Seneca’s Medea has its Greek forerunner in a surviving play by Euripides of the same name, yet its brusque style and emphasis on Medea’s passionate revenge make it thoroughly his own work. Reflecting Seneca’s fondness for the supernatural, the play opens with Medea’s prayers to the gods, with whom she seems uncannily familiar. Cursing her husband, Jason, for abandoning her in Corinth to comply with the wish of the local king Creon that Jason marry the king’s daughter, Medea implores the “powers of feuding vengeance” to aid her.
Effectively drawing the audience into her confidence, Medea immediately promises “evil actions/ of brutality unknown” which will nevertheless let Jason live to face “something worse” than simple death. The Chorus, however, sides with Jason and condemns Medea: The fact that she has helped Jason to steal the Golden Fleece from her father and killed her brother to distract her father from her elopement with Jason makes Medea a monster whom Jason is justified in leaving. Yet the question of Jason’s exact culpability is not as important for the play as is Medea’s passionate, but incredibly self-conscious, effecting of her revenge. In a tense dialogue with her Nurse, Medea shows clear knowledge that her plans will not only endanger her life but also place her apart from the rest of humanity.
When King Creon appears, Medea persuades him, against his better judgment, to let her stay in Corinth until the day after Jason’s wedding, when she has to leave for Athens. After a Choric interlude, which warns of the effects of human audacity, Medea finally confronts Jason. His argument that he acts only to save both of them from the hatred of the Corinthian king, who demanded his new marriage in exchange for their lives, is scornfully rejected by Medea, who proposes to fight Creon; yet Jason refuses to do so and forbids Medea to take with her their children, whom he loves dearly. Stunned by Jason’s utter rejection, Medea gets ready to act; the Chorus warns of her powers.
In a brilliantly stylized scene Medea, granddaughter of the gods Sol (Sun) and Oceanus, now implores the aid of the supernatural in her creation of a poison that, when sprinkled on the robes that she will send to Creusa as her wedding gift, will kill the bearer and burn down the royal palace, destroying Creon as well. After a messenger informs her of the success of her plot, Medea takes a further step and kills her first son. After Jason has rushed on stage, she kills the second child in front of his anguished eyes. Her revenge complete, two flying serpents carry her away while Jason is left to mourn his total loss; full of bitterness, he renounces the existence of all gods.