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Medea

Medea (431 BCE) was written by the Greek Tragedian Euripides during Greece's classical era. It is a story that involves betrayal, a witch, and the murder of children. Medea's impact on literature has lasted for centuries as it is an early example of both Dramatic Realism and Melodrama.

Euripides didn't invent the character of Medea, a powerful witch. In fact, as with most ancient Greek plays, the story of Medea had many tales and versions that were circulating at the time Euripides wrote Medea. Euripides makes the story his own with the use of dramatic elements such as a focus on exposition and emotion. Witchcraft was also a common theme in mythology. There was the goddess of magic and witchcraft Hecate and many other mythological stories about witches such as Circe. Witches were often depicted as dangerous, seductive women who lured men to danger.

Medea+Euripides/Medea play+ StudySmarterEuripides, the Greek Tragedian, wrote Medea in 431 BCE, Pixabay.

The Historical Context of the Play Medea

Euripides wrote Medea for a 5th century BCE Athenian audience during what is known as the Golden Age of Athens. During Euripides's childhood, he would've witnessed the victory of Athens over the Persian invasion. Athens also gained political independence and dominancy over the Mediterranean. With political stability and a growing economy, Athenian art and literature flourished resulting in the growth of the Greek Tragic Drama led by Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. Medea by Euripides was a play that subtly questioned Athenian morals. Athens's golden age ended in 406 BCE when Sparta was defeated in Athens in the Peloponnesian War.

Medea+Athens/Medea play+ StudySmarterMedea was written during Athens's Golden Age, Pixabay.

Medea by Euripides: Summary

When the play begins, Jason, Medea's husband, has just left her and their two children. Jason has a desire to marry Glauce, who is the daughter of the king of Corinth: King Creon. By marrying Glauce, Jason can raise his social standing. As told by a nurse outside the palace, Jason and Medea went through many obstacles that led them to find refuge in Corinth.

Medea was the princess of Colchis. She used her powers as a sorceress, or a witch, to help Jason secure the Golden Fleece. They fell in love. While fleeing her homeland, she killed her brother to slow down those pursuing her. While in Iolcus, Jason's home, she convinced the daughters of Pelias, the King, to murder him. Jason and Medea are exiled to Corinth for their actions.

Corinth is where they established their family and gained respect from the local people. When Jason decided to abandon Medea and their children, Medea was devastated. She cursed her existence and that of her children.

If the name Jason sounds familiar to you that's because he has his own cycle of mythological tales. Jason was the leader of the Argonauts, a band of 50 heroes, charged with obtaining the Golden Fleece which belonged to Jason's father, King Aeson of lolcus.

King Creon is afraid Medea will seek revenge for Jason's actions so he banishes her and her children from Corinth. Medea begs for mercy and asks for one more day before she has to leave. She is given one day and Medea immediately begins to plan how she will seek justice. She contemplates murdering Jason, King Creon, and Glauce. Jason tells Medea she is overreacting and that she is making her and the children vulnerable in the public eye. He tries to defend his reasoning for marrying Glauce by stating it is in everyone's better interest. He offers to help Medea, but she refuses.

King Aegeus of Athens coincidentally shows up in Corinth and offers Medea refuge in his home city. In exchange he requests Medea, who is a sorceress, to provide him with information about which drugs will cure his sterility. Medea is emboldened now that she has a place to seek refuge and continues to plan her revenge. Her revenge plot now includes murdering her own children. She justifies infanticide by stating it will make Jason suffer so much, that the satisfaction she will feel will outweigh the pain of losing her children.

Medea pretends to sympathize with Jason. She offers Glauce a gift of a coronet and a dress which she hopes will persuade King Creon to let Medea's children stay in Corinth. However, the gift Medea gave to Glauce is poisoned, which kills Glauce. King Creon is so distraught by the death of his daughter, that he embraces her poisoned body and dies alongside her.

When a messenger provides information about the deaths, Medea barely reacts. Earlier as she contemplated the death of her children, she was anxious and tense. However now she is ready and confident about her plans which are protested by the chorus.

