Euripides’s Medea is simply a work of pathetic tragedy from Aristotle’s point of view. Throughout the play, we see the rising culmination of the emotions of anger and hate to the point where an anticlimactic resolution is achieved through the accumulation of the central passion of revenge by the main protagonist, Medea. This is a shortcoming as a piece of tragedy as it doesn’t reach the highest level of complexity and quality that Aristotle would expect. The most important element in tragedy is plot, what Aristotle terms as, “the imitation of an action” (mimesis). Because of the faulty treatment of the subject in hand, Euripides ultimately fails in achieving a complex plot in Medea. When Aristotle plunges into the components of a plot that make it complex, he cites three necessary elements that should lead from one to another in a successive manner; reversal of intention (peripeteia), recognition (anagnorisis) and the change of fortune (catastrophe). According to Aristotle, both peripeteia and anagnorisis must go hand to hand in a cause-and effect chain that ultimately lead up in turn to create the catastrophe in they play for the greatest effect. However in Medea, no real peripeteia can be observed because of the fact that Medea is well determined and prepared to take revenge from Jason is some way or the other, right from the very beginning. Although one could say that the event where Medea directs her anger towards her children in the prologue, “Boys, your mothers’s hatred. Cursed boys, I wish you dead” (P9, Lines 103-104) is Euripides’s attempt at including peripeteia, this occurs in such an abrupt and unexpected manner that makes it difficult to consider it as a reversal of intention because there is no reasonable explanation or anagnorisis for it to come afterwards in follow-up. This unquestionably results in Medea lacking an anagnorisis as there is no peripeteia that precedes it. Medea is already well aware that she can’t do anything to alter the marriage between Jason and Creon’s daughter, and there is no other anagnorisis that can be said to change the fortune of the protagonist. Although one could argue that Aegeus’s assurance of security in Athens for Medea is a discovery that allowed her to further proceed with her plans, this is somewhat questionable as we can clearly see that she fully determined to execute her planned scenario whether or not Aegeus’s sudden appearance was included. As a matter of fact, the only surprising event that we can find remarkable in the play is when Medea does indeed kill her own children. This action is the one and only tragic incident that has the element that Aristotle would consider as tragic. If this one and only tragic action was not included, it is hardly the case that Euripides’s Medea is even classable as a tragedy even with the simple plot. But once again, it must be strongly stressed that a surprising event as such can be only favorable under the conditions where it has relevance in a cause-and effect manner that is connected to the plot. This is not exactly the case for Medea’s judgment to kill her own children. Nevertheless, her intentions are indeed executed in the end by the tragic heroine, an act that can be given credit as it is better than if Medea intended to kill her own children but ended up not doing so. Aristotle strongly emphasizes the importance in skill of filing down the complication (desis) and unraveling (lusis) of the plot that leads towards a dénouement for a tragedian to create a play of unified perfection. To him, the best tragedian is one who can succeed in laying down these two parts both equally well. But as long as there is no peripeteia with an anagnorisis in success except for the simple plot in Medea, the unraveling lacks the magnitude of the complication where Medea strategically develops plans, prepares for revenge, and is ready to withstand the consequences and pain of her actions.
Moreover, the dénouement of the play by the use of a Deus ex Machina, an unexpected interference of a God that allows Medea to escape on a chariot is extremely irrational for Aristotle as there is no connection of relevance that would allow the event to arise out of the plot naturally. The use of the Deus ex Machina in Medea can be seen as faulty from another perspective which attributes to Aristotle’s moral understanding. The act of Medea’s escape and survival is morally not acceptable as it is almost impossible to justify the sin of murder, especially the murder of the protagonist’s own children. We know that she’s from a well-known family, being the granddaughter of the Sun and the daughter of a king. But other than such hereditary circumstances, she is in fact no better than us. Her extreme emotions of anger and hatred surpass the point to which we can consider them as frailties but they are more rather like vices. Although we do see Medea’s feelings of suffering through the visible evils of Jason, it is not easy for the audience to sympathize with a child murderess. Additionally, the past life of Medea is also full with atrocities of blood and sin which are reminded to us from time to time both by the Chorus and by even Medea herself. This ultimately results in the significant problem of Medea as a tragedy as it fails in invoking katharsis towards the audience. It is very difficult for emotions of pity and fear to be aroused by us towards the downfall of an utter villain.
There is only a singular simple plot which gives it a credit as a tragedy in Aristotelian terms. The struggle between a dishonest male and a sorceress female is the one and only simple basis of this plot. Although we don’t see the level of complexity and perfection that Aristotle would seek from a tragedy of ultimate perfection, our attention is not lost as Euripides does succeed us to stay focused on the passionate angers and emotions of Medea throughout the whole play. Thus, the effect of tragedy is to a somewhat certain extent achieved in Medea but still fails in the main and most important purpose; the emotional cleansing of fear and pity that the audience is supposed to feel towards Medea.
Bibliography: “Outline of Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy.” New York College | Catholic College | The College of New Rochelle. Web. 01 May 2010.
Statement of Intent
Euripides’s Medea revolves around the central passion of revenge towards her adversaries by the main protagonist, Medea as a result of her husband, Jason’s betrayal towards her by an engagement to the daughter of Creon, King of Corinth.
I decided to write a critical review of Medea through an Aristotelian perspective as to how Aristotle would criticize the play if he had the opportunity. As Medea was different to the Aristotelian tragedies of the time, I expected that the Athenian audience would have responded in confusion and disfavor. I took Aristotle’s works of the Poetics as a backbone to my criticism.
I tried to make the review critical in the sense that it not just only explains as to how the elements in Medea differ from Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, but attempts in exploring as to what effects were lost and why it mattered. In the early stages of my review, I criticize how Euripides’s failure in creating a complex plot of one that Aristotle would expect results in how Medea’s character is portrayed in a very limited and monotone manner in which her fate is seemingly doomed to lead to the final catastrophe from the very start. By breaking up the structure and examining its lack of Aristotelian concepts of tragedy in Medea, it allows one to lead to the discovery that the common understanding of Medea as a tragedy is actually an oversimplification and that one could even come to the conclusion that it barely qualifies to be even a tragedy by Aristotelian understanding. The criticisms towards the structural component of plot in Medea link into the characteristic flaws of Medea through my criticisms towards Euripides’s use of the Deus ex Machina to resolve the conflict in the final moments of the play. This sudden dénouement in the play would strongly matter to Aristotle as its irrational manner would lack a unity where the action of each event leads inevitably to the next in a structurally self-contained manner that is connected by internal necessity, not by external interventions such as the one used by Euripides. Moreover, the Deus ex Machina has the strongest effect on the audience in which it ultimately fails to invoke the tragic emotions of pity and sympathy in the form of a catharsis towards the protagonist despite Euripides’s attempts at doing so through the easily visible exposures of Jason’s atrocities. This failure is not only just simply due to the immoral nature in which Medea kills her children, but from the fact that her life is full of atrocities which she does not seem to feel guilty about as she confesses in her quarrel with Jason, “I lit the way for your escape… I betrayed my father and my home… I killed King Pelias…All this I did for you. And you, foulest of men, have betrayed me”. (P33, Lines 460-468)
Despite all the criticism that I have given to Euripides in my review, I do give credit to Euripides as to how he still manages to grasp hold of the audience’s attention and involvement in the play.
Nevertheless however, I still conclude with the Aristotelian perspective that the play still lacks the magnitude and perfection that Aristotle would have expected, which ultimately result in my greatest criticism that Euripides fails in creating the effect of convincement towards his audience to sympathize with Medea’s emotions through katharsis.
Word Count: 1496
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