“I will slay the children I have borne” are the words of Euripides’
Medea when she decides that she will kill her children in order to take
revenge on her husband, Jason,
for leaving her to marry Glauke,
the princess of Corinth. Medea’s merciless and cruel actions towards
her children have resulted in her classification as a “murderous mother,”
and her crime is “often dismissed as the work of a wicked witch or a perverse
deity” (Corti 29). But I think that Medea, like
many of the “murderous mothers” throughout history, is left with very few
choices. Instead of letting others make the choices for her, she takes
things into her own hands and decides to do what she feels will be best
for her children and also for herself. Medea has to debate seriously,
with herself, about whether or not to kill her children. In the end,
she decides to kill them, which undoubtedly makes her a “murderous mother”
but not necessarily a “bad” one. In this essay I will give
some background information about Medea, show why Medea isn't really
a “bad” mother by examining why she wants to kill her children, the doubts
she has, what ultimately influences her decision, and the outcome.
Medea is a sorceress and a princess in her homeland, Colchis, which is considered to be a land of barbarians. She uses her powers to help Jason secure the Golden Fleece and ends up falling in love with him. She decides to leave her home in order to flee with Jason to Iolcus, his homeland. In order to insure her escape from Colchis, Medea murders her brother, Absyrtus, and cuts his body into pieces so that her pursuers would have to find each piece and bury them. While in Iolcus Medea tricked Pelias’ (King of Iolcus) daughters into killing their father because she hoped that with Pelias dead, Jason would become the king of Iolcus. Instead they were exiled as murderers and decided to live in Corinth. In Corinth, Medea and Jason had two children and gained a good reputation. But Jason decided to divorce Medea to marry the princess of Corinth so that he would have better connections in the city. This is what causes Medea’s anger towards Jason and leads to her decision to get revenge on him by killing their children. (Prado)
There are quite a few reasons why Medea wants to kill her children, including the obvious one, which is to “vex” (25) Jason's heart by leaving him childless. During this time women are only “the mere incubator or soil for the man who sows the seed” because “the only parent is he who mounts” (Clauss 301). Therefore, children are the property of the father and belong only to him. By sacrificing Jason's seed, Medea destroys Jason's property, which leaves him without anyone to carry on his name and take care of him during old age. Medea strips Jason of this extremely important part of his life. Because she also kills Jason's new wife, she ruins “his chance for future offspring” (Clauss 148).
Medea also knows that she can not leave the children with Jason in Corinth or take them with her and remarry because, as Lillian Corti explains in her book The Myth of Medea and the Murder of Children, there was a “traditional distrust of stepparents” (36) during this time period. The stepmother would want to “assure the inheritance of her own children” (Corti 36) and might for this reason find a way to kill the children from her husband's previous marriage. The chorus mentions Ino,(who marries Athamas, and tries to kill Phrixus and Helle, the children of his first marriage, to assure the inheritance of her own children), after Medea kills her children, to let the audience know the “probable fate of any children entrusted to the care of Jason's new wife” (Corti 36).
Even if Medea remarried, the stepfather's reputation for promoting “the welfare of stepchildren [was] hardly better than that of [the] stepmother” (Corti 38). In a Greco-Roman Myth about “a woman whose second marriage joins her to the man who killed her first husband in battle, the children of the first marriage are murdered in order to eliminate the possibility of eventual revenge” (Corti 38), therefore, remarriage for a woman who already had children was not a good option. In addition, Medea does not want to leave the fate of her children in “some more savage hand to butcher” (22), which included the hands of the people of Corinth who would have killed her children in revenge after she kills the King and his daughter. Lastly, Medea sees her children as a “sacrifice” (19) that will take the place of Jason in her revenge and make both Medea and Jason “parallel sufferers” (Pucci 131) because they both “suffer in the same way,” (Pucci 131) and share the same grief and “outrageous pain” (Pucci 131) caused by the death of their children.
But there is a moral gap between having reasons to kill the children and actually killing them. In the play, Medea shows mixed feelings and doubts about committing infanticide. Medea is in conflict with herself because on one hand she has her motherly nature, which wants to love and nurture the children, keep them with her and cause them no harm, for example Medea says, “Let the children go, unhappy one, spare the babes! For if they live, they will cheer thee in our exile there” (20). On the other hand, she wants to get revenge on Jason and refuses to send her children “to their foes to mock and flout” (20) and she exclaims, “Die they must in any case, and since ‘tis so, why I, the mother who bore them, will give the fatal blow” (20). The love between Medea and her sons is definitely “an obstacle between her and her determination to avenge herself” (Corti 42) because she loves them so much that she wants to keep them with her in order to have a happy life but also wants to get revenge on Jason for what he does.
