Medea by Euripides and Macbeth by William Shakespeare are plays renowned for their portrayal of frightening female characters, Medea and Lady Macbeth. Such female characters are particularly controversial as they contradict the social expectations of women. Society constantly attempts to mold women into soft, gentle and compassionate beings. Due to such a stereotype whereby women are perceived as weak, Medea and Lady Macbeth are found to be quiet overly intriguing. Strong, fierce, angry and evil women were not heard of when such plays were written. Consequently the question often asked is, “are Lady Macbeth and Medea credible characters?” This matter of whether or not Lady Macbeth and Medea can be appreciated as credible by the audience is absolutely vital to the play’s achievement; if they were simply seen as evil, then the play’s would be regarded as melodramatic and hence fail to be literature of depth and quality.
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At the time of Medea, women in the Greek society were mistreated, disrespected, deprived from their rights and expected to abide by their husbands every word; to repel a man was “not possible.”  Until today there remains many among us who believe that women are inferior to men. For this reason, it is argued that Lady Macbeth and Medea are melodramatic characters.
To many it is incomprehensible for women to be driven by such an extent of ambition, love and betrayal as to call upon evil. I argue that Medea and Lady Macbeth are undoubtedly credible characters. Medea was harshly betrayed by husband, her “whole life”  ; the audience can understand this motive for calling upon evil and desiring revenge. Lady Macbeth adored husband and was ambitious for him to be king; the audience can relate to this emotion and can understand why she would go to extreme lengths to assist him.
Page 3: Introduction
Page 4: How are Medea and Lady Macbeth presented?
Page 8: Why do they follow an evil pathway?
Page 13: What is their involvement with evil?
Page 15: Conclusion
Page 16: Bibliography
Euripides Medea and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth are characters of quite similar characteristics – they are fierce, evil, strong and capable women. On the other hand, they do have their variation and each woman is portrayed differently. Medea and Lady Macbeth are both prominent female characters of classic literature. Medea is the protagonist of the Euripides play Medea whilst Macbeth’s Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most eminent and terrifying female characters. There is a myth that lingers upon mankind that suggests that females are gentle, caring, weak beings and because the depiction of Lady Macbeth and Medea are quite the contrary, it is debatable whether they are in fact credible characters. To be credible means to be believable, comprehensible and encompass human characteristics such as strengths and weaknesses. This allows the audience to empathize with the characters and create a shared sense of humanity with them. It is argued that Medea and Lady Macbeth could possibly be melodramatic characters suggesting that they are exaggerated, two dimensional and hence evil purely for the sake of evil. Such an accusation undermines the quality of the plays. Melodramatic works offer may temporally thrill an audience however they offer little insight to the human condition and no lasting, intellectually satisfying impact. But if we can understand how characters can do evil deeds and how the consequence of this impact, on them, then we are meeting literature of depth and quality. The intention of this essay is to examine the two plays in order to prove that Lady Macbeth and Medea are indeed credible characters.
How are Medea and Lady Macbeth presented?
The opening scene of the play “Medea” by Euripides commences with Medea not on stage. A strong sense of anticipation is developed as Nurse and Tutor discuss Jason’s betrayal of his wife. The audience is then introduced to Medea’s despair; she is heard off stage bewailing her situation, “If only I were dead”  . The use of sound without visually appearing on stage is all part of stagecraft. This adds emphasis to Medea’s heartbroken tone of voice and allows the audience to focus on her speech. The audience is first introduced to Lady Macbeth much further in the play. However similarly to Medea, her first words are directed to herself; she is reading aloud Macbeth’s letter. She is excited, anxious and happy.
Lady Macbeth and Medea deeply love their husbands and this sense of devotion adds to their characters credibility. Love is the core element which helps build their character. Lady Macbeth is completely loyal to her husband throughout the entire play. She is ambitious for Macbeth, going to great lengths in order to ensure his rapid succession to the throne and never indicates a quest for personal glory; she is his “dearest partner of greatness.”  In fact, it is her love for Macbeth which leads to her committing evil. At first she encourages Macbeth to sin, she then plans out murders for him before carrying out the murder herself; all for her husband to be crowned king. Medea is also absolutely faithful to her husband Jason and also assists him to be king in regards to the capture of the Golden Fleece. However despite such loyalty, Jason betrays Medea for a royal bed and this is the moment where a different side to Medea’s character is unleashed and destruction commences. It was her love for her husband which leads to committing evil; she creates a scheme to murder her husband’s mistress before killing her own children.
