Despite the fact that the characters from the Ancient Greek plays might seem somewhat naïve and clichéd, the female character from Euripides’ Medea displays considerably unique features and is, in fact, a breakthrough in writing female characters. While the character shares certain features with some of the female leads in other Ancient Greek plays, Euripides’ Medea stands on her own as a character and represents a new set of qualities, which used to be considered as incompatible with the idea of a female heroine.
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One of the most evident changes that Euripides made to an Ancient Greek female character is making her more independent and considerably more motivated. Comparing her to another character written by the same author, one must admit that Euripides has added much more depth to Medea. Taking Clytemnestra as the closest example, one will see that the development of a female character is truly huge. Also willing to kill her husband, Clytemnestra is yet less threatening because of two reasons.
First, she does not have as much motivation as Medea does; as a matter of fact, Clytemnestra’s motives are rather vague. Clytemnestra claims that her motivation was also revenge: “He killed my child because of Helen’s lust” (Euripides), and at the same time it is stated in the poem that Agamemnon was standing in the way of her relationships with Aegisthus: “O father, you now lie in Hades, / Agamemnon, thanks to that murder / committed by Aegisthus and your wife.” (Euripides).
Comparing Medea to Jocasta from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, for example, one will necessarily see that Medea is much more cruel, vengeful, passionate, and, therefore, more interesting character than the mother and wife of Oedipus. While the latter is best known for unwillingly sinning against nature and, thus, being a rather passive character, the former, on the contrary, fights against all odds, disregarding the moral side of the question. Jocasta’s despair and shock which she displays as she learns that her husband is actually her own son: “Oh, you unhappy man! / May you never find out who you really are!” (Sophocles) contrasts sharply with Medea’s passion and disregard for any moral issues whatsoever:
Chorus leader: But, lady, can you stand to kill your children?
Medea: Yes. It will be a mortal blow to Jason. (Euripides)
Therefore, Medea is portrayed not only as a much more ruthless, but also as a more calculating person than any of the women in Greek mythology. Not only does she plot her revenge, but also implements it without a single moment of regret, which makes her a much stronger and well-rounded character than any of the ones mentioned above. Vengefulness is the key feature that makes Medea stand out of all the female characters in most Ancient Greek plays.
However, Medea must not be viewed as a goddess of revenge; she also has a number of character features which make her humane and, thus, even more, terrifying: “As for Medea, / that poor lady, in her disgrace, cries out, /repeating his oaths, recalling the great trust” (Euripides). While being chased by a demonic creature is something that a typical Greek mythological hero does on a regular basis, knowing that one’s world has been ruined a woman who is desperate for revenge yet shares certain emotions with human beings is weird enough to make one tremble with fear.
Finally, it is worth considering Medea not only as the main antagonist but also as a mother of the family. It is essential that the play starts with portraying Medea as a good mother and a faithful wife: “with her husband and her children – well-loved /in exile by those whose land she’d moved to. / She gave all sorts of help to Jason” (Euripides).
However, as the play unfolds, Medea’s gradual descent into madness begins, revealing her cruel nature, which becomes obvious as Euripides describes her change of attitude towards her children: “I’ve seen her look at them with savage eyes, / as if she means to injure them somehow” (Euripides). It is quite peculiar that the gruesome fact of killing her own children does not contradict the fact that Medea loves her family more than anything else in the world: “O my children, / victims of your father’s evil actions!” (Euripides).
Therefore, these are not egoistic motives that make Medea slaughter her own children and plot her husband’s death. On the contrary, it was Medea’s uncontrolled love that brought her to such despicable crime – her family meant everything for her, and, when being deprived of her main life priority, she is left with nothing but destroying its miserable remnants: “(). Thus, Euripides makes the readers empathize with Medea as much as he makes them fear her.
Thus, it is clear that Medea’s character revolutionized the image of a woman in Greek mythology. Reinventing people’s perception of what part a female character is supposed to perform in a play, Medea set the stage for the further development of female characters. Euripides makes it obvious that the latter can be as complex as the male ones, yet develop in their own peculiar way and have their own unique features.
Euripides. n. d. Electra n. d.
Euripides. n. d. Medea n. d.
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Sophocles. n. d. Oedipus the King n. d.