Outside of Jason's adopted house in Corinth, a nurse recounts and laments the chain of events that have lead to the present crisis in the city, where Medea's "world has turned to enmity" (line 15). Jason and the crew of his ship, the Argo, began this history by sailing to Colchis, a city in Asia and Medea's home, in search of the legendary Golden Fleece. Medea, a sorceress and princess, fell in love with Jason, used her magic to help him secure the Fleece, and eventually fled with him to Iolcus, Jason's home. There she continued to use her magic and to participate in intrigues within the royal house, eventually tricking the daughters of a rival king, Pelias, into poisoning their own father. After accepting sanctuary as exiles in Corinth, Jason and Medea had two children, now young boys, and achieved a degree of respectability, earning them a "citizens' welcome" (line 12) in the city. Recently, however, Jason has abandoned Medea and his own children in order to remarry with Glauce, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. Jason hopes thereby to advance his own station, perhaps even to succeed as king.
The nurse testifies to the degree of emotional shock Jason's "betrayal" has sparked in Medea: she refuses to eat and spends her days bed-ridden, pining away her fate, especially her newly-awakened sense of homelessness. The long journey that brought her to Corinth has now left her with nothing. Medea's bitterness grows to such a degree that she even despises the sight of her children. The nurse becomes afraid that some vicious plot is brewing in Medea's mind.
The boys, oblivious, exit the house with their tutor. The tutor shares the nurse's sympathy for Medea, but also points out that the worst news has yet to reach her: there is a rumor circulating among men in the city that Creon plans to banish Medea and her children from Corinth.
Medea's first words are cries of helplessness issued from inside the house, off-stage. She wishes for her own death. The nurse fears the possible effects of this inflexible mood and sends the children inside to shelter them. In another off-stage cry, Medea curses her own children and Jason, wishing the death and destruction of the household.
The nurse responds to Medea's anger in a soliloquy that expresses the incomprehensibility of Medea's wish to punish her own children for Jason's offense. She attributes part of Medea's stance to her queen-like mentality, which accustoms itself to never compromising its own will, even when it is consumed by a state of rage. Against these tendencies of the wealthy, the nurse preaches the virtues of a "middle way, neither great or mean," which can supply the foundation for a peaceful and ordered life, unmarred by the conflicts now afflicting her master and mistress' home.
The chorus, composed of Corinthian women, turns towards the house and addresses Medea. They try to reason with Medea and convince her that suicide would be an overreaction. The fickleness of a husband's love is an ordinary occurrence; rather than merit self-torment, it should be dealt with and forgotten. Still within the palace walls, Medea remains unyielding and calls on the gods Themis and Artemis to sanction the death of Jason and his new wife. Because Medea accuses Jason of breaking an oath (his marriage vows), the nurse recognizes the gravity of Medea's threat; no one less than Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, watches over oaths and ensures their compliance. Entering the house in order to encourage Medea to talk with the chorus in person, the nurse performs another soliloquy, this one accusing the "men of old times" (line 190), who invented music, of foolishness. Created as an accompaniment to banquets and celebrations, their songs can never dispel the sorrow caused by broken homes--they have no real power, positive or negative. After the nurse enters the house, the chorus remarks that Themis, a goddess Medea invoked in her tirades against Jason, has already watched over her in the past--that is, during the various stages of the journey bringing her from the far-ends of Asia to Hellas, or Greece.
Restraining her grief and displaying self-control, Medea emerges from her house to address the chorus She condemns those quick to judge. Continuing in this vein of abstract dissertation, Medea laments the contemptible state of women: forced to become their husbands' possessions in marriage (with no security, for they can be easily discarded in divorce), they must endure childbirth, and they are kept from participating in any public life. Once their home is taken from them, women like Medea are left with nothing. Medea makes a single plea to the chorus--that Jason be made to suffer for the suffering he has inflicted upon her as a woman. The chorus agrees.
Having heard Medea's reproaches against Jason, Creon banishes her and her children from Corinth. Creon fears that Medea may use her infamous cleverness to seek revenge against him, Jason, and his daughter Glauce. Medea claims that her reputation as a clever woman inspires enmity in both the ignorant and the intelligent; the former find her incomprehensible and ineffectual, while the latter are jealous of her powers. Pointing out that the grudge she bears is directed against Jason, rather than Creon and his daughter, Medea pleads with the king to allow her to remain in Corinth, where she will endure her sufferings without protest. Creon agrees to provide Medea with one more day.
As Medea prepares to wander into uncharted lands beyond the walls of Corinth, the chorus continues to lament her fate. Medea, however, is focused on the task she must accomplish over the course of the next day--that is, killing her three antagonists. Considering the various possible means of murdering them, she settles on poison as the most effective. Medea calls on the goddess, Hecate, mistress of the underworld and the patroness of black magic, to serve as her accomplice. She also vows to restore honor to her lineage (Hyperion, the Sun-god, was her grandfather) and shame Jason's own tribe, which descends from Sisyphus. She concludes her prayer and tirade by claiming the natural affinity of women for acts of evil. The chorus responds to Medea in an imaginative ode, describing a world in which the presumed order of the sexes is reversed: men will be known for deception, women will be honored.
