Medea was first performed in 431 BC. Its companion pieces have been lost, but we know that this set of plays won third prize at the Dionysia, adding another disappointment to Euripides' career. Although we know nothing of the other pieces, the character of Medea undoubtedly made the Athenian audience uncomfortable; for audiences past and present, the play is something of a shocker, nihilistic and disturbing. Of the eighty-eight or so plays Euripides wrote, only nineteen (or possibly eighteen, as the authorship of Rhesus is in doubt) survive. Medea is one of the earliest surviving plays of Euripides, though it was written well into his career. It is also one of the most popular.
The specific circumstances surrounding the origin of Greek drama were a puzzle even in the fourth century BC. Greek drama seems to have its roots in religious celebrations that incorporated song and dance. By the sixth century BC, Athenians had transformed a rural celebration of Dionysus into an urban festival with dancing choruses that competed for prizes. An anonymous poet came up with the idea of having the chorus interact with a masked actor. Later, Aeschylus transformed the art by using two masked actors, each playing different parts throughout the piece, making possible staged drama as we know it. With two actors and a chorus, complex plots and conflicts could be staged as never before, and the poets who competed in the festival were no longer writing elaborate hymns, but true plays. The playwrights were more than just writers. They also composed the music, choreographed the dances, and directed the actors. Athens was the only Greek city-state where this art form evolved; the comedies, tragedies, and dramas handed down to us from the period, although labeled generically as "Greek," are in fact all Athenian works.
After the defeat of the Persians in a decisive campaign (480-479 BC), Athens emerged as the superpower of the independent Greek city-states, and during this time, the drama festival, or the Dionysia, became a spectacular event. The Dionysia lasted four to five days, and the city took the celebrations seriously. Prisoners were released on bail and most public business was suspended. Roughly ten thousand free male citizens, along with their slaves and dependents, watched plays in an enormous outdoor theater that could seat seventeen thousand spectators. On each of three days, the Athenians were treated to three tragedies and a satyr play (a light comedy on a mythic theme) written by one of three pre-selected tragedians, as well as one comedy by a comedic playwright. The trilogies did not have to be an extended drama dealing with the same story, although often they were. At the end of the festival, the tragedians were awarded first, second, and third prize by the judges of Dionysis.
For modern readers, the Chorus may be the most alien element of the play. Greek drama was not meant to be what we would consider "naturalistic." It was a highly stylized art form: actors wore masks, and the performances incorporated song and dance. The Chorus delivers much of the exposition and expounds poetically on themes, but it is still meant to represent a group of characters. In the case of Medea, the Chorus is constituted by the women of Corinth. The relationship between the Chorus and Medea is one of the most interesting Chorus-protagonist relationships in all of Greek drama. The women are alternately horrified and enthralled by Medea: there is no question that she goes too far and commits the most horrible act possible for a mother, and for that, she earns the Chorus' pity and condemnation. And yet, they do nothing to interfere. The women live vicariously through Medea. In taking her revenge, she avenges the crimes committed against all of womankind. Powerful and fearless, Medea refuses to be wronged by men, and the Chorus cannot help but admire her.
Medea is part of the gallery of Euripides' "bad women." Euripides was often attacked for portraying what Aristotle called "unscrupulously clever" women as his main characters; he depicts his tragic heroines with far less apology than his contemporaries. We are not, as in Aeschylus' Oresteia, allowed to comfort ourselves with the restoration of male-dominated order. In Medea that order is exposed as hypocritical and spineless, and in the character of Medea, we see who a woman whose suffering, instead of ennobling her, has made her monstrous.
Consistent with the norms of Greek drama, Medea is not divided into acts or discrete scenes. However, time passes in non-naturalistic fashion: at certain points, it is clear that a considerable amount of time has passed in the world of the play even though only a few seconds have passed for the audience. In general, as noted by Aristotle, most Greek tragedies have action confined to a twenty-four hour period.