Citizenship in Greece was based on a sense of belonging, of being an insider to the polis. This basis for the identity of the citizen, therefore, ontologically presupposed the outsider or the Other – it was necessarily premised on difference1. The citizen, therefore was both not-barbarian and not-woman. Medea’s gender and ethnicity put her in the position of the Other with respect to the polis. At the same time, there is also a similarity in the attributes associated with the gender and racial Other : deceit, irrationality, excessive passion and magical powers.

   Tragedy also worked through the contradiction between such binaries – of insider and outsider (Greek and Barbarian), the heroic and the civic, man and woman, polis and oikos [When you use Greek terms, explain them] and, most importantly, divine and mortal. While the polis made a clear distinction between these binaries, they would often exist simultaneously in the life or psyche of a character, and tragedy explores the unresolvability and of these contradictory elements of the characters’ identity. These conflicting identities play themselves out in Medea’s case as well, and this essay seeks to explore the relation of these conflicts with her status as tragic protagonist.

   There is a polyphonic construction of Medea and femininity in the play. As a woman in a patriarchal society, Medea is always-ever the Other. In the conflicting constructions of her subjectivity2, the main opposition is that between the mythic Medea who is a heroic figure (who is above law, legality and order) on the one hand, and the civic figure of Medea as wife and mother on the other. Roberto Calasso talks of betrayal as woman’s heroism3, [Explain the argument in slightly more detail – why is it relevant here?] but Medea also talks of childbirth – of woman’s civic role as producers  of male heir – as heroic. She is also marked by heroic resolve: she says, “Today three of my enemies I shall strike dead”. She is a woman entering male domain of heroic. The conflict between these two appears in the prologue where “mad with love for Jason”, she is the heroic figure who helps Jason accomplish the impossible task of getting the golden fleece through her special powers, and the Medea who “has earned/ The citizen’s welcome to Jason she is all/Obedience”. Thus, to meet the standards of femininity of the citizens/chorus, she must play her expected role in the polis and oikos and be the wife who “obediently accepts her husbands’ will”. In this shift from mythic-heroic to civic, there is a significant reversal of power roles between the subject-positions occupied by Medea and Jason. The inter-textuality between myth and tragedy shows the contrast and continuity between past and present : earlier Jason was supplicant to her  – Medea says: “When you were sent/ To master the fire-breathing bulls, yoke them and sow/ The deadly furrow, then I saved your life”. Now there is a recognition of reversal of these positions: (“My poor right hand, which you so often clasped! My knees/Which you then clung to!”)

   Jason, however, denies her any agency in her heroic exploits, by attributing her powers to Aphrodite. In his construction of Medea, therefore, he denies her power by reducing her to a mere instrument of Aphrodite’s will to favour Jason. Her heroic identity and role as mother come to a head at the tragic point when she speaks to her heart as a masculine, external force and the Self as mother. Thus, the chorus says, “God grant she strike her enemies and not her friends”, hoping she will not harm her philos once again. [Mention where she has done so before]

   As far as her helplessness at her banishment goes, she uses her actual helplessness to appeal to Creon to allow her to stay on, and then implement her plan to destroy the princess and Creon. She manipulates him (and at various points, the sympathetic chorus as well, with the effect of dramatic irony as the audience knows that they are credulously being taken in by her cunning) using their shared position as parents. The skillful use of rhetoric is another of her heroic qualities. Oratory was supposed to be a public, male quality which Medea has mastered and uses to her own advantage.

   For the Greeks, structures of family and kinship are integral to individual identity. Turning against ones’ philos is the Othering of oneself to ones’ own Self. Medea is marked by this liminal identity – she has killed her own brother before and been sent into exile, and now faces exile and kills her own children. In destroying her children, not only is she Othering herself from her identity as mother in the polis but also from the continuity of her identity into the future through her children, as family lines did not only extend horizontally in the present but also vertically in the past and future. By destroying her future, she closes off her avenues of mortal survival and steps into the realm of the divine. At this point, all communication between the chorus and her breaks down.

   Jason also constructs her as driven by passion instead of rationality. He construes her threats and rage as born of sex-jealousy, while she sees her art as that of cunning and deceit. While Jason is careful to represent himself as one who is wise and not swayed by passion, they both struggle to attribute the same set of qualities to the other – while Jason tries to construct femininity as characterized by emotion and uncontrollable drives, Medea also says of Jason that he is “consumed with craving for/Your newly won bride”. To convice Jason the next time, however, Medea acts out Jason’s construction of women as emotional and passionate to deceive him into thinking that she is truly as repentant as she seems to be. She gloats over her victory in terms of cleverness and cunning – a rational, heroic quality, saying: “He’s not so clever after all”. Rationality was a quality prized by the polis and upheld by the Law and civic systems. The oikos, the barbaric, as well as the heroic ideal, are associated more with the irrational. Both Jason and Medea clearly also privilege the first over the second. [In Medea’s case, this may not be an actual privileging, but her adopting Jason’s vocabulary]

   Another quality associated with women and epic heroes is also that of revenge as a motive force as against the pragmatism, rationality and stoicism of the culture of the city-state. Jason keeps on reiterating this aspect of Medea – that her actions are largely motivated by revenge. Jason sees his own decision to remarry driven not by lust but by expediency and considerations of the social security of his sons. Medea, however, speaks of her own actions in terms of justice – a clearly Greek value – and what turns out to be divine justice. But Jason insistently reads Medea actions and feelings solely as woman and barbarian – both essentialist categories which see her reactions as determined by her character and not circumstance, while his own are circumstantially opportunist.

   In terms of race as well, Medea is located as far on the horizon as is possible – to the east, the farthest that the senses can perceive and the mind can conceive. Because of her marginal position as woman and barbarian and now a “stateless exile”, she is associated with boundaries and crossings. She always stands on the border between two binaries – the most threatening position for the Greek sense of Self which functioned on clearly marked oppositional binaries. Thus she is associated with Goddesses who are worshipped at boundaries and thresholds like Artemis and Hecate. So central is this sense of liminality to her identity, that she worships Hecate at her hearth – at the centre of her home instead of at the crossing over from the polis to the oikos. [She also, however, invokes Thetis, the goddess of order and justice, and therefore one at the centre of the Greek worldview.]

   Tragedy is in some sense about the recognition of the Other amidst oneself, and the legitimate claims it makes on the Self. The Other also poses a serious threat to the Self, and the tolerance of a city-state towards deviance from the norm of the Self is also a measure of its power. The fact that Corinth must banish an individual on the apprehension that she will commit a crime, and Athens’ granting her refuge even after she has committed a crime is an indicator of their relative positions of power in the confederation of Greek city-states. In the play, Medea represents this Other and Jason the quintessential Greek man of the polis. In terms of her actions, she obfuscates the boundary between masculine and feminine, heroic and civic and in the blurring of distinctions between oikos and polis, Greek and Barbarian. 

17.5 / 25. Very good. While speaking of Medea’s invocation of Artemis, you could also mention that she is the goddess concerned with women and children (and with marriage and childbirth) and who is at the same time the goddess of boundaries. You could use this as a starting point for a discussion of tragedy as about the clash between nature and culture, and how for the Greeks, marriage and motherhood were the means of ‘civilizing’ (bringing into culture) the woman and her sexuality, which was otherwise associated with nature and even ‘wildness’; how the breakup of Medea’s marriage and her repudiation of motherhood, would thus be seen (within the norms of that culture) as her tragic return to an original ‘untamed’ state.


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