For the mythological background of the play, please consult the Short Summary. Without knowledge of the backstory, the Medea cannot be properly understood.
The setting is before the house of Medea and Jason, in Corinth. The Nurse enters, sorrowfully telling the audience what has recently happened to Medea. Although Medea has committed crimes on Jason' behalf, he has now left her and taken a new wife. Jason's new wife is the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth (not to be confused with the Creon of the Oedipus myth). Medea has been sick with grief since the new development; she turns even from her own children, presumably because they remind her of Jason. The Nurse fears what Medea may do, "for her heart is violent" (l. 38).
The Tutor enters, with the two small children of Jason and Medea. The Tutor brings more bad news: he has heard a rumor that Creon intends to drive Medea and the children out of Corinth. The Nurse is horrified that Jason would allow his family to be treated so; she tells the Tutor to bring the children inside, but warns him to keep them away from their mother. We hear Medea's cries coming from the inside of the house; they make the Nurse afraid, for Medea is a powerful and dangerous woman. Medea is heard cursing Jason and the children, wishing for the whole house to fall. The Nurse muses that the great are not an enviable group.
The Chorus enters, speaking to the Nurse. They pity Medea, but they also seem to think that a woman should learn to endure; Medea is not the first to have an unfaithful husband. Medea is heard crying out, speaking regretfully of what she did to her own family to help Jason. The Chorus asks the Nurse to bring Medea out, so that they might comfort her.
Medea enters, delivering a monologue on her sufferings and the sufferings of woman. Women, though creatures that can think and feel, must endure terrible indignities. Marriage is necessary, and with marriage comes servitude. And though men are free to indulge their appetites and enjoy the company of their friends, women must remain in the house and live for their husbands alone. Men must bear arms, but women must bear children. And Medea tells the Chorus that her problem is still worse: she is a foreigner in Greece, without a family or home, and Jason has treated her like a prize won in a foreign land. Medea secures a promise: if she can find a way to get revenge, she asks the Chorus to vow that they will remain silent. The Chorus does as she asks, telling her she is right to seek revenge.
Creon enters, with attendants, and tells Medea that she and her two children are to be banished immediately. When Medea, distraught, asks why, Creon admits that he is afraid of her. She is a powerful sorceress, and he fears for his daughter's life. Medea speaks about the hatred all people have for the clever. She begs to be allowed to stay, promising to submit to authority, but Creon will not allow it. She continues to beg, pleading to be allowed one more day, so that she can prepare for the journey and decide where to go. Creon, believing that one day is not enough for Medea to do her enemies harm, grants her request. But if she or her children are found in his lands at dawn tomorrow, they will die. Creon and his attendants exit.
Euripides has the opening of the play delivered by two slaves, a Nurse and a Tutor. An important feature of his work is allowing slaves to speak, and speak well. The Nurse and the Tutor provide their perspective on the events in the house they serve. Significantly, both of them condemn Jason. The Nurse, after a few brief moments on stage, is already well-defined as a character. She is loyal to the house and to Medea, but she fears Medea and her violent heart. There are differences of attitude between the two slaves, and these differences seem to break down along the lines of gender: the Nurse seems to be shocked by Jason's behavior, while the Tutor cynically remarks that everyone looks out for himself. The slaves provide an outsider's eye on the action, and they are canny enough to predict events. The Nurse's fears foreshadow the terrible fate of Medea's children. And yet the slaves are completely powerless to alter the course of events.
Passion is an important theme of the play. The Nurse reminds us that Medea is here because she followed Jason back to Greece out of love. (For the mythological background of the play, please consult the Short Summary. Without knowledge of the backstory, the Medea cannot be properly understood.) Passion and love motivated Medea to help Jason: it is thanks to her and her mastery of arcane arts that he won the Golden Fleece. But though we know that in the past passion was the motivation for heroic acts, it was also the motivation for Medea's terrible crimes: to help Jason escape, she killed her brother. To win back his rightful place in Iolcus, she turned the daughter of Pelias into murderers. As long as Jason returned her love, Medea's power and passion were enlisted for his aid. But passion also consumes: we here Medea's cries from offstage, as she curses Jason and her own children. Passion has its dark side: possessiveness, jealousy, the means by which love becomes hatred. The Nurse confides to the audience that "Love is diseased" (l. 16); the incredible force of Medea's passion, infected by Jason's betrayal, will now become destructive.
Greatness and pride are two more themes, closely connected. The Nurse speaks of the dangers of great people's passions. Because the great always have their own way, their tempers swerve wildly, unchecked. This theme is very typically Greek, and in Medea it overlaps with the theme of passion. For the Greeks, pride was something of which one had to be wary; at the same time, they had a much more complicated understanding of pride than the Judeo-Christian concept that we have inherited. For Christians, pride is one of the seven deadly sins, opposite of the virtue of humility. The main hero of Christianity, Jesus Christ, is the embodiment of humility. The Son of God is born poor and subjects himself to a humiliating death by crucifixion. In contrast, a reader would be hard-pressed to find a truly humble Greek hero. There is sacrifice and suffering, but one learns to moderate one's pride after a tragic fall. At the same time, the Greeks recognized pride as a necessary part of greatness. Medea sets up parallels between pride and passion: both make Medea's great acts possible. And both lead to her corruption.
