“We are not goddesses or matriarchs or edifices of divine forgiveness; we are not fiery fingers of judgment or instruments of flagellation; we are women forced back always upon our woman’s power”
The quote above comes from Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of Anger,” where she argues that anger is a powerful force of energy that creates change. As Lorde explains, anger is a legitimate response to societal injustices and should be understood as such. Feminist scholar Sara Ahmed argues something similar with her term “feminist killjoy. Ahmed’s essay imagines someone pointing out a moment of sexism and racism (i.e., a joke) and being labeled a killjoy. Ahmed argues that yes, being a feminist means killing other people’s joy, but in the name of equality. The path of a killjoy ties into Lorde’s belief of anger as power. Situations of inequality and oppression create anger in the people who are paying attention. Still, those angered souls have to brave the resistance from others who would call them killers of joy. If anger is power for change, why are angered women often written off as ‘having a moment?’ If our society has come so far in the name of equality, why are feminist killjoys ostracized for calling for change? An angry woman is just another term for a madwoman. It’s maddening to see the world through this lens, but it is a long-lived reality. Euripides’ play Medea can be read as a document of both the ancient past and a present representation of the struggles of modern madwomen. Traditionally, it is a play about revenge and morality. I want to complicate that view and argue that Euripides’ play shows women’s unequal role and calls for radical change. The insane crimes that Medea commits are unredeemable for any reasonable person. Still, audiences are not meant to forgive her for her murders, only understand the position she was in and empathize. For its purposes here, Medea’s plight and the subordinate role of women in society is not a bygone relic of the ancient past.
A brief exposition of Jason and Medea would be helpful here, as its original audiences would have already been familiar with the connected myths before seeing the play. Jason’s father was the king of Iolkos, who was tragically killed by his brother Pelias. Jason’s mother hides him away before he, too, can be killed. Jason grows and trains, planning to return to Iolkos and challenge his uncle for the throne. When he arrives in Iolkos to avenge his father, Jason is tasked with finding the Golden Fleece. If he can return with it, Pelias will give him the throne, and Jason will have avenged his father’s death. What follows is a series of adventures that are too long to detail here. If you want the whole story, I recommend this episode of the podcast “Let’s Talk About Myths Baby,” created by Liv Albert, or read this brief PBS article. For this blog, all you need to know is that Jason recruits Medea to his crew, where she plays a critical role in Jason’s success. I would like to point out that her love for Jason led her astray; he talked a big game as a great hero, yet it was Medea who actually slew the serpent guarding the Fleece. Euripides does mention some of these events in Medea’s argument with Jason, including some of the horrible things she had to do to help her lover succeed. Medea deceived her father and allowed the murder of King Pelios by his daughters (Medea lines 483-487). They find the Fleece, and Jason takes his throne, and they are presumably happy for a while. However, the locals dislike Medea’s status as a foreigner and her magic and run Jason and Medea out of Iolkos. The play begins after Jason, Medea, and their children have settled in Corinth. As the play unfolds, audiences watch as Medea takes her predicament into her own hands. She is a master at calculating and assessing risk as she constructs her revenge.
Some have called Medea’s character “deranged and vengeful” (Hart), but that is precisely why I am drawn to her. Medea is a perfect combination of both types of madwomen: the insane one and the angry one. I want to focus on the cause of her deranged behaviors: anger. Her anger at the patriarchal forces in her life turns her to act in what a reasonable person would consider unstable ways. Murdering your husband’s new wife, her father, and then your two children is not what any reasonable person would consider sane. But if we really look at what Medea is communicating to us as modern audiences. She is mad, wholly and righteously, because of her place in a man’s world. If we consider anger as a legitimate response to injustice, then we would consider Medea’s anger at Jason’s betrayal reasonable. I am not arguing that murder is the answer to injustice but that Euripides’ play is a dramatized depiction of a woman responding to the unjust world around her. Medea’s righteous anger flows freely throughout the play; the word “rage” is repeated by the Nurse and the Tutor in reference to Medea’s emotional state quite frequently in the opening pages. The Nurse frets, “She’ll not relax her rage till it has found its victim. God grant she strike her enemies and not her friends! (lines 94-95). What Medea does with her rage, I think, is truly brilliant. To go back to “Uses of Anger,” Lorde writes that when anger is “focused with precision, it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change” (127). Medea’s anger is such a source of energy that she inspires the Chorus of Corinthian women to call for a gender recast. Yes, she is a murderer; she is a madwoman, there is no denying that. But consider that by the end of the play, she appears in a chariot pulled by dragons that carry her away. This is remarkable because a typical Greek play would have one of the gods coming out and setting everything right. But they don’t, showing that the gods are at ease with Medea’s actions.
