Euripides Essay - Euripides World Literature Analysis

Euripides World Literature Analysis

In De poetica (c. 334 b.c.e.-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), Aristotle quotes Sophocles as saying that he (Sophocles) presented individuals as they should be while Euripides presented them as they are. This concern for a realistic depiction of human character and motivation is one of the hallmarks of Euripidean tragedy. Rather than presenting action as the result of sweeping historical or religious forces, as did Aeschylus, or of noble and heroic individual choices, as did Sophocles, Euripides attributes actions in his plays to ordinary, and easily understandable, human emotions.

While the forces motivating the characters in Euripidean tragedy are frequently less edifying than those that Aeschylus or Sophocles attributed to their characters, this pessimism was central to Euripides’ outlook upon the world. The horrors of the Peloponnesian War seem to have affected Euripides more deeply than his contemporaries, and he sought to depict those horrors upon the stage. Seeing few genuine heroes in his own society, Euripides was hesitant to assume that such heroes had existed in the remote past. His characters tend to be motivated by base emotions such as anger, greed, and lust rather than by the lofty piety and constancy that inspire such characters as Sophocles’ Antigone.

Euripides was interested in the psychology of the characters who populate traditional Greek myths. He turns a skeptical eye toward the platitudes with which they justify their own actions and seeks to reveal a less flattering source of motivation. What was shocking to his contemporaries was that Euripides extended this psychological analysis even to the gods. He saw deities such as Aphrodite, Artemis, and Dionysus as symbols of emotions—lust, restraint, irrationality, for example—rather than as the anthropomorphic images worshiped in the temples.

Perhaps for this reason, Euripides was, in his lifetime, the least popular of the three Athenian tragedians. He won first prize in the annual poetic competition only four times and was awarded this prize one additional time after his death. Nevertheless, the ideas advanced by him became increasingly popular in the following centuries, and, for this reason, more of his works have survived than have the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles combined.

A Euripidean play will usually begin with an extended prologue that provides the audience with crucial information. The play will end with the appearance of a god who resolves the central conflict of the drama. The individual who delivers the prologue, known as the protatic character, may not even reappear in the rest of the drama. Nevertheless, protatic characters play an important role in determining how the audience views the action of the play. The god who appeared at the end of the drama was frequently lowered to the stage by means of a hoist, a turn of events called the deus ex machina.

This general structure of a Euripidean tragedy frequently gives the audience the impression that the action depicted on stage is predestined and thus inescapable. Yet it is important to remember that the determining factor in Euripidean drama is more frequently human emotion (and base emotion, at that) than divine will. Thus, Euripides’ characters usually have little control over their actions; they are victims of their own emotions, not pawns of some impersonal or cosmic Fate.

Euripides’ view that emotions provoke much of human activity caused him to adopt a different focus in his tragedies from that of Aeschylus or Sophocles. Rather than depicting a world inhabited primarily by kings and the nobility, Euripides presents a more democratic universe. Not only do common people appear on stage more frequently in Euripidean tragedy than in the works of his predecessors, but they are also more central to the drama and tend to be more memorable. In Euripides’ view of the world, human tragedy affects everyone; it is not merely the province of the aristocracy.

Euripides also was less constrained by traditional myths than were Aeschylus or Sophocles. He was free to change details of the plot, add characters, or incorporate elements from another story. This freedom often gives the Euripidean version of a myth a sense of greater realism. It also allows the author to criticize details of a myth that he regards as foolish or inconsistent.


First produced: Mdeia, 431 b.c.e. (English translation, 1781)

Type of work: Play

A witch whose husband is about to leave her for another woman takes vengeance against him by killing his children.

The Medea illustrates many characteristic features of Euripidean tragedy. The play begins with a prologue in which the central conflict of the tragedy is revealed to the audience. This prologue is not delivered by a god or by any member of the nobility, but by a nurse, a character of relatively humble status. Yet the story that the nurse relates contains many fantastic elements and supernatural details: For example, she speaks of the Symplegades (the Clashing Rocks that destroyed ships attempting to sail through them), the Golden Fleece, and Jason’s legendary ship, the Argo. Nevertheless, these mythological details will not be Euripides’ central concern in this play. The poet will devote far more attention to human psychology and ordinary emotions (jealousy, anger, and pride) than to the marvels of legend. Euripides’ answer to the central question of this tragedy—What could lead a mother to kill her own children?—will not be the Golden Fleece or even a tragic curse, but a combination of spurned love, the desperate plight of women and exiles, and the individual nature of this particular mother.

Euripides quickly shifts attention away from the wonders of the prologue to the troubles that exist in Medea’s marriage. For Medea, the predicament of a husband who intends to leave her is compounded by the low status of women in Greek society generally and by her further isolation as an exile. Medea speaks at length about the difficulties of women in ancient Greece (lines 231-251) and about the ill treatment accorded to foreigners (lines 252-258, 511-515). The audience observes that Medea has relatively few choices available to her. If Jason abandons her, Medea’s life will be little better than that of a slave.

Furthermore, in Medea’s debate with Jason (lines 465-519), the audience is reminded that Medea has used violence before when doing what she felt to be necessary. She had killed her brother, Apsyrtus, in order that Jason might escape from her father, Aeëtes. She had killed Jason’s uncle, Pelias, in order that Jason’s father might regain his throne. Thus, the audience begins to understand that Medea is a person who kills...

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