Medea is the tragic heroine in a play of the same title by Euripides in 431 B.C. She is a pathetic sorceress who is vengeful of her heartbreaking fate with her husband who does not hesitate to leave her and their children for another woman, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. Medea, having done everything for her love of Jason, is scorched by her love for him and seeks to avenge her sorry fate. Love or obsession? Medea has both but more of the latter for Jason. Now she devises ways to hurt Jason. Now she is obsessed with avenging herself as the wronged wife to the extent of killing even her own children just to satisfy her goal of hurting her husband the most.
I shall murder my children, these children of mine…if die they must, I shall slay them, who gave them birth.(Euripides 207-213)
Aristotle in The Poetics introduced us to a loose outline of a set of standards for the poets to follow in order for them to be skillful in their craft. He explicated on the different kinds of poetry and what would each kind have as its ‘essential quality’, how a ‘good poem’ is structured, how to divide the poem into parts, and answered the possible criticisms related to the topics just mentioned.
This paper aims to evaluate whether Euripides’ Medea carries out the principles of writing ‘poetry’ as set by Aristotle in The Poetics.
Aristotle defined what poetry is in the first place. According to him, poetry is first of all a medium of imitation, a representative of life. By representing character, action, emotion or even ordinary events poetry can become imitative of life. Aristotle’s poetry includes epic poetry, tragic poetry, comedy, dithyrambic poetry and music (specifically of flute and lyre). These types of poetry differ in their medium, object and mode of imitation. Tragic poetry may have similar elements of an epic poetry but not vice versa because epic poetry may take days to finish its whole exposition for it is in the narrative form but tragic poetry, which is more favored by Aristotle between the two, may be digested in only just one sitting. Aristotle also uses imitation to differentiate between tragedy and comedy. In the former, poets reveal men as better than they are – hence the tragic ‘hero.’ It is in this representation of man as ‘better’ or of ‘higher morality’ that we ultimately find catharsis, the release at the end of a tragedy. In comedy, however, a poet presents man as worse than he is – plagued by some defect or ugliness which ultimately takes the reader into a satiric worldview. Comedy ultimately works in a similar way to tragedy, but with opposite effect: in a tragedy, we grieve over the fate of a man who must suffer for his flaw, perhaps touched by the possibility that we too might possess this flaw. But in a comedy, we laugh at the hero’s flaw, comforted by the fact that it is not ours.
Medea is a pathetic tragedy by Aristotle’s definition. To him tragedy is the highest dramatic form and must induce cathartic reversal of fortune (peripeteia). Reversal and recognition is used to achieve catharsis, a form of redemption for the tragic hero as well as for the audience who are moved to pity and fear. A good drama only has two major elements: the complication and the denouement. These twofold movements follow his principle of poetic unity. The main character of a tragedy may not really by a just or morally upright person, a paragon of moral virtues felled by adversity but rather a character with a major defect in his character causing his eventual downfall. Aristotle calls his main character as the tragic hero and his major defect as the tragic flaw. Although Medea is a female character, she is the tragic heroine of the play whose tragic flaw is here pride so that she is unable to accept Jason’s infidelity. She abandoned the corresponding gender roles of ancient Grecian society when she embraced the crimes of passion that she had done. With the crimes that she had done, she altered society’s perception of womanly virtues or roles as she exhibited both “male” and “female” tendencies though she did not totally abandon her womanly qualities. Notably, in ancient Greek society it is uncommon for the woman to be the murderer. However, Medea did just that. Worse is that she did not display any shade of guilt over the murders of her brother, her husband’s mistress and the king of Corinth, and even worst is her plan to commit infanticide. All these for her love to hurt Jason. That love conquers all is true for Medea, at least literally, as she did everything, including fleeing her home as she and Jason were being pursued by her father’s minions after she helped Jason get the Golden Fleece against her father’s wishes, killing her brother and scattering his body all over in order to buy time so she and Jason could finally escape, and helping Jason’s father get well. All these for her love of Jason. Unfortunately, Jason did not remain faithful to her for long. Thus, her love turned to obsession to hurt the people who have wronged her and eventually sacrifice her own children and make them instruments in hurting Jason the most, for what can hurt a father more than see his child’s demise and not being able to do something to help out his child, and Medea successfully carried out her plans of revenge. The gruesome act of murdering her own children contradicts the established belief that a woman is a giver of life and the man as the opposite. What is even more unacceptable is the fact that she is the children’s mother. Parricide was frowned upon before in ancient Grecian society as much as it is today. Medea is one proud woman, and pride is a typical “male” characteristic. She was willing to give up everything and do anything just to avenge herself and her reputation. It is a common belief that a woman’s weakness is her children. However, this notion is inapplicable to Medea, for her pride prevailed over her maternal instincts.
Good-bye to my former plans…I cannot do it. And yet what is the matter with me? Do I want to make myself a laughingstock by letting my enemies off scot-free? I must go through with it…I do realize how terrible is the crime I am about , but passion overrules my resolutions …It’s worth the grief…You could not hope, nor your princess either, to scorn my love, make a fool of me and live happily ever after. (Euripides 212-219)
In another section of The Poetics, Aristotle highlights the primacy of action as the key to an artist’s imitation. Indeed, because action initiates a chain of causal events, it is the single most important driver of plot. Though an astute reader might ask ‘But what causes action?’, Aristotle quickly responds by arguing that ultimately the things that drive action – character and thought – aren’t nearly as important as the action itself. For plot is the simple arrangement of incidents in causal chains, and in this plot alone we can find satisfaction, even if it is not clearly motivated with character or thought.
