Euripides Biography

At a Glance

Euripides was the bad boy of Ancient Greek tragedy, a rebellious “upstart” who rejected many of the formal structural elements of drama during his time. Significantly reducing the emphasis of the chorus in his plays, Euripides instead shifted the focus to the characters themselves. This less-rigid approach gave him the freedom to explore character psychology more deeply, which eventually allowed to create three-dimensional, rounded figures, especially women such as the tragic heroine of his play Medea. Though ahead of their time in golden age Athens, his plays have since been embraced by modern audiences. And despite the notable work of his contemporaries Aeschylus and Sophocles, it is Euripides who gets the credit for giving Greek tragedy—and ultimately all drama—a human face.

Facts and Trivia

  • Euripides is the author of The Cyclops, the only satyr play to survive in its entirety. Short, ribald, and comic, satyr plays were part of a tetralogy—a set of four plays that also included three tragedies.
  • Euripides was frequently lampooned by the comic playwright Aristophanes. Euripides figured prominently in Aristophanes’ The Frogs, in which he and Aeschylus are brought back from the dead to debate which of them was the better dramatist. Naturally, Aeschylus won.
  • Euripides’ works still appeal to even the avant-garde. His Alcestis was reimagined as a kind of performance art piece by theatrical experimenter Robert Wilson in 1986.
  • Of all of the tragedians who competed in the City Dionysia, a dramatic festival hosted in ancient Athens, Euripides won the fewest prizes.
  • Although Euripides was underappreciated by his contemporaries, history has been on his side. Of the three major Greek tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides), the rebellious bad boy has had the largest number of complete plays to survive.


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

0111201545-Euripides.jpg Euripides (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Greek playwright{$I[g]Greece;Euripides} Ranking with Aeschylus and Sophocles as a master of Attic tragedy, Euripides was the most “modern” of the great Greek tragedians, often criticizing traditional mythology and realistically working out the logical implications of ancient legends.

Early Life

Little is known of the life of Euripides (yew-RIHP-uh-deez) because few records were kept in his time. Philochorus, a careful annalist who lived in the early third century b.c.e., wrote a biography of Euripides, fragments of which have survived; it is long on anecdotes but short on dates. What is reasonably certain is that Euripides’ father, Mnesarchos, was an affluent merchant and that his mother, Cleito, was of aristocratic descent. When he was four years old, the great naval Battle of Salamis, in which the Greeks defeated the Persians, caused Euripides’ family to flee the small town of Phlya for Athens. When the boy was eight, the ruined walls of Athens were rebuilt, after the Greeks had decisively defeated Persia on land as well as sea. Freedom had triumphed over despotism—only temporarily, as Euripides was to discover.

In 466, Euripides became officially a “youth,” whereupon the state conscripted him for garrison duty in the frontier forts of Attica. Full military service ensued when he was twenty. He distinguished himself as an athlete, did some painting and sculpting, and undoubtedly participated in what may have constituted the greatest intellectual awakening in Western history. As the mother-city of the Ionian territories, Athens had become the harbor for a great influx of artists, poets, historians, philosophers, and scientists fleeing Persian repression. Euripides is known to have been involved with the Sophists, particularly Protagoras, author of the doctrine that “Man is the measure of all things” and a skeptic about the universal validity of science or religion. Euripides may also have associated with Anaxagoras, a philosopher concerned with theories of the mind; Archelaus, Anaxagoras’s pupil; Diogenes of Apollonia; and Socrates. Sophocles was his contemporary; undoubtedly, the tragedians knew each other’s works, but no evidence exists that they socialized with each other.

Euripides had his first play produced in 455, competing at the Great Festival of Dionysius one year after the death of Aeschylus and thirteen years after Sophocles’ first victory. Titled Peliades (daughters of Pelias), it was a trial run of his later Mēdeia (431 b.c.e.; Medea, 1781); the manuscript is not extant.

Life’s Work

Altogether, Euripides wrote 92 plays, of which 88 were entered in the Dionysian contests, although he won on only four occasions. Seventeen of his plays survive, compared with 7 out of 80 for Aeschylus and 7 out of 123 for Sophocles.

His earliest extant play is a tragicomedy, Alkēstis (438 b.c.e.; Alcestis, 1781), based on a folktale. It was placed fourth in a set of Euripidean plays, in the position usually accorded a comic satyr play, but its comic elements are minor. In this play, Admetus, a Thessalian king, has his young wife Alcestis agree to die in his place. The visiting Heracles, however, wrestles with Death and forces him to yield his beautiful victim. Euripides exposes the underside of this romantic legend: Admetus behaves as a warmly courteous host to Heracles and weeps over his “dead” wife, but essentially he is a coward. He lacks the courage to die at the time appointed for him, instead complacently allowing his wife to replace him. Moreover, he fails to admit his selfishness even to himself.

Euripides’ next surviving drama was Medea, his most famous work. Athenians watching the first performance would have known the drama’s mythic background: Medea, a barbarian princess and sorceress related to the gods, helped Jason the Argonaut to steal the Golden Fleece and even murdered her own brother so that she and Jason could safely escape pursuit. In the play’s action, Medea’s beloved Jason has tired of his dangerous foreign mistress and agreed to marry the daughter of Creon so that he can succeed to the throne of Corinth. Desolate and maddened, Medea pretends reconciliation with Jason’s bride and sends her a poisoned robe that fatally burns both her and Creon. Medea proceeds to kill her two children by Jason and then sails away on a magic dragon-chariot sent by her grandfather Helius, god of the sun. Euripides’ treatment of Jason and Medea renders their personalities in a rather modern fashion: He is calm, self-confident, and rational, but cold; she is devoted and kind, but her rage at being rejected transforms her into an elemental incarnation of vengeful hatred. Their arguments constitute brilliant fireworks of articulated feelings and clashing temperaments.

Hippolytos (428 b.c.e.; Hippolytus, 1781) is more restrained and economical. It was his second version of the Phaedra-Theseus-Hippolytus plot; the first has been lost. Framing the drama are a prologue spoken by Aphrodite and an epilogue spoken by Artemis. The tragedy consists of the conflict between them, as Phaedra is identified with love and lust, Hippolytus with chastity and a consequent neglect of Aphrodite’s charms. The scorned Aphrodite causes Phaedra, Theseus’s newest wife, to fall hopelessly in love with her stepson Hippolytus. Refused by him, she writes a letter falsely accusing him of having raped her; then she commits suicide. On reading the letter, Theseus curses Hippolytus, and Poseidon fulfills the malediction by having a monster fatally wound the young man. It is Artemis who reveals the truth to Theseus so that father and son can at least be reconciled before Hippolytus’s death. Though Euripides magnificently celebrates the frustrated passion of his heroine, he permits the play to end in rhetorical commonplaces as Hippolytus and Theseus first argue, then forgive each other.

From a structural perspective, the most innovative achievement of Hippolytus is the freedom Euripides grants his characters to change their minds: Phaedra first resolves not to reveal her love, then does so; the nurse gives her mistress conflicting advice; and Hippolytus first decides to reveal his stepmother’s lust to his father, then chooses not to do so. In his focus on the unpredictability of his characters’...

(The entire section is 2636 words.)