Summary of the Medea Tragedy by Euripides

A Tragedy of Epic Jealousy and Revenge

Medea by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix (1862
Medea about to Kill her Children. Eugène Delacroix [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The plot of the Greek poet Euripides' Medea tragedy is convoluted and messy, rather like its antihero, Medea. It was first performed at the Dionysian Festival in 431 BCE, where it famously won third (last) prize against entries by Sophocles and Euphorion.

In the opening scene, the nurse/narrator tells us that Medea and Jason have lived together for some time as husband and wife in Corinth, but theirs is a troubled union.

Jason and Medea met at Colchis, where King Pelias had sent him to capture the magical golden fleece from Medea's father King Aaetes. Medea saw and fell in love with the handsome young hero, and so, despite her father's desire to retain possession of the precious object, helped Jason to escape.

The couple fled first Medea's Colchis, and then after Medea was instrumental in the death of King Pelias at Iolcos, fled that region, finally arriving at Corinth.

Medea is Out; Glauce is In

At the opening of the play, Medea and Jason are already the parents of two children during their life together, but their domestic arrangement is about to end. Jason and his father-in-law-to-be, Creon, tell Medea that she and her children must leave the country so that Jason may marry Creon's daughter Glauce in peace. Medea is blamed for her own fate and told that if she hadn't behaved as a jealous, possessive woman, she could have remained in Corinth.

Medea asks for and is granted one day's reprieve, but King Creon is fearful, and rightly so. During that one day's time, Medea confronts Jason. He retaliates, blaming Medea's banishment on her own temper. Medea reminds Jason of what she has sacrificed for him and what evil she has done on his behalf.

She reminds him that since she is from Colchis and is, therefore, a foreigner in Greece and without a Greek mate, she will not be welcome anywhere else. Jason tells Medea that he has given her enough already, but that he will recommend her to the care of his friends (and he has many as witnessed by the gathering of the Argonauts).

Jason's Friends and Medea's Family

Jason's friends need not be bothered because as it turns out Aegeus of Athens arrives and agrees that Medea may find refuge with him. With her future assured, Medea turns to other matters.

Medea is a witch. Jason knows this, as do Creon and Glauce, but Medea seems appeased. She presents a wedding gift to Glauce of a dress and crown, and Glauce accepts them. The theme of poisoned clothing should be familiar to those who know of the death of Hercules. When Glauce puts on the robe it burns her flesh. Unlike Hercules, she immediately dies. Creon dies, too, trying to help his daughter.

Although thus far, Medea's motives and reactions seem at least understandable, then Medea does the unspeakable. She slaughters her own two children. Her revenge comes when she witnesses Jason's horror as she flies off to Athens in the chariot of the sun god Helios (Hyperion), her ancestor.