Euripides – Biography


EURIPIDES, (485 ? – ?406 b. c.), Greek dramatist, was the youngest of the three great Athenian tragedians. Aeschylus and Sophocles were his older contemporaries. In his choice of themes and in his dramatic approach, he is, perhaps, the most “modern” of the ancient Greek poets, and even in his own day he seems to have been considered somewhat avantgarde. He adopted a radically new approach to the traditional myths of the Heroic Age, on which tragic plots were by convention based. Thus, in Euripides, the heroes of these myths were often made to appear almost contemporary in their attitudes and sometimes in their problems. A symbolic rather than a literal interpretation often stands behind the Euripidean presentation of the anthropomorphic gods of mythology, so that the sufterings of tragic heroes are shown to stem from their own natures, rather than from the gods, or else from some gross injustice or cruelty, individual or political, on the part of their fellowmen. Finally, toward the end of his career, Euripides invented a new style of dramatic presentation, verging on the tragicomic, from which Greek New Comedy of the following century and, Iater, Roman Comedy derived several of its technicues.

Euripides formal innovations, to some degree, complement his new thematic emphases. The highîy conventionalized, almost artificial, style of the Prologue, in certain plays, and the frequent use of formal discourses and set debates reflect both the intellectual, occasionally didactic, strain in Euripides’ work and the influence of the Sophists, the new teachers of rhetoric and philosophy, with whom he associated. On the other hand, the increase of lyrical or “sung” passages for the actors, and the introduction, probably under the influence of the poet and musician Timotheus, of a new, rather more emotional style of choral music in the odes of certain later plays, enhance the Euripidean “pathos,” which, perhaps, compensates for the intellectualism of much of his dramatic treatment.




Few facts about Euripides’ life can be stated with anything like certainty. His father, Mnesarchus (or Mnesarchides), and his mother, Clito, were alleged to be, respectively, a shopkeeper and a greengrocer. (The latter point is made repeatedly by the comic poet Aristophanes.) On the other hand, other ancient evidence suggests that the poet came of well-born parents. His early life was passed in Salamis, where he is reputed to have spent much time reading and writing in a cave overlooking the sea. This existence as a recluse seems to have continued after his removal to Athens, since we hear scarcely anything of his public life beyond his being a member of an embassy to Syracuse. Of his personal life, it is known that he was married, possibly twice, and that he had three sons, one of whom produced some of his plays posthumously. He is said to have associated with certain Sophists (Prodicus, Protagoras), as well as with Anaxagoras and Socrates. Euripides left Athens in 408 or 407 for the court of King Archelaus of Macedonia. There he continued to compose plays, including one of his last and greatest, The Bacchae, which was produced with Iphigenia in Aulis and the Iost Alcmaeon of Corinth after his death and won him posthumously his fifth first prize at Athens.


The Extant Plays. Euripides was said to have composed 92 plays, including 7 or 8 satyr plays, brief comic dramas that followed the presentation of a tragic trilogy. The following is a list of the 18 (possibly 19) extant Euripidean plays, with their established or, in some cases, approximate production dates: Cyclops (satyric, probably before 438); Alcestis (438); Medea (431); The Children of Heracles (430-427); Hippolytus (428); Andromache (about 426); Hecuba (about 424); The Suppliants (422-420); Heracles (418-416); The Trojan Women (415); Electra (about 413); Helen (412); Iphigenia Among the Taurians (about 411); lon (412—?410); The Phoenician Women (411-409); Orestes (408); The Bacchae (406-405); Iphigenia in Aulis (406-405). The date of the extant Rhesus is as uncertain as its authenticity.

Early works. The early works of Euripides abound in unusual, even outlandish tales, rather outside the more orthodox mythology from which most Greek tragedies were drawn. Alcestis, for example, is based on a primitive folktale in which a ypung king escapes his fated death by letting his wife die in his place. The wife is won back from the tomb when a strongman hero—Heracles, in this case—wrestles with Death and overcomes him. Despite the macabre basis of the plot, Euripides, treating the theme with sardonic irony, gives it an ethical and psychological significance far beyond the scope of the original folktale. So, too, in Medea, a witch, also a figüre of folktale origin, is given tragic stature as she struggles between love for her children and hatred for her faithless husband until, “passion overcoming reason”—a common theme in Euripidean tragedy—she murders her children to take vengeance on her betrayer.

