BORN: c. 484 bce, Salamis, Cyprus
DIED: 406 bce, Macedonia
Medea (431 bce)
Andromache (c. 424 bce)
Electra (c. 420–416 bce)
Iphigenia among the Taurians (c. 414 bce)
Bacchae (c. 406 bce)
Of the three poets of Greek tragedy whose work endures, Euripides is the one whose plays survive in the largest number (eighteen, in contrast to seven each for Aeschylus and Sophocles). His plays are notable for containing both tragic pathos and the nimble play of ideas. In antiquity, at least from the time shortly after his death about 407 or 406 bce, Euripides was immensely popular and his dramas were performed wherever theaters existed. His influence continued through later antiquity and into the Renaissance and beyond, shaping French, German, Italian, and English literature until well into the twentieth century.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Child of Privilege Euripides was born in 484 bce to parents who appear to have been affluent (a number of sources report that he was born on his father's estate on the island of Salamis). Several facts corroborate the assumption that he was of at least middle-class origin
and means: A pupil of Aristotle's recalled that, as a boy, Euripides was allowed to participate in two religious ceremonies, and he is known to have received a good education. At a time when most literature was transmitted orally, Euripides allegedly possessed an extensive library comprising many philosophical works. His interest in philosophy also manifested itself in his friendships with many of the era's leading thinkers, including Anaxagoras, Socrates, and Protagoras, who was said to have first recited his inflammatory treatise Concerning the Gods at Euripides' home. Many readers have inferred that the vicious women depicted in Euripides' plays represent his experiences with and reprisals against several unfaithful wives, but scholars have found evidence of only one marriage that produced three sons.
Athenian Heyday Euripides spent most of his life in Athens, which enjoyed one of its most fruitful and influential periods during his youth and early adulthood. Funded by silver from rich regional mines and the tribute of subordinate allies, Athenian culture flourished in the form of democratic statecraft, architecture, painting, sculpture, oratory, poetry, history, and tragedy, the city's particular pride. Every year the Athenian archon, or chief magistrate, selected three playwrights to compete in the dramatic festival, at that time changing from a religious ceremony honoring the god Dionysus into a more secular
artistic competition. Each playwright produced a tetralogy consisting of three tragedies and a lighter “satyr” (or satirical) play; a first prize represented one of Athens's highest honors.
The peace that prevailed during Euripides' youth, however, ended when Athenian territorial ambitions inflamed the city's long-standing rivalry with Sparta over who should be the dominant power in Greece; these tensions, culminating in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 bce), drained the coffers and the spirit of Athens. Although Euripides is known to have produced his first tetralogy in 455 bce, only nineteen of the ninety-two Euripidean plays referred to in ancient commentaries exist today, and all but the first date from after the start of the war.
Invited to produce tetralogies for at least twenty-two Dionysian festivals, Euripides was not notably popular. Whereas his elder competitor Sophocles won about twenty-four first prizes, Euripides garnered only four or five, the last posthumously. Aristotle and several biographers report that, outraged by Euripides' disrespectful treatment of the immortals, the archon Kleon prosecuted him for blasphemy, but no record indicates the trial's outcome. Late in his career, Euripides sought to leave Athens, frustrated, scholars have speculated, by his relative lack of success at the dramatic festivals, the ongoing devastation of the war, and the city's war-related decline. He eventually left in 408 bce at the invitation of the Macedonian king Archelaus, who hoped to establish a cultural center rivaling Athens. Continuing to compose at Archelaus's court, Euripides was working on Iphigenia in Aulis when he died there in 406 bce.
Works in Literary Context
Euripides was one of three playwrights whose works represent the dynamics of Athenian thought at the height of classical drama in the city-state during the fifth century bce. Euripides, younger than Aeschylus and Sophocles, was more notably affected by the Peloponnesian War. This bitter and protracted conflict ended Athens's Golden Age and contributed to the sense of uncertainty, injustice, and suffering that permeates Euripidean tragedy. Euripides was also more influenced by a contemporary philosophical trend toward skeptical inquiry that accelerated the erosion of belief in traditional religion. The role of the gods in his plays remains controversial. While some critics concede only that Euripides questioned divine benevolence, others argue that he was an aggressive atheist who depicted the immortals' cruelty in order to stir up religious discontent.
