An Analysis of Loyalty in Greek Dramas
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Murder, corruption in government, religious zealotry, and revenge of scorned lovers are
themes that run rampant through many Greek dramas. However, in the plays Medea, written by
Euripides, and Antigone, written by Sophocles, such themes reach an almost unprecedented
levels. The plays follow women driven to extremes by what she feels is great injustice. The two
women, after whom the plays are named after, fight against the offense and demand respect from
the men they deal with. Antigone stands with her sister, Ismene, against Creon in defense of
giving a proper burial to her slain brother. Medea extracts a horrible revenge against her
husband, Jason, whom has left her for another woman. With all the similarities between the
dramas, there is still one overwhelming theme which surpasses all others; loyalty. The loyalty
depicted is most apparent with the characters' ties to his/her family and gender.
For the plays, loyalty to one's family is more than simply familial pride. When Antigone
first faces Creon, she is questioned as to why she disobeyed a creed set forth by the government;
Antigone responds by saying, "It is no shame to pay respect to own flesh and blood" (Sophocles
20). Her response clearly demonstrates the allegiance she feels toward her brother. She further
demonstrates this when she states, "It was no bondman perished, but a brother" (Sophocles 20).
Even in the face of a great authority and with the threat of being exiled or death held over her,
Antigone never questions what she has done to honor her brother. The family fidelity goes
beyond just the brother/sister relationship when Ismene decides to stand beside her sister in
punishment. Though Antigone protests, Ismene attempts to share blame for the burial. To her
there is no life without her sister which she clearly expresses in "How could I live on alone,
without my sister?" (Sophocles 22). Ultimately, it is realized that Ismene did not take part in the
act, the brave support she shows for her sister is truly admirable. Within Medea, Jason attempts
to do what he feels is right for his family.
He even tries to justify marrying another woman for
the family's own sake (Euripides 18). When it becomes clear that Medea and her children will
be exiled, Jason swears that he will not abandon them; "I call the gods to witness that I wish to
help you and the children in every way" (Euripides 20). Despite a situation filled with animosity,
Jason does strive to make the best of the situation at hand. As the play progresses, he discovers
that Medea has murdered his new wife and father. Jason immediately goes to save his children
from the retribution he fears will take place; "So I have come to save the lives of my boys, in
case the royal house harm them while taking vengeance for their mother's wicked deed"
(Euripides 42). Regardless of how it will look publicly coming to the defense of the
unintentional murderers, Jason will not let his loyalty to his children be swayed. Upon learning
that his children too have died, he becomes enraged. Jason confronts Medea, whom he feels is
responsible for his children's death; "How you have killed my boys and prevent me from
touching their bodies or giving them burial" (Euripides 46). His grievance is deep, because not
only have many of his loved ones been murdered, but also, he does not understand the injustice
put upon him. The idea that a mother would betray her own children for an act of revenge seems
unfathomable mainly due to the strong familial loyalties he holds. The lack of allegiance to her
kin is one of the first signs of Medea's ill character. In an act of retaliation, Medea decides to use
her sons in a scheme to kill Jason's new wife. While alone on stage, she announces her plan that
she claims fills her with sorrow; "I weep to think of what a deed I have to do next after that; for I
shall kill my own children" (Euripides 26). The fashion in which she disregards her children is
not the first time, however, that she commits a treacherous endeavor against family members.
Before the play begins, Medea has already killed her brother and abandoned the house of her
father which she shamefully admits to with the following: "Oh, my father! Oh, my country! In
what dishonor I left you, killing my own brother for it" (Euripides 6). Jason uses this knowledge
as further proof to him that she is evil. Her lack of faithfulness to her family is considered to be
worst part of all the deeds she commits. The characters all hold loyalty to his/her family to be
Throughout the play, it becomes overt that the characters feel loyal to his/her gender.
When Creon is told of that burial rites have been performed after he has forbid it, he assumes a
man has done it; "What man dared to do it?" (Sophocles 10). His immediate presumption that a
man is to blame demonstrates his belief that males are far more likely to rebel and stand against
authority. He believes men to be brave and women to be meek. As Creon learns that Antigone is
responsible, he becomes outraged and says, "Truly if here she wield such powers uncensured, she
is man, I woman!" (Sophocles 18). Additionally, Creon displays his feelings when he decides
how he must handle the situation; "While Discipline preserves the multitude of the ordered host
alive. Therefore it is we must assist the cause of order; this forbids concession to a feminine
will; better be outcast, if we must of men, than have it said a woman worsted us" (Sophocles 26).
He evidently considers it would be a betrayal to his own sex to be publicly outwitted by a
woman. When Creon talks with his son, Haemon, regarding the situation with Antigone, he is
shocked to realize that Haemon does not agree with him; "This fellow, it seems, fights on the
woman's side" (Sophocles 28). Despite the fact that Antigone is Haemon's fiancee, his father
assumes his loyalty will lie on the side of men. Creon chauvinism illustrates his loyalty to his
gender. Another way a man alines himself with his gender is shown through Jason. While he
feels Medea overreacts to his decision to leave her, he believes it is because she is woman. He
goes as far as to hypothesize that the world might have been better without females; "It would
have been better far for men to have got their children in some other way, and women not to have
existed" (Euripides 18). Jason truly thinks that this would be for the well-being of his fellow
man. In the plays, females also hold strong to their ties to their gender. The chorus in Medea is
made solely of Corinthian women who makes responses to the actions going on around them.
When Medea decides to extract revenge, the women remark, "It is the thoughts of men that are
deceitful, their pledges that are loose. Story shall now turn my condition to a fair one, women
are paid their due" (Euripides 14). Throughout the play, the chorus remains loyal to Medea no
matter what heinous act she contrives. Also, the women seem to believe the men in the play
deserve the pain inflicted upon them. Medea relishes in her womanhood and takes pride in the
fact that she was born a woman (Euripides 14). She even brags that females are the best at
revenge; "For in other ways a woman is full of fear, defenseless, dreads the sight of cold steel;
but when once she is wronged in the matter of love, no other soul can hold so many thoughts of
blood" (Euripides 8). Medea only feels the utmost pride in her gender's ability to seek revenge.
She believes that it is an accomplishment for women. Perhaps the most demonstrative scene in
both plays of loyalty to one's gender takes place between Medea and the Nurse. Medea has just
finished plotting and turns to the Nurse and says, "You I employ on all affairs of greatest trust.
Say nothing of these decisions which I have made, if you love your mistress, if you were born a
woman" (Euripides 27). Not only does she expect the Nurse to keep her secret because she is an
employee, Medea also feels she deserves it, because she is dealing with another woman. The ties
of womanhood is ultimately what allows the climax of the play to take place, because it appears
that the Nurse does keep the knowledge to herself, because the murders are carried through
without issue. Whether it be through denouncing the opposite sex and looking out for his/her
own, loyalty to one's gender is readily apparent.
These ancient Greek dramas are full of scandal and betrayal. However, the plays are still
relevant today. In present times, jealously (i.e. Medea's jealousy of her husband's new love)
remains as does the willingness to stand up for what one feels is just (i.e. Antigone's honoring of
her brother notwithstanding consequences). Despite the connection to today's world, one way in
which these plays differ is in the potential punishment of family members along with the
perpetrator. Ismene is threatened with execution for sister's actions, and Jason fears Medea's
children will be hurt for her wrongdoings. Neither of these would happen in present times.
Regardless, the idea of loyalty in Antigone and Medea, especially in regards of family and
gender, is incredibly relatable, making it a theme that will appear in literature for centuries to
Euripides. Medea. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.
Sophocles. Antigone. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.