(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Euripides c. 485 B.C.-406 B.C.

Greek dramatist.

Ranked with Aeschylus and Sophocles as the greatest of the Greek dramatists, Euripides went beyond his predecessors to introduce dramatic innovations in both form and content. Known as a philosopher among the poets, Euripides combined a skeptical approach to traditional religion with starkly realistic characterizations. With his realism and treatment of the most violent passions, Euripides was for Aristotle "the most tragic of the poets," and he profoundly affected the direction of European drama.

Biographical Information

Most sources place Euripides's birth in 485 B.C., possibly on the day the Greeks achieved a naval victory over Xerxes' Persian fleet. He was born on the island of Salamis, where his father Mnesarchus (or Mnesarchides) and his mother Kleito owned property. Although some comic playwrights claimed that Euripides had humble origins, it seems that his family in fact enjoyed a high social position; his father may have possessed a hereditary priesthood of Apollo Zosterios, in whose service the young Euripides is said to have served as dancer and torch bearer. Euripides was given the usual education of a member of his class, receiving instruction in music, dancing, and gymnastics, and he may have distinguished himself as an athlete. Although Euripides was not very involved in politics, he did become interested in the new skeptical philosophy; a fragmentary life of Euripides written by Satyrus tells of Euripides's friendship with the philosopher Anaxagoras, and he may have been acquainted with Socrates and Protagoras, who may have initially presented his On the Gods at Euripides's house. Euripides first entered the Athenian drama competition in 455 B.C. with The Daughters of Pelias; the play won a preliminary event but not the final competition. He would later win the drama prize in 441 B.C. and three more times during his lifetime. Euripides left Athens in 408 B.C., possibly because of his bitterness at the few victories, and settled in the court of Archelaus, king of Macedonia, where he was honorably received. He died in 406 B.C.; some (probably apocryphal) accounts claim that he was killed by Archelaus's hunting dogs while he walked in the woods. A few of his plays were later produced in Athens by his son; these included the Bacchae, for which Euripides posthumously received his fifth drama prize.

Major Works

Euripides was a prolific writer of at least eighty-eight plays, and although fragments and titles of most of them are known, eighteen tragedies and one satyric play have survived in their entirety. The plays reflect Euripides' departure from the orthodoxies of Aeschylus and Sophocles with regard to form, style, and characterization. Euripides made use of the prologue and epilogue, the deus ex machina, and elaborate choral odes. His treatment of the gods and myths generally reflects late fifth-century skepticism. Euripides questioned traditional religion and morality and criticized contemporary society, and he may have been charged with impiety by Creon. In addition, all but the earliest of his plays are written with the back-drop of the Peloponnesian War, and they resist heroic portrayals of war. In Trojan Women, for example, Euripides depicts the plight of the Trojan women at the hands of the soldiers who have killed their husbands; the play was written shortly after the Athenians had conquered Melos, a neutral party during the war, and expresses Euripides's opposition to the Athenian military action. Euripides also pursued a more unconventional characterization, giving prominence to such marginalized people as slaves and women; Aristotle quotes Sophocles as saying that while he portrayed people as they should be, Euripides portrayed them as they are. Euripides's characters are more realistic than either of his predecessors, using colloquial dialogue to depict attitudes nearer to his own social milieu. For example, Electra shows Orestes' matricide as a crime of contemporary significance. Euripides's tragedies often deal with characters, especially women, in the grip of passion or tossed by conflicting impulses. In Medea, the main character, one of the most controversial figures in world literature, reacts to her husband's abandonment by (among other things) murdering their children; in Hippolytus, Phaedra's passion for her chaste stepson leads to both of their deaths; and in Bacchae, a king who opposes the orgiastic frenzy of a Dionysus cult is torn to pieces by the god's female followers.

Textual History

Euripides's plays were performed numerous times during the centuries after his death and so were gradually modified. Standard manuscripts were created as early literary historians became interested in preserving authentic versions and were housed at the library of Alexandria. These were translated and transmitted by Byzantine scholars from the seventh or eighth century and traded from Thessalonica to the Roman Catholic Church in Florence between 1348 and 1457. Two manuscripts preserved the entire body of Euripidean drama: the Laurentianus 32.2, and the two-part Palatinus gr. 287 and Laurentianus Conventi Soppressi 172. There is some textual evidence that the Palatinus manuscript was reproduced from an early version of the Laurentianus manuscript, and leading researchers hypothesize that there is only one Byzantine "archetype" that comprises a standard source of the extant work of Euripides; Pertusi controversially claims that a standard selection of thirty-two plays, forming a traditional repertory, was to be derived from the Alexandrian manuscripts. In the medieval period, the texts were transmitted by the complex network of the Byzantine Empire and were interspersed with marginal commentary by two authors, Dionysius and Didymus. This combination of text and commentary was rather common during the medieval era and served as the basis of a resurgence of classical scholarship in the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Critical Reception

