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Women in Antiquity: CLAS 330/HUM 330/WS 330 (3 units)
Presession, Summer 1995: Monday, May 15 - Saturday, June 3
9:00 -11:50 AM MTWTHF ML 312
Instructor: Marilyn B. Skinner (

Lecture 4: Euripides, Medea

Essential Facts

Themes of the Play

  1. Why does Medea kill her children?
    1. Jason has betrayed her as helper, wife and childbearer
    2. Vengeance: to leave him childless in old age
    3. Failed heroism: rotting hulk of Argo
  2. Revenge-drama:
    1. Medea gravely wronged by erstwhile protector
      1. Jason a non-citizen and exile offered opportunity to contract a matrilocal marriage, inherit throne
      2. Medea regarded as concubine and her children reduced to dependents of Jason's children by princess
      3. Violation of oaths to gods
    2. Situation of woman without kyrios
      1. Enters patrilocal marriage without kin approval or dowry--isolation and dependency
      2. Need to avenge herself according to male code of honor: "to harm enemies and help friends"
      3. Woman's "friends"--her husband and children--become enemies. Perversion of code.
  3. Aegeus episode
    1. Dramatic pivot of drama--chiastic structure
    2. Underscores thematic centrality of children
    3. Achieves protection through appeal as suppliant (binding by oath--contrast Jason)
    4. Shift in sympathy: chorus had approved of revenge killing but balks at child-murder

Medea ex machina

  1. Appearance of sun-chariot at end of play
    1. Motivated by kin relationship
    2. Obviates need to kill children for any other reason but vengeance on Jason
    3. Moral irrationality of Euripidean universe?
  2. Medea's transcendence of "human" limitations
    1. Emblems of earth-goddess (dragon chariot)
    2. Power of prophecy
    3. Institution of rites for children
  3. Transcending female nature--denial of maternity

Medea as Archetype of Child-Murderess

  1. Original myth: Corinthians kill children in retribution for death of Creon
  2. Scholiast's anecdote of Corinthians allegedly bribing Euripides
  3. New version of story immediately becomes canonical

Crossing of Gender Boundaries

  1. Medea as female
    1. Incorporates forces of chaos
    2. Represents the non-human and non-Greek
  2. Medea as male
    1. Successfully avenges slighted honor
    2. Punishes breaker of oaths and so acts as agent of divine justice--classic patriarchal role
    3. Contrast with Penelope's failure to protect household: why does Penelope fail in the masculine role and Medea succeed?
    4. Gender = power (dominance vs. submission)

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