Euripides lived and worked in the 5th century BC; he was a tragedian whose plays won prizes at that time and appeal to the readers of nowadays. The tragedian challenged the gender ideology accepted in his society, which attracts many scholars even in the 21st century AD.
The author used his plays and the theater to perform his views and ideas. He showed that the traits people have could not be strictly divided into those peculiar only to males or only to females. Considering the main characters of one of his well-known plays the Medea, the readers may understand that with the help of Medea and Jason, Euripides presented individuals as complex creatures who carry both women’s and man’s characteristics.
Reality and the Medea
There is no person today who has not heard about Ancient Greece. It is well known due to the peculiarities of its political, social, and cultural life. There were particular differences in all these spheres for individuals depending not only on their socio-economic status (class) but gender as well.
In the society of that time, women’s opinion played no role and could not influence any rights or rules. They were dominated by men, who controlled all significant spheres of life in Greece (Pomeroy, 2012). The main role of females was to give birth to children, so they mostly stayed at home. Only those who came from poor families were allowed to work. Men inherited the capital, so if there was no male heir, the daughter had to marry the relative (Dillon, 2003).
The dominance of the men seems to be seen in the Medea also. Medea claims that women are wretched, bad, and have no power. Males have a right to divorce, but females do not. Their lives are controlled, and it cannot be changed. Thus, they face lots of difficulties and suffer having no opportunity to gain freedom: “Of all creatures that can feel and think, we women are the worst treated things alive” (Coldewey & Streitberger, 2000, p. 33). Medea is shown as a woman driven to desperate shifts, and she crossed the line because of them. She is not the one who gives life anymore, as she killed her children.
Such behavior was unaccepted within society. In his play, Euripides showed the reality that is opposite to the one that he lived in. The author reflected on the accepted morality in this way. Looking at Medea’s life, one can see the evidence of women in ancient Athens being powerless and having no right to dispute their husbands. They were waiting for alterations and an opportunity to become equal.
Euripides rejected the norms of the society he lived in and changed the role of gender in his work. The Medea occurs to be feministic. It is written by a man and is biassed against women. The main characters are atypical, as Medea conducts the actions that would look manly in the eyes of Greek people who lived at that time. Even though the woman was not always able to overcome her emotions, she tries to control them. In comparison with her, Jason looks more humble.
This anomaly is vividly seen, as Medea is engaged in a crime, she murders her children. Generally, men are expected to be crueler and are depicted as killers, so this shift attracts attention. The main task of any woman is thought to be the role of mother, which presupposes giving life but not taking it. As Jason behaves more womanly, the characters seem to exchange their gender roles.
Pride and determination do not let the readers treat Medea as a diminished female. These male traits can be observed after the betrayal, as the woman decides to murder her children to restore the reputation and revenge Jason. The Chorus sings: “Things have gone badly in every way…there are still trials to lift for the new-wedded pair, and for their relations pain that will mean something…and in this, I will make deadened bodies of three of my enemies-father, the girl, and my husband. I have many ways of last which I might suit to them and do not hold out friends, which one to take in hand” (Euripides, 2012, p. 12).
Of course, one can point out that is deeply affected by the betrayal, Medea lost her mind. Still, her wish to show that she is not a fool occurs to be unexpected. A woman would rather be frustrated and sad; she would not want to communicate with others. However, Medea is drawn to action. She wants to show her strength and ability to stand her ground. Such feelings are more appropriate for male characters, but even they would not sacrifice their children just to revenge. Here Medea occurs to be ready to go to any lengths to ruin the life of her husband. Moreover, she does not act spontaneously, in the heat of passion; on the contrary, everything is thought over, and each step is evaluated: “I weep to think of what a deed I have to do next after that; for I shall kill my own children. My children, there is none who can give them safety. And when I have ruined the whole of Jason’s house, I shall leave the land and flee from the murder of my dear children, and I shall have done a dreadful deed. For it is not bearable to be mocked by enemies” (Euripides, 2012, p. 14).
Jason is not able to resist his wife, and he loses her and their children in a day, even having no opportunity to improve the situation. He does not pay any attention to the fact that he has betrayed Medea, and it is likely to have an adverse effect on his reputation. The man neglects the Chorus, as they try to awaken him to a sense of shame, “you have betrayed your wife and are acting badly” (Euripides, 2012, p. 19).
Jason is targeted at gaining power, and it is a man’s quality. Still, the way he chooses to achieve this goal is womanish: he marries to become a representative of the ruling class. He yields to her even after the death of their children, which proves that Jason is weakling. As a woman, he considers the situation and finds no strength to do at least something to stop her: “Oh God, do you hear it, this persecution. These sufferings of this hateful woman, this monster, murderess of children? Still, what can I do that I will do: I will lament and cry upon heaven, calling the Gods to bear me witness how you have killed my boys.” (Euripides, 2012, p. 46).
