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Quote of the week – Medea

August 20, 2013

I would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once.

(Euripides Medea 251)

This is Medea’s famous statement in Euripides’ play. Statements such as these can have multiple interpretations, provoking much discussion as to its meaning. Having read the play on multiple occasions and spent time considering this specific statement I am going to take the opportunity to give my own interpretation without reference to other works.

On face value there are simplistic interpretations such as the pain associated with childbirth, the medical dangers of giving birth or the loss of a child being more horrific than fighting in battle. These I believe are questionable as they do not address the deeper meaning that Euripides’ is attempting to communicate. Therefore, I consider that there are two possible interpretations.

Firstly I would suggest that in this statement Euripides demonstrates his understanding of and sympathy with the suffering of women. I would not go so far as to suggest that Euripides had a feminist agenda but it is apparent from his plays that he understood the double standard in respect of the genders (particularly the freedom of men). The image conjured by Medea suggests that war is preferable to childbirth, I would suggest that Euripides realised that war is dangerous for both Men and Women. Though women do not fight on the front line they endure the loss of their husbands and sons in battle and if the army fails to protect the city or territory it is women and their children that suffer at the hands of the invading army. The cost for women may be considered greater as if a man dies in battle his suffering is over, whereas a woman and her children may spend many years suffering in slavery.

Secondly Euripides in this statement has Medea denounce traditional values; the primary role of women in Athenian society was to look after the home and have children. It is probable that Euripides attempted to shock the audience by having a woman make such a subversive statement. However, through using Medea, a foreigner and barbarian, Euripides may not have had such an impact on the audience.  There may have been some sympathy and understanding from the Athenian audience for Medea at the beginning of the play but as the story progresses the attitude would have likely changed. It is likely that Euripides could not have used a mythological Greek woman to make such a subversive statement due to the reaction of the audience and as such only an outsider could present an argument that would plant the idea of change.

It is interesting how one statement can prompt so many different interpretations. This is only an initial assessment of the statement and I look forward to having the opportunity to research and analyse it further, taking into consideration other interpretations in due course.

Bibliography

Euripides Euripides Translated by D. Kovacs, Cambridge: Harvard University Press Perseus Digital Library http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0114 [Accessed: 20 August 2013]

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2 Comments
  1. How interesting to hear interpretations and to make my own. As a woman, I can’t help but wonder if Euripides had some insight to the helplessness associated with labor and birth. That he says he would stand in battle with a shield, a primarily protecting item, conveys to me that maybe there could be emphasis on the utter vulnerability experienced in laboring/birthing. To this day there is no shield to protect a woman from the transformative and often brutally physical intensity of labor.

    Aaand I have no context for this quote other than your blog – so thanks for the very engaging post!!

    • That is an excellent point I had not thought to approach it in that way. The metaphor would certainly be an excellent one. I love that there is no single interpretation and hearing other views.

      I certainly agree that Euripides had an understanding of the suffering of women. His approach to women does seem to change from play to play though so you can never be entirely sure of his opinion.

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