Analysis of Medea as a Tragic Character


December 8, 2002


What lends tragic literature its proximity to human nature is that the border between being a tragic villain and a tragic hero is extremely thin.


A question that this statement will certainly bring up is whether there is such a thing as a hero or a villain or whether these terms are defined by the ideals of the society. Tragedies such as Macbeth or Oedipus Rex feature a character with heroic traits who falls victim to a personal flaw or an outside circumstance which finally pushes that character into becoming a villain. Macbeth\'s greed and hunger for power are the causes for his descent into madness and villainy, and Oedipus falls victim to fate because of his pride and finally ends up tearing his eyes out and running into exile. A similar progression can also be followed in Euripides\' Medea. Medea is a play about a woman, Medea, who is betrayed by her husband, Jason, and expelled from the city. In an outburst of treacherous but cleverly planned rage, she avenges herself by first poisoning Jason\'s new fiancé and then killing her own children, thus leaving Jason without distinction. Though Medea possesses certain traits of a victim and a heroine, it is impossible to identify her character as solely one of these. In order to fully comprehend her tragic character, one must instead view it as a combination of these traits and trace her development into a villain.


Medea\'s position as a victim of fate is already defined by the first lines of the play, in which the nurse tells the tale of Medea and Jason so far. Medea had, through Hera\'s influence, fallen in love with Jason and given up her home, killed her brother, and taken various risks upon her to save him and live with him in a foreign country (1-15). Throughout the play, Medea\'s ill fate is recognized most clearly by her servants and fellow women. According to the nurse, Medea had gone through the entire adventure to retrieve the Golden Fleece and defied her household only to be deserted by him and left "slighted, and [crying] aloud on the Vows they had made to each other, [...] [calling] upon the gods to witness what sort of return Jason has made to her love" (20 -24). But her situation only becomes worse when she is informed by Creon that he is going to force her into exile (270-274). After a long discussion in which Medea pleas to Creon and finally succeeds in getting permission to stay for one day, the chorus of Corinthian women remarks that "a god has thrown suffering upon [her] in waves of despair" (358-9). Here one can once again see that it is the fellow women who feel sorry for Medea and go beyond the prejudices against foreigners to recognize the terrible fate of which she has become a victim. One may assume that women were, in certain ways, oppressed in ancient Greek society and that they could thus relate to Medea\'s problems.


It is the identification with Medea that leads the chorus to see her heroic traits and even admire her as an avenger for all women. In an attempt to soothe Medea\'s sorrow, the chorus states that "God will be [her] friend in this" (156). This statement implies that the chorus believes her cause to be worthy of God\'s support and thus a good cause. The chorus views Medea as a victim of ill fate and is naturally inclined to support her. Though this statement is made before the chorus finds out about Medea\'s brutal scheme, it must be noted that the chorus reaffirms its support for Medea after she has revealed her plans. After a monologue in which Medea finally does reveal her plan and ponders about how to implement it, the chorus delivers an ode about the oppression of women: "Flow backward to your sources, sacred river, and let the world\'s great order be reversed [...] women are paid their due. No more shall evil-sounding fate be theirs" (407-413). In this ode, the chorus condemns the oppression of women and encourages Medea to pull through with her plan. It views this as a rare chance for women to avenge all the wrongs that