Examining the Use of Animal Imagery in Euripides’ Medea

Euripides' Medea is a play that explores the complex psychological landscape of its protagonist, a Barbarian woman in Greece who seeks revenge against her unfaithful husband. To analyze animal imagery in Medea, this essay will examine how Euripides uses animal metaphors to highlight the themes of alienation and the fear of the unknown that are so prevalent in the play. Throughout the text, Euripides compares Medea to various wild animals, such as lions and bulls, using this imagery to reveal her emotional state and motives. By doing so, he forces the audience to question their own perceptions of Medea and the actions she takes. The motif of animal imagery serves as a tool for exploring Medea's psychological conflict, and the sense of otherness that she feels as a Barbarian in a Greek society. The use of animal imagery in Medea is an important aspect of the play, shedding light on the complexity of its themes and the psychology of its characters.

The author establishes the theme of psychological dilemma and ambiguity of Medea at the beginning of the play by doubling the animal imagery, which further intensifies the impact it has on the audience. One may interpret this line as the kine and the lion being polar opposites of each other. Euripides puts emphasis on Medea’s bull-like gaze, implying she is gazing angrily at anyone trying to harm her children, but by following the statement of “the eyes of the wild kine” by “the lion flash that guards their brood” Euripides implies that Medea is also vulnerable, like a lioness that has just given birth. Although this particular translation does not ascribe a female gender to the word “lion”, in the lion metaphor in Greek tragedies in general, it is almost always the female lion that takes care and protects the cubs after birth, rather than the male lion. Moreover, instead of comparing Medea to a single bull, the author compares her to a kine. This emphasizes how strong her rage is, and also implies that although she feels alienated and alone, it does not make her weaker, quite the contrary.

Therefore, by comparing Medea to a kine and a lion, the author expresses both sides of the psychological dilemma Medea is faced with, and establishes that Medea is torn between being the prey, submitting to the power of her husband Jason and Greek society, or, as she chooses to do in the end, being the predator herself. It is also important to note that throughout the play, Medea is the only character that is compared to animals, which further emphasizes this notion of foreignness and alienation of her character. The only exception is when Euripides compares her sons to lion cubs, thus implying the children are the only connection between Medea and the society which she feels alienated from. In this line Euripides establishes the important role of the “brood” in Medea’s dilemma.

The author implies the children are the only tool for her to wreak havoc on Jason, since they are the only connection between the two after Jason had decided to marry a Greek princess. Therefore Euripides suggests filicide as the only means for Medea to free herself from Jason’s power, and ultimately the power of society, since Medea’s biggest fear is being talked about by others. Therefore the mention of the bull-like gaze and a protective lioness mother also carries in it tragic irony. The notion of Medea being a prey among Greek society is also underlined by very frequent usage of the word “hunt” when referring to herself. For example: “Dark and full of dole / Their bridal feast shall be, most dark the day / They joined their hands and hunted me away. ” At this point Medea resolves the dilemma, and decides on becoming the predator.

On the other hand, a common adjective that reoccurs throughout the play in the context of other characters talking about Medea is “savage”. For instance: “But nothing good / Can please thee. In sheer savageness of mood / Thou drivest from thee every friend. ” Jason accuses Medea of her Barbarian nature being the source of her unhappiness. Euripides thus reinforces the Greek stereotype of savage Barbarians. Therefore both adjectives mirror the same contrast as the “kine and lion” metaphor, presenting the audience with two different points of view of Medea. Without questioning Medea’s savage and selfish decision to commit filicide as a morally unacceptable act, the author forces the audience to understand her motives, while also condemning them, which underlines the psychological ambiguity of filicide and the and the implications of submitting to Jason instead. Another instance of animal imagery is at the end of the play, when Jason says: “A bride of hate to me and death, / Tigress not woman, beast of wilder breath. ” With this replica Euripides puts forward the cultural metaphor presented by animal imagery. By calling Medea a tigress not a woman, he's comparing her to Greek women, implying that Medea is inferior to them. Interestingly, some translators choose to use the word “lion” instead of “tigress” in this case, presumably to turn the tables on the lioness metaphor used only twice in the play, at the beginning and at the end. However, this particular translation chooses to compare Medea to a tigress at the end of the play, which was done on purpose, because while the two animals are similar in their savageness and cruelty, lions tend to be more protective of their cubs, in nature but especially in Greek literature.

Therefore while the lion metaphor is used in rather positive connotations of this animal imagery, and Medea is introduced as a vulnerable mother ready to protect her children, Euripides then departs from this notion. Already having established the lioness metaphor in its positive connotations, he then chooses to compare Medea to a tigress. While the main feature of Medea the lioness is the love for her cubs, comparing her to a tigress then underlines the bestial cruelty of Medea who decided to turn against her own family. Euripides rarely challenges the Greek stereotype of savage Barbarians, quite the contrary, he reinforces it by having Medea refer to herself as savage. However, the author provides the audience with a different perspective on this cultural issue in Medea’s response to the insult. The tone of the comparison can also be interpreted rather ironically.

Right away, Medea accepts the tigress comparison, saying: “Call me what thing thou please, / Tigress or Skylla from the Tuscan seas: / My claws have gripped thine heart, and all things shine. ” Here Euripides slightly departs from the notion of Barbarian women being savage and inferior to Greek women, who are represented as submissive and obedient, when despite Medea not showing regret of her actions, Euripides reminds the audience that despite this, it was Medea whom Jason fell in love with and married first, thus again, forcing the audience to consider the theme of cultural differences from a different angle, Medea’s angle. In Euripides’ Medea, the use of animal imagery provides the audience with a better understanding of the main character of the play. It serves as a tool to shed light on Medea’s emotions, thus providing the audience with deeper insight into Medea’s motives. With the help of animal imagery Euripides explores the psychological dilemma of committing a loathsome murder or living in humiliation, and therefore invokes both a sense of sympathy and disgust in the audience. Animal imagery also serves as a cultural metaphor in Medea, when by comparing Medea to various wild animals throughout the play Euripides explores the idea of the fear of the unknown, whether justified or not. Animal imagery thus represents an effective tool of engaging the audience with the play, showing different perspectives of the story.

10 October 2020
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