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Justice and Natural Law Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Exile Theme Icon
Truth vs. Rhetoric Theme Icon
The Roles of Men and Women Theme Icon
Justice and Natural Law Theme Icon
Duty Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Medea, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Justice and Natural Law Theme Icon

Natural Law—the idea of a moral code integral to and inseparable from whatever it is that makes us human—is tested in the events of Medea when characters make decisions contrary to their nature, when Jason, a husband, abandons his wife or when Medea, a mother, murders her children. Medea's decision to kill her children, even as a form of retribution, was as shocking to the ancient Athenians as it is to us today. It was then, as it is now, considered a violation of Natural Law. What is less intuitive for the modern reader is that Medea's being a "wild" woman from an uncivilized (i.e. non-Greek) country, rather than a Greek citizen of a city-state, suggests, at least for the other characters in the play, that she is volatile and poised to do something "unnatural." It is Natural Law as well that governs The Roles of Men and Women.

The purpose of justice in the play is to restore the natural balance disrupted by Jason's violation of Natural Law, his "unmanliness," in betraying his marriage vows to Medea. Creon, too, is guilty of injustice. His decision to exile Medea is doubly, perhaps even trebly, unjust. First, it is unjust for him to disrupt Natural Law by ignoring, when giving his daughter to Jason in marriage, the simple fact that Jason is already married. Second, he punishes Medea for his own violation of the natural order. Then based on hearsay and fear, he rhetorically justifies his unjust action by suggesting that Medea might harm his daughter: the crime he fears has not been committed. His ultimately being right (correct) does not make the original decision just (fair). There is an overarching sense in the play that Medea isn't seeking justice in response to Jason and Creon's crimes alone, but, rather, is seeking to correct one of Nature's fundamental injustices—the unequal suffering allotted to women and men. And yet, in seeking this justice, Medea commits the most violent act against Natural Law: she kills her own children. And in that action the entire idea of Natural Law becomes more complicated, as Medea's effort to seek justice leads to the deepest injustice, the inconsistencies of Natural Law and the justice required to maintain is revealed as problematic and irresolvable.

Justice and Natural Law ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Justice and Natural Law appears in each section of Medea. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Justice and Natural Law Quotes in Medea

Below you will find the important quotes in Medea related to the theme of Justice and Natural Law.
Lines 1-100 Quotes

I hear the first danger sign,
Her wailing. It is a cloud she will ignite
To flame as her fury grows.

Related Characters: The Nurse (speaker), Medea
Page Number: 97-99
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Nurse describes the cry that Medea gives from offstage. Medea is furious with the way Jason has been treating her--he doesn't love her anymore, and plans to exile her from the kingdom, effectively turning her into a wandering beggar for the rest of her life (and all this after she has given up everything for him, and basically achieved his "quest" for him). Strangely, the fact that we can't see Medea, only hear her, makes her more frightening and intimidating--Medea's grief, one could say, is bigger and scarier than Medea herself.

The Nurse uses an interesting metaphor to describe Medea's anger--she compares it to flame. Flame is one of the key images of the play, and as the Nurse suggests, it here symbolizes Medea's anger and hatred for Jason. Firee, we should bear in mind, is hot, lethal, and--crucially-difficult to control. Thus, the Nurse's speech foreshadows the way Medea's plot for revenge will slowly engulf everyone in the play, whether guilty or innocent.


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Lines 301-400 Quotes

Do you think I would have fawned on Creon
Except to win some profit by my schemes?
I would not have spoken to him – nor touched him.
But he is such a fool that,
When he could have arrested all my plans
By banishing me, he has allowed me
To stay this one day, in which three of my enemies
I'll send to their death…

Related Characters: Medea (speaker), Creon
Page Number: 355-362
Explanation and Analysis:

Medea has just been granted the right to stay in Corinth for one more day. Creon had previously banished her, but he's reconsidered and allowed Medea to stick around a little longer. As Medea acknowledges here, Creon has made a colossal mistake. Creon has provoked Medea, then given Medea access to the resources of his kingdom.

