Euripides (Greek: Ευριπίδης) (c. 480 – 406 B.C.E.) was the last of the three great tragedians of classical Athens. In contrast with Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides is known primarily for having reshaped the formal structure of traditional Attic tragedy; he was the first tragedian to utilize strong female characters and intelligent slaves. In rather sharp contrast with Aeschylus, Euripides satirized many of the major figures of Greek mythology, and the cynical view of the gods suggested in many of his plays may indicate that he lived in a time of growing disenchantment with the Greek pantheon. His plays seem modern by comparison with the earlier tragedians, focusing on the inner lives and motives of his characters in a way that had been unknown to Greek audiences. They also seem modern in another sense: Without clear conviction in the beneficence of the gods, chaos rather than order seems to win out.
While Aeschylus was predominantly a moral playwright, and Sophocles primarily concerned with the role of the fates and the gods, Euripides' work was the most concerned with the simple humanity of his characters. He was concerned more often than not with characters much closer to earth than the towering heroes and demigods that had dominated ancient Greek literature prior to his times. The roles he provides for women and slaves hearken toward increasing egalitarianism. The tone of his work is more ironic than his predecessors. Without a clear moral structure, his characters' actions seem more ambiguous, less noble. As one of the foremost playwrights in all of Western literature, Euripides' contribution to the development of Western drama and literature in general is inestimable.
Like all writers of his time, Euripides' biography is largely a matter of conjecture. According to legend, Euripides was born in Salamís on September 23, 480 B.C.E.; the day of the Persian War's greatest naval battle. His father's name was either Mnesarchus or Mnesarchides and his mother's name Cleito, and evidence suggests that the family was wealthy and influential. Euripides was exposed to the great ideas and thinkers of the day, including Protagoras, Socrates, and Anaxagoras. Their influence can be found in Aeschylus' attitude toward the gods. Anaxagoras, for example, maintained that the sun was not a golden chariot steered across the sky by some elusive god, but rather a fiery mass of earth or stone. Euripides was raised in a semi-religious household; records show that, as a youth, he served as a cupbearer in a temple of Apollo.
Euripides was married twice, to Choerile and Melito, though sources disagree as to which woman he married first.   He had three sons, and it is rumored that he also had a daughter who was killed early in life by a rabid dog. Some call this rumor a joke made by Aristophanes, a comic writer who often poked fun at Euripides, but many historians believe that the story is accurate.
The record of Euripides' public life, other than his involvement in dramatic competitions, is almost non-existent. The only reliable story of note is one by Aristotle about Euripides being involved in a dispute over a liturgy—a story that offers strong proof that Euripides was a wealthy man. It has been said that he traveled to Syracuse, Sicily, that he engaged in various public or political activities during his lifetime, and that he left Athens at the invitation of King Archelaus I of Macedon and stayed with him in Macedonia after 408 B.C.E.; there is, however, no historical evidence to confirm these statements.
Euripides first competed in the famous Athenian dramatic festival (the Dionysia) in 455 B.C.E., one year after the death of Aeschylus. He came in third because he refused to cater to the fancies of the judges. It was not until 441 B.C.E. that he won first prize, and over the course of his lifetime, Euripides claimed a mere four victories. He also won one posthumous victory.
He was a frequent target of Aristophanes' humor. He appears as a character in The Acharnians, Thesmophoriazusae, and most memorably in The Frogs, where Dionysus travels to Hades to bring Euripides back from the dead. After a competition of poetry, Dionysus opts to bring Aeschylus back instead.
Euripides' final competition in Athens was in 408 B.C.E. Although there is a story that he left Athens embittered over his defeats, there is no real evidence to support it. He accepted an invitation by the king of Macedon in 408 or 407 B.C.E., and once there he wrote Archelaus in honor of his host. He is believed to have died there in winter 407/6 B.C.E.; ancient biographers have told many stories about his death, but the simple truth is that it was likely his first exposure to the harsh Macedonia winter which killed him (Rutherford 1996). The Bacchae was performed after his death in 405 B.C.E., winning first prize.
When compared with Aeschylus, who won thirteen times, and Sophocles, with eighteen victories, Euripides was the least honored, though not necessarily the least popular, of the three great tragedians—at least in his lifetime. Later in the fourth century B.C.E., the dramas of Euripides became more popular than those of Aeschylus and Sophocles combined, as is evidenced by the survival (at least in part) of virtually all of his works, while most of the plays of both Aeschylus and Sophocles have been entirely lost. His works influenced Roman drama, and were later idolized by the French classicists such as Racine and Molière, through whom his influence on drama extended into modern times.
