The Medea illustrates many characteristic features of Euripidean tragedy. The play begins with a prologue in which the central conflict of the tragedy is revealed to the audience. This prologue is not delivered by a god or by any member of the nobility, but by a nurse, a character of relatively humble status. Yet the story that the nurse relates contains many fantastic elements and supernatural details: For example, she speaks of the Symplegades (the Clashing Rocks that destroyed ships attempting to sail through them), the Golden Fleece, and Jason’s legendary ship, the Argo. Nevertheless, these mythological details will not be Euripides’ central concern in this play. The poet will devote far more attention to human psychology and ordinary emotions (jealousy, anger, and pride) than to the marvels of legend. Euripides’ answer to the central question of this tragedy—What could lead a mother to kill her own children?—will not be the Golden Fleece or even a tragic curse, but a combination of spurned love, the desperate plight of women and exiles, and the individual nature of this particular mother.
Euripides quickly shifts attention away from the wonders of the prologue to the troubles that exist in Medea’s marriage. For Medea, the predicament of a husband who intends to leave her is compounded by the low status of women in Greek society generally and by her further isolation as an exile. Medea speaks at length about the difficulties of women in ancient Greece (lines 231-251) and about the ill treatment accorded to foreigners (lines 252-258, 511-515). The audience observes that Medea has relatively few choices available to her. If Jason abandons her, Medea’s life will be little better than that of a slave.
Furthermore, in Medea’s debate with Jason (lines 465-519), the audience is reminded that Medea has used violence before when doing what she felt to be necessary. She had killed her brother, Apsyrtus, in order that Jason might escape from her father, Aeëtes. She had killed Jason’s uncle, Pelias, in order that Jason’s father might regain his throne. Thus, the audience begins to understand that Medea is a person who kills whenever she believes that she has no other choice. Because she is a woman and an exile in a world that is hostile to both, Medea’s choices gradually diminish as the play continues.
In this way, Euripides has rewritten a traditional Greek fairy tale as a psychological study. He has brought his mythic characters down to the level of ordinary human beings and has shown that what motivated them were emotions that the audience could readily understand. By so doing, Euripides is able to make Medea seem a sympathetic character, despite her violent actions and the elements of fantasy traditionally found in her story.