Medea the Play by Euripides: The Basics

This Resource is for students in Year 11 studying ‘Medea’ the play by Euripides in AOS1: Unit 1, Reading & Creating Texts, Analytical Text Response, in the Victorian VCE Curriculum

Medea and Other Plays : Penguin Classics - Euripides

Context of the Play in Ancient Greece

The Greek civilisation which produced tragedies such as Euripides’ Medea flourished in the fifth and fourth centuries BC.  Politically, Greece consisted of city-states such as Athens (Attica), Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Megara and Argos.  By 500 BC Athens was the artistic centre of Greece but Sparta was the major power and head of the alliance of city-states until Athens destroyed the attack fleet of the Persians in 480–479 BC.  At the time when Euripides wrote Medea, Athens still represented the epitome of civilised, balanced culture and democracy.  For that reason, it is pertinent that Medea is taken to Athens at the end of the play, in the Sun god’s own chariot.

Although the ancient Greeks are famous for establishing democracy, they restricted the role of women in society and enslaved other peoples.  In the fifth century BC, the historian Thucydides wrote: ‘The greatest glory [for women] is to be least talked about among men, whether in praise or blame’.  The play’s questioning of women’s subordinate position was a highly unconventional attitude and a reflection of Euripides’s own views that he used to raise an interest for his audience about women’s rights, duties and relationships.

Additionally, the family was extremely important in Greek culture, as was adherence to religious rites such as proper burial.  While women in Athens were positioned as home-makers, mothers, with no voting powers or citizen rights, the men could take multiple sexual partners even though they were married.  These are important points used by Euripides in the working-out of his plot. Not only is Medea isolated in Corinth, away from her family, she has exiled herself from both family and homeland through what she has done for love of Jason.  She represents not only a wronged woman but the position of women in general in Greek society.  Her ‘otherness’ is stressed from the start, as is her status as a stranger in Corinth. 

Greek Theatre as a Public Educator

Greek dramatic spectacles were more than entertainment they were acts of religion, involving the population as an ongoing public duty.  Tragic theatre both confirmed and questioned Athenian democracy because it was political theatre, staged for and by the ‘polis’ [city state] of Athens.  One of the aims of Greek tragedy was to educate citizens in the practice of good citizenship.  Plays like Medea articulated difficulties experienced by human beings trying to understand fundamental questions of duty and justice in situations of conflict, where the gods could be appealed to, but rarely gave direct guidance.  All performances of the plays were male actors only, never females.

Who was Euripides?

Image result for Euripides. Size: 100 x 106. Source:

Euripides was born in 480 BC and died in 406 BC, he is one of the greatest dramatists who wrote tragic plays that were the most controversial against other great writers Aeschylus and Sophocles.  All three competed in the Great Dionysia festival in fifth century BC that was performed in Athens each year at which the whole community participated. 

Euripides was not popular with his contemporaries because he questioned traditional values. His ideas were considered dangerous and his dramatic technique was thought inferior. His plays were considered radical and departed from many of the established ideas of tragedy while treating the accepted mythological stories with less respect.  His play Medea  was produced in 431 BC challenged the audience by giving a voice to a woman in a deeply patriarchal society.  He considered Medea’s concerns in a ‘battle of the soul’ between good and evil that tears a person apart psychologically.

His characters often questioned the gods’ sense of justice because they seemed sources of misery more than happiness. At times in his plays, Euripides suggested that chance ruled the world. His audiences found his plays confusing because he used gods to resolve conflicts and foretell the future and because characters’ speeches sometimes sounded like lists of evidence. However, Euripides’ interest in the psychology of his characters, his exploration of human motivation, and the topical and universal nature of his themes make Medea an interesting and relevant play to study in the twenty-first century. Most of Euripides’ plays insist that we must be aware of our own nature, and of our place in the universe, which entails an acceptance of the limits of human autonomy [independence].