Euripides' stylistic and technical modifications further place him as a significant influence on the developing art of theater. Still operating within the structural conventions that governed classical Greek drama, he: adapted the traditional chorus, prologue, and epilogue; simplified word use; increased the representation of female characters; blurred the traditional distinction between comedy and tragedy; and refined psychological realism. Renowned for these innovations, Euripides is perhaps best known for the tragic sensibility—responsive to the decline of Athens and the nature of the human condition—that has rendered him relevant to readers of the modern age.
Female Protagonists Of Euripides' nineteen known works, eighteen are tragedies, and all take as their subject matter the divine myths, martial narratives, and noble family histories that literary and religious tradition had established as the requisite subject matter for fifth-century dramatists (Aeschylus and Sophocles often treated the same materials).
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Euripides's famous contemporaries include:
Pericles (495–429 bce): Athenian statesman and military leader who presided over the city's Golden Age and led it into the disastrous Peloponnesian War.
Socrates (469–399 bce): A classical philosopher regarded as one of the founders of Western philosophy, his thoughts (which were never written down in his lifetime) directly influenced the work of such later philosophers as Plato and Aristotle.
Sophocles (496–406 bce): One of the three great Greek tragedians, along with Euripides and Aeschylus, Sophocles wrote at least 120 plays, only 7 of which have survived to this day. He is best known for his Oedipus plays.
Aristophanes (456–386 bce): Another of the great classical dramatists, Aristophanes specialized in comedy and is known to this day as “The Father of Comedy.”
Xerxes I (reigned 485–465 bce): The son of Darius the Great, Xerxes led his mighty Persian Empire in a massive invasion of the Greek city-states. After a bloody and costly victory at Thermopylae, Xerxes was defeated at sea at the Battle of Salamis. His army was defeated a year later at Plataea, inaugurating the Classical Age of ancient Greece and the ascendancy (and rivalry) of Sparta and Athens.
Among the most noted of his concerns is the thematic depiction of the conflict between reason and passion; the latter force invariably prevails. This insistence upon the power of irrational emotion, many critics contend, constituted Euripides' rebuttal of the contemporary philosopher Socrates' contention that knowing good is sufficient to doing it. The Euripidean view is particularly evident in Medea (431 bce), whose eponymous heroine anguishes before punishing her unfaithful husband by killing their children and her rival: “I feel the enormity
of the act I am about to commit; but passion overcomes my better resolve.” It is also shown in Hippolytus (428 bce), in which Phaedra struggles against a divinely induced lust for her stepson: “We know what goodness is, and we recognize it, but we do not practice it.” These two dramas also suggest Euripides' interest in female protagonists, a then unconventional affinity that Aristophanes mocked in his comedy The Frogs. In plays such as Medea, Hippolytus, many of his other known plays, Euripides focused upon the conflicts and the suffering of women.
Innovations Known as a stylistic innovator, Euripides is often praised for his psychologically realistic characterizations. Sophocles commented that, while he himself made men as they ought to be, Euripides made men as they are. Although his characters are immortals and leaders, Euripides offered sustained and detailed depictions of their struggles with the emotions of ordinary people. His portrayals of Medea deciding between preserving her children and murdering them to smite her husband and Phaedra struggling between honor and lust for Hippo-lytus are often cited as the most sophisticated and evocative representations of emotional dynamics in classical drama. Euripides is also noted for rejecting the lofty language previously considered appropriate for characters of high birth, and his use of simple, working-class language further enhanced his characters' accessibility.
E. M. Blaiklock has described Euripides as “the most historically significant of Greek dramatists,” and, in numerous respects, he left the genre far different from the way it was when he found it. Euripides introduced the innovations that led, in the fourth century bce, to the so-called New Comedy, a dramatic form resembling the modern play far more than do the works of Athens's Golden Age. Furthering the secularization of drama by humanizing gods, focusing on human beings, and enhancing realism, Euripides adapted the standard mythic subjects so freely that wholly invented plots and characters became possible in the century following his death. His demotion of the chorus from a continually active and dramatically integrated presence to a group that offered less necessary observations only between dramatic episodes catalyzed the chorus's eventual disappearance in the breaks between acts. Euripides also established a precedent for Shakespearean tragicomedy when he provided happy resolutions for his otherwise tragic recognition plays.
Legacy In the century after Euripides' death, the Dionysian festival began to favor reviving fifth-century bce plays over soliciting new works from contemporary dramatists. Lycurgus, an influential Athenian orator and financier, ordered the establishment of authoritative texts for the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. How-ever, scholars believe that the resulting Euripidean collections became more corrupt than those of Aeschylus and Sophocles because Euripides' plays were performed more often and more widely during the following centuries, increasing the likelihood of actors' interpretations.