The scene is darkly funny: Medea has just succeeded in convincing Creon to give her some more time in Corinth, and in response she makes fun of Creon for giving her more time in Corinth. Medea proves herself to be a far better strategist and politician than Creon. She knows how to deceive other people, giving herself the greatest advantage possible.

The direct way is best, the one at which
I am most skilled: I'll poison them.

Related Characters: Medea (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Poisoned Crown
Page Number: 372-373
Explanation and Analysis:

Medea here gets the idea to kill Jason's new wife using poison. Interestingly, Medea claims that poison is the appropriate weapon to use to enact her revenge--it's the weapon that she's most adept at using.

Poison isn't just Medea's favorite weapon--it's the weapon that mirrors her personality most closely (and is often portrayed as a "female" way of killing someone). Poison must be used skillfully and subtly, and if she's smart, a murderer can use poison to avoid detection altogether. Furthermore, poisoning is often a slow, painful way to die--a reminder of Medea's wrath and cruelty. Finally, poison is a pretty accurate symbol for Medea's own fury. Like a poison victim, Medea suffers from a constant, burning rage: a rage that causes pain both to the people around her and to Medea herself.

…But we are women too:
We may not have the means to achieve nobility;
Our cleverness lies in crafting evil.

Related Characters: Medea (speaker)
Page Number: 396-398
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Medea makes a proto-feminist point. She argues that women (she's speaking to the all-female Chorus) are capable of achieving greatness through evil and evil alone. Women, we've already been told, are stronger and tougher than men. Here, Medea adds that women should use their strength and toughness to enact revenge and hurt the men who have wronged them.

Medea's point isn't exactly PC by modern standards--she's essentially saying that women are just as dangerous and evil as certain sexists like to claim that they are. Medea, we could say, just echoes sexist tropes instead of challenging them: she lives up to the stereotype that all women are clever and powerful only when it comes to undermining and destroying men.

Sacred rivers flow uphill:
Justice and all things are reversed.

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker)
Page Number: 399-400
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, the Chorus of women cries out that the natural order of the universe is being reversed. The Chorus is referring to Medea's plot to enact revenge on Jason and Creon--by acting with strength and furor, Medea is challenging the expectation that all women should be passive and demure.

The Chorus's speech suggests the play's assumptions about women's nature. Euripides implies that women's inferiority to men is a law of nature, as basic as the laws of gravity. Medea is thus violating natural law by meddling with Creon and Jason's lives.

There's another, more radical interpretation of the Chorus's speech. Some critics have argued that Medea is only reacting to Jason and Creon's behavior--behavior that is itself cruel, immoral, and a violation of natural law. So in this way, Medea is balancing out Jason's injustice with injustice of her own, punishing her husband for reversing injustice and ultimately restoring the natural order of things.

Lines 901-1000 Quotes

I'll send her gifts, the finest in the world:
A finely woven dress and crown of beaten gold.
The boys will take them.

Related Characters: Medea (speaker), The Children, The Princess
Related Symbols: The Poisoned Crown
Page Number: 916-918
Explanation and Analysis:

Even while she's still speaking to Jason, Medea begins to plan her revenge. She decides to send the Princess (Jason's new wife) a beautiful set of gifts, including a dress and a crown, delivered by her own children--presumably so that the gifts will seem innocent, and the Princess will accept them. But the crown, little does the Princess (or Jason) know, will be enchanted to burst into flames as soon as the Princess puts it on her head, and the dress will likewise be poisoned.

In all, the passage is interesting because it shows that Medea is aware that her revenge on Jason will hurt other people who aren't necessarily guilty at all. Indeed, Medea has already planned to kill pretty much everyone except Jason--the best revenge, she seems to feel, is for him to survive amidst devastation, rather than to enjoy the "peace" of death. In her excessive fury and longing to get revenge on Jason, Medea is going to kill innocent people. Medea's fury is like a fire--once it breaks out, it's impossible to control or focus.

