The protagonist of Euripides’ Medea is one of the most controversial – and most interesting – characters in ancient Greek tragedy. She was vindictive, manipulative, egotistical, and sneaky; she was a witch, a “barbarian”, as she describes herself, an exile and a murderer. But was she really all that wicked?
One could say that the situations Medea was faced with and the life she lived were at least partially responsible for her actions and the characteristics she shows throughout the play. Former princess of Colchis, Medea married Jason after she fled her country and killed her brother to help her lover and live with him. After a long series of adventures and trials, the couple eventually settle in Corinth and start a family, but Jason abandons Medea to marry princess Glauce. Emotionally crushed, the female protagonist takes vengeance by poisoning Jason’s wife to be and killing her own children, after which she flees to Athens to start a new life.
Oddly enough, while her actions were inarguably wicked, it cannot be said that Medea is a fully evil character. The complete destruction of her betraying husband allows her to be seen as an empowering hero. Many may resonate with Medea, seeing her as an abused, emotionally crushed woman who finds revenge and takes a stand against patriarchal oppression, who fights back even though this means sacrificing everything that is dearest to her.
Medea has given up everything and did unthinkable things for her husband, driven by her passion, only to be betrayed. She showed throughout the play that she was a caring person, who loved her children and showed affection to them even though she killed them in the end. It was because of a broken heart that she did what she did.
A second motivation behind her actions might also be the need for heroic fame. Medea says she will take vengeance so that everyone will see that she can be kind to friends and harmful to enemies, and that she is not just a woman who lives quietly at home.
Both Medea and Jason are simply humans driven by passion and emotions, none of them acting with the dignity expected from the upper class people of ancient Greece. Just like in our society, when the public mask is taken off, what we see is a flawed person – a human – ruled by jealousy and engaging in menial quarrels.
But what about the murder of the children? Medea seemed to believe that their death was necessary, for two reasons. One of them is because if she did not kill them, others would – a common theme in literature old and new. The second reason – and the most shocking one –is because the children’s death would be the ultimate way to wound Jason, just like he wounded her.
The children’s murder is certainly Medea’s most condemnable action, especially since she does not seem to do everything in her power to spare them from pain, thus diminishing her first motivation’s validity to great extent. On the contrary, the murder scene is horrific, and Medea’s conversation with Jason afterwards, taunting him about their death further proves that revenge was the main motivation.
However horrible the killing of the children and the reason behind it, let’s not forget that Medea, even though manipulative and seemingly calculated, was a broken, desperate woman. The abominable act maybe cannot be seen as excusable because of what she has been through, but it should be taken as an example of what people are capable when pushed too far, when hurt too deeply.
Extraordinary circumstances can drive people to unimaginable decisions. Medea may not be a heroine, but she is not evil either. She is human.