The play Medea by Euripides challenges the dominant views of femininity in the patriarchal society of the Greeks. While pursuing her ambition Medea disregards many of the feminine stereotypes/ characteristics of the patriarchal Greek society. She questions the inequality of women in a patriarchal society, contradicts Jason’s chauvinist beliefs, challenges the stereotype that women are weak and passive and completely disregards the feminine role of motherhood.
Feminism is the belief that women and men are, and have been, treated differently by society, and that women have frequently and systematically been unable to participate fully in all social arenas and institutions. This belief is confirmed in ancient Greece where the status of women was very low. Aristotle describes the relationship between men and women during that time period:
‘It is the best for all tame animals to be ruled by human beings. For this is how they are kept alive. In the same way, the relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled.’ Aristotle, Politica, ed. Loeb Classical Library, 1254 b 10-14.
Plato ascribes the inferior status of women to degeneration from men:
“It is only males who are created directly by the gods and are given souls. Those who live rightly return to the stars, but those who are ‘cowards or [lead unrighteous lives] may with reason be supposed to have changed into the nature of women in the second generation’. This downward progress may continue through successive reincarnations unless reversed. In this situation, obviously it is only men who are complete human beings and can hope for ultimate fulfillment; the best a woman can hope for is to become a man” (Plato, Timaeus 90e).
In Greek society, a woman was confined within the parental home until a husband was chosen for her. Then she was transferred to the home of her husband where she was to fulfill her principal function, the bearing and rearing children.
Medea shows the inequality of women in Greek society. The betrayal of Medea by Jason through his marriage to another woman enrages Medea. She begins to question the role and position of women in a patriarchal society. “Are we women not the wretchedness? We scratch and save a dowry to buy a man…Our lives depends on how his lordship feels. For better for worse we can’t divorce him.”(p.8, Medea). However, “a husband tired of domesticity, Goes out sees friends and enjoys himself….”(p.8and 9, Medea). Medea compares the virtual slavery of women to the absolute freedom of men, showing the inequality and disempowerment of women in society at that time.
Jason’s chauvinist beliefs are put under the microscope. Jason airs his views about what all women want: “If they’re (women) happy in bed, they’re happy everywhere”. By comparing Medea’s pure feminism to Jason’s selfish chauvinism, Euripides brokers sympathy and support for feminism from the audience.
Medea questions the firmly held belief in Greek society that women are weak and passive. Wanting revenge on Jason for his betrayal of her, Medea must take control of the situation, a stereotypical masculine quality. Though she cannot become a man or take power like a man, she perceives her ability to take vengeance with the same kind of forceful determination that a man would demonstrate in her situation. “I’ll kill the children…Then, when all Jason’s hopes, his palace hopes, are gone I’ll leave this land”(p.27 Medea) She makes the ultimate sacrifice, her children’s lives, in order to decisively take control of her life and become independent of Jason, showing that she is neither weak nor passive. Medea challenges the feminine stereotypes of weakness and passiveness by taking control of her life.
Medea challenges society’s views of her matriarchal role in a patriarchal society. She is in a situation where she must struggle between her want for independence and her motherhood instincts: “My heart all dagger. Do it. Don’t flinch. You must. Come, hand: the sword. This course must run. No weakness. No…memories. Flesh of your flesh! Forget you loved them for one short day, forget. Then weep, wretch, weep, Who killed to prove your love.(p.42, Medea) Medea is forced to take drastic steps in order to achieve her feminist goals of freedom and independence.
She must kill her children and lose the sympathy of the audience. Earlier in the play the chorus, who reflect the dominant values and ideology of the time, agreed with her views on women being disempowered and how she was wronged by Jason:”…what you do is far from just: deserting her” (p.19,Medea). However, at this point in the play the chorus no longer sympathizes with Medea and her actions and actually plead with her: “On our knees we beg you- think again. Your children must not die.”(p.29, Medea). This reveals the most significant part of the play in which the audience, who instead of supporting Medea now are shocked and disgraced by her. The loss of sympathy for Medea because of her plans of infanticide is a tool showing that the matriarchal stereotype of women is a belief that is still firmly held by society. The ‘motherhood’ and ‘nurturing’ role are both characteristics concerning femininity that Medea out rightly disregards when she kills her children.
Medea’s questions the inequality of women in a patriarchal society, contradicts Jason’s chauvinist beliefs, challenges the stereotype that women are weak and passive and completely disregards the feminine role of motherhood. In society today many people believe Medea to be a pioneer of feminism, even though her society/chorus scorns Medea after she killed her children. Medea still reveals many good and relevant stereotypes, such as the ‘motherhood’ and ‘nurturing’ roles that women still object to and fight against today.