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