In Classical Greek drama, the chorus was made up of a group of actors whose purpose was to provide commentary about the main action or character in the play. They would provide commentary through song, dance, and recitation.

Medea murders her children. Her grandfather, Helios, the Sun God, provides Medea with a chariot pulled by a dragon which allows her to escape the scene. Jason is left to suffer down below. Jason lost everything he valued and the play closes with his tragic state.

Characters in Medea

Below are the key characters in the play Medea by Euripides.

Medea+Medea/Medea play+ StudySmarterMedea is the Tragic Heroine of the play Medea, Pixabay.

CharacterRole/PurposeQuote
MedeaThe protagonist. Medea is a sorceress and Princess who has just been abandoned by her husband Jason. Medea's emotional state intensifies from despair to rage throughout the play which leads her to revenge. This includes the murder of the King, his daughter, and her two children she has with Jason. "In other thingsa woman may be timid—in watching battlesor seeing steel, but when she's hurt in love,her marriage violated, there's no heart more desperate for blood than hers" (Lines 303-307).
JasonJason abandons his wife, Medea, and their two children to marry Princess Glauce. He wishes to advance his social standing. His actions lead Medea to take revenge on him through murder. Jason is an unsympathetic character who values his own self-interest above anyone else."As for your complaints about this marriage,I'll show you that in this I'm being wise, and moderate, and very friendly to you,and to my children. You must have patience" (Lines 649-652).
King CreonThe king of Corinth who exiles Medea from Corinth. He famously kills himself by embracing the dead body of his poisoned daughter. "What you say sounds comforting enough, but I'm still afraid that heart of yours is planning something evil. At this point, I trust you even less than previously" (Lines 371-374)
GlauceJason's new bride and the daughter of King Creon. She is considered very beautiful and young causing Medea to feel angry with jealousy. "Come, children, take up these wedding gifts and carry themas offerings to the happy royal bride. What she's getting will be worthy of her" (Spoken by Medea, Lines 1121-1124).
Children The innocent and naive children of Medea and Jason who Medea murders. Their innocent death was used to take revenge on Jason and make him suffer. Euripides doesn't include the name of the children, but in other versions of the myth, the names and number of children differ. "Oh, my children, why are you looking at me in that way?Why smile at me—that last smile of yours?Alas, what shall I do? You women here,my heart gives way when I see those eyes,my children's smiling eyes" (Spoken by Medea, Lines 1222-1227)
King AegeusThe King of Athens offers Medea refuge in Athens as long as she provides him with drugs that will cure his sterility. His offer is what emboldens Medea to carry out her revenge plot. "If you can reach my household on your own,you may stay there in safety. Rest assured—I won't surrender you to anyone.But you must make your own escape from here.I don't want my hosts finding fault with me" (Lines 863-868)
ChorusThe women of Corinth whose purpose is to provide commentary on the action of the play. They sympathize with Medea until she murders her children. How will this city of sacred streams, this land of strolling lovers,welcome you—a killer,who slaughtered her own children, an unholy woman—among its people? Consider this—the killing of your children.Consider the murder you are going to do. By your knees we beg you,in every way we know,do not slaughter your own children" (Lines 995-1005).

Analysis of Medea

Medea is an example of Classical Greek Tragedy. Greek Tragedy first appeared in Athens in the 5th century BCE. Tragedians, like Euripides, took traditional stories and myths with tragic endings and turned them into plays that explored themes involving human nature.

Greek tragedies evolved from Satyr dithyramb, a type of hymn, which was sung alongside dancing in honor of the god Dionysus.

Euripides was known for his experimentation with the genre of Greek Tragedy. These experimentations can be found in the writing of Medea. Euripides highlighted the emotions and feelings of the characters as a way to enhance the tragic tone of the plot.

O now my sufferings will kill me. It’s over.
My enemies have set full sail against me,
and there’s no way I can avert disaster" (Lines 333-338).

