Feeling the urge to commit a harmful action against someone after being intruded is considered the universal emotion of “vengeance,” which has always been one prominent theme in the literature world, especially among plays. Two classics, Homer’s Odyssey and Euripides’s Medea , both explore this theme in different perspectives of a male protagonist and a female one through an epic poem and dramatic tragedy.
Although the usage of vengeance in both literatures bear similarities, the comparison of the two texts provokes audiences to reflect upon traditional Greek values and expresses their different attitudes towards the protagonists’ revenge. In both plays, an urge of vengeance drives the plot.
In The Odyssey , our protagonist, Odysseus is set against two antagonists: his divine antagonist Poseidon in the first half of the story, who constantly hinders Odysseus’s way back home (because Odysseus once probed his son Polyphemus’ eyes blind), and his mortal antagonist(s), the annoying suitors who behave obnoxiously at his home and disrespecting his wife. An example of Poseidon hampering Odysseus’s way back home would be how Poseidon stirs up a storm to stop Odysseus from reaching Scheria, causing Odysseus’s ship to sink into the sea, and punishing the Phaeacians for helping him.
As for his mortal antagonists, Odysseus eventually conducts mass slaughter as revenge for their fourteen years of harassment upon Penelope. Since Odysseus is our traditional Greek hero, he has to take the last crucial step of taking vengeance against the suitors, to complete his glorified homecoming as a traditional male hero. Although he wasn’t aware of the suitors during his safari back home, the main driving force that urges him on the way is his affection for Penelope (as stressed in many details of
The book, such as Agamemnon’s story and song of Demodocus that sings about Ares and Aphrodite), emphasizing the Greek value of loyalty. In Medea , the whole play is centered around Medea’s strong intentions to take revenge upon her “cheating” husband Jason, by taking extreme actions of murdering Jason’s new wife and her own children. The similar theme of overpowering divinity is expressed in Medea.
Except, in this case, Medea is the person who possesses godly strength. But different from Poseidon, who is a Greek symbolization of civilization, the energy Medea holds is rather raw and barbaric due to her identity as a non-Greek. She acquires it from her divine ancestor, Helius, one of the oldest gods, and Goddess Hecate who possesses primal feminine power. The whole play is based on the preparation, conduct, and consequence of Medea’s revenge as it drives the plot forward.
In addition, Homer uses Poseidon’s revenge upon Odysseus to showcase Homer’s worldview of their polytheistic religion. Homer is showing how even a great hero like Odysseus is unable to control anything in front of divine power from the gods, and only a god (usually Athene) can save him from it, reflecting a rather helpless, pessimistic world view. It also shows how gods constantly place their personal interests in front of justice, such as how Zeus decides to punish Odysseus just because Poseidon asks him to. Quite differently, Medea is able to take control of her own fate with much more initiative.
Odysseus and Medea’s measure to conduct revenge show off their intelligence in their elaborately constructed plans. For example, Odysseus’s witty plan for his crew against the giant Polyphemus, who ate some of his men. By calling himself “nobody,” hitting Polyphemus’s eye with a staff, and escaping by clinging to the bellies of sheep, the crew successfully escape. When Odysseus goes back to Ithaka, he transforms into a beggar in order to test the loyalty of his people. Later he makes the delicate revenge plan with Telemachus which involved removing the armory of the suitors. On the other hand, Medea weaves the elaborate plan of revenge all on her own: she begs Creon to stay in Corinth for one more day for the wedding, in fact, to use the time to prepare the
Wang ! 3poison of the wedding and eventually conducting her murder. She is disguised metaphorically in an obeying wife character when she approaches Jason and Creon with her vulnerable, feminine side to persuade them of letting her stay for one more day, one more step closer to her revenge plan. Both Odysseus and Medea take some form of disguise, both visually and metaphorically, and use their wits to ensure success.
However, how these tactful acts of revenge are weaved into the two books greatly differ. The story of Odysseus is not entirely centered around revenge—it’s a historical account to record Odysseus’ heroic homecoming despite the obstacles he faced on the way. Odysseus also experiences amazing adventures in which he shows off his wittiness, learns on his way, and eventually grows to a less arrogant and more experienced person who fights for his country and family at the end of his journey. Medea, on the other hand, is a play entirely centered around her revenge, depicted to be going solely towards one goal—her revenge on Jason.
Though Medea is often considered a great heroine, this may be hinting at her boundedness and limit as a woman. Moreover, Odysseus had many external sources to assist him: the always-helping god Athene, hospitable hosts such as Alcinous, and Odysseus’s loyal family. Medea is all alone in this case: she abandoned her family to come to Corinth with Jason, who now cheats on her; she doesn’t have anyone there to lift her spirits, give her weapons, or accompany her in the plan. Unlike Odysseus, She doesn’t have anyone to lean on but herself. Thus, Euripides is possibly showing that although Medea is limited, she’s able to revenge with great courage.
