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Medea, Jason and their Marriage

November 3, 2013

Medea helped Jason succeed in his quest for the Golden Fleece betraying her family and killing her brother in the process. Jason brought Medea back to Greece with him and they ultimately settled in Corinth. Jason would not have succeeded in his quest without Medea’s help and she feels betrayed by him when he leaves her for the princess of Corinth (Euripides Medea 475-91). Through examining the importance Medea places upon her marriage and Jason’s oath some insight can be obtained into the reasoning behind her act of revenge.

Marriage within Athens was important to respectable women and as Medea identifies (Euripides Medea 237) refusing to marry was not really an option (Fantham et al 1994: 69). The situation within Athens does not necessarily represent the standard for the whole of Greece. However, in order to produce male heirs and soldiers it is likely that the primary goal of a Greek woman would have been to marry (Lefkowitz, 2007: 83 Blundell 1995: 74-5, Pomeroy, 1994: 62). To fulfil the goal of marriage Medea sacrificed everything for Jason (Luschnig, 2007:24). The nurse informs the audience at the very beginning of Medea that Medea’s heart is ‘unhinged in her love for Jason’ (Euripides Medea 8-9). This passion made her the perfect wife who did all her husband asked and devastated those who would stand against them (Luschnig, 2007:13). The sacrifices of Medea are acknowledged across scholarship (Lefkowitz, 2007:179, Fantham et al, 1994: 69); Easterling (2003:190) remarks that Medea gave up everything for Jason but received ingratitude, abandonment and betrayal in return. It is this passion that drives the character of Medea to seek the revenge she so desires. Medea’s love of Jason stems from an oath made in the Argonautica, ‘in our lawful marriage-chamber you shall share my bed, and nothing will separate us in our love until the appointed death enshrouds us’ (Apollonius Argonautica 3 1126-8). Jason pledges himself to Medea, swearing never to leave her and so Medea believes them to be married. Euripides likely represents the union in this way as Medea’s belief that they were oath bound provided the appropriate backdrop for the tragedy to follow (Easterling, 2003:190). Medea’s attitude towards their union is demonstrated early on in the play through the reference to the oath whilst off stage (Euripides Medea 160-2) and upon her entrance stating that ‘the man in whom all I had was bound up, as I well know—my husband—has proved the basest of men’ (Euripides Medea 228-9). This is reinforced later when Medea declares to Jason during their first encounter, ‘for well you know that you have not kept your oaths to me’ (Euripides, Medea 495-6) making it clear that what he believes to be the reasons for her distress are incorrect.

Euripides’ Medea was first performed in Athens in 431 BC twenty years after the introduction of Pericles’ Citizenship Law (Plutarch Pericles 37.2 and Aristotle Athenian Constitution 26.3). The law provided that both parents had to be Athenians in order for any child to be legitimate. Medea may represent a critique of Athenian law by Euripides, who disagreed with social policy. Alternatively, Euripides might be considered a misogynist, using the foreigner Medea to isolate the Athenian audience from her plight. Luschnig (2007:19) criticises the argument that focuses on this aspect of Athenian law believing that those who dwell on it are missing Euripides’ central observation, ‘the critics who find excuses for Jason because Medea is not really his legal wife…are certainly laying too much stress on what is a minor issue (if an issue in the play at all)’. Given that Euripides refers to Medea and Jason as married throughout the work, I would agree with Lusching’s argument that the legality of their marriage should be set aside when analysing the behaviour of the wronged Medea.

Jason’s oath breaking has a secondary affect in respect of Medea’s honour; she loses her place in society and home because of his actions. Rehm (1994:97) identifies that Euripides tale recounts the awful experiences that women generally had when they married. Medea adopted the role of the Greek wife, Jason and the children are her focus, but, when Jason leaves, her world appears to be ending (Sale, 1977). Medea’s honour is important to her because of what she gave up for Jason and what she invested into their marriage. Honour was all she could regain following Jason’s departure; through carefully planning each detail of her revenge with the coup de grace being her flight from the scene.

Medea is driven to revenge by her love of Jason who has not only destroyed the life that they built together but has betrayed and broken his marriage oath. Medea had become dependent upon Jason for a home and security; she cannot return to Colchis and has no other city where she can seek sanctuary. This betrayal is the primary reason for Medea’s revenge; the reason for the choice of revenge is a consideration for another time. However, in order to achieve her revenge, escape and move on with her story Medea has no choice but to rely on another man, Aegeus (Euripides Medea 753).

Unfortunately a complex area such as this cannot be assessed in one post. This assessment does not cover in full Medea’s reaction to Jason’s betrayal but instead is a brief overview with scope for more extensive exploration. If you would like to comment then please do so.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Apollonius of Rhodes Argonautica Hunter, R. (ed) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Aristotle Athenian Constitution Aristotle in 23 Volumes translated by H. Rackham London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1952.

Euripides Medea Morwood, J. Oxford: Oxfrord Univeristy Press, 1998.

Plutarch Pericles Plutarch’s Lives translated by B. Perrin London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1916.

Secondary Literature

Blundell, S. Women in Ancient Greece Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Easterling, P. ‘The Infanticide in Euripides’ Medea’ in Mossman, J. (Ed) Euripides Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 187 – 200.

Fantham, E. et al Women in the Classical World Oxford: Oxford University Press,1994.

Lefkowitz, M. Women in Greek Myth London: Duckworth, 2007.

Luschnig, C. Granddaughter of the Sun A Study of Euripides’ Medea Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Pomeroy, S. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves Women in Classical Antiquity London: Pimlico, 1994.

Rehm, R. Marriage to death : the conflation of wedding and funeral rituals in Greek tragedy Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1994.

Sale, W. Existentialism and Euripides : sickness, tragedy and divinity in the Medea, the Hippolytus and the Bacchae Berwick, Australia : Aureal, 1977.

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