After the decline of Greece in the fourth century bce, Euripides' works became popular in Alexandria, the North African city that succeeded Athens as the center of Hellenistic culture during the pre-Christian era. Alexandrian book collectors also established a standard text; this version was used in schools and by grammarians. From Alexandria the Euripidean manuscripts were transmitted to Rome and from Rome to the Byzantine Empire, where the plays were frequently revived. Classical scholar A. Kirchoff believes that the nineteen plays known in the twentieth century derive from a collection created during the Byzantine period, in the ninth or tenth century. Our oldest reliable manuscripts of Euripides' works were all, Kirchoff maintains, copied from this document.
Works in Critical Context
Ancient Critical Responses Euripides' reception in ancient Greece is indicated by both the number and the nature of the classical references to him. Aristophanes, scholars assume, embedded so many quips about Euripides in his comedies only because audiences were sufficiently familiar with Euripides' themes to appreciate them. Aristophanes most commonly charged Euripides with misogyny because his heroines were often vengeful, though he also mocked Euripides' themes as morbid and his speeches as melodramatic.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Euripides' Medea deals with the horrible revenge extracted by a woman whose husband forsakes her. Here are other works that tell tales of women scorned:
Cousin Bette (1846), a novel by Honoré de Balzac. Bette, a “poor relation,” enlists the help of a prostitute to ruin the fortunes of her well-off relatives.
The First Wives Club (1996), a film directed by Hugh Wilson. Three middle-aged divorcées seek revenge on the first husbands who left them in this comedy.
Sophocles, who praised Euripides' realistic characterization and ordered that all participants in the Dionysian festival following his death don mourning garb, respected his younger rival, and the inscription on an Athenian monument suggests that its author, allegedly acclaimed historian Thucydides, did as well: “His bones are laid in
Macedon, where he / Ended his life. His tomb? The whole of Hellas. / Athens his motherland. His muse gave joy / To many: many give to him their praise.” Aristotle criticized Euripides' slack and nonlinear plots but still deemed him “the most tragic of poets.”
Fourteenth- to Nineteenth-Century Critical Responses The fourteenth-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri mentions Euripides—but not Aeschylus or Sophocles—in the Divine Comedy. In general, the greater number of references to Euripides in scholarly and popular writings of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance indicates that his works were better known than those of his contemporaries. The seventeenth-century French neoclassical playwright Jean Racine, terming himself Euripides' “disciple,” based his Andromaque, Iphigenie, and Phedre upon Euripidean works, and his English contemporary John Milton admired “sad Electra's poet” as well, incorporating lamentations modeled after Euripides' into his Samson Agonistes.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, classicists began to recognize the roots of long-familiar Latin literature in Greek works not previously studied or translated. Coming to understand the characteristics of classical Greek tragedy as exhibited by Aeschylean and Sophoclean works, scholars criticized Euripides' body of work as impure and inferior because it modified the established tragic conventions. He was more admired during the Romantic period. German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe defended him as “sublime” and attempted to reconstruct the lost play Phaethon; the scholar Ludwig Tieck described his work as inaugurating romantic poetry.
Modern Critical Responses Modern critics, more inclined to perceive Euripides' experimentation as innovative, have commented on the comic aspects of his late plays and the mysticism inherent in his tragic sense. Kitto, among the most influential twentieth-century classicists, asserts that all the fragmentary and illogical components of Euripidean drama contribute to his depiction of an impersonally cruel cosmic force, which can wreak its destruction through the agency of unreasoning human passion.
Critic F. L. Lucas credits him with inventing the “discussion play,” a species of drama later popularized by Voltaire, Henrik Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw, and traces several stock characters, including the nurse-confidante, the ghost, and the martyred virgin, to him. As author Richmond Lattimore remarks, “Euripides worked in a medium which was not of his own invention or altogether of his own choice, but he made it his own.” That comprehensive adaptation, coupled with a tragic sensibility that suffered the decline of Athens and the truths of the human condition, has kept Euripides relevant to dramatists and their audiences for over two thousand years.
Responses to Literature
- Both Medea and Electra feature strongly written female characters. Compare the two women and their behaviors. How does each character express her strength? How are they similar? How are they different?
- Euripides seemed mostly interested in his characters and their developments, often to the detriment of his plots. Select one of his plays. How would you change the plot to make it stronger or to make the ending more satisfying?
- Are there any contemporary situations you can think of that mirror the circumstances of Medea? Write about a recent case of a jealous spouse enacting revenge upon an unfaithful partner. Compare the modern spouse's actions, and the consequences he or she suffered, to those of Medea.
