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The Roles of Men and Women Theme Analysis

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

The events of Medea take place in a male-dominated society, a society that allows Jason and Creon to casually and brutally shunt Medea aside. The play is an exploration of the roles of men and women, both actual and ideal, but it is not necessarily an argument for sexual equality. Creon and Jason find Medea's cleverness more dangerous and frightening because she is woman. "A sharp tempered woman…" Creon says, "Is easier to deal with than the clever type who holds her tongue." The chorus, too, feels it can offer Medea advice on what behavior best suits a woman. "Suppose your man gives honor to another woman's bed," it says. "It often happens. Don't be hurt./ God will be your friend in this."

Everyone, it seems, has a different opinion on what a good woman or a good man is and does. Jason says it would be better if men "got their children in some other way" and women didn't exist at all. "Then," he says, "life would have been good." Medea herself frequently weighs in on the subject, "We women are the most unfortunate creatures." Despite the plethora of opinions, many of them contradictory, the question isn't necessarily resolved in the play. Jason insists Medea is "free to keep telling everyone [he is] a worthless man"—not a difficult opinion for him to hold, given the comfort of his new position as Creon's son-in-law and member of the royal household. Medea promptly assures him that he is a "coward." She names him such in "bitterest reproach for [his] lack of manliness." The play is imbued with a sense that neither men nor women are doing as they should, neither are behaving as they ought, and, perhaps more importantly, that if they were, the tragedy might have been averted.

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The Roles of Men and Women Quotes in Medea

Below you will find the important quotes in Medea related to the theme of The Roles of Men and Women.
Lines 1-100 Quotes

The people here are well disposed to [Medea],
An exile and Jasons's all obedient wife:
That's the best way for a woman to keep safe –
Not to cross her husband.
But now her deepest love is sick, all turns to hate.

Related Characters: The Nurse (speaker), Medea, Jason
Page Number: 11-15
Explanation and Analysis:

The Nurse provides the important expository information about Medea that we need to understand and enjoy the play. Medea was a princess in her native land, but when the hero Jason came to her kingdom, she betrayed her own family due to her mad love for Jason. Medea used her magic to help Jason succeed in his quest--then, she traveled back to Jason's homeland to be his wife.

But now, the Nurse confirms, there's trouble in paradise. Medea has no friends or well-wishers in her new home--on the contrary, everybody hates her for being a foreigner (the Greeks considered anyone non-Greek to basically be a barbarian). Medea has essentially thrown all her eggs in one basket--Jason. And now, Jason (supposedly a great hero) has betrayed Medea. The Nurse's lines set in motion the events of the plot--furious with Jason, Medea will enact a savage revenge.


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Lines 101-200 Quotes

The middle course is best in name
And practice, the best policy by far.
Excess brings no benefit to us,
Only greater disasters on a house,
When God is angry.

Related Characters: The Nurse (speaker)
Page Number: 116-120
Explanation and Analysis:

Medea angrily tells the Nurse that she wishes she could murder her children to enact revenge on her husband, Jason. The Nurse, frightened by Medea's irrational fury, tells Medea that she shouldn't be so extreme in her thinking--the "middle course," as she insists here, is always the best way.

The Nurse is, in essence, telling Medea to be calm, collected, and self-controlled in her behavior and thinking. There is a long tradition in classical Greek philosophy of celebrating balance and moderation in one's behavior--one thinks of Aristotle's famous "doctrine of the mean," which argues that the "average" behavior is nearly always the best. In such a way, Medea's inability to be moderate--to control her behavior and thought--is the surest mark of her status as a foreigner in a Greek kingdom.

Tell us, Nurse. At the gate I heard [Medea]
Crying inside the house.
I don't like to see the family suffering.
I sympathize with them.

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Medea, The Nurse
Page Number: 123-126
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moment, the Nurse interacts with one of the key "characters" in the play, the Chorus. The Chorus, a traditional Greek theatrical device, is usually a group of singers and actors who interact with the characters in the play and provide commentary and emotional feedback for the action. Here, for example, the Chorus (which is described as a group of women from Corinth) shares the Nurse's sympathy for Medea, as well as the Nurse's fear for Medea's state of mind.

