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by Euripides

Summary by Michael McClain
May 4, 2013
Based on a translation by


Medea's nurse emerges from the house "to tell the earth and air" about her mistress's distress. Medea, she says, betrayed her family in Iolcus for the sake of her husband Jason. For a time she lived happily in Corinth, but now Jason has left her to marry the daughter of the king, Creon. Medea is disconsolate. The nurse fears that Medea might do something dreadful - perhaps slip into the king's palace with a knife. Medea is, the nurse observes, a strange woman.

A tutor arrives with Medea's children, bringing news of a rumor that Medea and the children will exiled. The nurse tells him to take the children indoors, warning him to keep them away from their mother. The tutor and nurse hear Medea crying inside the house. When her laments turn to curses on her children, the old nurse wonders how she can implicate them in their father's wickedness. The tutor takes the children inside.

The neighbors gather to ask what is going on in the house. "There is no more house," the nurse tells them. Hearing Medea give voice to her anguish, the neighbors ask the nurse to bring her out so they can console her. They too worry that she may harm "her own."

Medea emerges, crying. "We women are the most unfortunate of creatures," she tells them. Women are forced to accept marriage, to conform to their husband's wishes, to live among strangers. If a husband tires of his wife he leaves her for a younger woman. Medea describes herself as a stranger, a refugee. She asks the neighbors to help her get revenge.

Pledging their silence, the women see Creon approaching. He orders Medea and her children to leave his territories immediately. He tells her that he is afraid of her - afraid she might harm his daughter and him. Despite her submissive reply, Creon refuses to allow her to stay, wary of her cleverness. He does agree - against his better judgment - to give her one more day to make provision for herself and her children.

As the king marches off, the ladies offer their sympathy, asking Medea where she can go. But Medea is not looking for sympathy. Creon's edict has steeled her resolve to kill the king, his daughter and Jason. She, the granddaughter of the sun-god Helios, will not let their insults go unavenged. She will do it with poison, she tells them.

Jason comes by to scold Medea for her ill-temper, telling her that she has brought trouble on herself by threatening the king. He offers to support her and the children financially while they are in exile. She responds by challenging his manhood, reminding him that she tamed the fire-breathing bulls, she killed the sleepless snake that guarded the golden fleece, she arranged for the murder of Pelias. Now he has forsworn the sacred promises he made to her.

Jason replies by reminding her that he has rescued her from obscurity by bringing her to Greece. He argues that his marriage to the princess was "a clever move" made to serve her best interests and those of the children by allying them with a royal family. If it were not for "the love question", he tells her, she would see the practical advantages of the marriage.

Unconvinced by his "clever speech" Medea insists that Jason left her because he tired of living with a foreign wife. When she accuses him once again of abandoning her, he offers her money and introductions to friends, but she refuses, cursing Jason and his marriage. Jason returns to the palace as the neighbors pray that Cypris will never allow them to suffer the fate of Medea.

King Aegeus, an old friend of Medea, chances by on his way home from the oracle at Delphi. He tells Medea that he went there to inquire about having children. Medea tells him about Jason's betrayal and Creon's insistence that she leave the country. She begs him to receive her into his kingdom, promising to use her skills to help his wife conceive. Though reluctant to offend his neighbors, he agrees to take her in if she can make her way to Athens. She extracts an oath from him not to hand her over to her enemies. The Corinthian ladies wish him well as he leaves for home.

Having secured a refuge, Medea reveals her plan. She will send for Jason and, feigning a change of heart, beg him to arrange for the children to stay in Corinth. She will use them to send the princess a gown and tiara laced with a poison that will cause her and anyone who touches her to die in agony. Next she will do something even more dreadful - she will kill her own children in order to deprive Jason of all he has. Her neighbors implore her to follow "the normal ways of mankind", but she is firm in her resolve and sends the nurse to fetch Jason. The women wonder if she can go through with it.

When Jason arrives, Medea begs forgiveness, acknowledging the wisdom of his decision and the impulsivity of her anger. "I should have helped with your plans, come to your wedding and stood by your marriage bed," she tells him. She calls her children from the house and presents them to Jason, begging him to convince the princess to let them stay. Jason accepts her apologies, but doubts that he can convince his new wife to accept his children. Medea replies that the princess will accept them if they come with gifts - a beautifully woven dress and a golden diadem which she received from Helios. Medea sends the children with their tutor to deliver the gifts into the hands of the princess.

The neighbors know where Medea's plans will lead. They express pity for the children, the princess, Jason, and Medea.

When he tutor returns with the happy news that the princess welcomed the children and their gifts, he does not understand why Medea seems distressed. Medea sends him into the house but keeps the children behind. All her plans for them have been ruined by their father, she says. Their smiles almost persuade her to flee with them into exile, but she knows she has gone too far to turn back. The princess has by now put the diadem on her head. Medea bids the children a final farewell before sending them into the house. Her fury, she says, outweighs her misgivings.

The women of Corinth recount the tribulations that having children brings, observing that the most terrible grief is the premature death of a child.

One of Jason's servants hurries to the house to tell Medea to run for her life. Her poison has killed the princess and the king, outraging the palace. Medea remains calm. She asks the servant to tell her in detail what happened. The servant tells her that when Jason brought the children into his new wife's chambers, she was displeased, but when she saw the gifts and tried them on, she relented. Her delight turned to horror as the poison took effect. The blood drained from her face; her eyes rolled back; she foamed at the mouth. The diadem on her head burst into flame while the dress consumed her body. She shrieked as the flesh fell away from her bones. Her father rushed to embrace her, but when he tried to extricate himself, the poisoned dress ripped off his flesh, leaving him dead in his daughter's arms.

The neighbors express their sorrow for the princess while Medea expresses her resolve to bring her plan to completion. Since her children will be slain in any case, she will do it herself in the most kindly way possible. As she goes into the house, the women pray to Helios to prevent his kin from incurring the wrath of the gods. But their prayers go unanswered as they hear the children being killed within.

When Jason rushes home to save his children from the king's friends, the neighbors tell him that Medea has already slain them. Jason orders his men to smash in the gate, but Medea opens it from within. She is equipped with a chariot, fashioned by Helios, holding the bodies of her children. Jason curses her, saying he should have realized she was a monster when she killed her brother. Now she has ruined his life. They trade insults until they can no longer stand the sight of one another. When Jason demands that she hand over the bodies so he can bury them, she refuses, saying that she will bury them herself when she arrives in Athens.

The neighbors observe that Zeus oversees all things. What we mortals think will happen does not, and what we think impossible god contrives to make happen.

Image: Medea by Evelyn De Morgan (1889), Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead
Texts on line:

Perseus Collection translation by David Kovacs

Perseus Collection Greek text