Medea is arguably one of the first pieces of feminist literature. Written around 431 BCE, the playwright, Euripides was only awarded third place out of three at the annual Athenian Dionysia festival. However, Medea has since become an iconic example of female empowerment through the history of literature, and has become a staple in many educational programs worldwide. Euripides seems fascinated by the hypocrisy and discrimination within the Greek Athenian Gender-Sex system. Athens, was an infamous ancient city that prided itself on its advanced views on social justice issues for the time. They saw themselves as exceptionally free and more tolerant than the neighboring communities such as Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes. Despite these in-house beliefs, the city state of Athens was still exceptionally dependent on the oppression of slaves and women. Euripides uses Medea, to symbolically call out Greek Society on its hypocrisy with respect to their treatment of women.
Medea’s monologue to the Chorus illustrates the injustices that befell women of that current system:
Of all creatures that have breath and sensation, we women are the most unfortunate. First at an exorbitant price we must buy a husband and master of our bodies. [This misfortune is more painful than misfortune.] And the outcome of our life's striving hangs on this, whether we take a bad or a good husband. For divorce is discreditable for women and it is not possible to refuse wedlock. And when a woman comes into the new customs and practices of her husband's house, she must somehow divine, since she has not learned it at home, how she shall best deal with her husband. If after we have spent great efforts on these tasks our husbands live with us without resenting the marriage-yoke, our life is enviable. (lines 230-243).
Medea illuminates the struggle of the Athenian women and housewife of that time. For women, there was no escaping the oppression. Marriage was inevitable, divorce would destroy your reputation, and this created a stuck-in-between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place-situation for women.
The play sets Medea apart from the other female characters. The Chorus (composed of three other women) are externally split on the morality of Medea’s actions. They verbally condemn Medea’s actions, yet also pity Medea and her circumstances. Whereas internally, they appear to admire her and never physically interfere or interject upon Medea’s actions. The Chorus’s admiration of Medea creates the metaphor, that by committing such decisive actions, Medea is symbolically defying a patriarchal system that oppresses women. By cutting all ties of dependence to Jason, Medea symbolically cuts all dependence on a patriarchal male, giving her the appearance of being a powerful and fearless woman.
As the protagonist of the play, there is cause for Medea to be labeled as a tragic character, but she does not fit the criteria to be considered a heroine. Medea hamartia (flaw or error of judgement) comes when she kills her children just to spite her estranged husband. Killing your children is barbaric, and even though Ancient Greece was akin to barbarians and violence, the cold-blooded murder of your own offspring was still looked upon as shocking and unforgivable. Due to her kids’ deaths, Medea experiences a peripetiea and she changes. Pre-murder Medea was a hate filled yet powerless female lead that is still a part of a patriarchal society. Post-murder Medea became a powerful, independent, and fearless women who defies the Athenian social norms and patriarchal society. Medea also experiences hubris throughout the play. Her excessive pride is one of the driving forces behind her extreme actions. Her pride forces her to suffer through Jason’s actions and they are a reason why she felt so much pain.
Medea is a raw representation of the extremes that women in a patriarchal system can be pushed to. Euripides shows the difficulties that befall women, but he does not give us a simple cliché heroine. He gives us a real woman, who has suffered and become twisted by her suffering. Medea is less about female empowerment, but more a war between the sexes in which everyone emerges scarred.