Jason emerges to rebuke Medea for publicly expressing her murderous intentions. While she grows more caustic, he remains in a balanced frame of mind and even presumes to sympathize with her. Immediately recoiling against his gestures of compassion, which Medea interprets as hypocritical "unmanliness" (line 466), she nevertheless uses the opportunity to tell Jason exactly how she feels. She begins by recounting how she helped Jason pass the tests her father had established for him to win the Golden Fleece. She continues by reciting the sacrifice she made in fleeing her father and homeland, as well as the role she played in King Pelias' death. Jason's betrayal after so much strikes her as the grossest offense possible; he has made their vows to each other, protected by Zeus, meaningless. She asks Jason where she could possibly go after he has deserted her--she cannot return home to the father and family she has abandoned, nor to any of the lands where she has made enemies through helping him. The chorus responds to her speech by commenting that the "fiercest anger" arises to fill the place of the "dearest love" (lines 520-521).
After pointing out that Medea's cleverness as a speaker will force him to respond with equally persuasive arguments, Jason denies his debt to her and claims that solely Aphrodite, the goddess of love, holds responsibility for his safe passage home from Colchis. Furthermore, Jason argues that Medea gained far more than she lost in fleeing her homeland; among her newfound privileges he includes residence in a civilized country and a fame that would have been impossible had she remained at the "ends of the earth" (line 541). Lastly, Jason defends his choice to remarry as the best decision for all parties involved, rather than a selfish whim. Marriage with a king's daughter will secure a better life for his children, and Medea, if she could see past her jealousy, would be thankful to him. The chorus lauds Jason's reasoning, but still finds that he remains unjustified in divorcing Medea.
Medea believes that all Jason's arguments stem from a need to rationalize a decision that he intuitively recognizes as wrong. He is unequivocally corrupt, yet successfully hides behind a mask of rhetorical eloquence. Jason continues to offer any help he can provide her--for example, he suggests writing letters of introduction to friends abroad who might be willing to accept Medea into their home. Interpreting these tokens of help as Jason's manner of alleviating his own guilt, Medea refuses his offers and sends him away to his new bride.
Offering a hymn that expresses a wish to remain untouched by Aphrodite's arrows, which afflict their targets with a devastating passion, the chorus preaches against recklessness of love. No goodness can come out of violent desires, only endless disputes. The choral song continues by reiterating that exile represents the worst of all possible fates, a judgment the women of Corinth have formed through the example of Medea's own plight. They end by cursing men who unlock the "secrets" of female desire and then "disown" it (lines 659-660).
Aegeus, King of Athens, greets Medea as an old friend and recounts the story of his visit to the Oracle at Delphi. Seeking a cure for his sterility, Aegeus was given advice in the form of a riddle by the Oracle, who told him "not to unstop the wineskin's neck" (line 679). Aegeus is passing through Corinth on his way to seeing the King of Troezen, Pittheus, a man famous for his skill in interpreting oracular pronouncements. Medea relates to Aegeus the circumstances of her banishment from Corinth, to which he responds by expressing his sympathy for her predicament. Pleading with Aegeus for sanctuary in Athens, Medea offers him a gift in exchange--magical drugs that can restore his fertility. Aegeus seals his promise to offer Medea refuge with an oath before the gods.
Alone on stage after Aegeus' departure, Medea screams out the names of the Olympian gods in excitement. The last obstacle to her plans for revenge has been cleared. Because of Aegeus' promise, Athens now stands as an unconditional sanctuary for her, even in her eventual condition as a polluted murderess. While the nurse listens in secret, Medea discloses the details of her plans. She will begin by pretending to agree with Jason's earlier arguments. Having drawn him into her confidence, she can then ask him to accept their two boys into his new family. The children will be used in a ploy to kill Glauce by bearing her gifts--a beautiful dress and gold coronet--which will be poisoned and kill anyone who touches them. Lastly, Medea will take the ultimate step of killing her own sons. Her revenge against Jason will then be total; the death of his own children along with that of his new bride will be the most severe injury he is capable of suffering, even if it means Medea must hurt herself in the process: "Yes, I can endure guilt, however horrible; the laughter of my enemies I will not endure" (lines 796-797).
The chorus, which had been entirely sympathetic with Medea's decisions, now warns her against violating the laws of human existence through her planned infanticide. Offering an ode to the city of Athens, praised for being a kingdom of "Grace" and "Knowledge," the women of Corinth question the possibility of Medea's acceptance into such a civilized society after committing the unnatural act of murdering her children. The chorus concludes its speech by expressing disbelief in Medea's ability to gather enough resolution to complete with her intentions. At the moment of crisis, she will break down and give in to her natural affections as a mother.
