- At the beginning of the play, Medea's in dire straights. For one, her husband, Jason, has married another woman, Glauke, daughter of Creon the King of Corinth. On top of that, Creon banishes Medea and her two sons from Corinth. Medea, however, is not the kind of woman to take such mistreatment lying down. She swears bloody revenge and swiftly sets about finding a way to kill them all.
- First, she convinces Creon to let her stay one more day in Corinth. It goes against his better judgment, but he allows it out of pity for Medea's two sons. This gives Medea enough time to put her plot into motion. Next Medea has to secure a safe place to retreat to once she's committed the murders. By an incredibly lucky coincidence, Aegeus, King of Athens, happens by. Medea promises to cure his sterility if he swears to give her safe harbor. Of course, she neglects to mention she's about to kill a bunch of people.
- Now that Medea has the time and a safe place to retreat to, she can really get to work. She snookers Jason into believing that she's now cool with his new marriage. Medea begs her husband to ask Glauke if their two sons can stay in Corinth. Jason is moved and agrees. Medea gives Jason a gossamer gown and a golden crown to sweeten the deal for Glauke. Jason and the children trot off to the palace with hope in their hearts. Their hope is misplaced, however, for once again Medea neglects to mention a vital piece of information: the gifts are cursed.
- A Messenger returns and tells Medea all about the horror she has wreaked. When the Princess put on the gown and crown, she received a rather nasty surprise. Her entire body caught fire and the flesh melted from her bones. When Creon saw his daughter's flaming corpse, he was so distraught that he threw his body onto hers and died as well. Medea thinks this is great. Now she only has one thing left to do, in order to leave Jason totally devastated – kill their sons.
- The murder of her children isn't easy for Medea. She struggles with her motherly instincts, but in the end her revenge is more important. Medea drags the boys inside the house and kills them with a sword. Jason arrives too late to save his sons. Just as he's banging on the door to stop his wife, Medea erupts into the sky in a chariot drawn by dragons.
- Jason curses his wife, and she curses him back. He begs to have the children's bodies so that he can bury them. She refuses him even this, and takes their corpses away with her as she flies away triumphant.
Women and Femininity
Medea sharply criticizes the male-dominated society of its time. Its protagonist is a radical anti-heroine who continues to inspire both admiration and fear. We sympathize with Medea's downtrodden state and applaud her strength and intelligence. However, her bloody and vengeful rebellion shocks and unsettles audiences even to this day. The play can be seen as a cautionary tale to oppressors as well as the oppressed.
Medea: Of all creatures that can feel and think,
we women are the worst treated things alive. (31)
Euripides boldly states the central theme of the play: the sorry state of the female in Greece. This theme popped up in many of his plays.
Medea's relentless pursuit of vengeance is legendary. She is driven by a passionate desire to right the wrongs done to her and sacrifices even her own children in the pursuit of satisfaction. Medea shows audiences the horror that can come when a person lets desire for revenge rule her life
Leader: But, my lady, to kill your own two
Medea: It is the supreme way to hurt my husband. (140-141)
Medea's hatred for Jason is so fierce that she'll go to any lengths to hurt him. She feels that her revenge wouldn't be complete if the boys are left to live. By the end of the play, Jason is destroyed.
All the violence and terror in Medea is caused by Jason's betrayal of his wife Medea. Her sheer rage at his unfaithfulness drives her to commit horrific acts of bloody revenge. Ironically, Medea's fury at her husband's betrayal drives her to the use of trickery and manipulation, which are really just another form of betrayal. Medea shows how, when one person betrays another, all may be corrupted.
Medea: I can unload some venom from my heart and you can smart to hear it. To begin at the beginning, […] I saved your life
Medea's rage at Jason's betrayal is deepened by the fact that she's done so much for him. If it wasn't for her, he never would've gotten the Golden Fleece and would never have achieved epic hero status. it's this status that made him a worthy mate for Creon's daughter.
Medea is laced throughout with the theme of exile. All the characters relate to the motif. Some, like Medea, have been banished from their homes; some are the ones doing the banishing. The theme of exile would have resonated strongly with Euripides's audience of ancient Athenians. Their city-state was their lives. The thought of being cut off from it and cast out into the wilderness would have been terrifying
Medea: O Father, my country, the land I abandoned,
Flagrantly killing my brother (26)
The violence of Medea's exit from her homeland has made her a permanent exile. This fact heightens the stakes of the entire play. Medea is backed into a corner with nowhere to turn, making her all the more dangerous.