It's interesting that the characters we meet onstage are, for the most part, sympathetic to Medea, considering that they say that the entire kingdom hates Medea. The key word in this passage is "sympathize." In spite of Medea's foreignness and exotic status in the kingdom, it's possible to feel for her suffering--to understand her sadness. In no small part, it's suggested, the characters feel for Medea because they're women--they know what it's like to be abandoned by an arrogant man, and to be generally subdued by a patriarchal, oppressive society.

Lines 201-300 Quotes

My husband has turned out to be the most despicable of men.
Of all the creatures that have life and reason
We women have the worst lot.

Related Characters: Medea (speaker), Jason
Page Number: 218-220
Explanation and Analysis:

Medea has often been interpreted as an early feminist hero, and this passage goes a long way toward explaining why. Medea knows full-well that she has a bad lot in life: she was born a woman, meaning that she can't vote, own property, or control her own marriages. She's seen as property by most of the world. Jason, for instance, has no qualms about dumping her overnight, because he doesn't respect her as a human being--despite the fact that she's a powerful, semi-divine figure, and has given up everything for his sake. In short, Medea recognizes that through no fault of her own, she's been mistreated all her life. (Notice also that Medea is addressing the Chorus of women--she's commiserating with other females.)

But does the passage necessarily mean that Euripides shares Medea's point of view? While it's common for modern critics to interpret Medea through a feminist lens, it's likely that Euripides wasn't really critiquing his culture's idea that women are inferior to men. The play certainly seems to believe that Jason behaves unfairly toward his wife, thus justifying her disrespect--but it doesn't follow that women are equal to men.

A woman, coming to new ways and laws,
Needs to be a clairvoyant – she can't find out at home,
What sort of man will share her bed.
If we work at it, and our husband is content
Beneath the marriage yoke,
Life can be enviable. If not, better to be dead.

Related Characters: Medea (speaker)
Page Number: 228-233
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Medea paints a dark picture of marriage. A woman, she explains, must necessarily get married to a man when she's of the right age (i.e., really young by modern standards). A woman doesn't have much say in what kind of man she's marrying; usually, the decision is made by the woman's family. In other words, the woman needs to be "clairvoyant" about what kind of man she's going to spend her life with.

Whether the marriage is good or bad, a woman has the wearying task of pleasing her husband at all times. Her only hope is to make her husband happy--otherwise, he'll make her life hell (since he essentially "owns" her). And even if the husband is a good, just man, he still exercises total power over his wife, according to Greek law. In short, marriage is a frightening, unjust institution that punishes women simply for being women. Medea, as a foreigner in Greece, is uniquely capable of seeing marriage for what it really is.

The fools! I would rather fight three times
In war, than go through childbirth once!

Related Characters: Medea (speaker)
Page Number: 240-241
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Medea makes a rather persuasive argument for why women are braver and stronger than men. Men like to believe that they're tougher than women because they know how to fight and go to battle. But battle, Medea claims, is actually easier and safer than giving birth to a child--something that almost all women (of the time) go through.

Medea has a point, especially when one considers the time when Euripides was writing. Women faced the very real possibility of dying in childbirth, and didn't have access to strong painkillers--giving birth to a child was tremendously dangerous and painful, and the odds of surviving may have even been worse than the odds of surviving a battle.

Medea's monologue reinforces the injustice of Jason's society--a society that belittles women and treats them disrespectfully. All woman, Medea insists, are worthy of respect on account of their biological power (i.e., the power to give birth to life). Ironically, though, Medea also confirms her status as an anomaly among women--perhaps because she's a foreigner, she's uniquely capable of seeing the plain truth about women in Greek society. Furthermore, she's a woman who wields powerful magic, and also has experience with fighting herself--she killed her own brother for Jason's sake. Thus she can speak as both a mother and a warrior, and can offer a unique perspective on which role requires more bravery.

Medea, scowling there with fury at your husband!
I have given orders that you should leave the country:
Take your two sons and go, into exile. No delay!

Related Characters: Creon (speaker), Medea, Jason
Page Number: 259-261
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we're introduced to Creon, who tells Medea that she's henceforth banished from the kingdom. It's interesting that Creon allows Medea to leave the kingdom with her children (the children she had with Jason). Jason seems to feel no love or affection for his own offspring--since he's divorcing Medea, he apparently believes that he has to say goodbye to his kids, as well.

