Euripides Analysis


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

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

The disproportion between what little can be ascertained about Euripides’ (yoo-RIHP-uh-deez) life and the richness and completeness of his texts is immense. Plutarch gives his date of birth, dramatically but probably incorrectly, as the day of the Battle of Salamis in 480 b.c.e. Born to the farmer Mnesarchus (or Mnesarchides) and his wife Clito, he rose from rather humble beginnings to gain an education in Athens, perhaps in the schools of Anaxagoras and Protagoras. His sympathy with Sophistic philosophy lends credibility to a friendship with Socrates, which is suggested by ancient biographers. He was married to Melito, with whom he had three sons. The youngest, also named Euripides, followed his father into the theater. Although he may once have been sent on an embassy to Syracuse, he generally disdained public life and held no political or religious office, as other playwrights did. He is said to have been studious and withdrawn by nature and probably spent much time in his large private library.

Euripides turned to playwriting young and was awarded his first chorus at the dramatic competitions of the Athenian City Dionysia in 455 b.c.e. He did not win, and indeed his later career was marked by a paucity of victories. He achieved his first victory in 441 b.c.e. Although he entered the agōn, or contest, twenty-two times, he took first prize on only four occasions, far fewer than either Aeschylus or Sophocles. However, the fact that he...

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Together with the Archaic Aeschylus and the Classical Sophocles, Euripides provided the canon of Greek tragedy and so no less than the foundation of Western theater. Following his death, Euripides’ reputation soon began to eclipse that of the older playwrights. He is perceived today to be the most “modern” of the Greek tragedians; his plays revel in moral ambiguity and complexity of motivations and have been a direct stimulus both to Neoclassical writers such as French dramatist Jean Racine and to the twentieth century avant-garde.

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Like Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides wrote elegies and lyric poems, none of which has survived intact. The poet is said to have been commissioned by his fellow Athenians to write a funeral epitaph for the dead at Syracuse in 413 b.c.e., but the lines handed down in Plutarch’s Life of Nicias (in Bioi paralleloi, c. 105-115 c.e.; Parallel Lives, 1579) are not usually accepted as Euripidean. Several lines exist of an epinician, or victory, ode said to have been dedicated by Euripides to the Athenian politician Alcibiades after an Olympic victory, but even in antiquity, this ode was attributed to others as well.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The ancient Bios Euripidou (third century b.c.e.; life of Euripides) by Satyrus assigns to the playwright innovations in the following areas: prologues, scientific dissertations on nature, oratorical pieces, and recognitions. This vague statement requires considerable qualification. Although the extant plays show little of the interest in natural science suggested by the anonymous author of the Life of Euripides and confirmed by several fragments from lost plays, Euripides’ dramatic application of set speeches and rhetorical devices is a common feature of his plays, as in the legal debate between Hecuba and Helen in The Trojan Women. These scientific and rhetorical features reveal Euripides’ place in the intellectual mainstream of late fifth century b.c.e. Athens, a position that it is difficult for a modern reader to appreciate fully because so much of the existing nondramatic evidence is fragmentary. Euripides very well may have been the first tragedian to highlight these contemporary trends in his drama.

Euripides certainly did not invent anagnorisis, or recognition, which existed in Greek literature as early as Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) and in drama as early as Aeschylus’s Chophoroi (458 b.c.e.; Libation Bearers, 1777), but Euripides uses these recognition scenes frequently and with a novelty and skill much admired by Aristotle in his De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705). Indeed, it is Euripides’ focus on recognition and intrigue in his later dramas, such as Ion, Helen, and Iphigenia in Tauris, that has led him to be called a father of the New Greek Comedy of Menander in the late fourth century b.c.e. Although these recognition dramas were technically produced by Euripides as tragedies, they are not necessarily “tragic” in the modern sense, but are more “tragicomic” and have sometimes been labeled as tyche dramas, or dramas of “chance.”

Alcestis deserves special mention. Technically not a tragedy, it is rather a pro-satyr play because it was produced in place of a satyr play. Euripides is known to have experimented with such pro-satyr plays several other times, and the pro-satyr play may have been a Euripidean innovation. Knowledge of the Greek satyr play tradition is generally scanty as Euripides’ Cyclops is the only complete drama of this type to survive, along with significant papyrus fragments of two Sophoclean satyr plays, but two special features of satyr plays were known to have been choruses of satyrs and scenes of buffoonery. While Alcestis lacks the former, its links with the satyr play can be seen in the comic scene with Heracles. Euripides’ Alcestis and his tyche dramas thus serve as a caution against making general statements about the genre of Greek “tragedy” or about “Euripidean tragedy” in particular. The definition of “tragedy” in fifth century b.c.e. Athens was clearly much broader than it is today.

The Life of Euripides notwithstanding, Euripides definitely did not invent the tragic prologue, which, by Aristotelian definition in Poetics was “that part of a tragedy which precedes the parodos or chorus’s entrance song.” Several extant plays of Aeschylus have such prologues, but Euripides, like Sophocles, added his own distinctive feature: a scene, often called expository, in which a character, usually a mortal but sometimes a god, identifies himself and outlines the characters and background of the plot. Every extant Euripidean tragedy has such an expository prologue, which cannot always be dismissed as a mere nondramatic playbill. The expositions spoken by gods (in Alcestis, Hippolytus, The Trojan Women, Ion, and The Bacchae) are particularly significant in that the dramatic events generally do not evolve exactly as predicted by the gods in the prologues. In each of these five prologues, the playwright makes his deity more or less misleading as to subsequent dramatic events. At the least, such “deceptive” prologues serve to create interest in the story without giving away the plot. At the same time, such prologues may reveal the gods’ inability to control human action and to move it along their preordained plans.

The expository prologue has also been called an archaizing...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Investigate Euripides’ originality in depicting Greek mythical tradition.

In what ways does Aristotle’s theory of tragedy apply less aptly to Euripides’ plays than to those of Aeschylus and Sophocles?

Do enthusiasts of classical drama today better understand Euripides’ tragic outlook than that of Aeschylus and Sophocles?

Is Medea more a victim of external circumstances or of her own emotional responses to them?

Did Euripides court disaster in his time by his uncompromising realism?

Which modern playwrights are most Euripidean?


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Allan, William. The “Andromache” and Euripidean Tragedy. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000. In-depth treatment of one of Euripides’ more overlooked plays.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Euripides. New York: Chelsea House, 2003. A collection of essays presenting the scope of criticism of Euripides’ work.

Croally, N. T. Euripidean Polemic: The Trojan Women and the Function of Tragedy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Croally argues that the function of Greek tragedy was didactic and that The Trojan Women educated by discussing Athenian ideology. He also looks at Euripides’ relation with the Sophists.

Dunn, Francis M. Tragedy’s End:...

(The entire section is 427 words.)