Euripides' greatest works are considered to be Alcestis, Medea, Electra, and The Bacchae.
Alcestis is one of the earliest surviving works of Euripides' oeuvre. The play was probably first produced at the Dionysia in the year 438 B.C.E., well into the author's career. Its categorization has remained uncertain; some scholars insist, due to the play's ostensibly happy ending, that it is a satyr play; others suggest that the issues raised by the play are far too dramatic to be considered satirical, and that the ending of the play is implicitly tragic, not happy. Nonetheless, Alcestis remains one of Euripides' most enduring works.
Long before the start of the play, King Admetus was granted by the Fates the privilege of living past the allotted time of his death. The Fates were persuaded to do this by Apollo, who got the Fates drunk in order to make them acquiesce. This unusual bargain was struck when Apollo was exiled from Olympus for nine years and spent the time in the service of Admetus, a man renowned for his hospitality. The gift, however, comes with a caveat: Admetus must find someone to take his place when Death comes to claim him.
The time of Admetus' death comes, and he still has not found a willing replacement. His father, Pheres, is unwilling to step in and thinks it is ludicrous that he should be asked to give up the life he enjoys so much as part of this strange deal. Admetus' friends are equally reticent. Finally, his devoted wife Alcestis agrees to be taken in his stead because she wishes not to leave her children fatherless or be bereft of her lover, and at the start of the play, she is close to death.
The play opens with Alcestis on her deathbed. She requests that, in return for her sacrifice, Admetus never again marry, nor forget her or place a resentful stepmother in charge of their children. Admetus agrees to this, and also promises to lead a life of solemnity in her honor, abstaining from the merrymaking that was an integral part of his household. Alcestis then dies.
Just afterwards, Admetus' old friend Heracles arrives at the palace, having no idea of the sorrow that has befallen the place. The king, wishing to be a perfect host, decides not to burden his guest with the sad news and instructs the servants to make Heracles welcome and keep their mouths shut—thus immediately breaking one of his promises to Alcestis to forego merriment. Heracles gets drunk and begins irritating the servants, who loved their queen and are bitter at not being allowed to mourn her properly. Finally, one of the servants snaps at the guest and tells him what has happened.
Heracles is terribly embarrassed at his blunder and his bad behavior, so he decides to travel to Hades to reclaim Alcestis. When he returns, he brings with him a veiled woman whom he tells Admetus he has brought for his host as a new wife. Admetus agrees to take her (breaking his other promise), but when he lifts the veil, he finds that it appears to be, in fact, Alcestis, back from the dead.
Controversy and Analysis
This conclusion, to many, indicates a happy ending to the play. Others argue, though, that the woman is not actually Alcestis but a look-alike, meaning that the king truly has broken his vows. The language used by Heracles and Admetus contains some ambiguity: the woman looks exactly like the princess, but the men themselves hesitate to identify her as the "real" Alcestis. The woman does not speak, a silence which Heracles explains will last for three days, after which time she will be freed from her ties to Hades, purified, and allowed to talk again. There is no concrete evidence that this explanation is untrue, but it is an oddity which many readers and audiences believe merits scrutiny. Certainly it is that Euripides intentionally made Alcestis silent so as to withhold a concrete conclusion and leave the denouement of the play ambiguous.
The Alcestis myth, partly in thanks to the popularity of the play, has become widespread throughout the arts. It became popular with a number of Roman poets, among them Ovid, as well as with the Renaissance poets Dante and Petrarch. Versions of the Alcestis story continue to emerge in poetry across the world, the most famous of which is probably Rilke's. Its themes of mortality, mourning, and marital fidelity are timeless. Admetus' haunted soliloquys as his own death draws nearer without a friend to take his place are some of the most moving passages in ancient Greek verse, and Alcestis' return is one of the most bizarre and horrifying episodes ever produced on the Greek stage.
One major theme that might be lost on modern audiences is xenia, the Greek virtue of hospitality, in which light Admetus appears as a tremendously virtuous character. It is Admetus' hospitality that earns him the favor of the god Apollo in the first place, and his devotion to being kind to all his guests goes so far that he will even betray his own wife in order to be a better host. Viewed in this way, the play is perhaps more comprehensible as a happy tale of a noble character ultimately succeeding over death itself through his own virtue.
