The Chorus sings with pity of the horrible fate awaiting Jason's bride and Medea's children. All are doomed. The sing of Jason's choices, and how they will make him wretched; they also sing with pity for Medea, who will wet her hands with her own children's blood.
The Tutor returns, children in tow. He comforts Medea: they will be allowed to stay in Corinth. The princess has accepted the gifts. He does not seem to understand Medea's distress. She sends him inside. Medea now has a long speech as she addresses her children, speaking to them of how sorrowful she is to be leaving in exile without them. She speaks of all she hoped to witness: their marriages, their care for her in her old age, their ritual washing of her dead body. She seems to hesitate, and announces that she will not go through with her plans. But she steels herself and resolves once again to carry out her revenge. She spends last moments with the two children, holding their hands and pitying them. Medea and the children exit.
The Chorus sings of the pains of rearing children. After all of the troubles of parenting, even if the child turns out well, the possibility of death remains. And the death of a child is the greatest of griefs.
Medea enters again, telling the Chorus that she watches the horizon, waiting for the messenger to bring the news of her revenge. The Messenger enters: the poison has worked. He is shocked by Medea's calmness, and her unwillingness to flee. She entreats him to tell the story of the girl's death, for Medea's pleasure. The Messenger recounts that the girl was not pleased to see the children, but she was won over by the beauty of the gifts. She tried them on soon after Jason left; she was overjoyed by her own appearance, but she soon began to convulse; a nurse, thinking the convulsions a result of diving ecstasy, cried out praises to God. But it soon became clear that the girl was dying. The death was terrible: the diadem seared her with flame, blood and fire oozing from the girls school, and the poison of the dress ripped the girls flesh from her bones. Creon came and clasped the dead body to him, weeping. He cried out pitifully, hyperbolically wishing, as grievers do, that he had died with her. When the old king tried to get up, he found his flesh was stuck to the dress. The poison worked a second time, and he died as his daughter did.
The Chorus observes that this day has given Jason much grief, but he has deserved it. They speak of their pity for the girl. Medea speaks now of the final part of her plan. She must steel herself and murder her children. With a shriek, she charges into the house.
Although Euripides makes Medea an eloquent spokesperson for the evils that befall women, he refuses to give us a simple story of revenge justly taken. Medea is incredibly self-absorbed. Even as she grieves for her children, she seems more moved by what she is depriving herself: she speaks tearfully of how she hoped that her children would one day tenderly wash her body for burial. There is a strong contrast between Medea's false plan, proposed to Jason, and her real plan. In the false plan, we see the ultimate act of selflessness: a mother separating herself from her children for their own good. Despite her sorrow, she would have the children brought up in Corinth because of the greater future it offers them. In the true plan, we have the opposite end of the spectrum. Medea will not only slaughter her children, but she seems to be thinking more about her own grief than the actual deaths. She is moved to tears by sentimental thoughts of being cared for in old age. She thinks selfishly of how she will miss them; the horror of their being dead seems secondary.
Euripides also adds another complicating element to Medea's revenge. Many scholars now believe that Medea's murder of her children was Euripides' original addition to the myth; in older versions, the children were murdered by Medea's enemies in revenge for the death of Creon and his daughter. The shocking addition of having a mother slaughter her own children makes a dark story even darker, and it effectively robs Medea of the moral high ground. Rage and reason are played against each other as Medea's resolve wavers. But she decides to go through with her plan, in part because of her incredible pride. Again and again, she speaks of her children's uncertain future. Their blood is not wholly Greek, and she fears that they will be mocked. Also, the allies of Corinth will seek terrible revenge against the children. As always, Medea cannot stand the thought of being victimized: "This shall never be, that I should suffer my children / To be the prey of my enemies insolence" (ll. 1060-1). She later says that unless she hurries and does the act herself, she will "suffer my children / To be slain by another hand less kindly to them. Force every way will have it they must die. . ." (ll. 1238-40). Medea cannot bear the thought of her enemies destroying her children. Paradoxically, she decides to prevent this grief by killing them herself.
The power and pleasure of revenge are a central theme here. Medea remains one of the most popular of all ancient Greek plays. Although Medea is clearly a monster, she continues to fascinate us. In part, it is because she ruthlessly carries out what most of us are too controlled to do. She is deprived of institutional power, humiliated by her enemies, wronged in love. But she has the means to destroy all who have hurt her. Eleanor Wilner writes, "How many have dreamed of that satisfaction? Or better, how many have not?" (10). One of Medea's greatest frustrations is that she has been beaten by fools. Her husband is hollow. The woman for whom he has left Medea is a vain and silly girl; appropriately, Medea destroys her through her own vanity. With sinister irony, the dress and diadem kill the girl while hideously disfiguring her once-lovely face and body.
Euripides often targets piety in his plays. When an old nurse sees the princess's convulsions, the foolish old woman mistakes the condition as divine possession. She thinks she is witnessing a miracle, but she is proven wrong a moment later, when the princess begins to die. And Creon, weeping over his daughter's body, cries out in overdone fashion that he wishes to die with his daughter. Thanks to the poison of the dress, his rhetorical wish is fulfilled. The play mocks stock sentiments and piety. Speakers of conventional pieties are made to look like fools.