Euripides seems to have been frustrated with what he considered a lukewarm reception by his contemporaries. Socrates, who rarely attended the theater, always attended a new production by Euripides, but Euripides was criticized by conservative contemporaries for creating deeply flawed characters who they believed degraded the noble form of tragedy and for portraying stories of violent passion. He also deeply affected his fellow playwrights, for better or for worse, as evidenced by such writers as Aristophanes, who went to great lengths to parody him in Acharnians and Frogs. But although Euripides won few dramatic prizes in his lifetime, he far outstripped his predecessors in popularity after his death. Upon hearing of Euripides's passing, Sophocles honored his memory by dressing his chorus (in mourning) ungarlanded. Three anecdotes of Plutarch relate the power of Euripides's words; in one, Plutarch mentions that some of the Athenian prisoners at Syracuse won their liberty by reciting passages from Euripides's tragedies. Euripides is regarded by many as the originator of the modern European dramatic sensibility, and his writings have become a touchstone for many of the most prominent Western writers.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Alcestis (drama) 438 B.C.

Medea (drama) 431 B.C.

* Heracleidae [Children of Heracles] (drama) 431-422 B.C.

Hippolytus (drama) 428 B.C.

* Hecuba (drama) 425 B.C.

* Andromache (drama) 424 B.C.

* Supplices [Suppliant Women] (drama) 424 B.C.

* Hercules Furens [Mad Heracles] (drama) 420 B.C.

* Electra (drama) 420-416 B.C.

* Heracles (drama) 417-414 B.C.

Troades [Trojan Women] (drama) 415 B.C.

* Iphigenia among the Taurians (drama) 414 B.C.

Helen (drama) 412 B.C.

* Phoenissae [Phoenician Women] (drama) 411-409 B.C.

* Ion (drama) 411-408 B.C.

Orestes (drama) 408 B.C.

* Bacchae (drama) 406 B.C.

* Iphigenia in Aulis (drama) 406 B.C.

†Cyclops (drama)

†‡:Rhesus (drama)

* Date approximate.

†Date unknown.

‡Uncertain authorship.

Principal English Translations

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Euripides (Loeb Classical Library) (edited and translated by A. S. Way) 1912

The Complete Greek Tragedies (translated by Richard Lattimore and David Grene) 1959

R. C. Jebb (essay date 1893)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: R. C. Jebb, "The Attic Drama," in The Growth and Influence of Classical Greek Poetry, Macmillan and Co., 1893, pp. 217-251.

[In the essay that follows, Jebb explores the political context within which Euripides wrote and the social commentary and philosophical views expressed in his plays.]

The victory at Salamis, in which Aeschylus took part as a soldier, and which Sophocles, as leader of the boy-chorus, helped to celebrate, marks the birth-year of Euripides. Like Aeschylus, he competed for the tragic prize at the age of twenty-five, but had to wait many years before he gained it. His first success was in 441, when he was thirty-nine; and in a career of nearly...

(The entire section is 7404 words.)

J. T. Sheppard (essay date 1911)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: J. T. Sheppard, "Euripides," in Greek Tragedy, Cambridge University Press, 1911, pp. 122-55.

[In the following essay, Sheppard discusses how Euripides expressed his philosophical and religious ideas in his plays and how they were received by his contemporaries.]

The Athens of Pericles was the parent of another Athens less harmonious but not less great. Pericles, according to the Funeral Oration, found in his city the perfect marriage of reflectiveness and action, of art and simplicity, of philosophy and sense. Sophocles and Pheidias appeared to celebrate a religion free of superstition, and a spirit of enquiry neither flippant nor insane. In the salon of...

(The entire section is 7738 words.)

William Nickerson Bates (essay date 1930)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: William Nickerson Bates, "The Life of Euripides," in Euripides: A Student of Human Nature, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1930, pp. 1-56.

[In the following excerpt, Bates reviews the characteristics of Euripides's tragedies in terms of the biographical and social conditions that helped create them.]


In seeking to obtain a true perspective of any great figure in the history of literature and a just appreciation of his works it is important at the beginning to find out as much as possible about his family and the conditions under which he lived. If we can learn something about his parents, what sort of...

(The entire section is 18979 words.)

Thomas G. Rosenmeyer (essay date 1963)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, "Bacchae and Ion: Tragedy and Religion," in The Masks of Tragedy: Essays on Six Greek Dramas, University of Texas Press, 1963, pp. 103-52.

[In the following essay, Rosenmeyer questions whether Bacchae and Ion are "religious tragedies in the proper sense of the word" and concludes that the plays express very different attitudes about the relationship between gods and men.]