- Select a Euripides play and analyze the “falling action”—the arc through which a doomed tragic figure falls. Who were they at the start of the play and when did their fall begin? How quickly did things fall apart for the character?
- Classical Greek theaters were shaped according to very specific rules and traditions. Research the construction of ancient theaters and how their layouts would affect the staging of plays such as those of Euripides.
Barlow, S. A. The Imagery of Euripides. London: Duckworth, 1971.
Webster, T. B. L. The Tragedies of Euripides. London: Methuen, 1967.
Whitman, C. Euripides and the Full Circle Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.
Winnington-Ingram, R. P. Euripides and Dionysus. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948.
Zuntz, G. The Political Plays of Euripides. Manchester, U.K.: University Press, 1955.
Euripides (480-406 B.C.) was a Greek playwright whom Aristotle called the most tragic of the Greek poets. He is certainly the most revolutionary Greek tragedian known in modern times.
Euripides was the son of Mnesarchus. The family owned property on the island of Salamis, and Euripides was twice married (Melito and Choirile) and had three sons (Mnesarchides, Mnesilochus, and Euripides). Euripides was raised in an atmosphere of culture, was witness to the rebuilding of the Athenian walls after the Persian Wars, but above all belonged to the period of the Peloponnesian War. Influenced by Aeschylus, Euripides has been described as the most intellectual poet of his time and was a product of the Sophistic movement. He has been called the philosopher of the stage. In addition to his literary talents, he is said to have been an excellent athlete and painter.
The first play by Euripides, Daughters of Pelias (455 B.C.; lost), was concerned with the Medea story. His first victory in a literary competition was in 442. Euripides's Cyclopsis the only satyr play to have survived in its entirety. The Rhesus, sometimes assigned to Euripides, may or may not be genuine. The remainder of his plays constitute a partial commentary on Athens's war with Sparta.
Euripides was well ahead of his times, and though popular later (more papyri of Euripides survive than of any other Greek poet except Homer), he irritated people in his own day by his sharp criticism and won only five dramatic prizes during the course of his career. He is reputed to have owned a library and to have spent a great deal of his time in his cave by the sea in Salamis.
We know nothing of Euripides's military or political career, and he may have served as a local priest of Zeus at Phyla and traveled on one occasion to Syracuse. Toward the end of his life he stayed briefly in Thessaly (at Magnesia) and at the court of King Archelaus in Macedonia, where he wrote his masterpiece, the Bacchae. He died in Macedonia and was buried at Arethusa. The Athenians built him a cenotaph in Athens.
Euripides was a most remarkable tragedian who had a way of baffling and startling his audiences. He radically humanized and popularized Greek tragedy and was responsible for bringing tragedy closer to the experience of the ordinary citizen. Though he used the traditional form of the drama, he had some very unconventional things to say, and he said them in a language that was much easier to comprehend than that of Aeschylus or even Sophocles. Euripides rejected rare and archaic words. He popularized diction and utilized many everyday expressions. But he was also the lbsen of his day because he was the first to introduce heroes in rags and crutches and in tears. He treated slaves, women, and children as human beings and insisted that nobility was not necessarily an attribute of social status.
Euripides's plays generally are comparatively loose in structure and use the prologue and deus ex machina to simplify plot structure. The prologue has the effect of relieving the author from working into his play the background and information necessary for its understanding. The use of the deus ex machina, or the appearance of a god at the end of the play, indicates that the playwright was unable to bring his play to a close in the proper dramaturgical manner. In Euripides's case this often indicates that he was much more interested in the ideas he was exploring than in the form of the play.
A critic of society, Euripides was a serious questioner of the values of his day. As a realist, he often placed modern ideas and opinions in the mouths of traditional characters. Up to the time of Euripides, the aristocracy were the only ones depicted on stage as worthy of serious consideration. Euripides felt for all classes of people and was particularly sensitive to the humanity of women and slaves. He studied female psychology with an acute eye and with unbelievably powerful perception. Euripides also could and did probe religious ecstasy, dreadful revenge, and all-consuming love. As a rationalist, Euripides was relentlessly attacked by conservative Aristophanes and accused of being an atheist. Euripides treated myths rationally and expected men to use their rational powers.
Influenced by the rhetoric of the Sophists, Euripides engaged in considerable rhetorical argument (agon), hairsplitting, and well-put platitudes. His plots are replete with sensationalism, surprise, and suspense, and Euripides tried to achieve the maximum of tragic effect.