Medea is another of Euripides' most influential tragedies, based on the myth of Jason and Medea and first produced in 431 B.C.E. Along with the plays Philoctetes, Dictys and Theristai, which were all entered as a group, it won the third prize at the Dionysia festival. The plot largely centers on the protagonist in a struggle with the forces of the world, rendering it the most Sophoclean of Euripides' extant plays.
The play tells the story of the jealousy and revenge of a woman betrayed by her husband. The action of the play is concentrated in Corinth, where Jason has brought Medea after his adventures as an argonaut and has now left her to marry the daughter of King Creon. The play opens with Medea grieving over her loss, and her elderly nurse fearing what she might do to herself or her children.
Creon, also fearing what Medea might do, arrives determined to send Medea into exile. Medea pleads for one day's delay. She then begins to plan the deaths of Jason and Creon. Jason arrives to confront her and explain himself. He believes he could not pass up the opportunity to marry a royal princess, as Medea is only a barbarian woman, but hopes to someday join the two families and keep Medea as his mistress. Medea, and the chorus of Corinthian women, do not buy his story. She reminds him that she left her own barbarian people for him, stating, "I am the mother of your children. Whither can I fly, since all Greece hates the barbarian?" Jason attempts to reason with her, arguing that he has married Creon's daughter not for love but for power, which he will use to ensure a good life for himself and for Medea. Medea remains unconvinced and their dialogue ends.
Medea is visited by Aegeus, king of Athens, who shares the prophecy of the birth of Theseus; Medea begs him to protect her, in return for her helping his wife to conceive a child. Aegeus does not know what Medea is going to do in Corinth, but promises to give her refuge in any case, provided she can escape to Athens.
Medea then returns to her scheming, plotting how she may kill Creon and Glauce, Jason's bride-to-be. She decides to poison some golden robes (a family heirloom and gift from the sun god), in hopes that the bride will not be able to resist wearing them. Medea resolves to kill her own children as well, not because the children have done anything wrong, but because she feels it is the best way to hurt Jason. She calls for Jason once more, falsely apologizes to him, and sends the poisoned robes with her children as the gift-bearers:
Forgive what I said in anger! I will yield to the decree, and only beg one favor, that my children may stay. They shall take to the princess a costly robe and a golden crown, and pray for her protection.
The request is granted and the gifts are accepted. Offstage, while Medea ponders her actions, Glauce is killed by the poisoned dress, and Creon is also killed by the poison while attempting to save her. These events are related by a messenger:
Alas! The bride had died in horrible agony; for no sooner had she put on Medea's gifts than a devouring poison consumed her limbs as with fire, and in his endeavor to save his daughter the old father died too.
Medea is pleased, and gives a soliloquy pondering her next action:
In vain, my children, have I brought you up,
Borne all the cares and pangs of motherhood,
And the sharp pains of childbirth undergone.
In you, alas, was treasured many a hope
Of loving sustentation in my age,
Of tender laying out when I was dead,
Such as all men might envy.
Those sweet thoughts are mine no more, for now bereft of you
I must wear out a drear and joyless life,
And you will nevermore your mother see,
Nor live as ye have done beneath her eye.
Alas, my sons, why do you gaze on me,
Why smile upon your mother that last smile?
Ah me! What shall I do? My purpose melts
Beneath the bright looks of my little ones.
I cannot do it. Farewell, my resolve,
I will bear off my children from this land.
Why should I seek to wring their father's heart,
When that same act will doubly wring my own?
I will not do it. Farewell, my resolve.
What has come o'er me? Shall I let my foes
Triumph, that I may let my friends go free?
I'll brace me to the deed. Base that I was
To let a thought of wickedness cross my soul.
Children, go home. Whoso accounts it wrong
To be attendant at my sacrifice,
Let him stand off; my purpose is unchanged.
Forego my resolutions, O my soul,
Force not the parent's hand to slay the child.
Their presence where we will go will gladden thee.
By the avengers that in Hades reign,
It never shall be said that I have left
My children for my foes to trample on.
It is decreed.
She rushes offstage with a knife to kill her children. As the chorus laments her decision, the children are heard screaming. Jason rushes to the scene to punish her for the murder of Glauce and learns that his children too have been killed. Medea then appears above the stage in the chariot of the sun god Helios. She confronts Jason, reveling in his pain at being unable to ever hold his children again:
I do not leave my children's bodies with thee; I take them with me that I may bury them in Hera's precinct. And for thee, who didst me all that evil, I prophesy an evil doom.