Foreignness and 'the other'
Ancient Greeks had a deep suspicion of foreigners, thinking of them all as "barbarians." With Medea, Euripides seems to confront this prejudice by choosing to honor a foreigner with the role of tragic heroine and by making her the most intelligent character in the play. However, the playwright also confirms many Greek stereotypes of foreigners by making Medea wild, overly passionate, and vengeful.
Nurse: she glares with a bull-mad glaze
(Or is it a lioness with her whelps)
When anyone comes or speaks of helps. (29)
Greeks were of the opinion that all Asians, like Medea, were wild and emotional. Comments like this reflect this stereotype. It's almost like the Nurse is saying, "Well, you know how those people are."
Medea is an extreme depiction of just how bad a marriage can go. It really doesn't get much worse than the marriage seen in this play. When Jason takes a new wife, Medea, his former wife takes revenge by killing four people, including their two sons. Indeed, the play doesn't exactly have a bright outlook on matrimony. In Medea the severing of a marriage releases the same destructive force as the sundered atom of a nuclear bomb.
Chorus: Deep is her sobbing from depths of pain:
Shrill the news her suffering brings
Of marriage betrayed (30)
Jason rips a hole in Medea's soul when he takes another wife. The severing of her marriage creates an unholy rage in Medea.
Cunning and Cleverness
Medea is symbolic of the clever woman imprisoned in a world of men. Her intelligence inspires both suspicion and cautious admiration. In the end, her cunning becomes her supreme weapon in her quest for revenge. None of her enemies stand a chance against her supreme intellect. Medea shows that, the greatest power lies in knowledge.
Creon: You [Medea] are a woman of some knowledge,
versed in many an unsavory skill. (35)
This is one of the first recognitions in the play that Medea is a skilled woman. Her knowledge of drugs and witchcraft give her power. This makes everybody around her nervous, especially since she has a bit of a temper.
Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, is not very well appreciated in Euripides'sMedea. Everywhere her hand is seen, destruction swiftly follows. Whether the love be romantic, paternal, or maternal, it always leads to death and despair. Quite often the characters even go so far as to beg the goddess to spare them the pains that love can bring. Overall,Medea seems to present a rather cynical view of the tenderest of emotions.
Nurse: My mistress, Medea, then would never have […] been struck to the heart with love of Jason. (1)
It's important to remember that the root of all Medea's anger is love. She fell for Jason hard back in their Golden Fleece days. This deep affection is the fuel for her almost inhuman need for revenge.
Medea - Protagonist
- Her relentless pursuit of vengeance against Jason is the central spine of the play.
- Medea is the perfect protagonist in many ways, because she causes everything to happen. She tricks Creon into giving her another day in Corinth – time enough to hatch her scheme. She manipulates Jason and her sons into taking poisoned gifts to Creon and his daughter. She murders her children.
- The character is a great example of the fact that not all protagonists have to be "good guys." Indeed, a character like her would be a villain in a lot of plays. She's a vengeful, child-murderer.
- However, in dramatic analysis nobility has nothing to do with whether a character is the protagonist or not. The most important factor is who drives the action. In this light, it's hard to deny that Medea emerges at the end of the play as its blood-spattered but undisputed protagonist.
Jason - Antagonist
- Jason is a classic antagonist. He does Medea wrong and she sets out to bring him down. He's definitely weak as antagonists go. It's doubtful that an audience would ever think he's going to get the better of Medea.
- Even in their first debate about whether or not his second marriage was justified, Jason's rationalizations come off as pretty flimsy. Medea's verbal retorts make mince meat of him. Later on, the crafty Medea skillfully manipulates him helping to take her cursed gifts to his new wife, without even breaking a sweat. You'd think Jason might know his wife a little better than to trust her so blindly. But, nope…the bumbling Jason plays right into her hands.
- The conclusion of the play might be one of the rare times that an audience sympathizes more for the antagonist than the protagonist. Sure it wasn't very cool for him to take a new wife. Sure he's insensitive about the whole thing. But Medea takes it too far by killing their children. Even if the audience doesn't feel bad for the disloyal Jason, chances are they might just see more sense in his final argument than Medea's.
- As in most drama, the characters of Medea are mainly defined through their actions.
- Medea's vengeful nature is revealed in her plotting and murdering.