All of Euripides's extant plays are concerned with three basic themes: war, women, and religion. He repudiated and despised aggressive wars. He advocated women's equal rights, and he severely questioned anthropomorphic divinity and its fallible human institutions. Euripides knew both the rational and the irrational aspects of human life and probed deeply into the social, political, religious, and philosophical issues of his day. Despite the verbal flagellation of his fellow Athenians, he truly loved Athens and sympathized genuinely with suffering humanity.
Euripides's extant plays (excepting the Cyclops) can be divided into three basic categories. The true tragedies include Medea (431 B.C.), Andromache (early in the Pel ponnesian War, 431 B.C.-404 B.C.), Heraclidae (ca. 430 B.C.), Hippolytus (428 B.C.), Hecuba (ca. 425 B.C.), Suppliants (ca. 420 B.C.-419 B.C.), Heracles (ca. 420 B.C.-418 B.C.), Trojan Women (415 B.C.), and Bacchae (ca. 407 B.C.). The tragicomedies comprise Alcestis (438 B.C.), Ion (ca. 418 B.C.-413 B.C.), Iphigenia at Tauris (414 B.C.-412 B.C.), and Helen (412 B.C.). And the melodramas are Electra (ca. 415 B.C.), Phoenician Women (ca. 409 B.C.), Orestes (408 B.C.), and Iphigenia at Aulis (ca. 407 B.C.).
The Alcestisis the earliest of the Euripidean plays that is preserved and was presented in 438 in place of the satyr play. A tragicomedy, it has a happy ending and has fascinated critics for countless years. Alcestis is willing to die instead of her husband, Admetus. Heracles visits Admetus and, when he learns that Alcestis has died, struggles with Death, recovers Alcestis, and restores her to her husband.
Medea, though it won only third prize, is perhaps Euripides's most famous and most influential play. Medea, a princess, who has left family and country to marry Jason (whom she helped procure the Golden Fleece), lives peacefully in Corinth. However, when Jason suddenly sees the opportunity to gain the Corinthian throne by marrying the daughter of the king of Corinth, he ruthlessly abandons wife and children. Medea, who is also a sorceress, vows revenge and, just before she is about to be banished, sends poisoned gifts to the new bride and slays her own children to vent her hate for Jason.
In Medea, Euripides demonstrates that "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," and he berates his fellow men for mistreating women and particularly for treating foreign women as inferiors. But perhaps even more brilliantly, Euripides shows that man is both rational and irrational, that the irrational can bring disaster when it gets out of control, and that a woman is particularly susceptible to passions.
Hippolytus shows clearly Euripides's concern about the claims of religion on the one hand and sexuality on the other. Hippolytus is a chaste young man dedicated to Artemis, goddess of the hunt and of purity. Phaedra, wife of King Theseus, falls in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, and reveals her overpowering "incestuous" love to her nurse. The nurse takes pity on Phaedra and informs Hippolytus of the cause of his stepmother's distress. In a rage Hippolytus denounces her and all women. Phaedra commits suicide, implicating Hippolytus, and Theseus banishes him. As Hippolytus leaves Troezen, he is mortally wounded but survives long enough for Artemis to reveal the truth to his father Theseus, who then becomes remorseful and forgiving.
The Trojan Women is typical of Euripides's war plays. Written during the Peloponnesian War after the brutal subjugation of the island of Melos by the Athenians, this play is perhaps the weakest of all Euripidean plays because of its episodic nature. However, it is a powerful condemnation of war and exhibits universal compassion for suffering mankind by portraying the devastating effect of war on the innocent, particularly women and children.
Euripides's Electra beautifully illustrates Euripidean realism and rationalism. In this play Electra is married off to a peasant who does not consummate the marriage but who is noble in heart and respectful of his princess wife. Clytemnestra, the adulterous wife of Agamemnon who is fighting in the Trojan War, is lured to the mean hut of her daughter Electra on the pretense that Electra is having a baby. Aegisthus, Clytemnestra's lover, is killed first, and Electra prepares for her mother's arrival with his corpse in the hut. Though Clytemnestra is moved to remorse over her past treatment of Electra, it does not save her from being killed by Electra and the brother, Orestes, who are overwhelmed by their actions and are bewildered. A deus ex machina in the form of the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux) is needed to bridge the dilemma between an excusable murder and a mandatory punishment. Electra is to be punished by exile; Orestes will be pursued by the Furies until his trial in Athens, when he will be acquitted.