When Jason returns at the nurse's request, Medea begins to carry out her ruse. Expressing regret over her previous overreaction to Jason's decision to divorce and remarry, Medea goes so far as to break down in tears of remorse. Announcing a full reconciliation with her husband, she concedes each of the arguments that Jason made in their last discussion and releases the two boys into his embrace. Fully aware of Medea's expressed intentions, the chorus nevertheless hopes that she has actually changed her mind and decided to curb her desire for revenge. Pleased with how events are now panning out, Jason reimagines his future destiny: after growing into young warriors under the watchful eye of the gods, his children from both marriages will come together and make him a proud father by campaigning against his enemies.
Medea once again breaks down into tears. When Jason inquires into the source of her weeping, she first responds by saying that tears come instinctively to women, then elaborates by saying that she remains upset about being forced to leave. The defensiveness and lack of force behind her statements hint that she may now feel a degree of ambivalence surrounding her planned course of action. Determined, however, she asks Jason that he appeal to Creon to allow their children to stay in Corinth. When Jason indicates uncertainty over being able to convince the King, Medea tells him to ask his wife, Creon's daughter, to make the plea for him. Medea then offers to bring Glauce the coronet and dress as gifts in exchange for her help. She emphasizes that the gifts must be delivered directly into her hands.
The chorus laments the now-assured doom of Medea's children. They imagine Jason's bride being unable to refuse the attractiveness of Medea's gifts, a perfect enticement for bringing a young and beautiful woman to her unsuspected death. The irony of Jason's position is also acknowledged: confident in his belief that events are unfolding in a manner that will secure the honor of his lineage, Jason is actually serving as an unwitting accomplice in the destruction of everything holding value for him.
The tutor returns with news that the children are "reprieved from banishment" (line 1002) and that Jason's bride has warmly accepted Medea's gifts. The children no longer have any enemies in the city. Recoiling in horror, Medea admonishes herself, "How Cruel! How Cruel!" (line 1009). The tutor fails to understand her negative reaction to his good, anxiously anticipated news. Each character speaks past the other at this point, because Medea's secret intentions make her words gloss over the true source of her distress--the horrible inevitability of her children's death. She claims to be upset over the imminent separation from her children, and the tutor advises her to bear her burden with strength, since many mothers suffer the loss of their children, and some even lose them forever.
After arguing that women are as capable of abstract reflection as men, the chorus sings a hymn about the "unnecessary" burdens children bring to human life. Parents suffer the constant anxieties of caring for and protecting them, as well providing them with an adequate inheritance. The possibility that death may ****** children away prematurely only compounds those other burdens. The energy parents expend on their children may prove ultimately fruitless.Directly addressing her children, Medea protests against the farewell that she must soon offer them. All the experiences they have shared together as a family, including her bearing and rearing of them, will now come to nothing. The children, however, are unaffected by their mother's remorse and continue to play obliviously among themselves. In a speech to the chorus, Medea wavers repeatedly between abandoning and fortifying her decision to murder her children. Finally, she concludes, "Anger, the spring of all life's horror, masters my resolve" (line 1076), and decides to proceed with the murder.
A messenger appears, frantically warning Medea to escape the city as soon as possible. When Medea asks him why, he responds by revealing that she has been identified as the murderer of Creon and Glauce, whose deaths have just taken place inside the palace. To the incomprehension of the messenger, Medea accepts the news with composed satisfaction and asks for the details of their deaths.
Dwelling on the gruesome specifics, the messenger recreates the scene of the murder. Inside her bed-chamber, Jason's bride overcomes her reluctance to face Medea's children and accepts their gifts at his request. Entertained by the display of her own beauty in a mirror, she frolics around the room while showing off the coronet and dress. The picturesque scene begins to reverse itself as soon as the poison takes effect; her crown erupts in an unnatural fire and the corrosive dress begins to eat away her skin. She is left a monster unrecognizable to all but her father, who pathetically embraces her in order to die along her side. Though Creon flinches for a moment, "a ghastly wrestling match" (line 1214) ensues in which both bodies become entangled in a rotting heap. The messenger concludes his story by recognizing that intelligence brings men no advantages; happiness is the product of circumstance and fate.
The palace opens its doors, revealing Medea and the two dead children seated in a chariot drawn by dragons. Impatient, Medea advises Jason to say what he has to say and finish the ordeal--the chariot, provided by her grandfather, the Sun-god, will soon carry them away.
Jason puts in one last request: to be allowed to see over the proper burial of his children. Medea denies him the right and decides she will bury them and expiate the crime herself. She then tells of her plans to flee to Athens with Aegeus, and finishes by divining an "unheroic death" (line 1388) for Jason, who will perish by being hit over the head with a log from his famous ship, the Argo. As Hyperion's chariot vanishes from sight, Jason laments this "grievous day" (line 1409) and calls on the gods to witness the affliction Medea has cast over his life. The chorus concludes by affirming that the gods work mysteriously and often bring events to a surprising end.Jason curses himself for having ever wed himself to Medea. Jason believes he should have realized her capacity for evil and betrayal when she abandoned her family and homeland, even killing her own brother. He wishes only to be left alone now to mourn his tragic losses. Medea no longer feels the need to justify herself. She has wounded Jason, and that is enough. Jason points out that she has wounded herself in the process, and Medea, while acknowledging the pain her children's death has brought her, finds it a price worth paying to see Jason suffer.