‘Unity’ refers to the ability of the best plots to revolve around an axis, a theme which ‘unites’ all the action. A unified drama will have a ‘spine’ – a central idea which motivates all the action, characters, thoughts, diction, and spectacle.
‘Determinate structure’ follows from unity — if the action revolves around a central spine, it creates a full skeleton of plot. But remove one bone, and the entire body of action becomes unstable, since every bone radiates from the central spine and is thus fully necessary. The test, Aristotle says, is to see if there is any part of the plot which can be removed without missing it. If this is true, then it must be excised.
With ‘universality’, Aristotle simply states that a character must act in accordance with human nature – either through probability, i.e. what ‘most of us’ would do, or through necessity, i.e. what we are ‘forced’ to do. An action cannot seem arbitrary – otherwise not only will it violate the determinate structure and break unity, but it will also irritate an audience that sees no basis for the action in human behavior.
Initially, Medea opens with Medea mourning over Jason’s betrayal. At the start of the play, Medea is a mess. Her husband, Jason, has married King Creon’s royal daughter. Medea’s slaves, the Nurse and the Tutor, worry about what terrible things their mistress might do in retaliation. The conflict is presented when Medea gets banished and swears revenge. Creon shows up and tells Medea that she and her two sons are banished. Medea’s been talking too much trash about the marriage, and the King is afraid she might do something drastic, like kill everybody. Our heroine pulls on Creon’s heartstrings and convinces him to let her stay one more day. As soon as the King is out of earshot, Medea swears to murder him and his daughter.
Aegeus promises protection, which allows Medea to continue her revenge plot. Medea tricks Aegeus, King of Athens, into offering her sanctuary. Now she has somewhere to run after she does her killings. She manipulates Jason and her sons into taking the Princess some cursed gifts. As a result, both Creon and his daughter are burned alive by magic flame. The drama climaxes when Medea kills her sons. After savoring all the gory details of the royal family’s incineration, Medea proceeds to the final, and most painful, step in her plan. In order to wound Jason as deeply as she possibly can, she takes their two sons inside and kills them with a sword. The drama gains more momentum as Jason batters doors. Jason shows up too late to save his sons. He batters on the door of the house trying to get inside. Before he can get in, Medea erupts into the sky in her private dragon chariot. She mocks Jason from the sky with her two boys’ corpses beside her. The play resolves as Jason and Medea have one last debate. Medea and Jason have their last bitter shouting match. They both blame each other for what has happened. Jason begs to bury his sons or at least to touch them one last time. Medea refuses. The story concludes when Medea escapes and Jason is devastated. Medea flies ways in her dragon drawn chariot. Her revenge is complete. Her husband is emotionally destroyed.
Medea’s universality lies in its realistic characterization. When faced with the same battles, obstacles dilemma people would naturally retaliate and avenge his/her wounded pride and would even do extreme measures just to get even although it may not really be to the same extent as Medea’s act of infanticide. She eventually embodies all the betrayed women and Jason is any unfaithful husband.
Next, Aristotle addresses what to him are the elements of the ‘best’ tragic plots. The best plots hold a complex plan – thus using reversal and recognition to imitate actions which elicit fear or pity in the audience. And yet, a good tragedy does not simply present the spectacle of a virtuous man suffering adversity, for that is merely ‘shocking’ and does not make us empathize with the hero.
If pity is aroused by ‘unmerited misfortune,’ and fear by ‘the misfortune of a man like ourselves,’ then a good tragedy presents a character whose downfall comes because of a flaw in him – ‘an error or frailty.’ Though he is renowned, prosperous, even seemingly virtuous, there is a crack in his armor that will inevitably be found – and will be the source of his demise.
Fear and pity truly can only be elicited through this tragic flaw, like Achilles’ heel, in the hero which in turn is motivated by the ‘unity’ or spine of the entire piece. Some poets, says Aristotle, use spectacle to motivate fear and pity, but this ultimately does not resonate for long, since spectacle produces a different type of ‘pleasure’ than the one requisite for tragedy. Only pity and fear can produce true ‘purgation’ or emotions, rather than a spectacle of false catharsis.
It has already been established the Medea’s tragic flaw is her pride. It is her pride that made her actions monstrous. With the audience realizing the possibility of being their own Medea is moved to fear of the probability of experiencing the same fate as hers.
Another element that would make for a good tragedy is that the incidents must involve people who are dear each other, like Medea killing her own children.
The recognition applicable in this drama is the sixth type described by Aristotle which is recognition by discovery naturally made in the course of the plot arising from the incidents themselves. This happened when Jason married the princess of Corinth to replace Medea in her heart.
In conclusion, Medea has the qualifications set by Aristotle in The Poetics for a good tragedy. Medea is the tragic heroine destroyed by her pride and inability to accept separation from her husband whom she had sacrificed everything for. In the end, the audience is moved to pity and fear eventually leading to a cathartic experience.
Coleridge, E. P. (Trans.) Medea by Euripides.http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/e/euripides/medea/