This is an example of how Euripides focused on the emotion of the characters. In this line spoken by Medea to King Creon, who is banishing her, we see the distress she is going through. Her emotional state is so distraught she feels it will kill her.

Monologues

Euripides also used monologues extensively, rather than the traditional prologues, to provide background into the past of Jason and Medea.

Monologue: A long speech spoken by an actor in a play that provides some sort of insight into the main theme of the play.

Prologue: An introduction to a piece of literature that has a separate section in the beginning.

For example, we learn about how Medea helped Jason obtain the Golden Fleece, including Medea's murder of her brother and Jason's murder of King Pelias, in a monologue spoken by Medea's nurse (Lines 1-55). In this monologue, we are also provided with the framework of the story. In it, we learn that Jason has left Medea and her two children and that Medea is distraught. Monologues are a great tool used by playwrights, such as Euripides, to provide important context without spending too much time explaining it either in dialogue or in an introductory section.

Realism

Another key aspect of Euripide's writing style in Medea is the use of realism in his writing. The dialogue between characters mirrored the natural flow of speech rather than the traditional use of rhyme and meter. He used plain style writing to achieve this by avoiding heightened, pompous language.

Why link your children with the nasty things
their father’s done? Why do

you hate them so?
I’m terrified the children

will be hurt" (Lines 141-146).

Remember that originally Medea was written in Classical Greek. Therefore, what might be considered natural speech to us may be different than what was the natural speech to Classical Greeks. However, modern translations of Medea do try to mimic modern natural speech to match how Euripides would've wanted the words spoken, such as the lines spoken by Medea above.

In addition, Euripides's realism can be found in the characterization of the characters as insecure, conflict-ridden people rather than the more confident and resolute characters that appeared in contemporary plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus. There are many times throughout the play in which Medea doubts her plans or is riddled with anxiety about executing her plans. She is emotional and distressed for the majority of the play.

Pathos

Euripides also implements the rhetorical device known as Pathos.

Pathos: Appealing to the emotions of an audience and stirring feelings they may already have within them.

Euripides wants the audience to sympathize with Medea's condition. He uses pathos to appeal to our emotional senses and connect with her. The most famous use of Pathos in Medea is Medea's soliloquy right before she murders her children.

A soliloquy is when a character speaks their thoughts out loud regardless of whether it is heard by anyone else.

Don’t play the coward. Don’t

remember now how much you love them,

how you gave them life.
For this short day forget

they are your children
and mourn them later.

Although you kill them,
still you loved them.

As a woman, I’m so sad" (Lines 1464-1475)

The audience is meant to feel as heartbroken as Medea does as she is about to kill her children. She has to muster the strength to do so. Pathos can be found throughout this excerpt and especially when she states that as a woman, she is so sad.

Major Themes in Medea

Euripides's play Medea was first performed in 431 BCE during a festival dedicated to Dionysus. Three tragedians competed against each other with three tragedies and one satyr play.

A satyr play was a type of theatrical performance that combined elements of both comedy and tragedy. They were performed in honor of the god Dionysus and often included the comedic character of a satyr. A satyr in Greek art was depicted as a man with the ears and tail of a goat, and the satyr was often a drunken, lustful, and chaotic character.

Medea was one of Euripides's entries, and he got last place in the competition. Euripides could have lost for many different reasons including his choice of theme that involved a foreign, female protagonist or that Aeschylus and Sophocles were reigning champions of the competition and were hard to defeat.

The female protagonist and barbarianism

Throughout the play, Medea is seen criticizing the society she lives in which is heavily male dominant. Medea has fulfilled the role of a dutiful wife and mother. She sacrificed her family to aid Jason to obtain the Golden Fleece. However, she is left abandoned and betrayed by the one she sacrificed everything for. She then refuses to conform to societal expectations. Euripides does portray her suffering under the patriarchal oppression of her society with sympathy.

we women are the most unfortunate.
First, we need a husband, someone we get
for an excessive price. He then becomes
the ruler of our bodies. And this misfortune
adds still more troubles to the grief we have.
Then comes the crucial struggle: this husband
we have selected, is he good or bad?
For a divorce loses women all respect,
yet we can’t refuse to take a husband" (Lines 264-272).

