The Chorus cries out to the god Helius, who is Medea's ancestor. They sing of the horrible act Medea is about to commit. From inside the house, we hear the cries of Medea's children as she slaughters them. As the children cry for help, the Chorus considers interfering, but in the end they stay out of it. They deliver another ode on the horror of infanticide.
Jason enters, with attendants. He asks the Chorus where Medea hides; the sorceress will surely die for her act. He has come to take the boys under guard, for fear that the royal house will seek vengeance against them. The Chorus tells Jason that his children are dead, by Medea's hand. Jason is aghast. He orders his men to break down the doors, and he speaks of how he will repay her for her crimes.
Medea appears above the palace, in a chariot drawn by dragons. The corpses of the two children are with her. She laughs at Jason's vain efforts. The chariot is a gift from Helius, god of the sun, her father's father. Jason reviles her, saying that no Greek woman would dare to do as she has. He berates himself for taking this evil bride. Medea responds coldly, saying that Zeus knows all she did for Jason and how Jason repaid her. They bicker, each blaming the other for what has happened. Jason demands the bodies, so that he can bury them.
Medea refuses. She will bury them herself, and establish a holy feast and sacrifice to Hera to atone for her sin. She will go to Athens, where safe refuge awaits her. And Jason, she foretells, will die without distinction. He will die in an accident, struck on the head by a piece of timber from his old ship, the Argo. They bicker again. Jason bewails his fate, and the horrible deaths of his boys. The Chorus ends the play, singing that the gods contrive events in ways that are surprising to man.
Facing his wife, who appears in the sky in a divine chariot, Jason brings us back to the theme of the Other. Once again, we are reminded of the difference between Medea and Greek women. He tells her that no Greek women would have done as she has done. But Jason makes this pronouncement without seeming to understand the implications. Consider the Chorus, which has stood by mutely and allowed this slaughter to take place. Consider also that Jason has shown us how Greek men behave. Jason's easy distinctions between Other and Us, Barbarian and Greek, docile woman and righteous man, all seem too simplistic after the events we have just witnessed. He has attempted to bring part of his adventure home with him, and all has ended in disaster. Euripides has refused to hand anyone the moral high ground, but instead has shown us a vicious war between the sexes in which the oppressed, rather than become ennobled, turn against their oppressors with the viciousness that they deserve. He is showing us a world, our world, in which attempts at easy categorizations do not hold; in which synthesis of supposed opposites does not work; in which the very terms by which we know these opposites turn out to be a product of our self delusion.
And Euripides will go farther: he uses Medea to expose the bankruptcy of popular Greek ideas of heroism. Medea has many traits that would be admirable, if only she were a man. She is ruthless, brilliant, cunning, and powerful. But her position is one of weakness: she is not a ruler or a warrior on the battlefield. Euripides gives us qualities that are considered heroic, but he puts them in a woman and reduces the scale, making the playing field one of marriage and spurned love. The fine Homeric speeches of warriors on the verge of combat are reduced to the bickering of an enraged wife and a petty husband. In this play, Euripides calls sacred ideas about heroism into question. Consider, for example, the character of Agamemnon as he is portrayed by Aeschylus in the Oresteia. Agamemnon also kills his own child; and yet, although he is not admired for this act, after his death Aeschylus still gives him his due as a great man and hero. Our reaction to Medea's infanticide is one of unmitigated horror. By granting unlimited self-absorption and ruthlessness to a woman, Euripides exposes these traits for what they are. We become aware of the double standards we use for heroes and heroines. For the thoughtful audience, watching Medea's infanticide changes how we view Agamemnon's. Although in some ways we still admire Medea, we are not allowed to feel as comfortable about this admiration as we are with, say, Agamemnon.
More directly, he changes how we view Jason. Euripides emphasizes Jason as a non-hero, an opportunistic and selfish man who tries to manipulate others to serve his own ends. Even in this chosen task, he fails, as his wife proves to be more adept than he. The greatest difference between Medea and Jason is that she is aware of the gap between ethical behavior and her own actions. Jason manages to deceive himself with his ideas of his own righteousness. Remember Medea's line, spoken not without irony: "And women, though most helpless in doing good deeds, / Are of every evil the cleverest of contrivers" (ll. 408-9). Deprived of a state to rule, the genius becomes a destroyer, and she is fully aware of what she does: "I know indeed what evil I intend to do, / But stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury, / Fury that brings upon mortals the greatest evils" (ll. 1078-80). Compare this level of honesty with the sanctimonious speeches of Jason, who betrays his wife and children like the fortune-seeking coward that he is, and then pretends that he has done right by them. In this final part of the play, Medea foretells the last part of Jason's story, an unheroic end for an unheroic man: he will be killed by accident, by a falling timber from his own ship.
And finally, there is the question of the gods and their role in these events. Like many Euripidean plays, we end with a kind of deus ex machina, as Medea's escape becomes possible thanks to a chariot that was a divine gift. But although he has been criticized by critics for this device, the end seems fitting for his intentions. Medea, after all, is a woman who is powerless but yet has access to surprising resources. Furthermore, Euripides' universe is one where the intentions of the gods do not make sense; life does not make sense. And one must also remember that Medea's supernatural escape was part of the original myth.
The final argument between Jason and Medea has echoes of the Oresteia. Jason tells Medea that the avenging ghosts of the children will curse her; she coolly brushes the prediction aside. She will bury them herself, and through the aid of the goddess Hera she will atone for their deaths. It is Jason, once again, who will die in ignominy, after having suffered through the death of his new bride and his two sons. The Chorus ends, as many Choruses do, musing about the unpredictability of fate.
What can we make of this ending? In the Theban plays of Sophocles, the gods help even Oedipus to achieve a kind of redemption. His fall, too, has a kind of terrible logic. In the Oresteia of Aeschylus, every death requires an atonement in blood, until Athena and Apollo, in all their glory, descend and help set the world right. So what can we make of Medea, where every death comes about through Medea's unchecked rage? Where many deaths are undeserved, and terrifyingly brutal, even by the standards of Greek tragedy? Where we nonetheless watch with fascination, and even satisfaction, as Medea coldly destroys her enemies and children, one by one, until she has nothing left? Where the Chorus watches but does not interfere, although Euripides makes sure to remind us that they could? Considering these questions, and considering also the elusiveness of divine will in Medea, one begins to see why this play must have been an unsettling spectacle for its first audience. We are left the final tableau of the barbarian sorceress, exultant and destroyed at the same time, having achieved her final victory over her enemies only at the cost of her children's lives. Below her, Jason wails in impotent fury and grief, and the Chorus sings that the gods have had their hand in these events; yet how or why is anyone's guess. Medea establishes the Euripidean universe, one in which heroism is rare, the gods are at worst malicious and at best absent, and suffering falls on the innocent and the guilty with equal brutality. In later plays, his vision is deepened by the possibility of compassion, but that possibility does not exist here. Medea's rage, unchecked and unchanged, carries us from the opening of the play to its final horrific moments. In this way, she is an interesting counterpoint to Achilles of Homer's Iliad. The Iliad is the story of Achilles' rage, and the final transformation of that rage into understanding and compassion; Medea's rage is as central here as Achilles' rage in the Iliad, but no redeeming transformation occurs in Euripides' play. Her hatred indicts her world, the home that is also her prison, the injustices and hollow pieties of Greek civilization. The play also implicates us, as her hatred and rage, though extreme, remain unnervingly and immediately recognizable; the grim satisfaction she takes in her revenge, however brutal and self-destructive, bears at least some resemblance to our own secret and unfulfilled fantasies.