In Euripides' depiction of the character Medea in the play named after her he offers his audience an instance of the psychopathology of love. Medea is about a particular kind of emotional excess-an obsessive need for the object of one's love-and about the terrible consequences that can arise out of that excess. Medea's love for Jason swamps her cognitive, reasonable faculties and the result is chaos. Medea, as a literary figure, is in a class by herself and it is no wonder that, in the words of Harsh, "In later writers Medea's wrath and jealousy become proverbial." In her egoism she resembles the Furies, the pitiless avenging spirits of Greek mythology. And, as the saying goes, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."
Medea is a particular type of personality. She can be better understood if she is compared to two other women who suffer the departure of their beloved in classical mythology. In the Odyssey, when Calypso is ordered by Zeus to release Odysseus, she acquiesces and provides him with a boat. In Virgil's Aeneid Dido is angry at Aeneas desertion of her, but she turns her aggression inwards and kills herself. Medea's response to the desertion of Jason is quite different from the responses of Calypso and Dido to their losses. Medea, a sorceress and no stranger to bloodshed (she had murdered her brother Apsytrus, is dangerous in a way that the other two women are not. She is used to imposing her ego on the world through the destructive exercise of power. Those who know her know this aspect of her personality and fear it. Before the action of the play commences the Nurse expresses her foreboding concerning Jason, and the children of Jason and Medea, "for her mood is dangerous nor will she brook her cruel treatment; full well I know her, and I do dread that she will plunge the keen sword through their hearts."
In the event Medea proves to be lethal.
- She brings about the death of Creon, Jason's father-in-law
- She is also responsible for the death of Creon's daughter, Jason's bride.
- Medea kills her own two children.
The question arises, what are the well springs of this woman's ferocity. Why does rejection by Jason cause her to embark on an orgy of revenge taking?
Part of the answer lies in the nature of her love for Jason. In an early speech she describes Jason as "he who was all the world to me." This points to the fact that Medea's love for Jason is obsessive. There are many gradations of intensity with respect to people's love for one another. There are those who love tepidly, and there are those who love violently. Medea is of the latter sort. Her love for Jason, as the quotation given above indicates, has become all-absorbing. When Jason rejects her he is literally taking her whole world away from her. When a person feels that his/her whole world has been removed, he/she may react against him/herself-by suicide as in the case of Dido, or the reaction may be against the person responsibly for the loss, in this case Jason.
It should be noted that the Greek intellectual climate in the fifth century BC was one that placed great emphasis on order, balance, and rationality. In her famous monologue that leads up to the decision to destroy her own children the rational Medea contends with the irrational, hate-driven, Medea and it is the latter that has the victory. Her motivations here are complex. She feels maternal love for her children and this makes her wish to spare them. But she also sees them as a possible instrument of revenge on Jason, "Can I consent to let those foes escape from punishment, and incur their mockery?" In the end she decides to murder the children because, having been spurned by Jason, her obsessive nature cannot be denied the use of any available means to hurt him.
The killing by a mother of her children in order to exact revenge on their father, taken within the context of the rationalist ethos of Greek culture, is an act that has great dramatic and great psychological significance. It represents the defeat of reason by certain dark forces, a defeat that has occurred within the mind of Medea. On the level of myth it should be remembered that Medea represents certain archetypal forces. She "is a barbarian princess and magician; she is descended from Helios, and she is in possession of certain mysterious powers, or more strictly poisons, which ordinary women know nothing about." She is, in other words, a barbarian witch. In Greek culture such a character, and the forces and powers that that character makes use of, are associated with things perceived to be antithetical both to reason and to culture itself. On a psychological level there is the same meaning. Medea, the character, is an ego-driven obsessive-compulsive, one not in control of her emotions. Harsh states, "The theme of Medea seems to be that passion may so overwhelm reason as to lead one to a course of action inhumanly cruel and disastrous." Medea has given all of her love to Jason. She has placed all of her ego on the line in doing so and, because she is proud and arrogant (DSM IV, the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association, would probably lead a professional to classify her as, among other things, suffering from a narcissistic personality), that rejection lays waste to her ego and is intolerable. Her response is to lash out and attempt to destroy all of his world. The chorus defines mortal man's "crowning woe" as being the loss of the loss of his children and that is what she brings about for Jason. Again, the contrast with Dido and Calypso is instructive. Calypso can be seen as an immortal who feels the loss of Odysseus profoundly (for she had offered him much to stay), but whose ego and world are left intact after his departure. Dido, a queen, the builder of Carthage, has her world destroyed by Aeneas departure, but she is not possessed by the dark forces that possess Medea and the damage to her ego is turned inwards and culminates in suicide.