Critical analysis of Medea (part 3)

If Medea had been brought to justice, as is a convention in many Revenge Tragedies, the strength of Euripides’ statement to the audience would have been weakened. He wanted them to remember that these destructive, primitive forces are within all our natures and society can be destroyed if we are not aware of and prepared to respect the danger these forces represent.

Part of the wonder of the play is the fact that despite Medea’s monstrosity, her spell over us is as strong as the hold she has on the Chorus. Her revenge becomes our fantasy, and the depth of her rage usually has some echo, however uncomfortable, in us.

From the ancient Greek world to the present day, revenge tragedies have featured scenes of atrocity and punishment. Such brutal actions would appear to lose all sense of the responders sympathy for the avenger. However, revenge is linked with reason; the punishment is always somewhat justifiable, as it is not without strong motive. Violent engagements are thus often used to illustrate essential truths and philosophical debates about the nature of mankind, so the audience is left with an intellectual as well as an emotional connection with the action.

So what can we make of Medea, where every death comes about through Medea’s unchecked rage? Where many deaths are undeserved, and terrifyingly brutal, even by the standards of Greek tragedy? Where we nonetheless watch with fascination, and even satisfaction, as Medea coldly destroys her enemies and children, one by one, until she has nothing left? Where the Chorus watches but does not interfere, although Euripides makes sure to remind us that they could? We are left the final tableau of the barbarian sorceress, exultant and destroyed at the same time, having achieved her final victory over her enemies only at the cost of her children’s lives. Medea establishes the Euripidean universe, one in which heroism is rare and suffering falls on the innocent and the guilty with equal brutality. Medea’s rage, unchecked and unchanged, carries us from the opening of the play to its final horrific moments. The play also implicates us, as her hatred and rage, though extreme, remain unnervingly and immediately recognisable, the grim satisfaction she takes in her revenge, however brutal and self-destructive, bears at least some resemblance to our own secret and unfulfilled fantasies.

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