Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2077
Euripides (c. 485–406 B.C.)
A writer during the first classical period in Greece, Euripides was a playwright of great import. The decline of the Golden Age in Greece, as a result of the Peloponnesian War, was witnessed by Euripides probably accounts for the overall tone of his tragedies. His works also serve as a chronicle of Athenian thought during a rather turbulent time in its history and are excellent representations of Attic Drama, the theatrical genre of the time.
Euripides was born in 485 B.C. in Athens, where he spent most of his life. Historians believe that he was from a middle-class background, which suggests that he was well educated. Euripides was also a friend of many of the great thinkers of the time, including Anaxagoras, Socrates, and Protagoras. During his childhood and into early adulthood, Euripides enjoyed the splendor of an Athens rich in resources and political allies.
In 455, Euripides wrote his first tetralogy, a composition including three tragedies and a satyr play. Ninety-two plays are known to have been written by the dramatist after the start of the war. Only nineteen of his plays still exist, most of them tragedies in the form of divine myths, marital narratives, and noble family histories.
Euripides’s works were often not warmly received by the Greeks of his time, as he did not believe in the triumph of reason over passion, nor did he believe that reason and order regulated the universe. This idea is demonstrated in the gods of his plays, who do not always act in just or compassionate ways, even exhibiting the less desirable characteristics of their mortal counterparts. It has been suggested that, as a result of these stylistic differences, Euripides’s work was not popular at dramatic festivals, earning him relatively few prizes. Euripides eventually left Athens in response to his critics and at the invitation of the Macedonia King Archelaus. Archelaus requested that Euripides’s writings contribute to a new cultural center the king envisioned as a rival to Athens. Unfortunately, Euripides would live less than two years in Macedonia before he died.
Despite his unpopularity, Euripides has been tagged a “stylistic innovator” for his unconventional beliefs, particularly by contemporary critics who contend that his works contributed to the creation of modern drama. In his own time, Sophocles and others admired his work for its psychological realism and its use of simple, everyday dialogue in favor of the decorative aristocratic language that dominated the genre. The Dionysian festival would also revive his plays 100 years after his death in 406, to enjoy a much greater reception.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has been recognized for his considerable writing talents as well as his genius. He has been called a shaping force in German literature, particularly in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. An exceptional man, Goethe excelled as a scientist, philosopher, musician, and artist, in addition to his literary accomplishments. Goethe’s drama Faust has been compared to the works of Dante and Shakespeare and is an important piece of Romantic literature.
Goethe was born August 28, 1749, in Frankfurt, Germany. His mother was the daughter of the mayor, and his father spent much of his time writing memoirs, supporting local artists, and educating his children. Goethe’s education was extensive at a very early age—so extensive that Goethe managed to write an epistolary novel (a novel written as a letter or series of letters) incorporating six different languages (German, French, Italian, English, Latin, and Yiddish) by his early teens. He entered the University of Leipzig at the age of sixteen to study law but found greater satisfaction in studying art, literature, and music. After two semesters, Goethe dropped out of the university to pursue an education independently. Some of Goethe’s earliest works created during this time include Buch Annette (translated as Book for Annette), a book of poetry inspired by a landlord’s daughter at an inn Goethe frequented, and the play Die Laune des Verliebten (translated as The Wayward Lover), a pastoral comedy.
In 1768, Goethe became ill and returned to Frankfurt to rest and recover. He studied alchemy, astrology, and the occult during this time and read the works of Shakespeare, Lessing, and Rousseau before continuing his law studies in Strasbourg in March of 1770. Goethe remained in Strasbourg to practice law for several years. During this time, Goethe wrote an epistolary novel entitled The Sorrows of Young Werther, based on the true story of a man’s suicide over a sour love affair and his own feelings for a friend’s fiancée. The novel was wildly popular in Germany but was tagged immoral by British and American critics because of the suicide depicted.
The popularity of Goethe’s Werther also earned Goethe various official posts in Weimar, by invitation of Duke Karl August, and he stayed for over twenty-five years. A trip to Italy in 1786 fueled his creativity. Goethe was so inspired by this trip that he ultimately changed his creative direction. He began writing poetry in classical form, utilizing principles of formal unity and ordered language, as demonstrated in Hermann und Dorothea (Herman and Dorothea) in 1798. Goethe also developed an interest in producing scientific writings, expounding on his knowledge of botany, optics, and light.
Goethe’s greatest work, Faust, is considered a literary classic. It was published originally in two parts, the first in 1808 and the second posthumously in 1832. Goethe continued to write until his death on March 22, 1832, publishing his autobiography and several novels.
Homer (fl. c. 750 B.C.)
It is of interest to note that Homer, whom many consider one of the greatest poets of western civilization, may not have existed. Various critics and historians offer conflicting views as to whether the man actually lived or was a fictional character given credit for the work of many. Some believed him to be a bard by profession, a singing poet who composed and recited verses on legends and history. It is difficult to say when exactly the poet would have written. Based on language and style, it can be narrowed down to the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries B.C. The language of his works, a blend of Ionic and Aeolic, indicates that he was perhaps from the Island of Chios, off the western coast of Asia Minor, where one family has actually claimed him as a legitimate ancestor.
