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Villianness, Victim, or Both?
Medea has emerged from ancient myth to become an archetype of the scorned woman who kills her own children to spite her husband, who must then suffer the fate of outliving them. The story itself is horrific, and yet it remains strangely fascinating, and into the mouth of its maniacal heroine many writers have given philosophies which were too subversive to be voiced in open discourse. Many Medea have been crafted, and though the story remains consistent in every version, there is a degree to which the spirit of the age -- or at least the artist -- regarding women, violence, deity, and self-will is solidified and embodied in the central character. This difference is clearly seen in the difference between the way that Seneca presented Medea in Rome and the way it had originally been presented on the Grecian stage by Euripides: to the former she becomes this stoic emblem of the meaninglessness of the world, while to the later she had represented the breaking point for a repressed, yet sympathetic gender.
In Seneca's play, Medea is only minimally humanized. Her rage and grief is epic, rather than personal, and it has about it something of the madness of a god. She is described as "Mad as a Maenad, and just as frenzied, as if the god were coming to take possession." (Seneca, ln 408-410) That she represents (one might say prefigures) a sort of Nietzschean Uber-woman is clear in the many chorus descriptions of her elemental being, comparing her wrath to that of the sublime and uncontrollable ocean. She is more lawless and fierce than ocean storms, and her will is a law in and of itself, cries the Chorus. There is a degree to which, in Seneca, the story revolves not so much around the plight of Medea as a woman who has been abandoned by her husband, and more about the idea of Medea as a sort of demihuman fury, "as if she weren't a human, but rather a tigress whose cubs have been taken." (Seneca, ln 883-885) By turns Medea is compared to a god, an animal, an elemental force, and a servant of the void itself. This gives the reader a certain insight into her character and that of the world around her, for she lives in a "civilized" world where the harsh realities of life are denied and yet she remains driven by primal, overwhelming urges.
Because she is portrayed as being a threat to the civilized world, Seneca is free to have her speak of the harshest realities of Stoic philosophy which might not otherwise be capable of being voiced. Stoicism is based on the belief that the world is, to some degree, meaningless -- and that for this reason we must bear what comes to us without looking for external salvation; yet stoicism is also credited with some of the strongest altruistic teachings of the era. After all, if there are not gods coming down in winged chariots to save humankind, then it is necessary for people to learn to save each other. In Medea, the idea that there is no higher power in the world becomes justification not for compassion (e.g. doing the good that one wishes gods would do), but for personal vengeance, smiting as one wishes God would smite. Her argument regarding the nature of the world as justification for taking matters into her own kind is a priceless piece of Stoicism verging on nihilism:
"O gods! Vengeance! Come to me now... Or else, in the absence of gods, I pray to Chaos itself, to endless night... I wish I believed but I don't. What retribution there is, I shall have to contrive myself, devise with my own two hands... [in] civilization's restraints... I no longer believe. Did I ever? Do you? Horror, we know, is real... This is the way things are. Wounds, blood, the last death rattle of victims, no one has trouble believing in them. I trust in grief and rage. The labor of childbirth pales compared to the bringing forth of the bloody truth of what life is." (I, 9-56)
Medea is portrayed, in words if not in deeds, as being trapped between the idea of gods, to whom she could appeal for vengeance (she speaks to Hecate, for example, very intimately) and the secret inner belief that there are no gods and no help for her but what she herself works. In a world where one can no longer trust to some disembodied "karma" or "fate" to assure that one's ills are addressed (or, for that matter, in a world where one suspects that those forces are opposed to one), then the terrible fates which are desired for another must be meted out by one's own hands. By all rights, Jason should die alone and unloved for his sin of casting the faithful Medea forth alone and friendless upon the world. Yet if there is no god to achieve this end, she must do it herself, even at the cost of sacrificing her own children and rejecting religion and hope. She takes on the role of Prometheus (whose fire she will later claim to kill her enemies), challenging and attacking the laws of heaven itself: "We believe that our lives too must have some design, some plan. Who planned these things for me? What divine order decreed that I should suffer so? I defy the heavens themselves. Fierce as a wounded beast I turn on my attacker." (Seneca, ln 428-432) In some ways Medea is an intensely modern character, moving from a stoic peace with the world into a dark Nietzschean, posthuman and nihilistic romanticism.
Seneca's Medea is a savage, albeit somewhat noble, monster-child of the gods, and this he uses to speak of the balance between faith in the universe and faith in the void. Euripides, on the other hand, portrays Medea as being as much of a victim of the men around her as she is a victimizer -- she is used to speak of the tribulations of women in Grecian culture. This difference is apparent from the very first scenes of the play. Whereas the first chorus in Seneca's version laments the ships that ever brought Medea to Creon's land because she is as lawless and cruel as the sea itself, the first spoken words in Euripides' version also lament the sailing of the Argonauts because they brought Jason into Medea's life, which caused her such great grief. "Would to heaven the good ship Argo ne'er had sped its course...for then would my own mistress Medea never have sailed to the turret...poor lady," laments Medea's nurse. (Euripides) From that moment forward, even when they are protesting her decision to kill her innocent children, the Euripidean chorus never once argues that Medea is not justified in her rage and in her revenge. In fact, so supportive are they that they agree to keep her secret when she tells then she plans on killing the king! "For thou wilt be taking a just vengeance on thy husband, Medea. That thou shouldst mourn thy lot surprises me not." (Euripides) Not incidentally, in Euripides' version, the chorus is composed entirely of women, which highlights the sort of archetypical war between the sexes.
Medea in Euripides' version is far more distraught and grief-stricken than in Seneca's version. In the story told by Seneca, Medea is exiled immediately upon her husband being told to wed Creusa, because Creon fears she will do some mischief -- this is in keeping with her identity in that play as an open threat to civilization. In the story told by Euripides, Medea is not exiled until her grief becomes so pressing and obvious that the entire city is becoming aware of the danger she poses to the royal family. This differences helps to highlight the fact that she is a relatively normal woman, albeit one whose passion (and in this case her grief) is greater than the norm and therefore threatening to the patriarchy. In fact, much of her argument against Jason centers as much on the plight of every woman as it does on her particular case. For example, she complains about the very idea that men are stronger: "they say we live secure at home, while they are at the wars, with their sorry reasoning, for I would gladly take my stand in battle array three times o'er, than once give birth." (Euripides)
In both Seneca's and Euripides' versions, Medea is conceived of as not only representative of womanhood, but also of the plight of the barbarian. There is a degree in both cases where she makes her stance oppositional towards civilization. In the case of Euripides' Medea, there is a fine irony employed as Jason claims to have done her good by his abuses: "[Now] thou dwellest in Hellas, instead of thy barbarian land, and hast learnt what justice means and how to live by law, not by the dictates of brute…[continue]
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