Euripides radically changes Electra from a ruthless seeker of vengeance to a tortured human being who suffers intensely as a result of her actions. Matricide is strongly condemned and the gods are vigorously castigated.
The Bacchae, Euripides's masterpiece, is tightly structured and closely follows the pattern of the Dionysiac ritual itself. Pantheus, a young king of Thebes, refuses to acknowledge the divinity of the newly introduced Asiatic god Dionysus, and even though grandfather Cadmus and prophet Tiresias accept him, Pentheus defiantly but unsuccessfully tries to incarcerate him. Pentheus, attracted by descriptions of the orgiastic rites, attempts to participate in one and is caught and decapitated by his own triumphant mother, Agave. She gradually recovers her senses and realizes the terrible deed she has done. The whole family of Pentheus is to be punished, asserts Dionysus, who appears as a deus ex machina.
The Bacchae is a very powerful play, Euripides's swan song. He is again showing how the irrational, when not acknowledged and properly moderated, can get out of control and destroy all those around it. Dionysus is not a god that can be worshiped in the ordinary sense. He symbolizes the bestiality in nature and in man, and the Bacchic rites provide a release, as the Greeks see it.
In his day Euripides managed to call the attention of his countrymen to many flagrant abuses and wrongs in his own society. He subjected all to a merciless rational examination, but he was fundamentally tolerant and understanding and fully sympathized with the troubles and suffering of humanity.
Purely biographical material on Euripides is scant. Gilbert Murray, Euripides and His Age (1913; 2d ed. 1946; with rev. bibl. 1965), contains a chapter on Euripides's life; the rest of the book deals with the background of the plays and the plays themselves. Some editions of Euripides's plays with the texts in Greek and long introductions and analyses in English by the editors are Euripides' Medea, by Denys L. Page (1938); Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris, by Maurice Platnauer (1938); Euripides' Electra, by John D. Denniston (1939); Euripides' Ion, by Arthur S. Owen (1939); Euripides' Bacchae, by E. R. Dodds (1944); and Euripides' Alcestis, by Amy M. Dale (1954).
Other analyses of specific plays include Reginald P. Winninton-Ingram, Euripides and Dionysus: An Interpretation of the Bacchae (1948), and John R. Wilson, ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of Euripides' Alcestis (1968). Paul Decharme, Euripides and the Spirit of His Dramas (1893; trans. 1906), is an older study. Georges M. A. Grube, The Drama of Euripides (1941), focuses on the structure and dramatic technique of the plays. Two works which treat all the extant plays of Euripides are D. J. Conacher, Euripidean Drama: Myth, Themes and Structure (1967), and Thomas Bertram Lonsdale Webster, The Tragedies of Euripides (1967). □
Born: c. 480 b.c.e.
Died: c. 406 b.c.e.
Euripides was a Greek playwright (one who writes plays or dramas) whom Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) called the most tragic of the Greek poets. He is certainly the most revolutionary Greek tragedian (one who writes plays based on human tragedies and conflicts) known in modern times.
Euripides was the son of Mnesarchus. The family owned property on the island of Salamis, and Euripides was twice married (Melito and Choirile) and had three sons (Mnesarchides, Mnesilochus, and Euripides). Euripides was raised in a cultured family, was witness to the rebuilding of the Athenian walls after the Persian Wars (wars fought between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire during the first half of the fifth century b.c.e.), but above all belonged to the period of the Peloponnesian War(431–404 b.c.e.; a war fought between two ancient Greek city-states—Athens and Sparta). Euripides has been described as the most intellectual poet of his time. He has been called the philosopher (a person who studies for and seeks knowledge and wisdom) of the theater. In addition to his literary talents, he is said to have been an excellent athlete and painter.
Euripides was well ahead of his times, and though popular, he irritated people in his own day by his sharp criticism (judgment) and won only five dramatic prizes during the course of his career. He is supposed to have owned a library and to have spent a great deal of his time in his cave by the sea in Salamis.
Nothing about Euripides's military or political career is known. Toward the end of his life he stayed briefly in Thessaly (at Magnesia) and at the court of King Archelaus in Macedonia, where he wrote his masterpiece, the Bacchae. He died in Macedonia and was buried at Arethusa. The Athenians built him a monument in Athens.
Euripides completely refined and popularized Greek tragedy (plays with unhappy endings) and was responsible for making tragedy something experienced by ordinary citizens. At the time of Euripides, the upper classes were the only ones represented on stage as worthy of serious consideration. Though he used the traditional form of the drama, he had some very different things to say, and he said them in a language that was much easier to understand. He used many everyday expressions. He was the first to introduce heroes in rags and on crutches and in tears. He treated slaves, women, and children as human beings and insisted that nobility was not necessarily a quality of social status.
