Manliness in Euripides’ “Medea”

After finishing Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, I decided to begin reading a series of smaller plays, books, and poems from various points in history. I began this “quest” with reading Medea. I have read a handful of Greek plays and various peices of Greek literature in the past, but it was not until researching the history of Madai that I stumbled upon this Greek play and the one written before it. But while reading the story, I focused less on the hate, the passion, the despair, the women, and the murder, but instead on the state of the men in the story.

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The story of Medea focuses much on the circumstances surrounding the marriage of Medea and Jason. He, the conqueror and adventurer; she, the sorceress, betrayer, and passionate lover. Her love, devotion, and passion for her husband and self is evident throughout the play as well as the fact that women are considered the weaker sex. ye the women are the greatest players and focus of the play. Medea is constantly called clever, her femininity often noted, and women are the singers of the chorus. Even a woman, the nurse, opens the play. Seemingly, the men are the cause of the pain, yet the men are given little focus throughout the play. The reason why? Simply put, the men are cowards, or rather, they lack manliness.

It is this lack of manliness, the cowardice, the failure to put on the mantle of a man and fulfill his duty as husband – protector, provider, and procreator – that results with the tragedy of the play. Indeed, it is Medea who is described as a true women, both in passion and performance. She is described as thus, “For the wife not to stand apart from the husband” (l. 455). And despite all she had done, though in truth much of it lacked femininity, she was faithful to her husband. Yet for wealth, status, and lust he married again, and only after learning of her despair allowed for her to be provided for, though she was still a foreigner and friendless woman now exiled (l. 448-52). But in order to understand the severity of his actions and the lack of masculinity of Jason, the reader must understand the basis for manhood. There are three things that a man, or specifically a husband, needs to be in order to fulfill his duties as a man: provide, protect, and procreate.

The first duty Jason failed in was his job as husband and procreator. This involves both sex and fatherly duties to both wife and children. Clearly, he and Medea have produced children, two boys, but she has to come back begging him, pretending acceptance of her cruel fate, pleading that he not treat his children as bastards rather than his own flesh and blood (ll. 845-881, 1279). Though he was party to the making of the children, he cared nothing for their welfare once he saw the profitable opportunity for status and wealth through the marriage of the princess (l. 478). He further shames his duty by wishing their was a way to children and prosperity without women (ll. 561-63). When Medea plans to murder their children, she notes that this will ruin “the whole of Jason’s house,” for children are those who continue a father’s legacy, his “house” (ll. 778, 1361). Indeed, he was “a coward” because he married behind her back instead of being up front with his actions; he was not even man enough to be honest about his intentions (ll. 574-75). He broke the “eternal promise” “they made to each other” and destroyed their “married love” (ll. 21-22, 477, 971, 1365-66). In this way he violated his duties as husband and failed to achieve true manliness.

While Jason is known for his adventurous heart, and may have gained much cleos by his many travels and even victories, he failed to accomplish the second and third duties as a man, which are to provide for and protect his family, especially for his wife. As mentioned before, he tried to explain that by abandoning his wife for another was actually to her benefit; yet this was merely a sham to excuse his wrongdoings (ll. 602-3). Another man who was a coward was her friend Aigeus, who was willing to provide sanctuary for her where her husband would not, but only once she found the means to escape; he was unwilling to lift a finger to help her in that regard (ll. 690-92, 713-14). When Kreon exiled her, Jason should have been the first to provide shelter and money. But it is not until after he hears of her distress that he offers some support but no shelter from her exile. Thus, he failed in his duties as provider and protector.

Though it has a little less to do with what a man should be, Medea makes it clear of what she thinks of his new wife. She frequently refers to her as a girl. To the chorus as women, but to her husbands new wife as a girl (ll. 260, 371, 772). And this can only be an additional reflection on his character and lack of manliness (l. 455). He does not see her as a woman, clever, of passion and duty as she sees fit, but a child for her unmanly husband to marry and feel as though he has achieved power. In some small way, because of his actions – his failure to be husband, father, protector, and provider – she sees her love Jason as nothing more than a boy-child who has yet to grow up.

Unfortunately for them all, Medea, to save face in her own twisted way, shows Jason his folly by killing his new girl love, the sons he should have loved, his new father, who should have been an example of manhood, and effectively destroys his house. She takes from him everything he thought made him a man and what truly did, including herself, from his life, leaving him alone to wallow in his misery. Of course, this is not to excuse Medea for her sins. She has as many if not more to atone for than Jason. Yet the heart of his faults are not truly looked at. The faults themselves are easily observed as well as the results of them, but not what the actual core of the matter is. But from what I have read, I truly think that Jason’s problem, in spite of all the daring deeds he had done, was that he was not truly a man.

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Translation of Euripides’ Medea” by Rex Warner found in The Norton Anthology of World Literature Vol. 1.

The themes on manliness comes from a book called Man Up! The Quest for Masculinity by Jeffrey Hemmer. I have not read it, but my husband has informed me most thoroughly that I feel confident in recommending it, especially if someone wants to know my foundation for the above themes.

~Rose

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