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.
Further Reading on Euripides
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).