World Literature

Euripides

 

BORN: c. 484 BCE, Salamis, Cyprus

DIED: 406 BCE, Macedonia

NATIONALITY: Greek

GENRE: Drama

MAJOR WORKS:

Medea (431 BCE)

Andromache (c. 424 BCE)

Electra (c. 420-416 BCE)

Iphigenia among the Taurians (c. 414 BCE)

Bacchae (c. 406 BCE)

 

 

Euripides. Mansell / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

 

Overview

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 (431404 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.

 

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.

 

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 Honore de Balzac. Bette, a ''poor relation,'' enlists the help of a prostitute to ruin the fortunes of her well-off relatives.

Vanity Fair (1847-1848), a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. The novel's formidable heroine Becky Sharp uses her beauty, brains, and wit to claw her way into high European society.

The First Wives Club (1996), a film directed by Hugh Wilson. Three middle-aged divorcees seek revenge on the first husbands who left them in this comedy.

 

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).

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 Hippolytus 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. However, 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.

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

1. 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?

2. 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?

3. 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.

4. 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?

5. 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.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Barlow, S. A. The Imagery of Euripides. London: Duckworth, 1971.

Lattimore, R. Story-Patterns in Greek Tragedy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964.

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.

 

Mary Ann Evans

 

SEE George Eliot