Second Period. The plays of Euripides’ socalled second period (430-416), which coincides roughly with the first half of the Peloponnesian War, tend to abandon these unusual and unfamiliar tales and to concentrate more on myths associated with the legendary past of the Athenian people. The Children of Heracles and The Suppliants, for example, are both plays in which Athens, back in the Heroic Age, is presented as the defender of the weak against, respectively, an individual bully and a tyrannical state. Particularly in The Suppliants, Euripides manages to imbue the universal issues of traditional legends with contemporary significance. Plays such as these were probably meant to make Athens proud of its heroic past and to show it as the defender of the weak and of justice between states. Some critics, however, have detected at the end of these plays sardonic hints that even wars conducted in the cause of justice have a way of leading to further violence. Other plays of this period, such as Hippolytus and Heracles, while tney do not involve a patriotic Athenian theme, employ myths in which central characters are connected with Athens by birth or destiny.

Third Period. After the decline of Athens’ fortunes and of its political morality in the latter stages of the war (which ended disastrously in 404 b. c.), Euripides no longer wrote plays that could be interpreted as defending any kind of war. The first play of this so-called “third period” (415-408), The Trojan Women, provides one of the most celebrated ancient indictments of the barbarous cruelties of war. This play deals with the sufferings of the women and children of the defeated leaders of Troy at the hands of the victorious Greeks. Again, the plot and setting are taken from the old days of heroic legend, but once again one finds applications to the contemporary scene. This time the Athenian audience who watched the atrocities inflicted on Queen Heeuba and her Trojan ladies must have thrilled not with pride in Athenian achievement but with horror at the awakened memory of similar atrocities recently inflicted by the Athenians themselves on their former ally, Melos.

Other plays of this period indicate a turning-away, on Euripides’ part, from works with any serious political significance. Thus melodramatic plays like Iphigenia Among the Taurians, romantic tragedies (“tragicomedies”, some have called them) like Ion and Helen, and even psychological treatments of legendary murders and their aftermaths in Electra and Orestes are described, by some critics, as one form or another of Euripides’ escape from contemporary life.

Electra is perhaps the best example of the new realism—a strong psychological realism—of Euripidean tragedy. Unlike her nobler Sophoclean counterpart, Euripides’ Electra is a strong-willed, frustrated virago. Her homicidal hatred for her mother, Clytemnestra, and for Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover, springs more from what she herself has suffered than from the murder of her father, Agamemnon, though it is that murder that she and her brother Orestes determine to avenge. The realistic setting of the play in the peasant’s hut where Electra has been living, the emphasis on her deprivations—physical, emotional, and even sexual—her own sharp comments to her friends, and her bitter, sordid indictments of her royal enemies, ali contribute to this novel, unheroic, but horribly convincing treatment of the ancient legend.

In some plays of this period, Euripides introduced a certain fantastic, melodramatic flavor, oddly at variance with his psychological realism, yet skillfully adapted to it. One notices this at the end of Orestes, where the condemned matricides, Orestes and Electra, joined by the faithful Pylades, seek their vengeance on society in a series of ever more outrageous deeds—untif Apollo appears, ex machina, and marries Orestes off to Hermione, Orestes’ last intended victim. One sees it, too, in the more somber adventures of Orestes in Iphigenia Among the Taurians, in which his other sister, Iphigenia, as Artemis’ priestess of human sacrifice, is about to preside över his slaughter—but is made to recognize him in the nick of time.

Several of these later plays show a sophisticated and complex plot technique at the service of themes that treat various byways of traditional mythology with surprising lightness and a deft irony bordering on parody. The successful formula seems to have been a recognition sequence frustrated by various ingenious delays, fol!owed by a mechanema (a complex plan of vengeance or escape) carried out by the united couple—brother and sister or husband and wife. Helen, the most overtly comic of such plays, combines this dexterity of plot with a witty illustration of contemporary philosophic problems, including the illusory nature of appearance, sense perception as a valid guide to truth, and reputation as an index of true worth. Euripides’ Helen never went to Troy at ali. The Trojan War was fought for a wraith fashioned by the jealous goddess Hera, while the real Helen was kept chaste and faithful—despite her evil reputation— waiting for her husband, Menelaus, to rescue her from Egypt, where she had been transported by Hermes, at Zeus’ command. The first half of the play is concerned with the restoration of Helen to the returning Menelaus, who has been shipwrecked on the shores of Egypt on his way home from Troy. His recognition of his true wife is frustrated by the continued existence of that very wraith of Helen that had originally saved her from the embrace of Paris and that Menelaus has now triumphantly rescued from Troy. When the recognition of husband and wife has been effected, the interest switches to a hilarious escape plan. Helen and Menelaus trick the Egyptian king, who is eager to marry Helen and vows death to any Greek who would thwart him, into giving them a ship, crew, and provisions so that they may carry out funeral rites at sea for Menelaus himself, whom they declare to have been lost at sea. The successful escape is described in an exciting speech by a messenger, which is capped in turn by the appearance of Helen’s brothers, Castor and Pollux, as dei ex machina, to allay the fury of the King by telling him that ali has happened in accordance with Zeus’ will.