Even though during the earlier course of the play Medea is confused as to what to do, she finally decides to ignore her maternal side and kill the children because she is convinced that if she does not kill them, the children would be killed by the people of Corinth. Although Medea is the one that puts her children in danger with the people of Corinth because she sends them to deliver the poisoned garments to Glauke, she does it to make it seem like she wants Glauke to accept them. It is the only way for her to avoid suspicion by Jason, Creon, and Glauke and insure that Jason is left alone. So her “motherly love and revengeful urge [were] controlled, manipulated, and rigged by the more powerful rhetoric of the sacrifice” (Pucci 142). If the children would not have been in danger of being killed, I don't think that Medea would have murdered them because of her love for them.
Medea’s love towards the children can be seen, for example, when they return from delivering the poisoned gown and crown to Glauke, and she says, “O my babes, my babes, let your mother kiss your hands. Ah! Hands I love so well, O lips most dear to me! O noble form and features of my children” (20), which shows her affection towards them. Some of the characters claim that Medea hates her children, but as Corti remarks, “Euripides demonstrates that she is the only one who loves them” (43), not Jason, which is the reason why she decided to destroy them. She tells Jason very clearly that she is the one who loves him not him in the following quote:
Jason: “O my dear, dear children!
Medea: “Dear to their mother, not to thee.” (25)
By destroying them she is not showing hatred towards them. On the contrary, “even the most destructive of mothers can, indeed, love her children even as she destroys them” (Clauss 44). In fact, “no one suffers the loss of a child more than that child's mother” (Clauss 304), so by destroying her children even though she knows she will drag through life “in bitterness and sorrow” (19), Medea is actually demonstrating how strong her love is for her children.
The murder shocks not only the audience but also some of the characters, including the chorus and Jason. The chorus is proved wrong because they think that Medea will not be able to kill her children when she sees them in front of her begging for her mercy, but to their surprise and horror she is able to carry out their murders. Jason is also proved wrong, but not because he thinks that Medea will not kill the children since he didn't know about her plans, but because he assumes Medea to be like all other women, submissive and easily persuaded, “her methinks I shall persuade, since she is woman like the rest” (17), and she is not. She is actually the opposite of Jason's view of women: “Let no one deem me a poor weak woman who sits with folded hands, but of another mould, dangerous to foes and well disposed to friends” (15).
Medea and her children are in similar situations: “trapped in an impassable situation that has been imposed on them by a powerful, threatening figure of authority” (Corti 48). They are “at the mercy of a hostile, powerful figure who ought to be protecting instead of persecuting them” (Corti 48). But there is actually a difference in Medea’s case because she refuses to be dominated by Jason or Creon and ends up becoming the dominator. In the end, she is the one who rises above all in her dragon-drawn chariot while Jason is left “battered and powerless” (Pucci 161). Her triumph also causes her pain and suffering, and in a way she does not win because she has lost her children, but it comforts her to know that Jason will suffer with her:
Thou, too, art grieved thyself, and sharest in my sorrow.”
Medea: Be well assured I am; but it relieves my pain to know thou canst not
mock at me. (24)
This quote shows that Medea is hurt, but her pain is alleviated by the grief she has imposed on Jason.
In conclusion, Medea commits the “unwomanly act of killing her children”
(Clauss 8), but it is not really “unwomanly” at all.
As I have shown, there are justifiable reasons behind Medea’s actions,
which convince her that she has to kill her children.
The very act of killing her children
shows the love that Medea has for them and the sacrifice she is making
in order to save them from a worse death. The infanticide in this
play is a turning point in Medea’s role because she is able to go from
being dominated and suffering because of Jason's
actions to being the dominator and inflicting suffering upon Jason.
Euripides portrays Medea
in such a way that she is both “good” and “bad,” “mortal” and “divine,”
pitied and feared, and admired just as her actions evoke our horror. (Clauss
9, 17) It is the conflicting views of Medea’s character that
make her so complex and make our feelings towards her actions so ambiguous:
we hate her because she has killed her children,
but we can sympathize with her due to her circumstances. Medea’s
circumstances play a big role in her decision to kill her children
so we should sympathize with her. Medea is a strong and powerful
woman (she is also a goddess!) who transcends “her own once-limited identity
as woman, wife, mother, [and] mortal” (Clauss 148).
She is, in my eyes, a “loving murderous mother,” and if you still reproach
her for what she does, I leave you with her thoughts: “Thy words I pardon
since thou art not in the same sorry plight that I am”
Clauss, James J. and Sarah Iles Johnston. Medea. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Corti, Lillian. The Myth of Medea and the Murder of Children. Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Euripides. Medea. Trans. E.P. Coleridge. Online. Internet Classics Archive. Internet. 11 Apr. 2001. Available: http://classics.mit.edu/Euripides/medea.html
Ignacio. "Medea: Characters." Online. SparkNotes LLC. Internet. 26
Pietro. The Violence of Pity in Euripides’ Medea. Ithaca and
London: Cornell University Press, 1980.
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