Euripides wrote eighty-eight dramas, including sixty-six tragedies and twenty-two satyr plays. Nineteen plays survive in the manuscript tradition, but one of these, the tragedy Rhesus (written sometime between 455 and 441 b.c.e.), is generally considered to be spurious. Cyclops, the only complete extant satyr play, is not precisely datable. In addition to the pro-satyr play Alcestis, seven tragedies are securely dated: Medea, Hippolytus, The Trojan Women, Helen, Orestes, Iphigenia in Aulis, and The Bacchae, these last two produced posthumously. The other tragedies can be only approximately dated, based on metrical evidence and contemporary allusions. In addition, considerable fragments from lost plays survive on papyrus.
The large number of extant Euripidean plays (compared to only seven each for Aeschylus and Sophocles) is attributable to a combination of conscious selection and chance. When the Athenian orator Lycurgus established the texts of Aeschylus and Sophocles in the late fourth century b.c.e., he also made the first edition of Euripides, but not before numerous actors’ interpolations had crept into the text. The number of plays contained in the Lycurgan edition is unknown, but only seventy-eight dramas, including four considered apocryphal by the editor, were included in the definitive Alexandrian edition by Aristophanes of Byzantium in the second century b.c.e. Another important edition was made by Didymus of Chalcedon in the first century b.c.e. Didymus’s edition included scholia, or marginal notes, on which are based the scholia in the surviving manuscripts.
Sometime after the second century c.e., school anthologies were made of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, but although only seven each were chosen for Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides’ great popularity in antiquity caused ten plays to be included in his selection: Hecuba, Orestes, The Phoenician Women, Hippolytus, Medea, Alcestis, Andromache, Rhesus, The Trojan Women, and The Bacchae. Although this school group was narrowed in the Byzantine period to Hecuba, Orestes, and The Phoenician Women, all ten plays of the original selection reached the West in the fourteenth century, together with a group of nine other Euripidean plays, preserved by chance from an edition (perhaps that of Aristophanes) arranged alphabetically: The Suppliants, Cyclops, The Children of Herakles, Heracles, Helen, Ion, Iphigenia in Tauris, Iphigenia in Aulis, and Electra. The first printed edition of Euripides was the Aldine edition of Venice, 1503.
Although certain dramatic features, such as the expository prologue and the appearance of a god in the mechane, tend to recur in play after play of Euripides, the overall impression made by his corpus, when viewed as a whole, is one of remarkable diversity. Euripides is a poet of stark contradictions. A single production, such as Hippolytus, can display both bitter misogyny and a sensitive portrayal of a woman such as Phaedra. One play, such as Medea, may sink to the depths of tragedy; another, such as Ion, will float from those depths, buoyed on comic resolution. Certain plays, it is true, can be said to form subgroups, such as the so-called political plays, including The Children of Herakles, The Suppliants, and Andromache, or the tyche dramas Ion, Helen, and Iphigenia in Tauris, but the dramatic gulf that spans a career including Alcestis, Hippolytus, Ion, and The Bacchae cannot be easily bridged.
There are too few neat generalizations comparable to the Aeschylean concept of justice or the Sophoclean hero on which to establish a poetic or intellectual unity within the Euripidean corpus. Perhaps if as many plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles had survived, more variety would be found in those dramatists as well, but one has the impression after reading Euripides that for this playwright, at least, variety is almost an organizing feature. Most often, generalizations about Euripides have centered on his portrayal of the gods and his apparent disbelief in Greek deities and traditional myths, but then one is forced by The Bacchae, with its intense religious mood, either to see the play as an end-of-life palinode, a refutation of the earlier works, or to put aside the generalization entirely. Variety within the Euripidean corpus is caused, to a great extent, by the playwright’s focus on the particular psychology of each character.
Like the Sophists of his age, who operated on an ethical system of amoral pragmatism, Euripides is a practical stage manager who is willing to thwart theatrical convention and traditional beliefs for dramatic effect. In general, the goal of Euripidean drama is not the development of a theological system or an ideal code of conduct, but rather the depiction of human emotions under strain. The dramas of Euripides are thus not really concerned with the gods or superheroes, but with ordinary people trying to deal, in their own personal ways, with real-life situations including love, jealousy, divorce, and death. This is the source of Euripides’ diversity and of his appeal. His psychological studies, as diverse and as complex as the human mind itself, are at the heart of his plays, which fluctuate in form, mood, and tone to suit particular dramatic and psychological situations. Unlike Sophocles, who depicted people as they ought to be, Euripides depicted people as they are (according to Aristotle’s Poetics). This Euripidean realism accounts for the differences among Alcestis, Medea, Hippolytus, Ion, The Bacchae, and his other plays. Euripidean tragedy is, above all, a drama of life itself.
In Alcestis, Euripides presents a study of the loyal, self-sacrificing wife. That Alcestis would die for her husband, Admetus, is easy to accept after Alcestis’s touching and revealing speech in the second episode, but the character of Admetus is more difficult to understand and easier to condemn as selfish and self-centered. Interpretation of his character and of the play as a whole is widely debated, but Admetus’s salvation, if it occurs at all, must be sought in xenia, the ancient Greek custom of guestfriendship. Xenia is Admetus’s chief—and perhaps his only—virtue.
In the typically Euripidean expository prologue, the god Apollo explains how he will save Admetus’s life because the latter was a good host to him while he, Apollo, was on earth, and, in the central portion of the fourth episode, Heracles is willing to get Alcestis back from Death because of the hospitality his friend Admetus has shown to him even at a time of deep mourning. The Third Choral Ode is filled with glowing praise for Admetus’s xenia. On the other hand, Admetus comes off quite badly both in an agon with his father Pheres, in which the aged father explains his refusal to die for his selfish son, and in the exodos, in which Admetus accepts in marriage an unidentified woman from Heracles, despite his earlier promise to the dying Alcestis never to remarry, even before it becomes clear that the veiled woman might be Alcestis. Perhaps some of this play’s difficulty is attributable to its...
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