Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

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431 BCE

Medea killing her son
4c BCE amphora

In Greek mythology, Medea was a barbarian* princess and sorceress, daughter of the King of Colchis, grand-daughter of the sun-god Helios, and niece to the sorceress Circe. ["barbarian" = not Greek]

Plot Description

In Euripides's tragedy, Medea is married to the Greek hero Jason, by whom she has two sons.

Jason abandons his family when the nearby King of Corinth offers his daughter Glauce to Jason in marriage, thus elevating Jason to royalty (and Glauce to trophy-bride status).

For her wedding gift to Glauce and her father, Medea sends them golden clothes that act as poison, despoiling their bodies and killing them both. [spectacle offstage]

While Jason is planning for the wedding, Medea kills her and Jason's sons. [spectacle offstage]

At the play's conclusion, Medea revels in her vengeance and rides into the sky on a chariot drawn by two dragons. [spectacle onstage; deus ex machina]

Genre analysis

The play was frequently revived in the late 20th century, partly owing to feminist interest, but also owing to Aristotle's dictum in Poetics 14c: "[W]hen the tragic incident occurs between those who are near or dear to one another—if, for example, a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is done—these are the situations to be looked for by the poet."

The play has interest beyond gender studies, particularly in depicting Medea as a "barbarian" outsider who must exercise her power violently.

  • Compare terrorism.

  • Also consider Euripides's modern popularity for making underdogs and outcasts (often women characters) into tragic heroes. (Compare Tragedy Modernized.)

Appropriately for tragedy, the play's ethics and characterization are not clear-cut; any audience sense of right and wrong is heavily conflicted.

Modern audiences naturally sympathize with Medea's outsider status, and revenge is a standard plot for romance narratives.

But the fact that Medea's vengeance is enacted on innocents (her sons and Princess Glauce) muddles Medea's heroism.

Medea's escape at the play's conclusion formally resembles the "transcendence" conclusion of the romance narrative, but the audience may not feel like going with her.

Jason, though a secondary character to Medea (and her nurse), resembles a tragic hero who becomes aware of the wrong he has done his family and is chastened by his loss. (Compare Creon in Antigone.)

Medea, in the style of a romance character, seems unfazed and triumphant at the end (though a good part of the play's dialogue concerns her misgivings over killing her sons).





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