In support of this theory, Demokodos, who appears in the Odyssey, is believed to be a portrait of Homer, a blind minstrel who sings about the fall of Troy. Until the third century B.C., the Greeks insisted that an individual named Homer was responsible for both the Iliad and the Odyssey, among other various minor works that have been attributed to the author. However, grammarians eventually began to wonder if the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by two different people.
In direct opposition to the idea of a single author, critics also point out that an anonymous group of bards may have been responsible for the work of Homer. Blind, wandering old bards were referred to as “homros” and may be the creative energy behind a fictional Homer. Scholars have also identified many inconsistencies or stylistic differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey, supporting the idea that they were the work of two different authors. Regardless of whether Homer’s voice is that of one man or several, the literary greatness of the Iliad and the Odyssey is unchallenged even today.
Jean Racine (1639–1699)
Born on December 22, 1639, in La Ferte- Milon, France, Jean Racine was orphaned as an infant and raised by his paternal grandparents. Racine’s education was dictated by Jansenist doctrine, a sect within the Roman Catholic Church. Aside from his religious indoctrination, Racine also studied Greek and Latin literature. After studying theology in the south of France, Racine returned to Paris, where he befriended Molière. Molière’s troupe performed Racine’s first play, La thébaïde, ou les frères ennemis (translated as The Thebaid), a 1664 play about the rivalry between Oedipus’s sons. After Molière agreed to put on his second play, Alexandre le grand, a year later, the friendship between Racine and Molière ended over creative differences when Racine pulled the play two weeks into its production.
This would be one of a series of conflicts for Racine. Upon seeing Alexandre le grand, Corneille harshly criticized Racine for his work, in turn leading to a bitter rivalry between the two dramatists. Racine incited the anger of the Jansenists for denouncing them publicly, making nasty comments which painted the Catholic sect in a most unfavorable light. Finally, the Duchesse de Bouillona was an enemy of Racine’s and intentionally engaged in activities that would upset Racine’s career as a dramatist. In one instance, the Duchesse encouraged another dramatist to write a play to rival Racine’s production. Additionally, she purposely purchased a group of good seats, only to leave them vacant on the opening nights of Racine’s plays.
All of Racine’s enemies took a toll on his career, and ultimately he left the theater and retired to family life. He then shared a job as royal historiographer, a high-profile post requiring him to travel with Louis XIV on military campaigns. He again put pen to paper at the request of the king’s wife in 1689, writing the biblical story of Esther and a subsequent biblical drama Athaliah. Racine produced a few additional works before his death on April 21, 1699.
Racine’s style is representative of several classical (and, by extension, neoclassical) ideals, namely those of simplicity, realism, and polish. Racine is also noted for the ease with which he conformed to the unities of action, time, and place, especially with plays larger in scope. It was common for the playwright to skillfully compress several years of story line into the course of two to three hours in an effort to preserve the convention. It has also been pointed out that Racine followed Aristotle’s view that a cast of characters was inherently more important than any one figure within a drama.
Vergil (70–19 B.C.)
The accomplishments of Vergil as a gifted poet were an inspiration for Roman writers. Vergil drew on classical Greek conventions to compose his works while at the same time asserting his own unique sense of style. Critics also cite the strong influence his themes have had on Western literature, a vast canon from which countless authors can be named.
Publius Vergilius Maro was born on October 15, 70 B.C., at Andes in northern Italy. He was fairly well educated, which suggests his family was at least from the middle class, and was prepared for a career in law. However, he abandoned law practice after making one appearance in court. He retired to Naples, where he spent most of his life, to study philosophy. In 41 B.C., Vergil was forced to appeal to Octavian Caesar, who later became Augustus, to return his parents’ land because it had been confiscated for distribution to war veterans. It was through the intercession of his friends that the land was returned. When Vergil wrote his Eclogue, they were partially an expression of his gratitude to his friends and to Octavian.
The Eclogues, written sometime between 42 and 37 B.C., were a series of pastoral poems, or poems composed on rural themes and involving shepherd characters. In the case of the ten poems comprising the Eclogues, unhappy shepherds unlucky in love featured in idealized settings (such setting being another convention of the pastoral form). The popularity of the works led to the publication of Vergil’s Georgics (42–37 B.C.), a treatise on farming.
The final work Vergil undertook before his death was his grandest. The Aeneid was commissioned by the emperor, Augustus, as a way to promote his status as Roman Emperor. The epic glorifies the leader’s ancestor Aeneas and prophesies of Rome’s Golden Age. Vergil was paid handsomely for his tribute, which he worked on for roughly ten years until he died in 19 B.C. Curiously that same year, Vergil ordered his literary executor to burn the Aeneid in the event of his death upon a trip, planned to last three years, to Greece and Asia, during which he hoped to complete and polish the work. Augustus denied this request and instead had it edited and published, though nothing was added to it. The publication of the Aeneid ensured Vergil’s fame as a poet and classicist.