Protagonist of the play, Medea's homeland is Colchis, an island in the Black Sea, which the Greeks considered the edge of the earth--a territory of barbarians. A sorceress and a princess, she used her powers and influence to help Jason secure the Golden Fleece; then, having fallen in love with him, she fled her country and family to live with Jason in Iolcus, his own home. During the escape across the Mediterranean, she killed her brother and dumped him overboard, so that her pursuers would have to slow down and bury him. While in Iolcus, she again used her devilish cleverness to manipulate the daughters of the local king and rival, Pelias, into murdering their own father. Exiled as murderers, Jason and Medea settled in Corinth, the setting of Euripides' play, where they established a family of two children and gained a favorable reputation. All this precedes the action of the play, which opens with Jason having divorced Medea and taken up with a new family. The play charts Medea's emotional transformation, a progression from suicidal despair to sadistic fury. She eventually avenges Jason's betrayal with a series of murders, concluding with the deaths of her own children. Famously, the pleasure of watching Jason suffer their loss outweighed her own remorse at killing them.
Jason can be considered the play's villain, though his evil stems more from weakness than strength. A former adventurer, he abandons his wife, Medea, in order to marry Glauce, the beautiful young daughter of Creon, King of Corinth. Hoping to advance his station through this second marriage, he only fuels Medea to a revenge that includes the deaths of his new bride, her father, and his children. Jason's tactless self-interest and whiny rationalizations of his own actions make him a weak, unsympathetic character.
The offspring of Jason and Medea, the children are presented as naïve and oblivious to the intrigue that surrounds them. Medea uses them as pawns in the murder of Glauce and Creon, and then kills them in the play's culminating horror. Their innocent deaths provide the greatest element of pathos--the tragic emotion of pity--in the play.
Composed of the women of Corinth, the chorus chiefly serves as a commentator to the action, although it occasionally engages directly in the dialogue. The chorus members fully sympathize with Medea's plight, excepting her eventual decision to murder her own children.
The King of Corinth, Creon banishes Medea from the city. Although a minor character, Creon's suicidal embrace of his dying daughter provides one of the play's most dramatic moments, and his sentence against Medea lends an urgency to her plans for revenge.
Daughter of Creon, Glauce is the young, beautiful princess for whom Jason abandons Medea. Her acceptance of the poisoned coronet and dress as "gifts" leads to the first murder of the play. Although she never utters a word, Glauce's presence is constantly felt as an object of Medea's jealousy. (Glauce is also referred to as Creusa.)
The King of Athens, Aegeus passes through Corinth after having visited the Oracle at Delphi, where he sought a cure for his sterility. Medea offers him some fertility-inducing drugs in exchange for sanctuary in Athens. His appearance marks a turning point in the play, for Medea moves from being a passive victim to an aggressor after she secures his promise of sanctuary.
The messenger appears only once in the play--he relates in gruesome, vivid detail the death scenes of Glauce and Creon, which occur offstage.
Caretaker of the house, the nurse of the children serves as Medea's confidant. Her presence is mainly felt in the play's opening lament and in a few speeches addressing diverse subjects not entirely related to the action of the play.
A very minor character, the tutor of the children mainly acts as a messenger, as well as the person responsible for shuffling the children around from place to place.