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Euripides' Medea was first staged in 431 BCE in Athens. Although modern audiences regard it as one of Euripides' finest plays, it did not receive critical acclaim from the ancient judges, who ranked Euripides' offerings third out of the three playwrights who competed in that year's Dionysia. Because the Athenian tragedians offered two other tragedies and a satyr play at the festival, the Medea was not the only play Euripides offered that day. The two other tragedies were the Philoctetes and the Dictys, while the satyr play was called the Theristai.
The play's basic plot can be viewed as a series of encounters between Medea and politically powerful males in which Medea uses her powers of persuasion and negotiation to destroy Jason.
After Jason decides to divorce Medea to marry the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. Creon wants to exile Medea because he knows Medea is dangerous, but she persuades him to allow her to stay in Corinth one more day.
For a tyrant my will is by nature tender,
and by feeling pity I've been hurt before,
more than once. And now, woman, I see
I'm making a mistake, for you can have
your extra day. (Ian Johnston translation)
After the king of Corinth grants Medea one more day, Medea gets Aegeus, king of Athens, to give her a place to stay after she is exiled from Corinth. Medea promises that she will use her skills to help him have children.
You don't know what a lucky one you are
to find me here. I'll end your childlessness.
I know the sorts of medicines to use,
and I can help you have many children.
what modern readers of the play may not realize is that Medea would marry Aegeus and would have a child by him. What modern readers of the play may also not know is that Aegeus, after he left Corinth, would travel to Troezen and impregnate the daughter of Pittheus, king of that town, and Pittheus' daughter would give birth to Theseus. When Theseus finally came of age, he would return to Athens where Medea would try to have Theseus killed. Fortunately, Medea's plot would be exposed, Theseus and Aegeus would be reunited, and Medea would return to her native land of Colchis, the same country she had betrayed to run away with Jason.
Following Medea's encounter with Aegeus in Euripides' play, she encounters Jason, pretends to have a change of heart about her anger at him, and persuades him to send their two sons to Creon's daughter with a gift. Jason, won over by Medea, does as she wishes. Medea's children deliver the gift, which consist of poisoned clothing items. When the princess puts them on, the clothing essentially causes her to melt. Creon, in an effort to help his daughter, also becomes trapped in the clothing and perishes.
Medea also kills her children before she flees from Corinth in a chariot loaned to her by her grandfather Helios, the god of the son. Of all the people killed by Medea in the play, Jason does not die. He is left alive and lives out the rest of his life in misery.
Modern readers of Euripides' play may also be interested to know that John McNaughton's 1998 movie Wild Things borrows many elements from Euripides' play and makes specific reference to the play in its final scene.
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