However, comparing these two works of literature, readers would question: why both Odysseus and Medea did significantly gruesome and savage acts of revenge, but Odysseus is justified while Medea is constantly debated? In the Odyssey, Homer even describes the bloody slaughter in the hall in great details: Antinous was “shot square in the throat” causing his blood “spurting from his nostrils;” Melanthius’s nose and ears were cut off with a knife and his genitals were torn out for the dogs to eat; the Nurses in the palace who Odysseus considers to be the
“Suitors’ hoes” were commanded to be “hoisting it up so high no toes could touch the ground” so “all might die a pitiful, ghastly death.” (Homer 454) Throughout the palace “Grisly screams broke from skulls cracked open—the whole floor awash with blood,” (Homer 448) with “The suitors lay in heaps, corpse covering corpse.” (Homer 451) Undoubtedly, Medea’s actions are just as, if not more, gruesome.
After killing her babies, she even doubts herself, “Why damage them in trying to hurt their father?” (Euripides 173) Through the depictions of both characters’ vengeance, we could examine the writers’ different attitudes towards the ethic. It’s clear to see Homer is supportive of Odysseus’s act on the suitors, but not up to total brutality. The ending of the Odyssey in chapter 24 is possibly in stark contrast with previous chapters, including a sudden stop of the massacre and revenge of Odysseus. Eupithes, the dead suitor Antinous’s father, wanted to seek retaliation in Odysseus for his son.
However, after consultation with Zeus, Athene made the judgment to put an end to this violence by ordering Odysseus to stop the battle, and lead Ithaka back to peace. Ithacans would forget about the massacre and recognize Odysseus as the king. This is out of expectation in that first, it ties the brutal massacre in chapter 22 to a sudden peaceful ending of Odysseus’s revenge, while revenge is highly valued in ancient Greek culture, just as hospitality and honor, and Homer’s Odyssey have always been a historical document of ancient Greek values.
Second, it’s said by divine instructions (Zeus), to promote the message that peace can only come about by mutual contract and agreement, vaguely hinting that Homer is possibly critical of the brutal revenge that Odysseus’s promoting, but up for a gentler version such as that of Eupithes, Antinous’s father. As for Medea, Euripides seems more ambivalent.
Just as readers are anticipating retribution or consequences of Medea’s cruel acts, Euripides surprises readers with an ending of ex machina, the dragon chariot which lifts her runaway, discharging her responsibility for her brutal revenge. Instead of making Medea pay for her “crime,” she escapes the scene in a dragon chariot which clearly speaks to divine power. Just as how Jason questions Medea’s validity of the murder in
Previous conversations, everything about Medea is debatable, and in contrast to the traditional Greek virtue of revenge that’s always considered righteous: herself, her revenge, her ultimate disappearance. Euripides casts out rhetorical questions towards audiences, both ancient and modern: is it right or wrong, rationally speaking, to conduct such brutal revenge that involving killing one’s own children in this case, after all? Euripides is possibly defending his heroine protagonist because he feels sympathy towards Medea(women)’s oppression in that generation by warning to male Athenians to be aware of their conduct.
At the very same time, it’s a wake-up call to all ancient Greeks about the dangers and horrors of having revenge to take total control of one’s life. Medea is represented not as a traditional female character. On the contrary, she possesses masculine characters and resists against the feminine role to apathetically let everything happen. She positions herself in the role of a male hero by conducting revenge—hurting her enemies badly and being remembered, just as what Odysseus anticipates when listening to Demodocus’s songs; she bravely rejects the traditional “duty” of women to bear children (“I had rather stand my ground three times among / the shields / than face a childbirth once.” (31))
It’s hard to determine whether Euripides is misogynous or feminist, because he really is just presenting the issue of a female being able to fight against patriarchal social norms while Medea complains about society’s double standards against women and men. Is Medea a heroine? Or does her brutal revenge make her unsympathetic? Euripides leaves that for the audiences to decide, for his purpose is to illustrate and represent a living example of a misandry female in a misogynistic world.
From the very start of the play, Medea says “Of all creatures that can feel and think, /we women are the worst treated things alive.” (Euripides 31) bringing Ancient Greek males into a world they’ve never been in, and experience a “reverse” world where females take the lead—this is the purpose of Medea and the purpose of tragedies. Using protagonists’ revenge as one crucial feature of The Odyssey and Medea, the writers are reflecting different values: Homer is advocating for a modified way of revenge, while Euripides
Argues for women’s status with Medea’s vengeance. In either play, modern readers are granted the chance to delve into a whole different inspiring world and learn about how ancient Greeks struggle to explore human ethics and rules of the world better; just as Medea said, “Mortal fate is hard. You’d best get used to it.”
Euripides. Medea . Translated by Rex Warner, Dover Thrift Editions, 1993. Homer. The Odyssey . Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Books, 1996.
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