Though marriage today is considered the highest expression of love two people can share, for many centuries love and marriage had no relation to each other at all. While marriage in the twenty-first century is thought of as a commitment between two equals seeking love and happiness, Medea and Metamorphoses reveal a depiction of marriage in which economic, social, and political stability are the primary consideration. These works not only suggest that romantic love is not essential between a man and wife, but that passionate love is a poor basis for marriage and ultimately an impediment to a happy and successful long term partnership.
In Medea, marriage is framed as a social contract based on economic and societal interests. In Athenian law, women had no legal standing; they were unable to enter into financial contracts, had no say in government, and were barred from owning personal assets outside of their dowry (Schaps). Marriage was the sole means by which a woman could hold a position in Athenian society. Using economic language, Medea portrays marriage as a type of transaction between a husband and wife, “When for an extravagant sum we have bought a husband, we must then accept him as possessor of our body (Euripides, 24).” Medea suggests that marriage is not an expression of love, but an exchange in which women surrender their physical body, autonomy, and independence in return for a husband. By using specific language associated with the buying of goods, such as sum, bought, and possessor, Medea compares a wedding to a sale. And as a transaction, marriage comes with its own terms of service. While there are financial conditions, such as the payment of a dowry and the joining of the bride and groom’s assets, the most significant terms of marriage are social.
Marital expectations between a husband and wife are evident by the perception characters in the play have towards Medea and Jason’s actions. In the play’s opening monologue, the nurse states, “ – and in marriage that’s the saving thing, when a wife obediently accepts her husband’s will (Euripides 17).” Medea later expands on this expectation, noting that wives are not only expected to relinquish their will to their husbands but their physical bodies as well. The expectation that a woman surrenders her body in marriage is indicative that it is a wife’s responsibility to produce legitimate heirs for her husband. The importance of producing children is so great that Medea confesses, “If you had still been childless I could have pardoned you for hankering after this new marriage (Euripides 31).” Ensuring the legitimacy of the family household was also of vital importance. Medea notes that while men could look outside the marriage for sexual gratification, women had only their husbands. While wives were expected to be submissive, domestically focused, and maternal, married women received certain social benefits in return. In exchange for the maintenance of the family, husbands were expected to protect and provide for the household.
Jason’s abandonment of Medea is not only a personal betrayal but a violation of the social contract between them. Notably, Jason is not denounced by the chorus for loving a woman outside the bonds of matrimony; the chorus tells Medea that it’s common for men to love women who are not their wives and that she shouldn’t let her husband’s infidelity anger her. Instead Jason is condemned for neglecting his household, “And my own heart suffers too when Jason’s house is suffering; for that is where my loyalty lies (Euripides 21).” The chorus’ emphasis on Jason’s jilting of his marital duties and not his violation of Medea’s love suggests that duty and not love is the basis of a successful marriage. The chorus has sympathy for Medea as a wronged wife not as a wronged woman. As Medea’s husband, it is Jason’s responsibility to protect and provide for his wife and children, and it is Medea’s duty to be an obedient, loyal, and devoted wife. Through perpetuating traditional gender roles, marriage is a means of enforcing social order. When Jason violates his marriage vows and forsakes his obligations as Medea’s husband, Medea is also freed from her obligation to be the ideal wife. As a result, Jason’s betrayal not only leads to the breakdown of his relationship with Medea, but the entire Athenian social order comes undone, “Tradition, order, all things are reversed (Euripides 29).” Medea is no longer relegated to her role as the domestic wife, and tragedy ensues. Ultimately, Jason is left grieving the deaths of his two sons and new bride, as Medea leaves in a golden chariot, escaping all punishment. The complete reversal of fortunes between Jason and Medea from the beginning to the end of the play can be interpreted as affirmation of the sanctity of marriage.
