Study Guide

Medea Themes

By Euripides

  • Women and Femininity

    Medea sharply criticizes the male-dominated society of its time. Its protagonist is a radical anti-heroine who continues to inspire both admiration and fear. We sympathize with Medea's downtrodden state and applaud her strength and intelligence. However, her bloody and vengeful rebellion shocks and unsettles audiences even to this day. The play can be seen as a cautionary tale to oppressors as well as the oppressed.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. How can Medea be seen as symbol of feminine revolt?
    2. What are the major complaints Medea raises about the treatment of women?
    3. What hierarchy exists among the women in Medea?
    4. Is Medea still pertinent to the issues facing women today?

    Chew on This

    Medea is symbolic of the intelligent woman caged by patriarchy.

  • Revenge

    Medea's relentless pursuit of vengeance is legendary. She is driven by a passionate desire to right the wrongs done to her and sacrifices even her own children in the pursuit of satisfaction. Medea shows audiences the horror that can come when a person lets desire for revenge rule her life. Euripides's play helped pave the way for many later revenge tragedies, from the numerous Spanish revenge dramas to Shakespeare's Hamlet.

    Questions About Revenge

    1. Why does Medea think it's necessary to kill her sons to get revenge on Jason?
    2. How do you interpret the fact that Medea suffers no consequences for her revenge?
    3. What steps must Medea take in order to achieve her revenge?
    4. What's the difference between revenge and justice?

    Chew on This

    Medea is a cautionary tale on the horrors that revenge can cause.

    Medea's lust for revenge makes her an unsympathetic character.

  • Betrayal

    All the violence and terror in Medea is caused by Jason's betrayal of his wife Medea. Her sheer rage at his unfaithfulness drives her to commit horrific acts of bloody revenge. Ironically, Medea's fury at her husband's betrayal drives her to the use of trickery and manipulation, which are really just another form of betrayal. Medea shows how, when one person betrays another, all may be corrupted.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. In what ways can Medea's manipulations be seen as betrayal?
    2. Does Jason's betrayal justify Medea's revenge?
    3. Is Jason's second marriage really a betrayal at all? Why or why not?
    4. Could Medea's murder of her children be interpreted as a betrayal?

    Chew on This

    Jason's unfaithful behavior and lack of sensitivity towards Medea is symbolic of the overall unfair treatment of women.

    Jason never betrayed his family or Medea; he only acted in their best interest by marrying Glauke.

  • Exile

    Medea is laced throughout with the theme of exile. All the characters relate to the motif. Some, like Medea, have been banished from their homes; some are the ones doing the banishing. The theme of exile would have resonated strongly with Euripides's audience of ancient Athenians. Their city-state was their lives. The thought of being cut off from it and cast out into the wilderness would have been terrifying.

    Questions About Exile

    1. In what ways does Medea bring her banishment on herself?
    2. How is Medea in some ways responsible for Jason's exile from his home town of Iolcus?
    3. Is it wrong of Creon to banish Medea? Why or why not?
    4. How does Medea's exile from her homeland heighten the stakes surrounding her banishment?

    Chew on This

    Jason's betrayal of Medea is worsened by the fact that she forsook her father and homeland for love of him.

    Medea's banishment is her own fault, as her threats of Creon and his daughter are what cause it.

  • Foreignness and 'The Other'

    Ancient Greeks had a deep suspicion of foreigners, thinking of them all as "barbarians." With Medea, Euripides seems to confront this prejudice by choosing to honor a foreigner with the role of tragic heroine and by making her the most intelligent character in the play. However, the playwright also confirms many Greek stereotypes of foreigners by making Medea wild, overly passionate, and vengeful.

    Questions About Foreignness and 'The Other'

    1. Does Medea confirm or refute Greek prejudices toward foreigners?
    2. In what ways is Medea prejudiced against Greeks?
    3. How do Medea's foreign origins affect her social status?
    4. How can Medea be seen as a "typical Asian" in the eyes of the Greeks?

    Chew on This

    Medea defies Greek conceptions of uncultured foreigners by making its heroine the most intelligent character in the play.

    Medea confirms Greek notions of barbarous foreigners by depicting its heroine as violent and vengeful.

  • Marriage

    Medea is an extreme depiction of just how bad a marriage can go. It really doesn't get much worse than the marriage seen in this play. When Jason takes a new wife, Medea, his former wife takes revenge by killing four people, including their two sons. Indeed, the play doesn't exactly have a bright outlook on matrimony. In Medea the severing of a marriage releases the same destructive force as the sundered atom of a nuclear bomb.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. How were ancient Greek ideas of marriage different from modern concepts? How are they similar?
    2. What overall view of marriage does the play seem to take?
    3. Was Jason's second marriage truly a betrayal? Why or why not?
    4. What power dynamic was present in ancient Greek marriages?

    Chew on This

    Medea can be interpreted as a searing indictment of the institution of marriage.

    Euripides's two divorces are perhaps reflected in his cynical portrayal of marriage.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    Medea is symbolic of the clever woman imprisoned in a world of men. Her intelligence inspires both suspicion and cautious admiration. In the end, her cunning becomes her supreme weapon in her quest for revenge. None of her enemies stand a chance against her supreme intellect. Medea shows that, without a doubt, the greatest power lies in knowledge.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. What tactics does Medea use to manipulate those around her?
    2. How does Medea's intelligence make her dangerous?
    3. In what ways does Medea's superior intelligence ostracize her?
    4. How does Medea put her cunning to use in the play?

    Chew on This

    The community's mistrust of Medea is heightened by the fact she's smarter than everybody else.

    By depicting a foreigner as being smarter than all the Greek characters, Euripides defies Greek prejudice against foreigners.

  • Love

    Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, is not very well appreciated in Euripides's Medea. Everywhere her hand is seen, destruction swiftly follows. Whether the love be romantic, paternal, or maternal, it always leads to death and despair. Quite often the characters even go so far as to beg the goddess to spare them the pains that love can bring. Overall, Medea seems to present a rather cynical view of the tenderest of emotions.

    Questions About Love

    1. How does romantic love affect the action of the play?
    2. Do you think Jason ever loved Medea? Why or why not?
    3. What overall view of love does the play seem to take?
    4. In what ways does each character express paternal or maternal love?

    Chew on This

    Love is a force of destruction in Medea.

    Creon's sympathy towards Medea's sons, along with his love for his daughter, make him quite a sympathetic character.