Gender as Performative
Many scientists paid their attention to the way Euripides performed gender in his play. One of them, Judith Butler, examined the text and claimed that gender could be considered as a performative act. It is dismissed from the sex of the person and said to exist independently (Butler, 2012). Still, it is associated with the peculiarities of context and language. It means that a person is free to choose the way he/she behaves. For example, if a man maintains gender ideology, he performs the roles that are commonly considered to be masculine. In case the roles are rejected, a person acts according to the context and shows the traits common to people of both genders.
Ambiguity can be found in the majority of Euripides’ texts. The scientists claim that “masculinity and femininity are portrayed not as fixed attributes bestowed by ‘nature’ as part of an integrated, stable personality, but as behaviors that can be performed by different actors” (Blondell, Gamel, Rabinowitz, & Vivante, 2002, 83). Thus, the readers are invoked to treat the characters as performative actors instead of trying to find associations with gender.
It is considered that women are weak by nature; they act emotionally and lack logical thinking while men are strong, rational, and competitive. This division occurred on the basis of cultural peculiarities but started to be treated as a natural binary that is commonly inherited by human beings.
As the readers first meet Medea and Jason, they face a discrepancy between their composures and language. The behavior of the characters seems to fit into the framework of accepted gendered stereotypes. However, their discourse fails to meet the expectations based on the traditional approach. In the beginning, Jason’s behavior and speech associate with stereotypes. He shows his rational way of thinking and adhering to justness: “if you hate me, I cannot think badly of you” (Euripides, 2012, p. 15). However, his words lack ground and do not sound convincing, as he claims that “preserve you and breed a royal progeny to be brothers to the children I have now, a sure defense to us” (Euripides, 2012, p. 19). Medea behaves as it is dictated by society, but she emasculates Jason with her speech. She alludes to his duplicity claiming that “the plausible speaker who is a villain deserves the greatest punishment” (Euripides, 2012, p. 19).
Medea’s emotional behavior is feminine, and she resembles a hysterical woman by saying that Jason is “a coward in every way” (Euripides, 2012, p. 15) and showing her bombast “how senselessly I am treated by this bad man, and how my hopes have missed their mark!” (Euripides, 2012, p. 16). Still, she also manages to make her speech well-grounded and logical, which is commonly associated with males. Medea describes her actions, her deeds that usually men do to be with the ones they love: “I saved your life, and every Greek knows I saved it… Also, that snake, who encircled with his many folds, the Golden Fleece… I killed…And I myself betrayed my father and my home and came with you to Pelias’ land of Iolcus. And then… I killed him, Pelias… This is how I behaved to you, you wretched man, and you forsook me, took another bride to bed, though you had children…” (Euripides, 2012, p. 16).
Still, the behavior expected due to the stereotypes sometimes corresponds with the words of the characters. Medea admits that Jason has a dominant position and says she is sorry for “great lack of sense” (Euripides, 2012, p. 28). She explains that she was wrong when she got angry “my anger was foolish… I think that you are wise in having this other wife as well as me” (Euripides, 2012, p. 28). Jason shows rationality answering that “it is natural for a woman to be wild with her husband when he goes in for secret love” (Euripides, 2012, p. 29). Of course, this interaction looks normal and “natural,” but it is not really so. All this time, Medea is subduing her husband occupying an active position while Jason remains passive. Thus, Jason believes in his dominance over Medea failing to realize that it is false. It means that Medea utilized her femininity as a force, a power that allows her to manipulate Jason.
In the end, the readers can observe how Medea murders her children and discards gender expectations. Medea loses her motherly instinct and shows the masculine attitude towards the circumstances. Jason claims that she is “a monster, not a woman” (Euripides, 2012, p. 44). He yields to emotions and is greatly affected by the death of the children and the deed of his wife. He cries, “oh, my life is over!” expressing typical women’s behavior in such a situation (Euripides, 2012, p. 44).
Thus, Euripides the readers to examine the way his characters accept and reject gender ideology. He shows that people are binary, and if they act according to the norm of the society they live in, it does not mean that the deeds are natural to them.
Blondell, R., Gamel, M., Rabinowitz, N., & Vivante, B. (2002). Women on the edge: Four plays by Euripides. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
Butler, J. (2012). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York, NY: Routledge.
Coldewey, J., & Streitberger, W. (2000). Drama: Classical to contemporary. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Dillon, M. (2003). Girls and women in classical Greek religion. New York, NY: Routledge.
Euripides (2012). Medea. New York, NY: Dover Publications.
Pomeroy, S. (2012). Ancient Greece. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.