Euripides’ Medea: Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil (Spoiler Alert!)

By Karl Schudt, Seminar Host 

I hate Medea. It’s so good. I hate reading that play. If you haven’t read it, you should stop reading right now.  

 

Ok. If you are still here, I need not worry about ruining the play for you. Medea kills her children. It’s a terrible deed done off-stage, with plenty of dramatic tension. Will she do it? She won’t really do it! Oh. She did it.

These sorts of deeds are not unknown in the world. My local news occasionally runs stories of parents killing children. We usually dismiss these stories as evidence of psychiatric illness. No one could really do such a thing! No one sane, at least.

We put these acts away safely in the box marked “insanity.” Euripides won’t do that. He doesn’t use that explanation, and Medea isn’t insane. She’s rational. Terrifyingly rational!

I remember discussing Euripides with a member of my gym also named Karl. We do this sort of thing regularly at Chicago Strength and Conditioning. Karl and I were talking about the characters.

“They all have such good reasons for everything they do,” said I.

“And they do such horrible things!” said the other Karl.

This, for me, is the scariest part of the play. It would be easier if Medea were some inhuman monster, a vampire or some other ghoulish abomination. But she isn’t. She’s a wife and mother whose husband has found a newer, younger wife with better political connections.

“We women are the most beset by trials of any species that has breath or power of thought.” (line 230)

Medea gives a litany of the troubles of women, and it’s a compelling list. Women do not have as much freedom to choose a mate, they can’t leave if their mate is bad, they suffer the pangs of childbirth–all of this seems right. I find myself nodding and sympathetic.

Jason has ambitions, and Medea no longer fits these ambitions. She’s a barbarian woman, useful to Jason in his adventures, but not fit for polite Greek society. He’s contracted a marriage to the daughter of the king. It’s a sensible arrangement, and Jason is a reasonable character too. If Medea would only keep quiet and accept the new marriage, there would be money and status for all. Jason gloats: “Not bad, my long term planning?” (line 568) It’s just business, right? Nothing personal.

Medea, in fact, cannot argue with his coldly lateral plan. She merely retorts that if it is a good plan, he would have cleared it with her first-

“If you were not a filthy coward, you should have first persuaded me to give approval.” (line 586)

Perfectly rational-if Jason was so confident in the rightness of his plan, he would have had the confidence to try to convince his wife. Two rational people should be able to come to a rational solution, right?

But then she kills the kids.

When you look past the horror of it, the action makes sense. It hurts the person who has hurt Medea.

This is the genius of the play. Euripides doesn’t portray her as a monster but as an ordinary person. You might even know her. Perhaps you see her at the supermarket or at Little League. She’s ordinary, wronged, and murderous. It may take more than clear thinking to act correctly. Justice and the good may require more than rationality.

For me the play is very difficult to read, first because it is about the murder of children, but second, because it demystifies evil. Terrible deeds aren’t done by monsters, but by ordinary people. If she can go wrong, so can we. We had better be careful!

 

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