Euripides Biography

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.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2636

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...

(This entire section contains 2636 words.)

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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’ wills, Euripides anticipates psychological dramas such as those of Henrik Ibsen and Luigi Pirandello.

Numerous relatively minor works were also first mounted in the 420’s and 410’s. Many of these reflect events of the Peloponnesian War, the decisive struggle between Athens and Sparta. While Athens had become a model of democracy under the leadership of Pericles, Sparta favored despotic oligarchies. Euripides, still subject to military service, presumably saw combat during the first years of this agonizing conflict, which eventually ended with Athens’s capitulation.

Hērakleidai (c. 430 b.c.e.; The Children of Herakles, 1781), a mutilated text, presents a humane Athens as the protector of Heracles’ children, standing for fairness, mercy, and right principles. Hekabē (425 b.c.e.; Hecuba, 1782) is a pacifist tragedy whose heroine, like Medea, is transformed by unbearable wrongs from dignified majesty to vindictive bitterness. Ēlektra (413 b.c.e.; Electra, 1782) is a melodrama that presents the protagonist as a slave princess in rags, morbidly attached to her dead father and inexorably jealous of her mother. Andromachē (c. 426 b.c.e.; Andromache, 1782) makes the Spartan king its villain; with its direct denunciations of Sparta, the play is virtually a wartime propaganda polemic. Hiketides (c. 423 b.c.e.; The Suppliants, 1781) also expresses Athenian wartime feeling, centering on the ceremonial lamentations of bereaved mothers over their sons’ corpses.

Trōiades (415 b.c.e.; The Trojan Women, 1782) paints an even bleaker portrait of war’s havoc. Only a few years earlier, Athens had emerged from an indecisive ten years’ struggle with Sparta. In the spring of 415, Athens was but weeks away from launching the Sicilian expedition that would touch off the last, disastrous phase of the same war. The Sicilian venture had been voted when Euripides presented a trilogy of which only The Trojan Women, its concluding tragedy, survives. It shows the conquest of Troy by the Achaeans degenerating into calamity: The ancient Greeks have committed hubris by insulting the altars of the gods, killing all Troy’s male inhabitants, and defiling virgins in holy places. The Trojan princesses must be the slaves of their Greek captors: Hecuba, Priam’s widow, has been allotted to Odysseus; Cassandra, the virgin priestess, will be Agamemnon’s concubine; Hector’s widow, Andromache, will become slave to Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son; and Hector and Andromache’s son, the boy Astyanax, is taken from her arms and thrown to his death. Two of the mightiest scenes in Attic drama elevate this play to heartbreaking greatness: first, the parting between Andromache and Astyanax, and second, Hecuba’s lament on receiving the boy’s dead body after it has been flung from Troy’s battlements. The work justifies Aristotle’s designation of Euripides as “the most tragic . . . of the poets”; in this work, he is also the most nihilistic.

Euripides’ later plays fall into two main divisions. One category consists of lighter, more romantic works with happy endings. These include Iphigeneia ē en Taurois (c. 414 b.c.e.; Iphigenia in Tauris, 1782), in which the heroine succeeds in saving her brother Orestes from the murderous Taurians; with this work, Euripides can be said to have written literature’s first melodramatic thriller. Iōn (c. 411 b.c.e.; Ion, 1781) is Euripides’ most intricately plotted and irreverent play: Apollo is treated as a selfish, mendacious rapist who is thoroughly discredited amid complex intrigues. Helenē (412 b.c.e.; Helen, 1782) is another melodrama, loaded with reversals: It was only Helen’s ghostly double who went to Troy to start the Ten Years’ War, while the substantive Helen takes refuge in Egypt and outwits its barbaric king. Her husband, Menelaus, arrives, and the two are able to escape.

An alternative line of development continues Euripides’ ruthlessly probing tragedies. Orestēs (408 b.c.e.; Orestes, 1782) is a densely textured work focusing on Orestes’ fate some days after he murdered his mother. He is intermittently mad and ill, nursed by Electra; both are imprisoned in the royal palace by an angry, rebellious populace and condemned to death for their matricide. A blazing climax—Orestes’ party sets the palace on fire—leads to the intervention of Apollo, who orders Orestes to go to Athens, there obtain acquittal for his crime, and then marry Menelaus and Helen’s daughter, Hermione, in order to restore peace to the House of Atreus. Iphigeneia ē en Aulidi (405 b.c.e.; Iphigenia in Aulis, 1782) was discovered after Euripides’ death in incomplete form and finished by another hand. It shows an irresolute Agamemnon preparing to sacrifice his youngest daughter, Iphigenia, but a messenger’s speech predicts the ending Euripides presumably would have written had he lived longer: Artemis’s last-minute substitution of a deer as the victim.