Another key theme is the position of women. To say that Euripides was a feminist would be a terrible oversimplification, as well as an anachronism. Nor are his views on women (or any other subject) consistent throughout his career; each new play presents its own vision, its own revelations. But what can be said with certainty is that Euripides was fascinated by women and the difficulties of their position. By examining the treatment of women, Euripides pointed out the injustices and blind spots of his society. He was also extremely savvy about the ways that art has been used to defame woman's character, and smart enough to recognize that many of the cherished myths and fables of the Greeks reinforced male-dominated order by teaching women to accept (and enjoy) subjugation. Medea points out many specifics of Greek life that are nearly universal to pre-industrial societies. A woman, when she marries, must leave her own home and join her husband's. She is therefore always an outsider. Women are not free to socialize in public space as men are; while men roam wild, indulging sexual appetites or enjoying the company of friends, women are expected to stay at home. Medea makes herself the spokeswoman for the suffering of women, and by this act she secures the loyalty and secrecy of the Chorus.
But it would be too simple to see the play as a proto-feminist diatribe against the excesses of patriarchy. One of Euripides great insight, and one of his most discomforting ones, is that the oppressed do not automatically become noble. The greatest victory a Euripidean tragic hero can claim is to learn compassion and wisdom through suffering; however, most of Euripides' characters fall far short of that mark. His plays teach us that those who suffer often become monstrous. Euripides may be deeply critical of male-dominated Greek order, and he may be deeply sympathetic to the position of women, but he does not grant Medea and the women of Corinth the moral high ground. Medea may earn our sympathies in her first speech, but she will soon be revealed as a terrifyingly self-centered and ruthless woman. Euripides shows us injustice without giving us heroes who can correct it: instead, we are given the cold reaction of revenge. We are not brought to greater order through struggle. A society's hypocrisy must be paid for, and the price is high and bloody.
Another key theme is exile. Modern audiences have difficulty conceiving of how horrible exile was for the ancient Greeks. A person's city-state was home and protector; to wander, without friends or shelter, was considered to be a fate as horrible as death. Medea, for the sake of her husband, has made herself an exile. She is far from home, without family or friends to protect her. Also consider that in her overzealous advocacy of her husband's interest, she has made their family exiles in Corinth. Because of her actions in Iolcus, Jason cannot return home. Their position is vulnerable. Jason, hero of the Golden Fleece (although Euripides emphasizes that Medea was the true agent behind the success of the quest) is now a wanderer. His marriage is shrewd and calculating: he takes a bride of Corinth's royal family. The Tutor points out the shrewd nature of Jason's actions, voicing no surprise that men always act in self-interest. Euripides links the themes of exile and the position of women. When emphasizing the circumstances women must bear after marriage (leaving home, living among strangers), Medea is reminding us of the conditions of exile. Her position, then, is doubly grave, as she is an exile in the ordinary sense and also an exile in the sense that all women are exiles. She is also a foreigner, and so to the Greeks she will always be "barbarian."
The Other is a key theme. Medea's foreignness is emphasized from the start: the Nurse, from the very opening lines, reminds us that Medea comes from a distant and exotic land. Several points should be born in mind when reflecting on this aspect of the play. Remember that the Other is a complex and multifaceted concept: it comprises the foreign, the exotic, the unknown, the feared. The Other is also essential for self-definition: as the Greeks ascribe certain traits to barbarians, they are implying certain things about themselves. Barbarians are savage; we Greeks are not. Barbarians are superstitious; we Greeks are rational. But throughout the course of the play, Euripides destabilizes these easy binaries. He will show, as he does in other plays, that the Other is not exclusively something external to Greece. There is much, for the Greeks and for us, that we do not know about ourselves.
Another key point to remember is that the Other (the foreign, the exotic, the terrifying) is an essential component of adventure. Jason's quest, and all the quests of Greek heroes, would not be possible without strange and fearsome lands to visit. For Jason, Medea's Other-ness may have had something to do with her initial attractiveness. Although we cannot know if Jason was sincerely attracted to her or if he merely used her to secure his own ends, or both, it is probable that Medea's uniqueness drew Jason to her. Throughout the play, we hear again and again that Medea is different from Greek women. Jason's marriage to Medea can be seen as an attempt to bring the adventure home with him. Medea describes herself as "something he won in a foreign land" (l. 256). The marriage can be seen as Jason's attempt to subordinate the foreign to the Greek, woman to man; it is an attempt to join the struggle and danger of adventure with the return to home and stability. In Aeschylus' Oresteia, these syntheses/subordinations of seemingly opposite forces lead to order and harmony. In Medea, they lead to chaos.
Another theme is Medea's cleverness. Medea tells Creon that it is better to be born stupid, for men despise the clever. Part of her difficulty is that she has no real outlet for her gifts. Eleanor Wilner calls Medea "a Machiavel without a country to rule" (4). Her force, her intellect, and her strength of will all exceed her station. The Greeks, though they have some respect for her, often treat her smugly because of her sex and her barbarian origins. She is surrounded by people less intelligent and resourceful than she, but social power and respect is theirs. Remember that Aristotle considered the "unscrupulously clever" woman so distasteful as to be a subject unfit for drama; his statement reflects typically Greek attitudes. Medea is despised for talents that should win her praise; she is also terrifyingly free. Because she is an outsider to normal order, she behaves without restraint or morality. Her genius, denied an empire to build, will instead be used on the smaller playing field of personal revenge.