ca. 480-406 B.C.
Euripides was the last of the three great Greek tragedians (following Aeschylus and Sophocles). Nineteen of his 92 plays survive, and they were among the most widely performed plays of late antiquity. In his own day, Euripides was a controversial figure. A critic of his own society, he showed the ancient Greek code of honor and glory as having a dark and destructive, as well as a virtuous, side. After his death, Euripides was the most revered of Greek tragic dramatists, and his plays were regularly performed in Athens.
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Euripides not only challenged his audiences with controversial themes, but he also required the actors to perform complicated scenes with great imagination. In his play Orestes, he wrote the first recorded scene of madness ever performed on the stage. In Bacchae, the actor playing the role of the Lydian stranger early in the play must appear later, in the same clothing and, without saying so, communicate to the audience that he is playing the role of the god Dionysus.
Euripides' Life and Times. Euripides was born in Athens about 480 B.C. into a family of some wealth. Euripides took little part in public life, in contrast to most men of his social class. He often withdrew to the island of Salamis, where he was said to sit in a cave looking out to sea and working on his plays. His rather stern and unsociable nature met with criticism in Athens, and he became the subject for ridicule in the comedies of Aristophanes. In 455 B.C., the year after the playwright Aeschylus died, Euripides first competed in Greece’s most prestigious dramatic competition, the City Dionysia, in Athens. Euripides entered the contest 22 times but won first prize only 4 times—far less often than his contemporaries Aeschylus (who had 13 victories) and Sophocles (who had 18). In 408 B.C., at the invitation of King Archelaus, Euripides left Athens for Macedonia, where he lived and wrote until his death in 406 B.C.
Euripides was associated with the new philosophers of his age, including the Sophists, some of whom believed that law was not part of the nature of things but merely a custom people had created. Euripides believed life should be approached with a rational attitude. At the same time, he questioned whether reason in itself was enough to solve all human problems. Euripides also broke with traditional Greek views on religion and politics. In his later years, Euripides was highly critical of Athens’s involvement in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta.
Euripides' Technique and Style. Greek tragedy had always been based on traditional Greek myths. Euripides took a radically new approach. He used the heroes of Greek myth but gave them contemporary attitudes and sometimes contemporary problems. More than other playwrights, Euripides used women as the central figures in his plays, often depicting them as fierce, treacherous characters in a male-dominated world.
Euripides’ plays are known for the realistic way in which they portray human nature. The main characters are mostly men and women with ordinary human weaknesses who suffer tragic fates as a result of their own character flaws and uncontrolled passions, or as a result of some injustice or cruelty inflicted on them by others. Euripides also dramatized the conflicts between the Greek ideal of devotion to the public good and the human tendency to act out of self-interest.
Euripides had a flair for dramatic presentation and for creating powerful emotional effects. Many of his plays begin with a prologue, or introduction, explaining the situation in which the characters find themselves. Many Euripidean dramas end with the appearance of a god, who foretells the characters’ future. Euripides had a passion for rhetoric*, and his plays are full of debates and speeches that have a moral or didactic* tone. At the same time, Euripides appealed to the audience’s emotions. He increased the singing role of the actors, giving them a more direct relationship with the audience. He also gave the chorus a new, more emotional style of music. His plays were both popular and disturbing to Greek audiences of his time.
* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing
* didactic intended to instruct
Euripides delved into issues that lay at the heart of Greek society and frequently angered those in positions of power. Some of the themes he touched on in his many plays concerned the gap between public and private lives, the values of society, the role of women in Greek society, and the effects of war and its accompanying brutality.
Euripides' Plays. Euripides’ earliest existing plays, written between 438 and 428 B.C., focus on domestic tragedy and also reflect his concern with the tension between public obligation and private interests. These plays also focus critically on the attitude of the ancient Greeks toward women. In Alcestis, the title character is a woman who has volunteered to sacrifice her life so that her husband may live. But her heroism proves to be a dilemma for her husband. On a personal level, the loss of his wife renders the husband’s life not worth living. On a public level, he bears the shame of a man who remains alive only because of his wife’s heroism.
The theme of revenge is highlighted in Medea. Medea is a princess, granddaughter of the sun god Helios, and the wife of Jason and mother of his children. Although Medea has been a faithful wife, Jason wishes to divorce her to marry a younger, wealthier woman. Medea considers her husband’s marriage plans an insult to her honor and vows revenge. By doing so, Medea reverses the traditional gender roles of Greek society, in which honor and revenge were thought to be part of the heroic (and masculine) code. Medea’s revenge takes the form of murdering Jason’s new wife, as well as her own children, and she escapes in the sun god’s chariot, leaving Jason without the satisfaction of punishing her for her crimes.