- Jason's ultimate disloyalty is shown when he kicks his wife to the curb for fresh young virgin.
- Creon shows that he's an old softy when he lets Medea stay another day on account of her sons.
- And, of course, there's the dutiful Nurse, whose sense of loyalty overrides her own morality as she stays true to her mistress, Medea, throughout bloody events of the play.
Social status plays an important role in defining the characters in Medea. First, there's the Nurse and the Tutor who, being slaves, are the lowest on the totem pole. They have to just do what they're told no matter what.
Medea is a foreigner which makes her have the next lowest status. Even though she is of royal blood, it's of an Asian kingdom, so that doesn't count with the Greeks. And of course, she's a woman, which doesn't give her a lot of power in Ancient Greece. Medea's low social status adds fuel to her anger, and helps to fan the flames of revenge.
Let's also consider Jason's social status. He's a legendary hero, so he's got a certain amount of clout. Also, though, he's a man of royal blood that's never had the chance to rule. This undoubtedly fuels his desire to marry Creon's daughter, which of course is what starts all this terrible business to begin with.
- You can learn a lot about the characters in Medea by the way they treat their family. Both Jason and Medea express love for their sons, showing that each of them has a softer side.
- Of course, this is kind of negated when Jason deserts them and Medea kills them.
- The true family man of the play seems to be Creon, who dies when he throws himself on the flaming corpse of his beloved daughter.
Medea's character (1)
Medea is a straight up serial killer. Let's take a look at her bloody career. Back in her and Jason's Golden Fleece days, she killed her own brother and chopped him into pieces. Later on, she tricked King Pelias' daughters into chopping him into pieces. During Euripides's play, she incinerates King Creon and his daughter, Glauke. She concludes this bloody rampage by slaughtering her own two sons. Medea, what in the name of Zeus is wrong with you?
Though Medea is a highly intelligent woman, she lets passion rule her actions. When her husband, Jason, marries Glauke, Medea goes totally nuts. This, of course, is understandable. When your husband takes another wife without telling you, you definitely have the right to be more than a little angry. Of course, burning the flesh from the bones of his new bride is an extreme reaction. Add to that the assassination of her amiable father, and Medea's actions appear even more drastic. When you top all that off with the killing of she and Jason's innocent sons, Medea, the underdog, becomes nearly impossible to root for.
Medea's character (2)
We should point out that Medea is not a total monster. Though she revels in the gruesome deaths of Creon and Glauke, she shows a good amount of motherly affection towards her two boys. This is shown when she says things to them like, "So sweet […] the mere touch of you: the bloom of children's skin – so soft […] their breath – a perfect balm" (173). She wrestles with herself before she finally decides to kill them. This emotional conflict creates in Medea the kind of psychologically complex character for which Euripides is celebrated.
Medea's rage also goes beyond anger at Jason's betrayal. She's mad at the whole of society. She's definitely has it bad. 1) She's a foreigner, making the people of Corinth distrust her. 2) She's a woman, so she has next to no rights in the male-dominated Greek society. 3) She's an intelligent woman, which makes the men even more uncomfortable. When Jason takes a new wife and Creon banishes her, Medea's plight becomes symbolic of the struggles of all women. Therefore, her violent reaction becomes a form of radical political resistance. With his Medea, Euripides created one of Western literature's most archetypal symbols of feminine revolt.
Jason's character (1)
Jason is kind of a jerk. If you took him on Oprah, he'd get a stern talking to. After years of marriage with Medea, he goes and marries somebody else: Glauke, daughter of Creon. When Medea gets mad about it, he acts like she's just being an overemotional woman, saying "You women are all the same" (62). He goes on to say, "What we poor males really need is a way of having babies on our own – no females, please. Then the world would be completely trouble free" (62).
By placing these choice sexist remarks in the mouth of Jason, Euripides creates a character who is symbolic of the intensely patriarchal Greek society. As is mentioned in Medea's "Character Analysis," this makes Medea's revenge against him larger than just the actions of a jealous woman. When Medea decimates Jason with her bloody actions, it's as if all chauvinistic males have been dealt a lethal blow.
Jason's Character (2)
Jason's insensitivity knows no bounds. Without the help of Medea's cunning and magic, Jason never would've gotten the Golden Fleece. He wouldn't be a legendary hero at all. Ironically, he wouldn't even be considered worthy of Creon's royal daughter. When Medea points out how much he owes her, he callously downplays her contribution, saying, "Your cleverness played a part" and "your service did no harm" (62). How does this guy take himself seriously? It boggles the mind that he could say this to a woman who gave up her family and homeland for the love of him.