Background Story to Medea the Play

Jason and Golden Fleece Story

Jason and the Argonauts, sailors of the Argo, sailed in search of the Golden Fleece. To pass into the Black Sea, Jason had to have the ship rowed quickly through the Clashing Rocks (Symplegades). In Colchis, Aeetes the king made Jason plough a field with a pair of fire-snorting bulls. Then he had to overcome the serpent that guarded the fleece within its coils. Medea, a sorceress [witch type person who used magic herbs and potions], helped him—he would have been unable to do it without her. She had fallen in love with Jason and her father pursued the pair. Medea killed her brother and scattered his limbs at sea to delay the king, who by custom had to bury his son before continuing his pursuit. They returned to Iolcus, where Jason’s uncle, Pelias, had usurped the throne. After restoring Jason’s father Aeson to youth by boiling him in a cauldron of herbs, Medea convinced Pelias’s daughters to cut their father into pieces and boil him, then refused to restore his youth. Pelias’s son drove Jason and Medea into exile: they fled with their two sons to Corinth. Jason deserted Medea to marry Glauce, daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. The play begins here.

Brief Summary of the Plot

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In a nutshell, the play is about a wronged woman who dupes [fools] her husband and a king, kills her children and escapes with the help of her grandfather, the god Helios.

When the play opens, the Nurse reports that Medea has been deserted by her husband Jason.  This comes as a double blow, because Medea has betrayed her own family in Colchis in order to help Jason steal the Golden Fleece, and had come with him to Corinth.  Now that Jason has left her, Medea has no family to turn to in her plight.  Jason plans to marry the Princess of Corinth to improve his position.  Medea, in her passionate anger, plans to revenge herself on Jason, the Princes Glauce and her father, King Creon.  Creon comes to tell Medea she is banished from Corinth because he fears her.  She becomes the suppliant, assuring him of her innocence and begging to be allowed to stay a little longer.  In reality, she needs time to carry out her revenge.  She sends her two sons with poisoned wedding attire for Glauce, who is then burnt by the poison along with her father Creon when he comes to her aid.

Medea’s plan for revenge has since changed, she now intends to kill her two sons to that Jason’s suffering will be complete.  She then plans to escape to Athens, where King Aegeus has offered her shelter.  After much debate with herself, Medea kills her children.  Jason discovers their bodies and curses his wife.  Medea is unmoved, and leaves in a chariot drawn by winged dragons which her ancestor, the sun god Helios, has supplied for her escape.

Main Characters

  • Medea = Is the tragic protagonist of the play.  She is passionate and arrives on stage with the history of having murdered to help her husband Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece.  She is a sorceress with magical powers, grand-daughter of Helios the Sun god.  Medea loves Jason but appreciates her love has brought her exile and infamy [dishonour].  Jason is the father of her two sons, whom she does love, so killing them affects her own psyche.  Speaking as a woman, Medea articulates her feelings on jealousy, frustration, childbirth, domestic isolation, submission to a controlling man, security, broken promises given by Jason, all subjects that would confront the Athenians at the time.  Euripides seems to be on Medea’s side in this tragic play and lets her fly away safely at the end with the help of a chariot pulled by dragons.
  • Jason = Born a prince of Iolcus, the hero of the Golden Fleece legend, leader of the Argonauts expedition, Medea’s husband, father of two sons, Jason is presented as arrogant, selfish and narrow-focussed on material success through a marriage to princess Glauce, the King’s daughter.  He dismisses Medea’s arguments against him and betrays her by breaking the sacred binding oath that had bound them together in a type of marriage contract (not legitimate).  He has no conscience failing to comprehend that marrying Glauce will hurt Medea and is dismissive of the role of women in society, describing them as evil necessities only useful for reproduction.  His arrogance allows him to be fooled by Medea’s greater intelligence and is reduced, emotionally destroyed and doomed to die as Medea predicts when his great ship, the Argo, collapses on him.
  • The Nurse = An old woman, loyal to Medea but conservative and cautious, expresses the views that the Athenian audience would recognise as correct and sensible that women ought to be obedient in marriage.  She is supposed to stir the audience’s initial feelings of sympathy and pity for Medea and activate fears for the vulnerable children announcing that Medea actually ‘hates her children’ and is definitely ‘no ordinary woman’.
  • The Tutor = The old man expresses homely practical advice about making the best of life.  He accompanies the children with Jason to Creon’s palace and acts as a preliminary messenger, innocently bringing what he thinks is good news to Medea about Glauce’s reception of gifts.
  • Creon = King of Corinth he is wise and family minded, but suspicious of Medea’s powers, especially over his daughter Glauce after her marriage to Jason.  For this reason, he exiles Medea and her children immediately.  However, Medea tricks him by appealing to the welfare of her children, he relents and lets her stay one more night to help them prepare to leave.  This is his downfall, as Medea kills him shortly afterwards, along with Glauce.
  • The Chorus = Corinthian women represent the voice of the city, the moral heart of society and strongly condemn Jason’s oath-breaking.  They make value judgements about action just passed, wonders to come and provide poetic asides that often foreshadow tragedy.  They appear to be supporting Medea against Jason but do caution her not to go too far as they fear for the children.  At the end they comment that the gods are responsible for all and are unpredictable.

