58 pages 1 hour read



Fiction | Play | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


Medea is a tragic play written by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. It was composed in 431 BCE as Euripides’s entry for the Dionysia, an important religious festival and theatrical competition in the city of Athens. Though Medea placed third in the competition that year, it has since become one of Euripides’s most popular works, enjoying special attention for its nuanced treatment of revenge and domestic strife and for the complexity of its lead character, the clever witch Medea.

The youngest of the three canonical Greek tragedians (the others being Sophocles and Aeschylus), Euripides is distinguished from his peers for providing a voice to marginalized members of society: women, slaves, and immigrants, who were afforded little protection in the legal and cultural apparatus of Greek society. Medea is no exception. Starring a foreign-born, exiled woman who asserts her power to inspiring (and horrific) effect, Medea both entranced and shocked its ancient audience. Euripides nestles his narrative at a nexus of uncomfortable issues for his time and, perhaps, for our own: the second-class treatment of women, the helpless position of slaves, and the ostracization often faced by immigrants.

Euripides was highly respected in his time for his talent, but needled, too, being too clever and intellectual for his own good. His controversial themes—and his close association with progressive thinkers like Socrates—may have seen him required to accept voluntary exile in Macedonia, though ancient sources are unreliable on this point.

This guide refers to the 2006 Oxford University Press edition of its The Greek Tragedy in New Translations series, translated by Michael Collier and Georgia Machemer. For ease of reference and discussion purposes, the play has been divided into three parts, but Euripides’s work was not divided this way in antiquity, not did it feature the three- or five-act structure familiar to modern readers.

Plot Summary

A solitary figure stands outside a house in the ancient city of Corinth: Medea’s personal slave, her Nurse from childhood. The Nurse wishes that the legendary ship, the Argo, manned by Jason and his Argonauts, had never come to Medea’s faraway home of Colchis, and that Medea had not fallen in love with Jason there, agreeing to help him on his adventures. The couple and their two sons were exiled from Medea’s homeland, then from Jason’s. They finally took refuge here, in Corinth, but now Jason has divorced Medea and married a local Corinthian princess, leaving Medea in a state of depression.

The Tutor of Medea and Jason’s sons soon arrives with worse news: Creon, the king of Corinth and Jason’s new father-in-law, plans to exile Medea, effective immediately. Local Corinthian women, Medea’s friends and neighbors (the Chorus), emerge to see what’s going on. Hearing Medea’s cries from inside the house—she is raving about wanting Jason and her children dead—they convince the Nurse to fetch her.

Medea emerges and addresses the Chorus. She is aware of the social requirement for women to behave with decorum–she’s more aware than most of the need to fit in, as a foreigner—but injustice compels her to speak. She criticizes how women become “slaves” to their husbands in marriage while enjoying few of the benefits the institution extends to men. The Chorus is convinced that Medea is right to be angry with Jason and lends her their moral support.

Creon, the king of Corinth, arrives to inform Medea that she and her sons are now exiled. He is aware of Medea’s reputation for cruelty and fears for his daughter, Jason’s new bride. Medea resents that her cleverness has condemned her in his eyes but quickly backtracks, playing a meek woman instead. She begs for one more day to prepare for her banishment. Creon, reluctant to look like a tyrant, grants her one more day. Medea leaps on the opportunity to plot her revenge—she wants to kill Creon, the princess, and Jason.

Jason arrives to tell Medea that he refuses to be painted as the villain; her exile is entirely her fault because she would not stop railing against the royal family after the divorce. Jason even wanted her to keep the house. Now that Medea is exiled, he is willing to extend his own alliance network to her to help secure comfortable housing outside of Corinth.

In response, Medea catalogues the many ways Jason’s betrayal left her socially and politically vulnerable, though she was his comrade-in-arms on the Argo. Jason rebuts that she is overexaggerating her help—and he only remarried to help their family’s situation in Corinth. Medea finds this line of reasoning disingenuous; the Chorus agrees. Medea is convinced Jason was always embarrassed by her as a “barbarian” wife (that is, not Greek). Jason begs Medea to abandon her destructive anger, but she refuses.

Aegeus, king of Athens, arrives in Corinth. He greets Medea as a friend. They chitchat about his recent visit to the oracle of Delphi, but Aegeus quickly notices something is wrong. Medea updates him on the situation with Jason and Creon, and Aegeus is quick to believe her version of events. He wants to help. Medea extracts a promise from him that she can enjoy safe harbor in Athens, no matter what happens in Corinth, and Aegeus agrees.

With an extra day to plot from Creon and a promise of sanctuary from Aegeus, Medea puts her plan into motion. She pretends to accept her exile and support Jason’s new marriage, offering the princess a beautiful wedding gift of a robe and a diadem. Medea has poisoned the gifts with her magical abilities. Jason buys her story and takes their sons to the princess with the gifts; a Messenger soon arrives, informing Medea of the gruesome deaths of Creon and the princess, effected by the gifts. Medea realizes she has little time. Though she loves her sons, she concludes that the only way to truly bring down Jason’s house is to kill them.

Jason arrives too late. As he fights to break down the house’s door, Medea appears above it in a golden chariot pulled by dragons—an escape vehicle sent by her grandfather Helios, the god of the sun. Jason helplessly yells at her and breaks down, begging to be allowed to bury their sons or at least to touch the bodies. Medea refuses. Triumphant, she flies away unpunished.