His insensitivity is further shown when he tells Medea she should be grateful for having had the chance to live in Greece at all. He says to her, "You have a home in Hellas [Greece] instead of some barbarian land" (62). So, Medea is supposed to grateful to her noble Greek husband for having rescued her from her crude homeland? Medea was a princess of the wealthy kingdom of Colchis. She is the granddaughter of the Sun. We highly doubt she was living in a mud hut. Comments like this make Jason symbolic of Greek xenophobia (fear of foreigners) as well. Such prejudice against foreigners was widespread in Greek society.
Jason's character (3)
OK, enough Jason bashing. He does have one justification for his second marriage which is almost credible. He tells Medea that "I was not […] tired of your attractions […] it was simply that I wanted above all to let us live in comfort, not be poor" (62). It was perfectly respectable for a Greek male to have more than one family.
By marrying Glauke, Jason rescues both himself and Medea from poverty, and assures their sons a place in society. He never planned on Medea being banished; she would have stayed on as his concubine. He points out that she brought the banishment on herself by going on about how she was going to kill Creon and his daughter. This is true.
Though this justification is hard for a modern audience to swallow, it would've made sense to ancient Athenians. Of course, the very fact that this sort of arrangement was commonplace speaks to the overall sexism of Greek society that Jason represents.
The Chorus (1)
There has been some serious scholarly smack talk concerning Euripides's use of choruses. The main criticism is their lack of effect on the action of the play. The Chorus in Medea is a good example of this. This group of Corinthian women mostly just hangs out, bemoaning the terrible things that are going down. The only time we see them actually try and do something is at the beginning of the play when they attempt to lift Medea from her melancholy. They advise:
If your husband has gone to adore
A new bride in his bed, why, this
Has often happened before.
Do not harrow your soul. For Zeus
Will succor your cause. What use
To lessen your life with grief
For a lost lord? (25)
The Chorus (2)
The Chorus's arguments have no effect on Medea. In fact, our crafty protagonist ends up pulling the Corinthian ladies to her side, by appealing to them as fellow women imprisoned in a world of men. By the time Medea's done with them, they're singing an ode of female revolution. The ladies intone:
Back to their fountains
the sacred rivers are falling;
The cosmos and all morality
turning to chaos.
The mind of a man is nothing but a fraud
One day the story will change:
then shall the glory
or women resound,
And reverence will come to the race of woman,
Reversing at last the sad reputation of ladies. (58)
The Chorus (3)
or the rest of the play the Chorus does nothing to stop Medea's bloody deeds. Some point this out as sloppy plotting of Euripides's part. It's odd that these women stand idly by as Medea, a foreigner, plots to assassinate their royal family. Creon seems like a nice enough guy. Yeah, he banishes Medea, but she was going around threatening to assassinate him and his daughter. It even turns out that he's an old softy, when he allows Medea to stay another day for the sake of her sons. So why would the Chorus do nothing to stop the murder of their amiable ruler?
The only justification we can come up with for the Chorus's inactivity is that, like Medea, they are extremely dissatisfied with the treatment of women in their society. Their ode to female revolution supports this idea. Perhaps they represent the large number of women that are put upon, but don't have the will for revolt. They could be seen as living vicariously through Medea. Perhaps she serves as an outlet for their repressed rage. Of course, even the Chorus balks when Medea takes it as far as killing her own kids. The Corinthian women pray fervently for Zeus to stop her. Unfortunately, their prayers go unanswered, and once again they are unable to affect the action of the play.
Rather than using the Chorus to advance or complicate the plot, Euripides chooses to use them to expound upon his themes. This is true in many of his plays. In Medea they sing of the destructive power of love, the sorrows of exile, and the horror of Medea's murderous revenge.
They also serve to release the tension between each episode. Euripides's unconventional use of the Chorus is yet another example how he challenged the dramatic status quo of his day. Over the course of his career they became less and less essential to his dramas. Some scholars theorize that, if he'd had his way, he would have fazed them out altogether, instead filling the plays with more of the realistic dialogue which he is so famous for inventing. In the Athenian dramatic competitions, however, this unconventional step would have been sacrilege.