpreted as a play with main ideas in support of feminism and the breaking down of traditional gender roles. But after completing further research, it is clear that the main ideas in Medea are actually rooted in staunch misogyny. Through examination of Euripides's other major works, Hippolytus and Iphigenia in Tauris, greater insight is gained into the misogynistic messages contained within the play.

From studying Euripides's other heroines, it is clear that the female protagonist in Greek drama has a combination of both masculine and feminine traits that would have strongly affected the audience's interpretation of the play during the time in which it was written.  In the eyes of an ancient Athenian audience, Medea possesses the anger, passion, and desire for revenge that male warriors are meant to exhibit, but still maintains the role of successful housewife and loving mother. Her nurse even proclaims Medea's maternal devotion to the audience in one of the first monologues "a refugee who's won respect, admired, stable, domestic – supporting her husband as she should" (lines 10-12). So initially, Medea is painted for the audience as being a character the audience should sympathize with, or merely pity. Most scholars agree that Euripides describes the most "humanized" Medea, who is thought to be the "stereotypically perfect female within the male power structure," her position as a foreigner as well as her marriage to Jason impairs her from representing "Everywoman" (Durham, 55).

In Athens at the time, there was a great sense of nationalism and pride in Athenian citizenship. However since Medea is clearly, as stated, "a refugee," she would have faced a good deal of bias from the audience. The play also concerns the ideas of love and passion, and it would be incorrect to ignore these emotions when analyzing the character of Medea. In her marriage to Jason, she is set apart from typical Athenian wives in the fact that her marriage is based on passion. Wives in Athens would have been given in marriage by their fathers, "passing from the authority of one man to another" (Nimis, 403). This unique feature of her marriage then sets her apart from the position of normal women as well, and also introduces the overall theme of "warning against the consequences of unbridled passion" (Spranger, 4). And it is Medea's actions as a result of said passion that truly sets her apart from her role as a representation of the ideal feminine, and introduces the opposing side of her personality and emotion: the masculine or heroic side.

It is not simply the violent killings of Glauce, Creon, and her two sons that allow Medea to be classified as "masculine" but it is also the intelligence and power she has over men through her speech. Her masculine and feminine traits allow her to relate well to both sexes, and consequently give her a heavier hand in negotiations with both. Classical studies professor, Judith Fletcher, notes that "Medea uses this remarkable ability to co-opt a speech act use to create alliances between men within a civic context in order to dupe and bind her victims for her own personal vendetta" (Fletcher, 33). Examples of this can be found when Medea persuades Creon to let her stay an extra day, which gives her time to ultimately kill him and his daughter. It is also how she is able to persuade Aegeus to shelter her in Athens at the end of the play, in return for remedying his sterility. Consequently, it can be stated then that persuasiveness and speaking ability were considered masculine traits because they were so closely related to intelligence.

However this type of masculinity is not only found in Medea, but also in two other plays by Euripides, Hippolytus and Iphigenia in Tauris. Euripides's play, Hippolytus, follows the story of a character by the same name. Basically, Hippolytus upsets the goddess Aphrodite when he worships the goddess of chastity, Artemis, instead of her. The actions are mostly dictated by a series of oaths that are negotiated by Aphrodite (in an attempt to get back at Hippolytus for his dismissal of her) or other female characters in the play. Professor Fletcher again notes the similarities of the females' commanding tendencies within this script.

"The oath, its performance unseen by the audience has its consequences are unseen by Hippolytus, fulfills the same function in the sequence of speech acts as the blind oath of Aegeus to Medea€¦By letting a woman of servile status gain power over a king's son, Euripides' second version reworks the supplication/oath combination with even more emphasis on the oath's ability to skew the patriarchal power structure" (Fletcher, 37).

Iphigenia in Tauris follows the story of Iphigenia, who is supposed to be a virgin sacrifice to the gods, but instead, escapes. Iphigenia's escape is only made possible through the deception of a male who is bound by a promise made to a female. Although for the most part, these agreements made by males with females seem mostly deceptive and manipulative on behalf of the women, this deception is still attributed to intelligence, again, a masculine trait. Consequently, these tactics which are predominately employed by men are what allow the women in Greek tragedy to be so strong. "It is abundantly clear that when a powerful linguistic instrument, the oath, is exploited by an otherwise disempowered social group, it becomes an effective means of sabotaging the fundamental elements of a male hegemony" (Fletcher, 43). With this idea in mind, it is clear that although Euripides was conveying a strong woman in his writings, it was not meant in a positive light.

What is most interesting though about Euripides heroines is that they were not uncommon in the times of Ancient Greece. In the tale of Lysistrata, written by Aristophanes, the women of Sparta withhold sex from their husbands in order to end the Peloponnesian War. In the play there is an extensive exchange between the women and their husbands, bargaining and negotiating the females' terms. Although the play was written as a comedy, and the dialogue serves for humorous affect, the idea of the play is still based from the strong female character for which the play is titled.

Overall, the central idea of Medea, like most of Euripides's other plays, is one of warning. Medea is portrayed as "the other" to an audience of exclusively male citizens in a male-dominated society. Although initially her feminine traits allow her to be pitied, her masculine traits (which ultimately overpower the men within the play) cause her to be feared. Ultimately she is seen as an enemy of Greek society, the entire Athenian state, as she has easily manipulated men and succeeded with multiple killings. Consequently, the play is highly misogynistic as Euripides prevents his title character from being a hero. Instead he lets the men know what happens when a woman gains power, and that is breaking the gender roles of the society. Not only does this throw any familial normalcy out the window, but it also ruins the patriarchal supremacy, which is clearly seen as a threat.

Sources Cited:

Durham, Carolyn. “Hero or Heroine?” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies. 8.1. (1984) 54-59.

Fletcher, Judith. “Women and Oaths in Euripides.” Theatre Journal. 55.1. (2003) 30-46.

Nimis, Steven. “Autochthony, Misogyny, and Harmony: Medea.”  Arethusa. 40.3. (2007) 397-420.

Spranger, J.A. “The Attitude of Euripides Towards Love and Marriage.” The Classical Review. 24.1. (1910) 4-5.