Class discussion about Medea raised some interesting points which hadn’t occurred to me on my first two readings of the text where I focused mainly on gender and the division between revenge and justice. Specifically some inquiries related to place were raised that I thought worth noting for future reference.
Something I had given very little thought to when reading the text was the whole notion of “othering” that Medea embodies. Not only is she from “away” (dark, Asian, implied to be from a barbaric place) – but the feeble excuse that Jason uses for his marriage to Glauce is that by marrying Corinth royalty, he will cement a place for himself, his children (and by extension Medea) in a city where they are otherwise foreigners. Medea is driven to murder at the point where the King exiles her – his fear stoked as much by her foreign origins as her threats. Medea, barely settled in a strange land, living on the edge of the city where her husband has abandoned her, is pushed once again into landlessness.
And of course, she can’t go home because she has murdered her brother and betrayed her father. More than once Medea reviles Jason for the position he has put her in – barred permanently from the land of her birth, she will never again call a land “home”. In Ancient Greece (and really, many parts of the world today) this would be a truly pitiable state – for we are defined by our people and the customs to which we are born. Not only is Medea feared because she is believed to be a witch, but because her habits come from elsewhere and she has knowledge that the people of Corinth do not (herbal medicines and poisons both demonstrated in the text of the play). In her own land she would be revered as the daughter of royalty, but under the spell of the God Eros she has given it up for Jason. This causes a deep psychic rupture – is it any wonder that she is distraught by it? To lose one’s homeland is to grieve deeply.
Much is also made of oaths in the play – that Jason’s punishment is somehow warranted because he has broken an oath to the Gods to stay faithful to Medea. As our prof pointed out – we no longer make oaths when we marry, but contracts – but there are still some times that we do make oaths even in our modern context. What is it that the oath implies? Belonging, essentially. We make an oath to an institution when we wish to be included within it and are willing to adhere to and emulate the collective values of that institution. When Jason breaks his oath, he is rejecting the power and will of the Gods and is in essence suggesting that he sees himself outside or above his culture. This demonstrates profound hubris, and in Greek mythology hubris pretty much always gets punished severely.
The question which I haven’t resolved even now is whether Medea remains a somewhat sympathetic figure even though she commits the most unspeakable crime of our human society – filicide. Jason has left her in an untenable spot: landless, unable to provide for her children, and certain that if she leaves them behind in his care that his new wife will have them dispensed with (see the wicked step-mother plot in one of its earliest incarnations) or else they will be treated cruelly. Does she do them a service to end their potential suffering as landless migrants – the suffering that so enrages her? For as much as Jason believes that her anger is rooted in her sexual passion for him, it is clear in her language that she is experiencing much more profound loss than a husband. Her family, her identity, her homeland all float in the broken oath of Jason – her actions a desperate maneuver even the balance so that she can be released to something greater.