In this excerpt, we see how sharply Medea criticizes the society in which she lives. She is speaking to the chorus who represent the women of Corinth. She points out how men may choose to do as they wish, but women will always be under the rule of a man. The consequences of a man's actions, such as Jason's, affect the woman more severely than it does the man.

Athenian society in the 5th century BCE was deeply distrustful of foreigners, calling them barbarians. Usually, foreigners were depicted as uneducated, wild, and violent. Medea, who is considered a foreigner, displays characteristics that both contradict the stereotype of a barbarian and fall into the stereotype. Medea is highly intelligent and plays the main role of a tragic heroine, which was not seen before in Greek tragedies. However, the violent and passionate revenge that Medea takes on Jason results in the death of Glauce, King Creon, and her children. This shows that she is a foreigner and not like the rest of the Corinthians. The Corinthian women's voices are heard in the chorus and they display this distrust for foreigners right before Medea kills her children:

You hard and wretched woman,
just like stone or iron—
to kill your children,
ones you bore yourself,
sealing their fate with your own hands" (Lines 1517-1521).

Medea - Key Takeaways

  • Medea (431 BCE) is a play by the Greek Tragedian Euripides written during Athens' Golden Age.
  • It was written for the Dionysiac festival competition in 431 BCE along with two other Tragic Dramas and a Satyr Play. Euripides won last place.
  • Medea follows the story of Medea, a sorceress, whose husband, Jason, left her and her children to remarry Glauce, the daughter of King Creon and it explores the themes of the female protagonist and barbarianism.
  • Medea plots her revenge full of passion and distress. Her revenge results in the murder of Glauce, King Creon, and infamously her two children.
  • The play differs from other Greek Tragedies for its unique experimentation with pathos, realism, and the use of monologues rather than prologues.
  • Medea explores the themes of the female protagonist and barbarianism.

Frequently Asked Questions about Medea

Medea was written by Euripides.

Medea kills her children to get revenge on Jason for abandoning her and her children in order to marry another woman. 

Medea was written in 431 BCE.

Medea falls under the Greek Tragedy genre.

Medea follows the story of Medea, a sorceress, whose husband, Jason, left her and her children to remarry Glauce, the daughter of King Creon. Medea plots her revenge full of passion and distress. Her revenge results in the murder of Glauce, King Creon, and infamously her two children.

Final Medea Quiz

Question

When was Medea written?

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Answer

431 BCE

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Who wrote Medea?

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Euripides

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Where was Medea written?

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Athens

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Why does Jason abandon Medea and their children?

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Jason abandons them in order to marry Glauce, the king's daughter. This will raise his social standing. 

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Why does King Creon banish Medea and her children?

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He is afraid that she will take revenge on Glauce and Jason. 

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What does King Aegeus want in exchange for providing Medea refuge?

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Drugs that will cure his sterility. 

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Who does the chorus represent?

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The women of Corinth

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What genre does Medea fall under?

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Greek Tragedy

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Why was Euripides unique as a Greek Tragedian?

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Answer

Euripides highlighted the emotions and feelings of the characters as a way to enhance the tragic tone of the plot.  

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What purpose does monologue have in the play?

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The monologues provide background and context about Medea and Jason. 

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How does Euripides use realism in his writing?

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He writes in a way that mirrors the natural flow of spoken language and focuses on the psychology of his characters.

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What rhetorical device is implemented in the play?

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Pathos

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What major themes are explored in Medea?

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Answer

The female protagonist and barbarianism

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How were foreigners usually depicted in Athenian society and literature?

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Foreigners were depicted as uneducated, wild, and violent.  

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How does Euripides contradict the stereorype of a foreigner?

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Answer

Medea is highly intelligent. 

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