Creon is an important character in the novel, because he embodies the corrupt authority of Corinthian (Greek) society. Creon shows no sympathy for Medea, despite the fact that he's destroying her life by banishing her, and through no fault of her own. In short, Creon's actions in this passage reinforce the harsh, selfish nature of patriarchal Corinthian society when it comes to foreigners and women--Creon is utterly unsympathetic to Medea or her children's feelings.

Lines 301-400 Quotes

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.

Lines 401-500 Quotes

You vile coward! Yes, I can call you that,
The worst name that I know for your unmanliness!

Related Characters: Medea (speaker), Jason
Page Number: 444-445
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Medea says everything she's been wanting to say to Jason. She accuses him of being a coward and "unmanly"--quite the accusation to level against a legendary Greek hero.

It's hard to deny that Medea has a point. Jason only succeeded in obtaining the legendary Golden Fleece because Medea did almost all the hard work for him. She used magic to help him fight off his enemies and lead him to victory. Now, Jason--always ungrateful--is banishing Medea, almost as if he's forgotten the help she gave him.

Jason's "unmanliness," then, doesn't consist of his weakness or his dependence on Medea. Medea doesn't have a problem with helping Jason become a hero--as long as he shows his gratitude to her. Jason becomes "unmanly" in the instant that he betrays and turns his back on Medea--effectively denying that she helped him become great.

Zeus, you granted men sure signs to tell
When gold is counterfeit. But when we need to tell
Which men are false, why do our bodies bear no stamp
To show our worth?

Related Characters: Medea (speaker)
Page Number: 495-498
Explanation and Analysis:

Medea prays to Zeus, wondering why Zeus doesn't create human beings with a visible sign of whether or not they're good, trustworthy people. Medea has just been fully rejected by Jason, her former husband. At one point, Medea thought of Jason as a hero, a good man, and a loving husband--but now she sees him for the lying hypocrite he really is.

In other words, the passage sums up Medea's frustration with the challenges of love and courtship. Medea fell in love with Jason during the course of his quest to find the Golden Fleece, and it wasn't until much later that Medea saw Jason's "true colors." By the same token, Medea's speech reflects the challenges of the marriage process in ancient Greece. Women married men after knowing them for a very short amount of time; sometimes, their marriages turned nasty long after it was too late to find someone else. 

Lines 501-600 Quotes

As for your spiteful words about my marriage with the princess,
I'll show that what I've done is wise and prudent;
And I've acted out of love for you
And for my sons…

Related Characters: Jason (speaker), Medea, The Princess
Page Number: 524-527
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Jason shows himself to be a smooth operator and a generally slimy, hypocritical person. He argues to Medea that he's divorced her and married a new woman because he loves Medea and wants her to be happy. Jason goes on to argue that he's remarried because his new bride is a princess. By marrying the princess, Jason suggests, he'll be able to provide for Medea and their two children, improving everyone's life.

Jason's argument is laughable and contradictory (he's obviously left Medea because he's looking out for his own happiness and prosperity, not his family's). It's even possible that Jason himself believes his own lies--he's so self-centered and confident in himself that he doesn't have any real respect for Medea or their children.

Jason, you have put a fine gloss on your words.
But – I may not be wise to say this – I think
You've acted wrongly: you have betrayed your wife.

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Medea, Jason
Page Number: 553-555
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Chorus accuses Jason of being a good public speaker but a bad husband. Jason has just finished a long speech in which he argues that he's abandoned Medea for her own good. The speech is well-delivered, but hypocritical and full of contradictions. The Chorus's interpretation of Jason's monologue, then, is spot-on: Jason speaks well but behaves poorly. The Chorus arrives at a blunt point: Jason has betrayed his wife, end of story.

It's interesting that the Chorus makes a distinction between words and actions, between appearance and reality. Jason, it's suggested, is better at "seeming" to do the right thing than he is at actually doing the right thing. More subtly, the Chorus implies that Jason isn't really much of a warrior or a hero--he's succeeded thanks to his ability to woo and seduce other people. In this sense, the Chorus's speech belittles Jason and mocks him for his delusions of machismo and heroism.

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.)