Once both women are on the pathway of evil they begin to manipulate their husbands with remarkable effectiveness. When Lady Macbeth’s husband hesitates to murder Duncan the king of Scotland, she gives a chillingly disturbing statement emphasizing her sense of determination and pride, she would have “dashed the brains out”  of her own baby rather than go back on her word. She then attempts to undermine his manhood by referring to him as a “coward”  in order to influence his decision. Medea also manipulates her husband Jason. Medea engages in ruse as she pretends to sympathize with her husband in order to bring him into her confidence, “First I’ll send a slave to Jason, asking him to come to me; and then I’ll give him a soft talk.”  Medea also uses gifts to break the ice between her and Jason’s new bride; ostensibly the gifts are intended to convince that the children stay in Corinth, but due to Medea’s manipulative ways, little do Jason, Glauce and her father know that the coronet and dress are in fact poisoned and will cause death to whoever touches them. Medea says to Jason, “You were mistaken if you thought you could dishonour my bed and live a pleasant life and laugh at me.”  It is clear that both women know how to persuade their husbands and have a huge sense of pride.
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In addition both Lady Macbeth and Medea are violent and at times they appear totally given over to evil. The aggression of these female characters is particularly striking because it goes against prevailing expectations of how women ought to behave. Women are generally tender human beings however Lady Macbeth and Medea exemplify vindictiveness and determination; general characteristics of man. Our first impression of Medea allows us to bond with her. When betrayed she is terribly devastated, crying and walking in her home; this is truly credible. As time elapses our impression of Medea alters as we gradually observe layers of her malevolence shed to reveal a tormented human soul. It is universally accepted that women are compassionate and soft hearted due to their motherly nature however Medea is stunningly said to be stone and iron as she is determined to kill her sons as they desperately cry. It is very difficult to comprehend a mother to have killed her children. Consequently Medea is portrayed as an evil person. Although Medea never felt guilty for the evil actions she committed, she did however hesitate slightly before committing infanticide, and “I can’t do it”  she cried. Medea looks to her sense of pride for strength, “Are my enemies to laugh at me? â€¦I must steel myself”  , subsequently she quickly gets over such dither and proceeds with the killings of her two sons. Witnessing Jason suffer brought Medea great satisfaction prevailed over her own remorse at killing them, “But my pain’s a fair price, to take away your smile”  . Despite being informed of her past, it was not expected that Medea would kill her children. This is the moment where the bond between Medea and the audience begins to cripple. Despite experiencing hardships and being emotionally torn, the audience cannot look past the brutality of such a scene.
Lady Macbeth early in the play of “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare appears to be stronger and more ruthless than her husband as she appears to be in control of all evilness. This suggests that her sense of evil is inevitable. However Lady Macbeth recognizes the need to mask her femininity in order to find assistance for her plans. Evidence of such is how she yearns for her femininity to be taken away from her in order to kill King Duncan herself, “unsex me”  she cries. This statement is an extracted portion from Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy whereby she calls on the dark spirits. This is a very powerful statement whereby Lady Macbeth acknowledges her femininity and it is recognized that Lady Macbeth lacks the complete capacity for evil, in spite of being exceedingly driven towards brutality; if one is truly evil there is no need to be unsexed. Such a powerful speech also highlights Lady Macbeth’s great level of passion and the extraordinary lengths she would go to ensure Macbeth’s speedy succession to King. Furthermore Lady Macbeth wants her female essence to be replaced with poison, “Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall”  . It is understood that she is familiar with religion as she realizes that she is contemplating a sin against God and consequently wants to be hidden from “heaven”. Consequently, this opens room to note that a cosmology which posits heaven above all also allows for hell, for guilt, for punishment.
Why do they follow an evil pathway?
Medea is human however she is also related to the gods and worships Queen Hecate. Obviously elements of fantasy propel her story but she appears before the audience as a woman and must be understood as one. Medea’s love for Jason was all consuming. She was willing to do anything and everything for her beloved. Such passion is clearly evident from Medea’s complete obedience for her husband; she abides by his every word. As previously mentioned, all of the plays events proceed from the initial dilemma whereby a heartless husband betrays his honourable wife; this is why Medea results to her evil ways. She feels shamed, trampled on and unappreciated as she had supported and did great deal for him. For example it was Medea who used her powers of sorcery and influence in order to help Jason secure the Golden Fleece and hence crown him as King. Furthermore, she fled her home country and family to live with her lover. Medea even murdered her own brother for Jason. In addition to such, whilst in Lolcus, Jason’s home town, Medea again used her devilish ways to manipulate the daughters of the local king and rival Pelias, into murdering their own father. Medea’s deeds were unselfish and self sacrificing which is why Jason’s betrayal drove her wild. Jason lacked the decency to simply stop for a moment before wedding his young bride, to reminisce about all the great things Medea had done for him; actions she took for his benefit alone and which he could never repay her for.
