What’s Up With the Ending?
The ending of Medea has caused debate for thousands of years. It's chock full of contradictions and conundrums. For one, it defies the conventions of tragedy by letting its protagonist off the hook. Medea commits four murders, the most horrendous being the slaughter of her own children. Instead of making his heroine pay for her crimes, Euripides saves her using a deus ex machina. The term translates to "god from the machine" and has come to be used anytime a playwright resolves their play with a sudden surprise ending. Medea's escape in the dragon chariot given to her by the god Helios is a classic example of deus ex machina. Euripides is infamous for such endings and has been criticized greatly for them. Why, oh why did you do it Euripides? What are we to make of Medea's escape?
It's doubtful that an audience is supposed agree with Medea when she says she only did what was right. Sure Jason did Medea wrong, but is killing their kids really the appropriate response? Even Medea recognizes this when she says, "Why damage them in trying to hurt their father?" (173). In the end, though, revenge is more important to Medea than maternal love, and she kills her children in order "To get at [Jason's] heart" (233). Her methods are effective; Jason is decimated at the end of the play. It's highly unlikely that the majority of audience members, modern or ancient, would think the jealous slaughter of innocent children is good.
So, if we're not suppose to condone Medea's monstrous actions, what exactly are we supposed to take from all this? Is there a moral to this story?
Some scholars think that Euripides's great sympathy towards women is the reason he lets Medea fly away. Medea's violence is the result of oppression. She's put upon by a male dominated society and cast aside like old baggage by her husband. When faced with this incredibly unfair treatment, Medea responds with a shocking act of bloody resistance. By killing her children, she's rebelling against the dominant role of women in her time: motherhood. Also, notice that the children she kills are both males. In a way, she's stopping another generation of potential oppressors from gaining power. The fact that she gets away with it, makes the ending even more unsettling. It's almost as if Euripides wanted to leave his all-male Athenian audience with a note of warning – beware those you oppress. One day they might not take it anymore, and you may not be able to do anything about it.