Other characters = Glauce princess of Corinth / The Messenger announces eyewitness accounts of events happening offstage / the children Medea and Jason’s sons are heard only behind the skene door offstage but they do not speak onstage / Aegeus is the wealthy diplomat from Athens who offers Medea shelter and protection

The Gods

The Greeks believed in gods and goddesses, who they thought, had control over every part of people’s lives. They had to pray to the gods for help and protection, and if the gods were unhappy with someone, then they would punish them. The gods were included in many Greek tragic plays which were concerned with spiritual issues and how they interfered in human lives.  There was a debate about how far mortals were free to pursue or avoid disasters of their own making within a cosmos [universe] that also had room for concepts of fate, right, revenge, justice, punishment in Greek society.  Euripides was criticised for bringing the gods onto the stage then causing them to behave in outrageous ways.  Athenians at the time thought Euripides was mocking the gods as if he either despised or disbelieved in them. 

Is Medea a Heroine or a Tyrant?

An important task is to work out if Medea is a heroine or tyrant.

Some Ideas to consider:

  1. Medea is a Victim & a Heroine – Euripides suggests that Medea also has a legitimate grievance presenting her arguments on behalf of “we women” and so is not solely responsible for the tragedy – So she is a passionate heroine fighting for the rights of women – She is also a victim having made significant sacrifices in helping Jason secure the Golden Fleece.
  2. Euripides also suggests that she has been wilfully treated by Jason.
  3. Euripides presents Jason as a cold-hearted husband who prides himself on being able to negotiate the tempestuous whims of others. Euripides suggests that one of his biggest errors of judgement is to misunderstand or downplay the depth of Medea’s passion and grievances.
  4. Medea is Subjected to Extreme Passion Without Reason – Medea is motivated by her excessive passion for her husband, Jason that turns to excessive hatred upon his betrayal.  Euripides shows the damage that can occur owing to extremes of emotion – both love and hatred. In particular, the playwright suggests that hatred festers and leads to shameful excuses on behalf of Medea who condones the suffering she inflicts on others.
  5. Euripides also suggests that Jason’s phlegmatic and insensitive streak fails to anticipate the danger that lurks within. Only a very extreme action, it seems, can penetrate his barriers.
  6. Medea can be just as Ruthless and Manipulative as Jason – She deceives both Creon and Jason.
  7. Medea is Aware of her Actions – She is not insane like the Greek myth of Ino but a cold-blooded murderess – She admits that understands the “full horror” of what she is about to do , but “anger masters my resolve”.
  8. Medea is a Tyrant & Child Killer – The Chorus suggests that Medea crosses the line by killing her children and turns herself into a despicable “child-killer”. By killing the children, Medea’s righteous cause tips into cold-blooded revenge; Euripides criticises her motives as she becomes obsessed with sparing herself the scorn of her enemies.


conflictbetrayalexile & the individual
reason vs passionnotion of justicerevenge
parents & childrengender politicswomen in society
order vs chaosheroism & honourfamily obligation & nurture
filicide [parents killing their children]good vs evilpsychology of human motivation

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