March 01, 2010

Medea and Criminal Liability

Euripides' Medea has defined the modern perception of her. Some time ago, the Teatro Instabile Di Aosta presented, in Delhi, a contemporary revisiting of Euripides' Medea in a play based on the texts of Euripides and Pasolini revolving around “discriminations and forbearance, power and revenge, and the meeting of two extremely different worlds; the one that is logical and rational, and the other one that grapples with the possible reality of mythology and ritual,” as the brochure said. The performance was meant to portray the universality and power floating in the story culminating in the “terrible decision that Medea comes to as a result of her painful suffering.”

Her “painful suffering” was the suffering which her husband Jason inflicted on her by being unfaithful to her and marrying Glauce, a princess, to further his political ambitions. He justified himself by saying that he could not pass up the opportunity to wed a princess, and Medea was, after all, a barbarian woman, never mind that she was a barbarian woman who'd given up family, home, and homeland for him. He ultimately, apparently, planned to "unite" the two families -- his family with Medea, and with Glauce -- and turn Medea into his mistress.

Medea's "terrible decision" was the plan she decided to execute to revenge herself on Jason -- she killed Glauce (and, Glauce's father, Creon) using a poisoned dress, and killed the two children she had had with Jason in order to spite Jason and cause him as much pain as possible, or so one interpretation runs. Whether or not she should have been held accountable is debatable though.

Jason had supposedly remarried so that he could have children with Glauce. And when Glauce and his father-in-law were murdered by Medea, he apparently rushed to find the children he had had with Medea so that they would not be subjected to revenge because of their mother's act. It could well be argued that one of Medea's aims in killing her children was to spare them death at the hands of her enemies.

Then again, by killing the children, she effectively killed a part of Jason. And perhaps that was the ultimate revenge: Jason wanted children, and she not only deprived him of the possibility of having children with Glauce but also killed the children he had already had with her. To kill the children for a reason that was anything but altruistic would involve viewing the children not so much as individuals in themselves but as extensions of their father, which perhaps could be understood given that contemporary Greek society was intensely patriarchal, and viewed women mainly as breeders and chattel.

Contemporary Athenian law also allowed a man to marry and have children by a citizen woman while keeping a foreign woman who was not a citizen, in this case, Medea, as a concubine. And as far as divorce was concerned, all a man had to do was formally repudiate his wife, and send her back to her father or other male guardian with her dowry. There were two reasons who this did not apply to Jason and Medea though: firstly, Medea had contracted her own marriage, and as such, she had no one she could be "returned to". Secondly, Jason had sworn to be wed to Medea before Zeus and Hera, and as such, by divorcing her, he had in fact, broken an oath to the Gods.

Whether on not Medea is, or should be, criminally culpable is an open question though lying on thoroughly ambiguous moral ground. Medea was obviously distraught at the time she developed her plan for revenge. The murders were premeditated to the extent that she did not commit them on the spur of the moment. However, she developed the plan at a time when she was quite obviously not emotionally stable. And the duration of the time from when she first conceived of the plan to the time when she executed it was short.

In addition to this, there is the question of provocation. In law, if a person commits a crime in consequence of being provoked, their criminal liability could be diminished to the point of being non-existent. It isn't clear whether Jason's conduct would be viewed as "adequate provocation" to cause Medea to commit multiple murders -- presumably, it was not unheard of conduct at the time the play was written -- although it would be difficult to argue that Medea's committing the murders had nothing to do with her being cast off, and banished. She lived in a society in which she seems to have had no recourse to any form of justice, as a "barbarian" woman she was especially disadvantaged, and being exiled would have left her in an entirely hopeless position.

Medea states in the play that she knows her own mind, and that she knows that what she is doing is wrong. However, given that the act which seems to have spurred her to commit the murders is her banishment with immediate effect by Creon, Glauce's father, it is unlikely that she did actually know her own mind.

She managed (by being manipulative) to get a twenty-four hour grace period from Creon, during which time she both planned and executed the murders. Jason arrived to meet her after Creon left her, and insulted her. It was in these twenty-four hours that she planned and committed the murders. In the play, she is simply not decisive with regard to murdering her children until the last possible moment.

Medea unequivocally states in the play that she is an autonomous individual -- an assertion which in itself would have been questionable especially given that women were subject to the rule of men in a very literal sense with little autonomy of their own. Perhaps in the way that Glauce seems to have been little beyond a pawn in the schemes of her father and Jason, and who died because of those schemes.

Medea, however, managed to thoroughly subvert Jason's schemes, and escape the consequences of her actions. At the end of the play, she is shown escaping in a chariot provided by the Gods -- leaving no doubt of whom they supported. She speaks in a voice which is reminiscent of that used by the Gods, cold and distant. Driven to murder by Jason, she is ultimately far removed from emotion itself, it would seem.

Image: Medea by Sandys from WikiCommons