Euripides was a serious questioner of the values of his day. As a realistic person, he often placed modern ideas and opinions in the mouths of traditional characters. Euripides also wrote about religion, revenge, and all-consuming love. Euripides treated myths sensibly and expected men to use their logical powers. All of his existing plays are concerned with three basic themes: war, women, and religion. He investigated the social, political, religious, and philosophical issues of his day, and he truly loved Athens and sympathized genuinely with suffering humanity.
Euripides's existing plays (except the Cyclops ) can be divided into three basic categories. The true tragedies include Medea (431 b.c.e.), Andromache (early in the Peloponnesian War), Heraclidae (c. 430 b.c.e.), Hippolytus (428 b.c.e.), Hecuba (c. 425 b.c.e.), Suppliants (c. 420–419 b.c.e.), Heracles (c. 420–418 b.c.e.), Trojan Women (415 b.c.e.), and Bacchae (c. 407 b.c.e.). The tragicomedies (plays that include tragedy as well as comedy) include Alcestis (438 b.c.e.), Ion (c. 418–413 b.c.e.), Iphigenia at Tauris (414–412 b.c.e.), and Helen (412 b.c.e.). The melodramas (dramas with strong emotion that usually end happily) are Electra (c. 415 b.c.e.), Phoenician Women (c. 409 b.c.e.), Orestes (408 b.c.e.), and Iphigenia at Aulis (c. 407 b.c.e.).
The Alcestis was presented in 438 b.c.e. and is the earliest of the Euripidean plays that was preserved. A tragicomedy, it has a happy ending and has fascinated critics for countless years.
Medea is perhaps Euripides's most famous and most influential play. In Medea Euripides demonstrates that "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," and he scolds his fellow men for mistreating women and particularly for treating foreign women as less than equal. But perhaps even more brilliantly, Euripides shows that man is both rational (sensible or reasonable) and irrational (without reason), and that the irrational can bring disaster when it gets out of control, and that a woman is defenseless to passions.
Hippolytus shows clearly Euripides's concern about claims of religion on the one hand and sexuality on the other. The Trojan Women is typical of Euripides's war plays. Euripides's Electra beautifully illustrates realism (the thought based on the belief that reality exists outside of oneself) and rationalism (the belief that reason is the main authority in controlling one's actions and thoughts).
The Bacchae, Euripides's masterpiece, is well thought-out and is a very powerful play. In it he is again showing how the irrational, when not recognized and properly restrained, can get out of control and destroy all those around it.
Euripides managed to call his countrymen's attention to the many obvious abuses and wrongs in his own society. He subjected all to a harsh but reasonable examination; however, he was basically tolerant and understanding and fully sympathized with the troubles and suffering of humanity.
For More Information
Denniston, John D. Euripides' Electra. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1939.
Gounaridou, Kiki. Euripides and Alcestis. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998.
Page, Denys L. Euripides' Medea. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1938.
Webster, Thomas Bertram Lonsdale. The Tragedies of Euripides. London: Methuen, 1967.
c. 480s b.c.e.–c. 405 b.c.e.
Giving Voice to the Unheard.