Appear, in the shape of a bull or a many
serpent, or lion breathing fire!
Come, Bacchus, and with laughing face
coil the deadly rope around the huntsman
of the...

(The entire section is 17653 words.)

Thomas G. Rosenmeyer (essay date 1963)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, "Bacchae and Ion: Tragedy and Religion," in The Masks of Tragedy: Essays on Six Greek Dramas, University of Texas Press, 1963, pp. 103-52.

[In the essay that follows, Rosenmeyer discusses the conversion of Admetus in Alcestis, which centers around the dramatic depiction of death in the play.]

In Homer's Iliad the uneasy truce which accompanies the duel between Menelaus and Paris is, after the disgraceful withdrawal of Paris, broken by Athena, who persuades a lesser Trojan, Pandarus, to shoot Menelaus (4.104, tr. Richmond Lattimore):

Straightway he unwrapped his bow, of...

(The entire section is 17557 words.)

John Ferguson (essay date 1972)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: John Ferguson, "Euripides," in A Companion to Greek Tragedy, University of Texas Press, 1972, pp. 235-46.

[In this essay, Ferguson discusses the intellectual climate in Greece during Euripides's life and assesses the elements of his dramas.]

In the early days of the Persian invasion, while the Spartan troops were fighting their brave defensive action at Thermopylae, the Greek fleet was similarly engaged off the coast of Euboea. The strait between Euboea and the mainland is called Euripus, and it was no doubt in honor of this not unsuccessful action that two Athenian parents called their son born at this time Euripides. Later legend placed his birth on the very...

(The entire section is 4304 words.)

Cedric H. Whitman (essay date 1974)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Cedric H. Whitman, "The Scope of Myth," in Euripides and the Full Circle of Myth, Harvard University Press, 1974, pp. 104-49.

[In the essay that follows, Whitman describes Euripides's ironic use of myth.]

Many a green isle needs must be
In the deep, wide sea of misery.

Amid his despair at post-Napoleonic Europe, Shelley, his mind as always on human redemption, wandered into the Euganean Hills and experienced in imagination a renewal of the world's youth, by way of a hazy vision of Venetian glory reborn, or else transfigured in a final sea change. History offers no answer to why, in the Athens of...

(The entire section is 14182 words.)

George B. Walsh (essay date 1984)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: George B. Walsh, "Enchanting Praise: Euripides and the Uses of Song," in The Varieties of Enchantment: Early Greek Views of the Nature and Function of Poetry, The University of North Carolina Press, 1984, pp. 106-26.

[In the following essay, Walsh discusses the relationship between enchanting poetry and poetry of praise as they are defined, developed, and divided in Euripidean drama.]

Poetry has two virtues according to Homer. It is truthful and also pleasing, truthful in commemorating "famous deeds" and pleasing because it enchants: men are freed from self-consciousness, from the sense of present trials and personal need, as long as they hear the poet's song....

(The entire section is 8115 words.)

Bernard Knox (essay date 1985)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Bernard Knox, "Euripides: The Poet as Prophet," in Directions in Euripidean Criticism: A Collection of Essays, edited by Peter Burian, Duke University Press, 1985, pp. 1-12.

[In the following excerpt, Knox describes Euripides's dramas as prophetic pictures of a changing Greek society.]

He was a many-sided poet; even in the fraction of his work that has come down to us—about one-fifth—we can hear many different voices: the rhetorician and iconoclast of Aristophanic travesty; the precursor of Menandrian comedy; the realist who brought the myths down to the level of everyday life; the inventor of the romantic adventure play; the lyric poet whose music,...

(The entire section is 4642 words.)

Helene P. Foley (essay date 1985)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Helene P. Foley, "Drama and Sacrifice," in Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides, Cornell University Press, 1985, pp. 17-64.

[In the excerpt that follows, Foley contends that in his dramas Euripides uses ritual to bridge the gaps between public and private, past and present, divine and human, and myth and secular communication in "response to poetic, social, and intellectual tensions within Attic culture."]

Euripidean scholarship has been grappling for centuries with the supposed structural imperfections of his dramas, the supposed irrelevance of his choral odes, and the supposed rationality, not to say irreverence, of Euripides himself. Aristotle...

(The entire section is 18895 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Burian, Peter, ed. "Selected Bibliography of Euripidean Criticism since World War II." In Directions in Euripidean Criticism: A Collection of Essays, pp. 227-36. Durham: Duke University Press, 1985.

Bibliography of recent Euripides scholarship, organized according to the plays discussed.


Barlow, Shirley A. The Imagery of Euripides: A Study in the Dramatic Use of Pictorial Language. London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1971, 169 p.

In addition to a brief discussion of the poetic qualities of Euripides's works, Barlow covers "questions of staging and dramatic technique…, problems of...

(The entire section is 908 words.)