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Medea | Discussion Questions 51 - 53

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How was Euripides's treatment of the Medea myth unconventional?

In the patriarchal society of ancient Greece, Medea, who was an intelligent and powerful woman and who had a habit of leaving a trail of bodies in her wake (her brother, Jason's uncle, Creon, Creon's daughter, and so forth), was considered a monster. She had broken society's rules, for instance, by marrying the man she chose rather than the one her father chose for her. What's more, Medea was a powerful, intelligent, and headstrong sorcerer, so it's easy to see why she was terrifying. But Euripides, while including all these monstrous traits in his Medea, also shows how human and vulnerable she is—especially in her suffering over Jason's betrayal, her gratitude for Aegeus's friendship, and her maternal adoration of her children. It is Euripides's sympathy for Medea that is so unconventional. This humanization of characters was one of the ways in which Euripides broke with the established traditions of Greek theater. Other notable ways were his use of technology and his growing reliance on individual actors coupled with a decreasing use of the chorus.

Do you think Euripides's use of the deus ex machina device is an appropriate ending for the play?

Many scholars believe the use of a crane (mechane) to hoist an actor above the stage originated with Euripides. He used it extensively in his plays. Usually the hoister was a god (deus), who swooped in to pass judgment, make pronouncements, or otherwise resolve events. In Medea it is the protagonist who rises above the stage in Helios's chariot. This ending was and remains controversial. After all, Medea is a tragedy, so the audience would expect a tragic ending. As the Chorus points out, filicide is a crime that can bring down the wrath of the gods, and, because Medea's children are descended from Helios, the Chorus expects Medea to suffer for killing them. Given the horror of Medea's crimes, which also include regicide, it seems unjust that she is able to borrow Helios's chariot and escape unscathed. However, Euripides portrays Medea as a devoted wife who has sacrificed homeland, status, and family for Jason, whereas Jason himself is a thoughtless, self-centered, unfaithful lout. So it's satisfying to see Jason watch powerlessly as Medea escapes in glory instead of getting dragged off in chains. Also, because Medea is Helios's granddaughter, it's believable that the god would help her.

Do you think Medea is a traditional Greek tragedy?

Traditionally, an ancient Greek tragedy focused on how a central (male) character with power and influence is brought low by a combination of his own character flaws and circumstances he cannot overcome. Euripides's Medea differs in that its central character is a divorced woman living in exile who successfully achieves what she sets out to do and then triumphantly escapes punishment. If considered from Jason's perspective, however, the play is very much a traditional tragedy. Jason begins as a renowned Greek hero and the new husband of Corinth's princess. By the end of the play, he has lost everything—his new wife, his status, his sons, and any hope of having more children; he has also heard his own death foretold. All this has come about through his egotism, avarice, and inconstancy as well as through the actions of the wife he set aside.

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