In Hippolytus, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, seeks to destroy Hippolytus, a young man who shuns sexual passion and is devoted to the virgin goddess Artemis. Aphrodite causes Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, the king of Athens, to fall in love with Hippolytus, the king’s son and her stepson. Hippolytus rejects Phaedra’s advances, and Phaedra, ashamed of her passion for Hippolytus and mortified by his rejection of her, falsely accuses Hippolytus of raping her and then kills herself. Theseus pronounces a curse on his son, which leads to Hippolytus’s death. However, Artemis reveals Hippolytus’s innocence before he dies, and father and son are reconciled.
Suppliants tells the story of a group of mothers begging for the bodies of their dead sons who were killed in an attack on Thebes. The Thebans refuse to give up the bodies, and the women eventually succeed in persuading the Athenians to help them. Scholars debate whether the play was written in praise of Athens or, by Euripides’ use of irony*, just the opposite.
Electra is Euripides’ treatment of the revenge story of the mythical characters Electra and her brother Orestes, who murder their mother, Clytemnestra, in order to avenge the murder of their father, Agamemnon. Electra and Orestes are later filled with remorse for their actions. The story is also the subject of the second play of Aeschylus’s trilogy* Oresteia and of Sophocles’ play Electra. Euripides depicts Electra as a bitterly frustrated and resentful woman who hated her mother more for causing Electra’s own suffering than for murdering Agamemnon.
Trojan Women is set in Troy immediately after the city’s defeat in the Trojan War. Hecuba, the Trojan queen, sees her daughter taken off to be a concubine* of the Achaean king and her son hurled to his death from the walls of Troy. Hecuba herself and the other Trojan women are sold into slavery in Greece. The play was produced during the Peloponnesian War, one year after Athens had captured the city-state of Melos, butchered its men, and enslaved its women. It is a powerful statement against the cruelties of war.
* irony use of words in such a way that they convey the opposite of the usual meaning
* trilogy series of three dramatic or literary works on a related subject or theme
* concubine a woman who lives with a man without being married to him
Several of Euripides’ plays, including Heraclidae, Hecuba, Phoenissae, and Iphigenia in Aulis, examine the practice of human sacrifice that existed among the Greeks. Each of these plays features the sacrifice of a character—usually a voluntary sacrifice by someone who is young and/or female—as a way to gain divine favor in battle. The sacrifice is soon forgotten, however, as other factors are shown to be much more important to the outcome of the struggle. Euripides suggests that the social and religious grounds for sacrifice are weak, since sacrifice depends on the personal initiative of the weakest members of society rather than on the actions of its heroes and leaders.
One of Euripides’ last tragedies, Bacchae, is sometimes regarded as his masterpiece. The god Dionysus arrives in Greece from Asia, disguised as a young holy man, with the intent of spreading his religious cult*. He starts in Thebes, where he expects to be accepted, but instead, the Thebans reject him, and their young king, Pentheus, tries to arrest him. Dionysus drives Pentheus insane and leads him into the mountains, where the young king is torn to pieces by Dionysus’s frenzied worshipers. These worshipers include the women of Thebes—one of whom is Pentheus’s mother. She returns triumphantly to Thebes with the head of her son, only to recover from her madness and become aware of her deed. The play warns that the liberating aspects of the Dionysiac religion, which was popular in ancient Greece, must be balanced with the need for reason and self-awareness.
During the last ten years of his career, Euripides used the form of tragedy for plays that might now be called romantic dramas, usually with happy endings. The plays Iphigenia Among the Taurians, Helen, and Ion dramatize a preoccupation in Euripides’ later work with human ignorance and the need of human beings to understand the world around them. Typically, Unknown to the characters, a god sets an elaborate plot in motion, which results in confusion, mistaken identity, and near tragedy. Ignorance of the god’s plan leads the characters to make false assumptions. A person seems to be someone else, a character appears dead when he or she is actually alive, a dream seems to have one meaning when it actually has another. Then, events lead up to a recognition scene in which a character’s true identity is discovered. As a result, the situation is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and there is usually a happy ending. Although the plots are driven by gods and goddesses, Euripides highlights the idea of random chance and unpredictable forces in the lives of human beings. Greek New Comedy and, later, Roman comedy adopted several of the techniques Euripides used in these plays. (See also Drama, Greek; Literature, Greek; Myths, Greek; Women, Greek.)
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god