Critical Overview

When Euripides's Medea, along with three other tragedies and a satyr play (a tetralogy), were presented at the annual March festival of Dionysus Euripides did not win the coveted prize; in fact, his tetralogy came in last of the three tetralogies performed that day. This initial reaction, however, has not affected Medea's reputation over the centuries. Euripides's contemporaries did not consider him a master tragedian, and he won only four prizes during his lifetime, although his elder Sophocles regarded him as a master playwright and ordered that the participants in the next Dionysian festival after Euripides's death dress in mourning out of respect for him.

A tendency to revive fifth-century plays during the fourth century led to a revised judgment of Euripides. His reputation grew significantly during this period, so much so that Aristophanes (448-380 B.C.) dedicated three plays to ridiculing his style. This is not to suggest that Aristophanes admired Euripides—far from it But burlesque presumes an audience familiar with the original; Athenian audiences must have known enough about Euripides to make Aristophanes's jibes recognizable. Euripides was considered a fine poet with a misguided message. As Philip Vellacott, one of his many recent translators, explained in Ironic Drama: A Study of Euripides's Method and Meaning: "As a poet he was revered; in his function as a teacher of citizens' he was misunderstood."

During the century following Euripides's death Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) called Euripides "with all his faults the most tragic of the poets" and used four of his works to illustrate various...

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