Through the situation of Medea, the generally inferior status of women in the ancient world is vividly highlighted. Medea at first comes across as a character to be sympathized with in her callously offhand treatment by Jason who has repudiated their marriage in order to marry Glauce, princess of Corinth, just to advance his own social standing. In bewailing her dire situation, Medea also laments the gender inequalities of the age. In fact she declares:
Of all things with life and understanding,
we women are the most unfortunate.
Women in ancient Greek society were meant to be subservient to males, first to fathers then to husbands; they had very few rights, and they were expected to do little more than be obedient, virtuous wives and nurturing mothers.
The main injustice that Medea expounds upon is divorce: it was very easy for a man to leave his wife but almost impossible for a wife to leave her husband in this society. Jason has chosen to cast her off at a whim, and will suffer no consequences whatever for it while she is left dishonoured and homeless. Her lowly status is further compounded by the fact that she is a foreigner in Corinth, and the king hardly thinks twice about banishing her from the land. It is this double injustice that stings her into revenge. But it is the position of women that the play highlights in particular, and at first Medea comes across as champion of her sex, pointing out the injustices done to women. As such, the Chorus – which is entirely female – can agree with her, as does her old Nurse. Even Aegeus, a male, acknowledges her grievances. They criticize Jason, and the Chorus applauds her for insisting on her rights, and for setting out to prove the strength of her convictions:
Honour's coming to the female sex.
Slander will no longer injure women.
This is, of course, before Medea reveals just what she’s going to do to achieve her ends – namely, murder. At this point the Chorus begins to withdraw its support of her, urging moderation in her and in all women. Women have a right to be aggrieved at social injustice that they suffer, but they must never give way to any kind of excess, as Medea goes on to do. When Medea kills her children as part of her revenge against Jason and against the society that disowns her, the Chorus are utterly horrified and denounce her as ‘unholy’. The spectacle of a mother killing her own children is presented as the worst action imaginable.
Yet, for all this, it can be said that Euripides refuses to completely condemn Medea, as he shows us her inner feelings and thoughts: at first she sways over her decision to kill the children, and then at the moment of doing so she confesses herself utterly miserable. (Actually, even this vile deed might be seen to have some mitigating circumstances, as it seems that the Corinthians might have killed the children anyway, as the progeny of a barbarian and disenfranchised woman. Medea prefers to take their lives herself.)
Medea is a strong, active, powerful, and implacable character, confounding gender expectations. It is Jason above all who underestimates her, first dismissing her appeals as resulting from mere sexual jealousy, which he regards as a common failing among women.Then he is completely deceived when she pretends to accept his new marriage, and takes a patronizing attitude towards her, and women in general.
For it's quite natural in the female sex
to get angry when their husbands set up
secret schemes to plan another secret marriage.
In the end, though, he pays more dearly than he could ever have imagined for underestimating a woman.
We can say, then, that while Medea is goes too far in her revenge, she is seen to have valid grounds for complaint in the first instance. In fact, Euripides suggests that the inferior status of women in society is really what leads to the play’s tragic events. Medea takes to a grisly revenge because there are no real avenues open to her in society to redress her wrongs. This is illustrated in the attitudes of other characters in the play, both male and female alike, who ultimately condemn her as monstrous. She takes things too far, past the point when we can continue to sympathise with her. Yet her actions are placed in a clear social context, and not just presented as the work of a woman with dangerous, uncontrolled passions or the tragic decrees of fate. If the expected role of women had not been so limited in this society, then things might have been very different for a spirited and fiery character like Medea and those around her.