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Abby Broadhurst

English 11 – Pd. 6
Mr. Jameson
March 8, 2013

Black and White: Cultural Divides

The power of culture is easily underestimated. Generally perceived as a uniting force

comprised of language, social standards, and ideas, culture’s divisive nature is often neglected.

Although this would not typically be considered dangerous, Euripides’ play Medea highlights the

extent to which culture can inhibit personal growth, restrict thoughts, and even cause deadly

conflict. The play focuses on the struggles of Medea, a foreigner from Colchis, as she attempts

to control her vengeful emotions after being betrayed by Jason, a Greek man for whom she made

many sacrifices. After returning to Jason’s home in Corinth, a Greek city-state, the couple bears

two sons. The blissful marriage is not to last, however, as Jason soon rejects Medea for the love

of Creusa, the daughter of King Creon. Scorned by the betrayal, Medea plots her revenge. As

the play unfolds, the gravity of the stark cultural contrast between Colchis and Corinth becomes

apparent. Two places with very different values, the cultural tensions evident in the play reflect

the late fifth century, the time period in which the play was written. The contrast between

Colchis culture and Greek culture is essential to the play’s development as it helps to establish

Medea’s character and position as a foreigner, enables Medea’s revenge, and enhances the

reversal of the traditional gender roles in Ancient Greek society.

Medea’s status as a foreigner in Greek lands has serious implications on her mental and

emotional stability as her rejection from society fuels her vengeful desires. In addition to being a

foreigner, when Jason betrays Medea she is also left “cast out, alone and despised” (Medea 10).

Not accustomed to this position of vulnerability, Medea flaunts her subversive nature and rebels

against Greek standards, defiantly declaring that she is “not a Greek woman” rather than simply
adapting to Greek life (15). Medea further introduces the contrast between cultures when stating

that she is unsure of “how much a Greek woman will endure” and openly alludes to her

character, stating “the people of [her] race are somewhat rash and intemperate” (19). The

implication that Greeks and Colchians are different races reflects the social distinction made

between the peoples of different cultures. Clearly, Medea values her Colchis heritage and it

becomes apparent that this recognition among Greek society ultimately leads to further isolation

for Medea. In the fifth century, Greece was composed of largely independent city-states, each

having its own culture. Because those traveling from one city-state to the next could be easily

marked as foreign, Medea’s isolation is particularly obvious as she originates from Colchis,

outside the Greek sphere of influence. Unlike Greece, with its wide gender gap and male

dominance, Colchis was known for its respect for women as well as its use of black magic, or

“wild wisdom” (17). It is this “wild wisdom” which prompts Creon to exile Medea with her

sons, accusing her of “rancorous ill will” and being “notorious for occult knowledge: sorcery,

poisons, magic” (22). Despite Creon’s desire to expel the danger from Corinth, he fuels the

flames of anger as Medea’s banishment simply acts as additional justification for her merciless

vengeance. Ultimately, the cultural tensions introduce Medea’s character as being cruelly

distinct from Greek culture and it is this distinction which initiates Medea’s search for “justice.”

Perhaps more important is the impact of culture on Medea’s ability to pursue her

vengeful ambitions. In the play, Medea manipulates Greek social values to harm Jason and his

loved ones. Interestingly, it is Greek values which initiate the conflict between Medea and

Jason. During the Golden Ages of Greece, corruption was prevalent due to social fixation on

wealth and power. This fixation is introduced when Jason tries to justify his marriage to Creusa,

claiming he married her to “protect and favor” his sons “having married power” (32). Once
again, this action only spurs Medea’s vengeful desires and precipitates further manipulation and

torment for all involved. The first person whom Medea plans to harm is Creusa, the primary

cause of Jason’s betrayal. Medea’s cunning is evident as she combines powerful elements of

Colchis culture with the weaker values held by Greek society. Harnessing her dark powers,

Medea manipulates the Greek importance of power to fulfill her dark ambitions. She imbues

gifts of gold with dark magic, meant to set Creusa aflame upon contact. Medea then sends

these gifts with her sons to persuade Creusa of the idea that Jason’s sons be spared from their

mother’s punishment. After her sons depart, Medea sarcastically remarks that Creusa will

certainly wear them while she, Medea, would want nothing with “woven gold vanities,” black

being her preferred color (60). Once again, the Greek fixation on wealth contrasts to Colchis

values as evidenced by the contrast in the colors which Medea associates with herself and

Creusa. When Medea’s sons return exempted from exile, Medea’s assumptions of Greek culture

are validated through tales of Creusa and Creon’s proud demise. It becomes apparent that when

Creusa accepted the boys’ proposal, it was not for love of Jason but rather love of gold.

