Before the play begins . . .
Jason and the heroes of the ship Argo seek the Golden Fleece, which Medea’s father has in her home of Colchis. Jason succeeds in getting the Fleece only with Medea’s help. After they escape from her father—an escape she makes possible by killing her brother—they return to Iolcos, where Jason’s uncle Pelias is still on the throne he has usurped. Medea tricks Pelias’s daughters into killing him, and then she and Jason flee to live in Corinth, where they have two sons.
In the play . . .
We learn from the Nurse that Jason is abandoning Medea to marry the daughter of Creon, the king of Corinth, and from the children’s Tutor that Creon plans to exile Medea. We hear Medea mourning her fate before we see her, as does a Chorus of Corinthian Women, who come to see what the matter is.
Medea emerges to explain her situation and her grievances and to enlist the Women as her allies.
Creon arrives to make immediate exile for Medea and her sons official, but Medea persuades Creon to let her stay for one day. She then begins to plan her revenge, but she realizes she needs an escape plan. The Women sing about how badly upside down the world has turned, and how Medea is the victim of Jason’s broken oaths.
Medea and Jason argue: Medea reminds Jason of his promises and all that she has accomplished for him, and she accuses him of oath breaking and making a mockery of her. Jason claims that he is taking a new wife for the benefit of his children and he accuses Medea of jealous obsession. The Women sing about what a powerful force love is and how horrible it would be to have to leave Corinth.
Aegeus, the king of Athens, suddenly arrives. He’s on his way home from Delphi, where he was seeking the oracle’s advice on his childlessness. Medea promises to use her skills to solve his problem if he’ll solve hers and give her asylum in Athens, should she ever need it. After hearing about how Medea is being treated in Corinth, he agrees, as long as she can get herself to Athens herself. The Women sing about the virtues of Athens, and they can’t imagine how Medea, if she does something as terrible as kill her children, would be welcome there. But they also can’t imagine that Medea would go through with the deed.
Medea has Jason come back, and she convinces him that she has seen the wisdom of his plan: if only he could get his new wife to persuade her father to let the boys stay…perhaps these lovely gifts would help… Jason agrees, and the boys go into the palace with a poisoned crown and poisoned gown for his new wife. The Women sing and have no hope for anyone now that Medea has put her plan into action.
The Tutor comes back with the boys and the good news that the princess happily received their gifts. Medea says goodbye to her sons. The Women sing of the painful joy of raising children.
The Messenger arrives to tell the fate of the princess and her father.
The rest of the play shows us the fates of Medea, Jason, and their sons.