Such a degree of unfaithfulness evidently shreds Medea to pieces. The audience observes Medea’s character evolve before their very eyes. Such is understood through the employment of soliloquies which are an essential element of stagecraft. Soliloquies are speeches made to oneself which allow the audience to hear the inner thoughts of a character. This permits the audience to be drawn into the character’s mind and build a bond between the character and the listener. Soliloquies are of particular importance in Medea as it allows the audience to keep up with Medea’s evolvement as a character. It is Medea’s self directed speeches which allow the audience to understand her state of mind and comprehend her thoughts as time elapses. Our first impression of Medea is that she is absolutely distraught and suicidal, “If only I was dead”  . This is an understandable and human response to such devastating rejection. The audience can relate to being betrayed and can hence understand why Medea later turns to evil; this adds to the credibility of her character. As time progresses her strength and passion drives her to mad; the first time Medea appears in stage she is “not shaken with weeping, but cool and self-possessed.”  If it were not for her soliloquies prior to her appearance such as,” Oh, how I hate living! I want to end my life, leave it behind, and die”, the audience could not possibly understand or acknowledge her suicidal state of mind. Later Medea goes on to use her manipulative cleverness to avenge Jason’s disloyalty with a series of murders, “I have in mind so many paths of death for them”  . This is an example of a soliloquy. Prior to such a statement Medea was begging Creon for her and her sons to stay the country for one more night. If it were not for the proceeding soliloquy it would not be understood that Medea had manipulated Creon. The soliloquy reveals her true feelings; she will “strike dead”  her enemies. Medea is a descendant of the Sun god and is capable of passions of far greater intensity than mere mortals. All she wanted was to watch Jason suffer and was willing to do absolutely anything to achieve just that. Medea is a proud woman, consequently when Jason trampled over such pride, compressing her ego and self concept, she was to avenge him, “you were mistaken if you thought you could dishonor my bed and live a pleasant life and laugh at me”  . Medea’s fury bubbled and boiled to the severe extent whereby it began to take over her heart, mind and body. She is completely overwhelmed with anger, determined to bring Jason down to his knees and willing to even harm herself in order to wipe the smile off his face, “my pain’s a fair price, to take away your smile”  she says. Medea manages to cripple Jason by killing her own flesh and blood, her two sons despite the heartache it would cause her, simply to torment Jason. The way in which Medea slowly, step by step follows an evil pathway instead of a sudden change of character makes her believable as it shows the transition of character.
Lady Macbeth’s love for Macbeth was also all consuming however not of the intensity of Medea’s. She was also keen on doing everything and anything for the sake of her beloved. When Lady Macbeth sees that her husband “rapt withal”  after he is informed of the prophecy, she is determined to secure his position as King. Lady Macbeth begins to take control; she analyses Macbeth’s personality and considers him too straight forward and honest to be involved with evil, “Yet do I fear thy nature, It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness, T’catch the nearest way”. Lady Macbeth was so spellbound by the prophecy that she wanted it sooner rather than later because she wanted the best for Macbeth. She saw that her husband Macbeth had the desire and ambition to be king yet he required her strong words to prompt him and so Lady Macbeth uses her influence to encourage him. From this moment Lady Macbeth’s evil desires escalate. Lady Macbeth then begins to take further control and plans King Duncan’s murder. Employing a metaphor of hypocrisy she says, “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpret under’t.” This statement is used in order to disguise her intentions to harm Duncan. This particular metaphor is extremely prominent. From this a great deal of Lady Macbeth’s character is revealed; we begin to observe her strength of spirit and identify her opposite outlook to Macbeth and her willingness to be associated with evil.
The fact that Lady Macbeth becomes furious and challenges her husband’s courage and honor when he has serious second thoughts about killing Duncan indicates that she is indeed more brutal than he at this stage of the play. It is one thing to say something and another thing to do it. Lady Macbeth prepares the murder scene but was unable to kill Duncan herself. She claims that the King “resembled my father”  as he slept. This shows that she is not as ruthless as she appears and that she is vulnerable and compassionate. This particular statement adds to the credibility of Lady Macbeth’s character; even though one might carry out evil actions, certain things dear to them will expose their vulnerability. Lady Macbeth returns with bloody hands after smearing the chamberlain’s with blood in order to disguise herself and Macbeth of the deed. At the time the image of her bloody hands has no affect on her and she bluntly says, “a little water clears us of the deed.”  However in time, the memory of her bloody hands, which is a significant part of stagecraft symbolizing guilt, haunts and torments Lady Macbeth’s mind. As previously mentioned Lady Macbeth is aware of God and believes in heaven and hell. She acknowledges that she has sinned; consequently her guilty conscience begins to disturb her sleep. In time Lady Macbeth begins to experience the regular occurrence of sleepwalking whilst performing soliloquies; “Wash your hands; put on your nightgown; look not so paleâ€¦ what’s done cannot be undone.”  She speaks such whilst rubbing her hands in a washing motion, this is evidently the hand washing routine is obsessive compulsive behavior. The element of soliloquies is prominent in regards to understanding and appreciating Lady Macbeth’s change of thought and attitude throughout the duration of the play. They help reveal the severe extent of her distress and disturb. Along with soliloquies, symbolism is another form of stagecraft which is evident in the play for example; Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking is a sign of her great level of guilt. It is particularly ironic how earlier in the play Lady Macbeth calls upon darkness in order to hide her deed, “Come, thick night”  and how she now fears the dark; “she has light by her continually”  . Lady Macbeth’s sense of guilt and vulnerability towards the end of the play helps create her credibility; it allows the audience to understand, empathize and connect with her. It also shows us that Lady Macbeth is human and that unlike Medea, her actions did affected her conscience. The audience is able to relate to her and appreciate her credibility. Her guilty conscience affects her terribly and drives her to contemplate death and eventually commit suicide. Gradually the audience watches Lady Macbeth physically and mentally breakdown. This demonstrates her human essence and hence making her character credible and realistic to the audience.
