Medea is a tragedy written by Euripides, based on the myth of Jason and Medea and first produced in 431 BC. Along with the plays Philoctetes, Dictys and Theristai, which were all entered as a group, it won the third prize at the Dionysia festival. The plot largely centres on the protagonist in a struggle with the world, rendering it the most Sophoclean of Euripides' extant plays. The play is notable in that either Medea or Jason can be viewed as the tragic hero.
The play tells the story of the jealousy and revenge of a woman betrayed by her husband. The concentrated action of the play is at Corinth, where Jason has brought Medea after the adventures of the Golden Fleece but has now left her to marry the daughter of King Creon (elsewhere known as Glauce, and also known in Latin works as Creusa - see Seneca the Younger's Medea and Propertius 2.16.30). The play opens with Medea grieving over her loss, and her elderly nurse fearing what she might do to herself or her children.
Creon, also fearing what Medea might do, arrives determined to send Medea into exile. Medea pleads for one day's delay. She then begins to plan the deaths of Jason, Glauce, and Creon. Meanwhile Jason arrives to confront her and explain himself. He believes he could not pass up the opportunity to marry a royal princess, as Medea is only a barbarian woman, but hopes to someday join the two families and keep Medea as his mistress. Medea, and the chorus of Corinthian women, do not buy his story. She reminds him that she left her own barbarian people for him ("I am the mother of your children. Whither can I fly, since all Greece hates the barbarian?"), and that she had caused Pelias, whom he feared, to be killed by his own daughters.
She rushes offstage with a knife to kill her children. As the chorus laments her decision, the children are heard screaming. Jason rushes to the scene to punish her for the murder of Glauce and learns that his children too have been killed. Medea then appears above the stage in the chariot of the sun god Helios; this was probably accomplished using the mechane device usually reserved for the appearance of a god or goddess. She confronts Jason, revelling in his pain at being unable to ever hold his children again:
She escapes to Athens with the bodies. The chorus is left contemplating the will of Zeus in Medea's actions:
Unlike the plays of Aeschylus or Sophocles, Euripides shows the inner emotions of passion, love, and vengeance. The play is often seen as one of the first works of feminism, and Medea is seen as a feminist heroine. However, many scholars of Greek theatre have debunked the theory that Medea reflects any feminist ideologies, believing that Euripides was explicitly mocking and describing how they ought not to behave. Moderation was also a theme of the play, and a popular value in ancient Greece. Medea's actions were seen as erratic because they were not in moderation, and in the time of the play, women did not have much say in what went on. Therefore, Medea's reaction was not one taken in moderation. Moderation of everything was one of the Greek ideas, for example, moderation of love, the result being balance and harmony.
The theme of children and childlessness also runs through the play. Medea kills her two sons in order to cause Jason pain, yet in doing so, she knows she too will hurt from her own actions. People needed their children to look after them in old age, which is why Medea's punishment for Jason is doubly harsh - 'old age is approaching', she taunts him. Aegeus is also childless, and goes to an oracle to see if he will ever have children. Medea, in promising to give him children using her magic herbs, has gained for herself a place of sanctuary. Aegeus would shelter a killer for children, which shows how important children are to him.
Quotations about the character Medea
Although the play is considered one of the great plays of the Western canon, the Athenian audience did not react so favourably, and awarded it only the third place prize at the Dionysia festival in 431. This was largely because of Euripides' extensive changes to the conventions of Greek theatre. To have included an indecisive chorus, his criticism of Athenian society and his eventual disrespect for the gods - inhibit in Artemis, the acclaimed goddess of light and justice, acting for the now apparently evil Medea in carrying her to King Aegeus, was to repeal the purpose of the Dionysian plays: to appreciate Grecian society and uphold the power of the gods. However, it has also been argued that Medea was awarded third place because the competition at that particular Dionysia was so fierce, not because the Athenians were in any way opposed to the play's content.
With the rediscovery of the text in 1st century Rome, 16th century Europe and in the light of 20th century modern literary criticism, Medea has provoked differing reactions from differing critics and writers who have sought to interpret the reactions of their societies in the light of past generic assumptions; bringing a fresh interpretation to its universal themes of revenge and justice in an injust society.
Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1970 film Medea is loosely based on Euripides' play.