Medea’s anger has been established, as is what she does with her anger, but what of Jason, the once-great hero? In today’s vernacular, we would consider Jason’s behavior as gaslighting. When Medea points out all she has done for him, he claims that it was not her doing but Aphrodite’s. Aphrodite made Medea fall in love with him, so everything she did out of love for him was caused by Aphrodite. Medea rightfully calls him out on that point. He even has the audacity to tell her to calm down. Jason says to her, “–you’ll change your mind and be more sensible” (lines 629-630). Jason’s behavior is just one in a long line of men then and now that have disregarded a woman’s argument because she was too emotional. The relationship between Medea and Jason in this play aligns itself nicely with the double-standard of anger between men and women. To historicize my argument, “within the long history of western civilisation, women’s anger has been construed as deviant, monstrous or otherwise taboo…” (Jilly Boyce Kay “Introduction: anger, media, and feminism: the gender politics of mediated rage” 591). Female anger is often seen as a sign of immaturity or unreasonability, but a man’s anger is justified as a sign of masculine power. If you are looking for a modern example of this divide, I would guide you to the Brett Kavanaugh Senate Judiciary Committee hearings when he was accused by Dr. Ford of sexual assault. In this example, one of many, I would add, Justice Kavanaugh is seen having his moment. He is angry, cries, and shouts, all in the name of what he calls “a calculated and orchestrated political hit.” In other words, his anger is fueled by an injustice he feels was committed against him. Instead of disqualifying him for his emotional outburst, Kavanaugh was supported and protected. For a white man, anger is considered an emotion of power, but if Dr. Ford had given her testimony with the same level of emotion, she would have been considered hysterical and an unreliable witness. To return to Sara Ahmed for a moment, “we can hear what is at stake in how women who speak out are heard. To sound strident is to be heard as loud, harsh or grating” (Ahmed “Collection”). Women are not given the same privilege of self-representation as men are. To even command an iota of the respect that men are given, women have to stuff themselves into a calm and submissive package. Medea knows that her reputation is not for her to decide but for Jason to weave.
Though victimized, Medea is not the victim of this play. This play is her time to get angry, get even, and reclaim herself. Any moment she is on stage, Medea assesses the other characters around her and evaluates the best course of action to take. When King Creon approaches her to banish her from Corinth for his daughter’s safety, Medea assures him, “don’t let me alarm you, Creon. I’m in no position–/ A woman–to wrong a king” (lines 317-318). She continues to play-act this submissive woman until she has swayed Creon to allow her one more day in Corinth. When he leaves, she turns to the Chorus, saying, “Do you think I would ever have fawned so on this man, / Except to gain my purpose, carry out my schemes?” (lines 370-371). She recognizes her position and uses it to her advantage, lulling Creon into a false sense of security. If Medea is a murderess, the Chorus is even more bloodthirsty. They call for a complete gendered recast, “deceit is men’s device now…A time comes when the female sex is honoured;” (lines 416 & 419). The Chorus has recognized Medea’s plight and sees their own situations reflected back at them. These women have had it with being told they don’t matter, and they are calling for radical change.
One of the most remarkable things Euripides does with this play is that we can sympathize with Medea. Audiences are given her perspective and thoughts as she processes and plans her next moves. Not only that, but Euripides casts the Chorus as a group of Corinthian women who also empathize with Medea and express their dissatisfaction with their role in society. The audience and the Chorus see the turmoil she goes through and how she rationalizes her actions. We can understand why she is mad. To return to Kay’s commentary on mediated rage as a closing, “Women’s anger has for so long been cast as unreasonable, hysterical, as the opposite of reason; but actually, it is full of the power of insight and understanding” (595). Now is the time to express all our anger, break down all the patriarchal oppression holding us down, and like Medea, ride our chariots beyond it.
Vellacott, Philip, translator. Medea. By Euripides, Penguin Classics, 1963.
Lorde, Audre. “Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.” Sister Outsider, The Crossing Press, 2007.
Kay, Jilly Boyce. “Introduction: anger, media, and feminism: the gender politics of mediated rage.” FEMINIST MEDIA STUDIES, 2019 VOL. 19, NO. 4, 591–615,
*picture courtesy of wikicommons