While being abandoned by her husband is heartbreaking in its own right, Medea’s tragedy is compounded because her marriage was founded on love rather as opposed to financial or social security. Medea subverts social convention by arranging her own marriage and allowing love to be the primary influence in her choice of husband. But in acting out of love for Jason, Medea leaves herself exposed and defenseless. Medea betrays her father to leave with Jason, exiling herself from her homeland and forfeiting her dowry. She also alienates any potential allies that might come to her aid by killing the king Pelias, and earning the hatred of Iolcus. Without a dowry, friends, or family to turn to in times of crisis, Medea is completely vulnerable to Jason’s whim. And where there is stability in an arrangement based on economic interests, love is shown to be a fickle emotion. The chorus describes love as a powerful and externally derived force with negative repercussions, “Visitations of love that come raging and violent on a man bring him neither good repute nor goodness (Euripides 36).” Because love is not intrinsically generated but a force which acts upon its subject, love lacks consistency. Intense sexual and romantic love, eros, is identified as the downfall of Medea and Jason’s marriage due to its lack of reliability. When Jason’s affections are directed towards Medea there is peace between them, but when, “Old love is ousted by new love (Euripides 19),” the foundations of Medea and Jason’s relationship crumble, and both neglect their duties as husband and wife.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, love is also presented as a dangerous and destabilizing force. While the modern conception of love evokes a sense of romance, tenderness, and affection, love in Metamorphoses is violent, all consuming, and destructive. Just like it was in Medea, the source of love in Metamorphoses is external. As depicted in the story of Apollo and Daphne, love is the product of divine intervention. Apollo and Daphne’s feelings are not their own but the result of Cupid striking Apollo with an arrow which causes love and Daphne with an arrow which extinguishes love. Like most stories involving love in Metamorphoses, there is no happy ending, and in order to avoid being raped by Apollo, Daphne is transformed into a tree. Love is so all consuming that only by becoming an inanimate object is Daphne able to ward off its advances. Many love stories in Metamorphoses highlight the destructive nature of love by showing how women are often the victims of its violent expressions. As seen in the stories of Io and Callisto, rape is a common method through which Gods express their love and desire for women. Though Philomela’s rape and mutilation by her brother-in-law shows how mortal men treated the objects of their desire in similarly violent ways. While men typically express love in ways which are destructive to women, women’s expressions of love are often detrimental to society at large. In the examples of Scylla and Myrrha, love encourages the destruction of societal norms to the detriment of the common good. Scylla, out of love for Minos, betrays her father by taking the power contained in his hair and giving that power to a foreign invader. For Myrrah, her feeling of lust towards her father drive her to trick him in bed and commit incest. And just as the previous love stories, Myrrah and Scylla’s stories both end in disaster.
Even in a relationship legitimized by the sanctity of marriage, passionate love poses a dangerous threat. Love that seems destined to bring only happiness can be corrupted and turned into a source of distrust and tragedy. Originally, Procris and Cephalus consider their love a blessing in their marriage,“In marriage she and I were joined, and she and I were joined in love. Men called me happy; happiness was mine (Ovid 165).” However, when a goddess grows tired of listening to the lovers happiness, she is able to manipulate the love between Cephalus and Procris to create strife in their relationship. By planting doubt in the couples’ minds about their spouses fidelity, the goddess transforms same love that brought Cephalus and Procris so much happiness to a source of misery. Tragically, Cephalus mistakes the rustling in the bush for a boar and kills Procris – who is spying on her husband in order to discern the validity of his love for her. Because of the how important love is in Cephalus and Procris’ marriage, it is easily exploited. Ironically, it’s the fear that love might be lost that eventually leads to the loss of love.
As ideas about gender, sexuality, and love have evolved over the course of history, so has the nature of marriage. While mariages of the past were primarily economic contracts, in the twenty-first century, marriage is no longer imperative for enhancing one’s social status, growing personal wealth, or ensuring legal protections for children. Instead, modern conceptions of marriage focus on love, happiness, and self fulfillment as primary motivators, and as a result, twenty-first century marriages are facing a novel set of challenges and strains. While it may be easy to dismiss the portrayals of love and marriage in Medea and Metamorphoses as backwards, archaic, and obsolete, there is value in considering what underlying truths can be extracted from these depictions. Discussing the importance of love as a foundation for a long term partnership, is particularly poignant at a time when forty-five percent of first marriages end in divorce (Stanley). Medea and Metamorphoses force us to consider how passionate emotions such as love can be unreliable and even counterproductive to a stable, long term relationships.
- Stanley, Scott. “What Is the Divorce Rate, Anyway? Around 42 Percent, One Scholar Believes.” Institute for Family Studies, Institute for Family Studies, 22 Jan. 2015,
- Schaps, David M. Economic Rights of Women in Ancient Greece. Edinburgh University Press, 1981.
- Euripides, and Philip Vellacott. Medea, and Other Plays: Medea, Hecabe, Electra, Heracles. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.
- Ovid, and A D. Melville. Metamorphoses. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.