Furthermore, at the end of the play, Medea once again takes advantage of Greek culture through

her decision to kill her young sons, further scorning Jason. Greece held children in high respect

as they were generally considered to be a symbol of a man’s status and future legacy as is

introduced by Aegeus’ character earlier. Although a difficult decision, Medea plays upon the

contrasts in culture to complete the destruction of Jason’s spiritual and emotional faculties

through the sacrifice of her sons. Euripides highlights the destructive nature of culture by

conveying the ease with which Medea manipulates cultural values to execute her revenge.

A final impact that the contrast between Colchis and Greek cultures has on the play is the

development of Medea’s character which embodies the reversal of typical gender roles in
Ancient Greek society throughout the play. As noted, women were afforded a higher status in

Colchis, which valued women as the bearer of children, than in Greece which valued children as

pillars of the societal male dominance. Living in Corinth, Medea is unaccustomed to Greek

gender restrictions which limit women to the household. Instead, Medea flaunts her heritage,

assuming a position of power and intimidation. Due to Colchis’ familiarity with the dark arts,

when Medea seeks help from the gods, she invokes the name of Hecate, the “queen of the night”

who acts as a reflection of Medea’s dark nature (40). This invocation of the dark goddess Hecate

is important as it further isolates Medea from Greek culture, repeatedly associated with light, and

associates Medea’s character with the dark powers of Colchis. In addition, Hecate’s support also

serves to heighten Medea’s notoriety above that of the male figures in the play, predominately

Jason and Creon. This power which resides in Medea, surely influenced by her prior value in

Colchis, is explained when the Nurse states “Jason would have been wiser to tempt a lioness”

than to betray Medea (11). Although the Nurse is aware of Medea’s background, having also

come from Colchis, Jason initially seems oblivious to the darkness pervading Medea’s soul and

it is not until she has utterly destroyed him that he is able to look beyond Greek sexism and note

her vengeful powers. Euripides incorporation of a strong female lead is ironic due to his

reputation as a misogynist. However, he masterfully incorporates aspects of both cultures to

imply Greek chastity as compared to the evil nature of Colchis as embodied through Medea.

Euripides’ subtle incorporation of cultural elements throughout the play highlights the

historical context and mindset of those living during the late fifth century in order to convey his

cultural perspective. Because Medea is the sole representation of Colchians values and

character, Euripides ensures that Medea is presented as a threat to a Greek community of

drastically different standards. Medea is presented as evil, cruel, and merciless. This
presentation is achieved through the drastic contrast between Colchis and Greece which is subtly

developed through the fear and rejection of Medea’s foreign status, the cruel methods through

which Medea seeks revenge, and the manner Medea employs to subvert the power of the male

figures in the novel, essentially rebelling against the foundations of Greek society. Although it

may seem that Euripides applauds Medea’s ability to reject social confines, he clarifies his

perspective through the consistently negative portrayals of her character’s thoughts and actions.

Not only does Medea reject the accepted social structure and appeal to a dark goddess, but she

betrays the Greek value placed on the importance of children. The murder of her children, which

concludes the play, reinforces the perception of Medea’s depravity. Leaving the audience with

the terrible act fresh in their minds, Euripides augments the dramatic tension accumulated

throughout the play. Through the presentation of the different cultures and the characters which

embody these cultures, Euripides furthers the cultural divide, impelling the audience to continue

viewing the world as black and white, two distinct colors which symbolize the purity of Greek

culture as compared to that of the remaining world.

Word Count: 1,498