She escapes to Athens with the bodies. The chorus is left contemplating the will of Zeus in Medea's actions:
Manifold are thy shapings, Providence!
Many a hopeless matter gods arrange.
What we expected never came to pass,
What we did not expect the gods brought to bear;
So have things gone, this whole experience through!
Unlike the plays of Aeschylus or Sophocles, Euripides shows Medea's psyche through her tempestuous monologues, her inner emotions of passion, love, and vengeance. The play is a powerful and moving work of high drama, with a protagonist who, uniquely in ancient literature, is compelled to act by a storm of emotions. In contrast to the abstract forces of the gods or the fates, in Medea Euripides has created perhaps his finest drama, exploring the darker side of humanity.
Medea, uncharacteristically strong and powerful for a female character, is seen by some as one of the first works of early feminism, with Medea as a proto-feminist heroine. However, other scholars point that Euripides portrayal of Medea can be seen as mocking her and describing how women ought not to behave.
Tragedies of Euripides
- Alcestis (438 B.C.E., second prize)
- Medea (431 B.C.E., third prize)
- Heracleidae (c. 430 B.C.E.)
- Hippolytus (428 B.C.E., first prize)
- Andromache (c. 425 B.C.E.)
- Hecuba (c. 424 B.C.E.)
- The Suppliants (c. 423 B.C.E.)
- Electra (c. 420 B.C.E.)
- Heracles (c. 416 B.C.E.)
- Trojan Women (415 B.C.E., second prize)
- Iphigeneia in Tauris (c. 414 B.C.E.)
- Ion (c. 414 B.C.E.)
- Helen (412 B.C.E.)
- Phoenician Women (c. 410 B.C.E.)
- Orestes (408 B.C.E.)
- Bacchae and Iphigeneia at Aulis (405 B.C.E., posthumous, first prize)
Fragmentary tragedies of Euripides
The following plays have come down to us today only in fragmentary form; some consist of only a handful of lines, but with some the fragments are extensive enough to allow tentative reconstruction: see Euripides: Selected Fragmentary Plays (Aris and Phillips 1995) ed. C. Collard, M.J. Cropp and K.H. Lee.
- Telephus (438 B.C.E.)
- Cretans (c. 435 B.C.E.)
- Stheneboea (before 429 B.C.E.)
- Bellerophon (c. 430 B.C.E.)
- Cresphontes (ca. 425 B.C.E.)
- Erechtheus (422 B.C.E.)
- Phaethon (c. 420 B.C.E.)
- Wise Melanippe (c. 420 B.C.E.)
- Alexandros (415 B.C.E.)
- Palamedes (415 B.C.E.)
- Sisyphus (415 B.C.E.)
- Captive Melanippe (412 B.C.E.)
- Andromeda (c. 410 B.C.E.)
- Antiope (c. 410 B.C.E.)
- Archelaus (c. 410 B.C.E.)
- Hypsipyle (c. 410 B.C.E.)
- Oedipus (c. 410 B.C.E.)
- Philoctetes (c. 410 B.C.E.)
- Cyclops (408)
- Rhesus (mid 4th century B.C.E.) Most scholars agree that this was not written by Euripides.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Croally, N. T. Euripidean Polemic: The Trojan Women and the Function of Tragedy. Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 0521464900
- Ippolito, P. La vita di Euripide. N�poles: Dipartimento di Filologia Classica dell'Universit'a degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, 1999.
- Kovacs, D. Euripidea. Leiden: Brill, 1994. ISBN 9004099263
- Lefkowitz, Mary R. The Lives of the Greek Poets. London: Duckworth, 1981. ISBN 0715617214
- Rutherford, Richard. Euripides: Medea and other plays. Penguin, 1996. Reprint edition, 2003. ISBN 0140449299
- Scullion, S. “Euripides and Macedon, or the silence of the Frogs.” The Classical Quarterly 53.2 (2003): 389-400.
- Sommerstein, Alan H. Greek Drama and Dramatists. London: Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0415260280
- Webster, T.B.L. The Tragedies of Euripides. Methuen, 1967.
All links retrieved August 10, 2017.
- Works by Euripides. Project Gutenberg
- Euripides-related materials at the Perseus Digital Library
- Useful summaries of Euripides' life, works, and other relevant topics of interest at TheatreHistory.com.
- 11th Brittanica: Euripides Ancient History Sourcebook
- IMDBs List of movies based on Euripides plays
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