Jason as Both Villain and Victim in Medea: Character Analysis
Euripides’ tragic play Medea tells the story of the character’s quest for revenge against Jason, the man who betrays her love. It is a complex tale with no true heroes or villains, only persons acting out of their particular human weaknesses. The brilliance of the playwright is seen in how he makes the major characters both loathsome and pitiable.
Jason’s besetting sin is his ambition, but his legend complicates this fact by making it partially justified. Jason began life as one robbed of the throne was rightfully his. In this sense he began life as a sympathetic character, seeking only to right the wrong that was done to him by his half brother Pelias. He is also a hero of unquestioned courage and martial ability, blessed with enormous charisma and leadership ability. All of this is established prior to the opening of Medea of course, but it sets the stage for the events that will unfold within the tragedy and the mixed emotions that Euripides will invoke in the audience.
Jason’s relationship with Medea is problematic at best. He essentially owes her everything: his life, the success of his quest, even the eventual destruction of his hated enemy, Pelias. Were he guided only by concern for his obligations, then he would repay her loyalty with the only thing she desired in return, his loving devotion.
But to do so he would have to sacrifice that which motivated his quest for the fleece: the desire to ascend to the throne that is rightfully his. As a barbarian woman, she could never be the queen he needs so desperately. She is from a world so radically different from the civilized society that produced him that the relationship is a doomed one from the beginning. All of this makes his subsequent rationalizations a simple thing to achieve.
Jason is torn between his indebtedness to this viciously wild woman and the ambition that has driven his entire life. Was he totally unconcerned with honor, he would have taken the simple expediency of having her killed, a relatively easy task for a man of his influence? But such an act would make him a monster, totally undeserving of sympathy. Instead, Euripides leads him on a course of action that would have been very familiar to the audience members. He has him try to compromise. Yes, he will marry Glauce, yes, he will give first priority to his kingly ambitions. But he will make sure that Medea is rewarded as well. She and his sons will be taken care of. He even hopes to keep her as a mistress. Thus honor and ambition are both satisfied.
How many times have all of us made such compromises with our conscience? Surely many members of the play’s original audience had done so. “Yes, I will bribe this official so that I may obtain a contract with the city government; but when it has made me wealthy I will make a charitable gift to the citizens. Yes, I am a slave owner; but I will treat my slaves well, and free them after they have toiled for me for a certain time. Besides, if I did not own them another man would, and he could be a cruel sadist.” Jason is a sympathetic figure because he makes the same deal with the Devil that most of us conclude from time to time.
All persons of conscience have scratched their heads in bewilderment at some point in their lives when they heard of a person who committed a horrible crime yet received no punishment or else a very mild one. The opposite of this is the fate of someone who is guilty of a minor offense but is made to suffer for it in a way that is far beyond what they deserve. Think of Valjean from Les Miserables, pursued by Javert for nineteen years simply because he stole a loaf of bread during a time of famine.
Jason’s fate in Medea is in the same mold. His ambition drove him to forsake the mother of his children, the woman who has shown him nothing but utter devotion. And he has done so for crass political motives, however, he may try to justify them by appealing to the injustices he has suffered.
But what a price he pays, not only he but Glauce and Creon also. His betrothed, future father-in-law, and his sons, all put to death in horrific ways. Euripides first draws the audience into lusting for vengeance to visit Jason, then evokes pity from those selfsame people when they see it delivered in such an overwhelming dose. This is brilliant storytelling that awakens the passions and leads the viewers to introspect on their own notions of right and wrong.
Finally, the very fury of Medea’s wrath makes us wonder if Jason was so wrong to cast her aside. Despite the kindnesses, she had shown him, what sort of mother kills innocent persons, then stabs to death her own flesh and blood? Given the level of her malevolence, was Jason truly wrong in abandoning her? Or did he at some level realize what a monstrously evil woman she was, and rightfully spurn her? This question left unanswered by the play, haunts the minds of its viewers.
In all of these ways, Euripides builds sympathy for Jason. Was he a villain or a victim? The answer is clear. He, like so many of us, was both. This comment on the moral ambiguity and internal flaws that drive us all is what makes Medea one of the finest tragedies of all time.