Discuss Medea's role as a tragic heroine in Euripides' play Medea.
What makes answering the question of what makes the eponymous protagonist of Euripides' play Medea a tragic heroine somewhat complicated is that the term "heroine" is being applied anachronistically. When we think of the term "heroine" in popular context in the twenty-first century, we are actually fusing together two different concepts, one having to do with the centrality of the character in the plot and the other having to do with a sense of not only greatness in the sense of importance but moral goodness. In Greek tragedy, these two concepts were not actually linked together. The term hero was used for a race of people who were quasi-divine (Hercules is an example), but this term is not the same as tragic protagonist.
According to the important Greek philosopher Aristotle:
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, ... Again, Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought; ...
The leading character in a play was called the "protagonist" (literally meaning "main contestant"). The protagonist was the most important character in the play, and according to Aristotle was expected to suffer reversals, and have experiences that invoked fear and pity in the audience. For this, the character needed to have a certain grandeur, a sense of being larger than life or out of the ordinary, but not necessarily morally good or a role model.
Medea is therefore a strong protagonist, with a certain greatness, strong willed, possessed of magical powers, and part of great historic events. She was also considered by Greek readers to be, like several other important female tragic or epic protagonists (e.g. Helen, Clytemnestra), evil. Thus we can say that she indeed fits the ideal of the tragic protagonist, but not twenty-first century conceptions of a "heroine."
It's not entirely clear that Medea can be described as a tragic heroine. For one thing, she's far from being a noble character with a tragic flaw. She's the architect of almost everything bad that happens in the play, and she is responsible for some pretty unspeakable acts. In some ways, her character trajectory is almost the exact opposite of a tragic hero or heroine. She's initially quite a sympathetic character. She's been cruelly abandoned by Jason; she left her own people to be with him. But she lacks nobility, both in terms of character and social status. Initially, she's suicidal, and in a state of almost complete mental collapse. It's only at the end of the play, when she's successfully evaded responsibility for all her atrocious actions, that she attains some degree of nobility, albeit one achieved at the cost of widespread bloodshed and suffering.
Medea is by no means a victim of fate. This is another characteristic that sets her apart from the usual run of tragic heroines. At every stage in the play, her actions shape her destiny. She chose to leave her people to be with Jason; she chose to raise a family with him; she chose, when abandoned by Jason, to embark upon a cold, calculated plan of revenge; and she chose to commit a number of brutal murders, including those of her own children.
Given her special powers, whether magical or just plain pharmaceutical, Medea must have had some kind of divine assistance in her killing spree. We're confirmed in our suspicions by the deus ex machina that whisks Medea and her dead children away in the sun god Helios's chariot. Far from being a victim of fate, Medea's actually the beneficiary of it.
Euripides' Medea proves to be a lesson on the power of both love and revenge. Medea, angered at Jason's marrying of another woman, chooses to enact her revenge upon him. Her love for him proves to be far less important than her need for revenge.
A typical tragic hero, or heroine, possesses hamartia (a tragic flaw) which leads to his or her downfall. This downfall tends to result in an increase in the hero's self-awareness, and the hero normally gains the pity of the audience.
In the case of Medea, some can argue that she does not fit the characteristics of the true tragic heroine. Although she possesses a tragic flaw (pride), she does not increase her self-awareness or gain sympathy from most audiences (given the bloody murder of her own children). The audience is never actually given "closure" to the action of the play--Medea simply drives off with the bodies of her children. Therefore, the audience has no reason to pity her given her "closing" actions.