Last Period. The Bacchae, one of the last three tragedies that Euripides composed, provides interesting similarities with Hippolytus, a much earlier play. In both, a god takes vengeance on a human being for failing to do him honor. In the first play, Hippolytus, a devotee of the virgin goddess Artemis, contemns Aphrodite, the goddess of heterosexual passion. To punish Hippolytus, Aphrodite causes Phaedra, his step-mother, to fail in love with him so that, when his father Theseus discovers it, he will bring about the hero’s death. In The Bacchae, Pen-theus, the puritanical king of Thebes, refuses to acknowledge the godhead and permit the wild, orgiastic worship of the new god, Dionysus, son of Zeus and of a Theban princess, Semele. In the Prologue to this play, Dionysus vows to punish Pentheus by leading the maenads, his frenzied female worshipers, against him, if Pentheus continues to resist the god’s followers with violence. Dionysus has already driven mad the Theban women, headed by the mother and aunts of the King himself. In both plays, a terrible punishment is wreaked on the tragic hero for resisting a god, and in both plays a god appears at the end of the play (in Hippolytus, Artemis; in The Bacchae, Dionysus himself), to explain that the catastrophe has occurred because a human hero dared to resist a god.

Both plays, then, represent Euripides’ treatment of a relatively primitive myth of divine vengeance. In each, it becomes clear as the play progresses that the poet has given a far deeper human meaning to the myth than its simple formulation in the Prologue might suggest. Aphrodite and Dionysus in these plays are no longer merely the spiteful, whimsical, anthropomorphic gods of Homer and early Greek literatüre. They have become, rather, the symbols of real forces in the life of men: Aphrodite, the fructifying force of sexual passion; Dionysus, the god of ecstasy, of the irrational element, “the wine of life” that gives rest and recreation. So, too, the dramatic action of these plays, aided by some of the most powerful lyrics in Greek tragedy, shows us that in resisting such gods, Hippolytus and Pentheus are guilty not merely of a failure in religious observance but of a maimed view of life, which refuses to recognize and come to terms with its most beautiful and, when thwarted, most destructive forces.


The Bacchae is so markedly different from any play of the preceding “third period” that it must serve as a warning concerning the limitations of the genetic or “developmental” approach to Euripidean tragedy that has been followed here. On the other hand, the similarities between The Bacchae and Hippolytus and the contrasts that both provide, in one way or another, with most of the other extant plays of Euripides suggest a rather different way to analyze the perplexing variety of the Euripidean corpus.

In The Bacchae and Hippolytus, the traditional gods of Greek mythoİogy are powerfully felt presences, though even here Euripides accepts them only on his own terms as symbols of emotional, psyehological, and social forces that inevitably aEect the lives of men. In other plays, he seems almost to abandon the mythological formulations of human destiny and human suffering, the “hero against god” confrontations that, in one form or another, are at the root of much traditional Greek tragedy.

In the “political plays” and the “war plays,” like The Suppliants and The Trojan Women, Euripides’ themes have become almost secular. In the former, he presents an ideal political policy through the speeches and actions of King Theseus, who will fîght only to defend civilization, in the form of panhellenic law. In the latter, he presents the sufferings of the Trojan women as the result not of a hero’s insensate quarrel with gods but of man’s own inhumanity to man. So, too, in plays like Electra and Orestes, the god-driven deed of matricidal vengeance, and the traditional “Furies’ persecution” that follows it, are now seen in terms of human passion, remorse, and even madness rather than in terms of compulsion and punishment by the gods. In stili other plays, such as Helen and Ion, Euripides sometimes makes fun of the improbability of certain myths when too literally understood. Taking them at their face value, or pretending to, he presents us with a reductio ad absürdüm of serious belief in such inconsequential and—in the myths here chosen— inefficient gods.

It used to be fashionable to regard Euripides simply as a sophistic iconoclast, bent on destroying both the grandeur of the traditional myths and of the traditional tragic structures in which their catastrophes were enshrined. Rather, his eomplex view of the many causes and aspects of human joy and suffering, and his appreciation of the real meaning of the great mythical archetypes, required a similarly radical and varied approach to tragic structure. It was not that he did not believe in “gods.” Instead, he recognized that these “gods” are within us and ali around us rather than in the mysterious “crutside world” of traditional mythoİogy. See also Index entry Euripides.

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