Probably Euripides’ finest tragedy is a play he did finish, though it, too, was produced posthumously: Bakchai (405 b.c.e.; The Bacchae, 1781). The work features Dionysius playing a central role as both actor and Fate. He is described in the opening scene as “of soft, even effeminate, appearance. . . . His long blond curls ripple down over his shoulders. Throughout the play he wears a smiling mask.” His identity remains elusive as well as demoniac as he mingles gentleness with cruelty, flirtation with terror, coldness with passion. He presents himself as universal humanity, protean, both female-in-male and male-in-female, essentially amoral, blessing those who worship him and having no mercy on those who deny him. He personifies the bestial, primitive constituent of the psyche, free from ego constraint, at once superhuman and subhuman.

Dionysius’s chief victim is the young ruler Pentheus, intemperate, self-willed, disdainful of tradition, and scoffingly arrogant. Pentheus masks his primitive instincts behind authority and orderliness, only to have Dionysus crack his shell of artificial self-control, maddening him into frenzies of voyeurism and sadism. The civilized, rational ruler is transformed into a bisexual Peeping Tom who costumes himself in women’s clothes so that he can spy on the Bacchantes’ orgies. His frenzied mother, Agave, takes her son for a wild lion and, in the grip of Dionysian delusion, slaughters him. Thus, Pentheus dies as both a convert to and a victim of the instinctual life. Dionysius has ruthlessly destroyed the self that is ignorant of its nature. Euripides in this way dramatized the pitiless drive of the unconscious and the precariousness of human existence.

Legend has it that Euripides in old age was a sad man who conversed little and sat for long hours in his cave by the sea on Salamis. In 408 he exiled himself to the court of King Archelaus in Macedonia. Details of his subsequent death, in the winter of 406, are unknown. Philochorus claims that when Sophocles introduced his chorus during the 406 Dionysian festival, he brought the men onstage without their customary garlands as a sign of mourning for his great rival.


Anticipating such later playwrights as Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht and Jean-Paul Sartre, Euripides was an innovative, agile thinker who used the stage as a forum for his ideas about the world. The second half of the fifth century b.c.e. saw immense cultural convulsions involving the destruction of the Hellenic world’s religious and political stability. Euripides recognized a world devoid of rational order and, hence, of Sophoclean notions of human responsibility and divine wisdom. He often highlighted the discrepancy between received traditions and experienced reality of human nature. Thus, his Admetus is shown as a shabby egotist, his Odysseus as a sly demagogue, his Agamemnon as an incompetent general, his Jason as an opportunistic adventurer. In contrast to the pious, conventional plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripidean drama is skeptical, rational, and diagnostic, stressing an often-difficult encounter between culture and the individual. It was this dramatic confrontation between mythic traditions and the elemental demands of the human psyche that chiefly interested Euripides.

His characters often find themselves captive to myths that strain their personalities: Euripides’ Orestes murders his mother in an Argos that provides for judicial fairness; his Odysseus, Medea, Hermione, and Electra are all divorced from a culture in which their conduct was appropriate and are set instead in an alien time that distorts and misunderstands their choices. Euripidean personages tend to behave in self-contradictory and self-destructive ways, anticipating William Shakespeare’s problematic Angelos, Claudios, and Lucios; August Strindberg’s Miss Julie; and Eugene O’Neill’s Cabots and Tyrones. Euripides’ theater sabotages the conventions of ancient tragedy, replacing them with a challenging, turbulent, and revolutionary drama that bridges the gap between classical integration and contemporary chaos.

Further Reading:

Conacher, D. J. Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme, and Structure. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967. Conacher conducts the reader on an erudite tour of Euripidean treatments of myths, beginning with such conventional texts as Hippolytus and ending with romantic melodramas such as Alcestis.

Kitto, H. D. F. Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study. New York: Routledge, 2002. This is a paperback reprint of a distinguished study first published in 1939. Kitto devotes five of his thirteen chapters to Euripidean tragedy.

Murray, Gilbert. Euripides and His Age. Reprint. London: Oxford University Press, 1965. The great British Hellenist’s work remains vivid, vigorous, and lucid. His perspective is that of an Enlightenment liberal for whom religion is a form of superstition.

Segal, Erich, ed. Euripides: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. An anthology of ten essays by distinguished classical scholar/critics.

Segal, Erich, ed. Greek Tragedy: Modern Essays in Criticism. New York: Harper and Row, 1982. Segal reprints eight of the essays from the above-cited text and includes three additional articles of merit, one of which, by Jacqueline de Romilly, compares Aeschylus’s and Euripides’ treatments of fear and suffering.

Webster, T. B. L. The Tragedies of Euripides. London: Methuen, 1967. Webster’s highly detailed study contains a vast amount of information, but his style is pedestrian and his focus on metrics may deter the reader who has not mastered ancient Greek.


Critical Essays