Lines 1001-1100 Quotes

All for nothing tortured myself with toil and care,
And bore the cruel pains when you were born.
Once I placed great hopes in you, that you
Would care for my old age and yourselves
Shroud my corpse. That would make me envied.
Now that sweet thought is no more. Parted from you
I shall lead a grim and painful life.

Related Characters: Medea (speaker), The Children
Page Number: 1000-1006
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important passage, Medea has some second thoughts about killing her children. Medea sincerely loves her children: she's hoped that when she's an old woman, they'll care for her and continue to show love for her. But now, Medea's fury with Jason has led her to plot her children's deaths--she knows that killing her offspring is the best way to infuriate Jason.

Ironically, although the play begins with Jason "breaking up the family," it ends with Medea further destroying her family, murdering two innocent children. Medea's evident love and affection for her children reinforces her hatred for Jason--any mother who's willing to kill her own kids must really hate her ex-husband. At the same time, the passage conveys both Medea's monstrousness and her humanity. Even though she's planning to kill her kids (who are totally innocent of Jason's crimes), she actually loves them more than Jason does, and thus is arguably hurting herself more than she's hurting Jason.

Lines 1301-1400 Quotes

Hateful creature! O most detestable of women
To the gods and me and all the human race!
You could bring yourself to put to the sword
The children of your womb. You have taken my sons
and destroyed me.

Related Characters: Jason (speaker), Medea, The Children
Page Number: 1302-1306
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jason condemns Medea for killing their two children. Medea has personally murdered her children with a sword, even as they cry out for help, and she's also killed both Jason's new wife and his father-in-law. Even more sadistically, she's arranged for Jason to survive her revenge plot. Instead of killing Jason, Medea forces him to face the crushing truth: his entire family and life is in ruins.

Medea's revenge balances out Jason's cruelty to Medea, and yet it also exceeds Jason's cruelty by a mile. (This reflects a common idea in Greek tragedy, in which the vengeance often outweighs the original crime, leading to an endless cycle of violence.) As the play began, Medea was going through the agony of leaving her family behind forever--now, Jason is going through the same agony. And yet Medea also eliminates Jason's chances for a glorious future: without sons or a wife, Jason will be unable to produce heirs, meaning that his lineage and his reputation end with his own life. Jason's humiliation is complete, all thanks to Medea.

No Greek woman
Could ever have brought herself to do that.
Yet I rejected them to marry you, a wife
Who brought me enmity and death,
A lioness, not human…

Related Characters: Jason (speaker), Medea
Page Number: 1318-1322
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jason--who's gotten the news that his wife has been burned alive and his children have been murdered, too--condemns Medea. Interestingly, Jason accuses Medea of being wicked because she's not a Greek woman. Jason assumes that Greeks are calm, controlled, and peaceful; only foreigners like Medea would be capable of such savage acts of revenge.

It's hard to tell if Euripides agrees with Jason or not. Throughout the play, Medea has been portrayed as an exotic, mysterious woman, full of magic, confidence, and rage. Furthermore, her decision to kill her own children seems to reflect her outsider status in Greece: she uses her foreign magic to achieve her ends.

And yet Jason misses the point. Medea didn't kill her children because she's from another country--she killed the children because she was provoked and humiliated into revenge. Jason, hypocritical as always, condemns Medea but refuses to acknowledge his own cruelty and insensitivity. The play certainly doesn't excuse Medea for her acts of murder, but it does encourage us to question Jason's shallow monologue. Medea was a stranger in a strange land, but if Jason had been kinder to her, she would never have lashed out against Jason and his country. (Furthermore, it's important to remember other, even more monstrous acts committed by "true" Greeks--like Atreus killing his brother's children and serving them to him as food, for example.)