What is their involvement with evil?
The audience is introduced to action from the moment the plays commence. The opening scenes of Macbeth introduce the audience to the prospect of Macbeth being king. Our first impression of Lady Macbeth is that she is a loving wife and excited and happy for him; the atmosphere is blissful. On the hand, the opening scenes of Medea introduce the audience to an atmosphere of misery. Jason has betrayed his wife for a royal bed and we first see Medea as a distress, heartbroken women. The audience is later informed of Medea’s past; we understand that she has previously committed acts of evil including murder however such actions were driven by her love for Jason. On the other hand, the audience is not informed of Lady Macbeth’s past; it is presumed that she has had no prior involvement of evil.
Medea has committed several deaths before the play commences. She has murdered her brother and manipulated the daughters of a King to kill their father. From such details it understood that Medea is capable of committing horrifying deeds and that it was her love for Jason which ultimately suppressed her sense of evil throughout the course of their marriage. Consequently it was expected that once Jason hurt Medea, the lid enclosing her wickedness would open and she would return to her old self. After being rejected Medea lays out a cunning plan, she manipulates Jason into trusting her and sends her sons off with a gift to Jason’s new bride begging for her children not to be banished. The gifts have been poisoned and princess Glauce dies a horrible death, “The stuff was eating her flesh. Her eyes, her face, were one grotesque disfigurement; down from her head dripped blood mingled with flame; her flesh, attacked by the invisible fangs of poison, melted from the bare bone, like gum-drops from pine-tree’s bark- a ghastly sight.”  When Medea’s gloats, “You’ll give me double pleasure if their death was horrible”,  she is close to being considered melodramatic however we see enough of her humanity to salvage this. This statement highlights how deeply Jason’s betrayal scarred Medea. Medea wavered before killing her own children which illustrates her sense of humanity however she is not struck by guilt after committing such.
Lady Macbeth only called upon evil after she was informed of her husband’s prophecy. However she did so with her husband’s best interests at heart. She was ambitious for him to be King and desired to share such a royal status with him. She begins her evil pathway by using her influence to manipulate Macbeth into killing Duncan and she ultimately becomes his backbone. Unlike Medea, Lady Macbeth didn’t waver when sinning however her bad actions impacted on her and eventually her conscience and sense of guilt drove her to her own grave.
In conclusion, it is clear that Euripides Medea and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth are credible characters. At particular moments in the play the women may be close to being melodramatic however the audience sees their sense of humanity. Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most renowned and fearsome female characters; however after deeply analysing her character, one cannot restrain himself from feeling empathy for her. It is understood that although she reaches out to evil and commits terrible acts, Lady Macbeth’s sense of faith, guilty conscience and feminine essence restrains her from being a killer with no conscience; she is a criminal whose actions and guilt deeply affect her. It is her sense of humanity and weakness which ultimately leads to her destruction; such disregards her as a frightening character and emphasizes her credibility. Medea is also said to be a frightening female character. Although her actions were horrifying and savage, Medea’s conscience and vulnerability allows her to waver before killing her children; a truly evil character would not waver before committing evil nor would their actions cause them any guilt. Medea was heartbroken, scared, bruised and battered which was her ultimate drive for destruction. Consequently, the audience also empathizes with Medea after understanding and acknowledging her sense of humanity and connects with her emotions. Thus, despite the fact that Lady Macbeth and Medea’s female roles go against the ordinary depiction of women, they are by no means melodramatic evil characters. If Lady Macbeth and Medea were melodramatically evil, the audience will feel that the plays are weak and such would diminish the playwright’s achievements.
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