There are more than twice as many surviving plays of Euripides than of either Aeschylus or Sophocles (eighteen as compared with six or seven apiece of the others). There is also a parodic portrayal of the playwright in Aristophanes' Frogs and a fanciful biography of him written in the third century b.c.e. which relied on details from the playwright's own works as well as various other spurious sources. Even so, it is difficult to discern the facts of the playwright's life, and ultimately there is as little known about him as about most famous people from antiquity. Euripides was born to a wealthy family in the Athenian deme of Phyla, though there were stories that he came from modest origins as well, most likely because he often portrayed humble people in his plays. The tale that he isolated himself in a cave at Salamis to write his plays probably more reflects his lack of interest in politics or public life than an actual physical isolation. He first competed at the City Dionysia in 455 b.c.e. He won fewer first prizes—only four—than did Aeschylus or Sophocles during his career, but the story that he fled Athens for Macedon in disgust at his lack of popularity is undoubtedly false. Nevertheless, he did die at the court of King Archelaus of Macedon in approximately 406 b.c.e.; the story has it that he was torn to pieces by the king's guard dogs, which echoes his propensity in tragedies to include unusually violent deaths for his characters, such as the demise of King Pentheus in Bacchants, who is ripped apart by a raving band of maenads led by his own mother. Euripides had three sons, one of whom, also named Euripides, may have produced some of his tragedies after his death
Eighteen of Euripides' plays survive. (A nineteenth, the Rhesus, is of doubtful authorship.) The plays securely attributed to Euripides include: Medea (last place in 431 b.c.e.); Electra (417 b.c.e.); Trojan Women (second prize in 415 b.c.e.); Bacchants and Iphigenia at Aulis (first-prize winners produced together posthumously in 405 b.c.e.); and a satyr play, Cyclops (date unknown). In addition, there are substantial fragments of eleven others, including Oedipus, Cretans, and Archelaus, written for his patron in Macdeon. Euripidean drama focuses on individual characters and their personal circumstances, the paradoxical nature of human life and its vicissitudes, and the internal struggle that the tragic hero undergoes. As a consequence, the structure of his plays sometimes follows a predetermined plot to its foreseeable, if regrettable, outcome; at other times, his plays swerve as unpredictably as his characters do. Euripides featured characters who commit the most extreme acts humans are capable of—incest, rape, betrayal, murder—and allowed them to stand up for themselves. He sometimes drew criticism for portraying women who defended roles that were contrary to Athenian values, like Agave in The Bacchants, who glories in her newfound bloodlust, and Medea in the play that bears her name. He often added startling innovations to familiar stories from myth. Some of his tragedies, like Ion, include elements more familiar to Middle and New Comedy: a son born out of wedlock is eventually recognized and reunited with his parents with the help of the gods. The amazing variety of Euripidean plots, from the very bleak Trojan Women, portraying women who must face a future as the sexual slaves of the men who killed their families, to the almost lighthearted Helen, which chronicles the awkward reunion of Helen and Menelaus after the Trojan War, ultimately defies categorization. Euripides was criticized in his own time for portraying ordinary people as they were instead of noble denizens of a tragic past, but he often seems like the most "modern" playwright. His plays were among the most popular in later revivals.
Laura McClure, Spoken Like a Woman: Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).
Circa 484-407/406 b.c.e.
Limited Popularity. Euripides is the youngest of the three surviving Greek tragedians. His work had far more influence on later drama than did the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and survives in much greater quantity. He started to produce plays in 455 b.c.e., and first achieved victory in a dramatic contest in 441 b.c.e., but compared with Sophocles his plays were generally not popular in his own lifetime (he won only four other competitions), and the surly figure he cut in the ancient biographical tradition seems to be a reflection of this lack of affection felt for his work. A total of nineteen plays under his name have been preserved, including the only complete Satyr play, Cyclops. Of these works, the ones that can be dated are Alcestis (438 b.c.e.), Medea (431 b.c.e.), Hippolytus (428 b.c.e.), Trojan Women (415 b.c.e.), Helen (412 b.c.e.), and Orestes (408 b.c.e.). Little is known about the details of his life: he played a smaller role in public life than Sophocles, and the domestic anecdotes about marital unhappiness are clearly just inferences from his plays. Although he is frequently mentioned in the works of his contemporary Aristophanes, it is doubtful if anything factual about his life can be unearthed from that source, as the comic poet is clearly far more interested in the tragedies than the tragedian. Toward the end of his life he left Athens for the court of Archelaus of Macedonia and died there, according to an implausible story, after being attacked by a pack of royal hunting dogs.
Death of Tragedy. Euripides’ work is harder to characterize than that of his fellow tragedians not only because it is much more extensively preserved, but also because it is far more rhetorical. As such it shows the influence of Euripides’ contemporaries the Sophists, itinerant intellectuals who taught the art of rhetoric and fostered a sceptical and relativistic outlook. Euripides, “the philosopher of the stage” as he was known in the ancient world, often launches into dramatically inappropriate speculation (a peasant farmer in the Electra, expatiates on the difficulty of picking the truly virtuous) which seems more at home with them. This overintellectualization of drama was the reason Aristophanes blamed Euripides for the “death of tragedy.” Yet, some of the plots of his tragedies such as Bacchae (after 406 b.c.e.), Hippolytus, and Medea show an awareness of the wild, impersonal forces at work in human lives, which cannot be held in check by mere reason. He has been called both a rationalist and an irrationalist, both with justification.
David Kovacs, “Euripides,” in Anicent Greek Authors, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 176, edited by Ward W. Briggs (Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark Layman/Detroit: Gale Research, 1997), pp. 146-155.