Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 713

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.

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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 concepts of tragedy in his Poetics. When Greek culture fell into decline, Euripides's fame went to Alexandria, and then on to Rome and the Byzantine culture. Plutarch (c.46-120 A.D.) tells three historical anecdotes of escapes made good because of an ability to recite Euripidean poetry, suggesting that Euripides's reputation, at least as a poet, persisted in Greece as well.

Euripides was the youngest of the three Greek tragedians (along with Aeschylus and Sophocles) whose plays were required reading for the classical education valued during the Renaissance and Romantic periods, among others. Scholarly writings of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance cite Euripides more often that his contemporaries: Italian poet Dante Alighieri mentions him in his masterwork the Divine Comedy and seventeenth-century English poet Ben Jonson used one of his plays as a model. Also in the seventeenth century, Jean Racine adapted many of his plays and considered Euripides his master. Poet John Milton author of Paradise Lost, was also an admirer.

The eighteenth century lost interest in Euripides because his work was too innovative for the classical revival then in progress. Then German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (whose work would greatly influence European literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries), paid him the ultimate Romantic period compliment by calling his work "sublime." It was of Euripides that Goethe wrote his oft-adapted expression: "Have all the nations of the world since his time produced one dramatist who was worthy to hand him his slippers?" In the nineteenth century, English poet Robert Browning make conspicuous allusions to his plays, and Euripides was once again central to a good, classical education Gilbert Murray's translation in the early twentieth century once again revived interest in him.

The twentieth century literary criticism holds a reserved judgment about Euripides. Modern critics appreciate his championing of the underdog— slaves, women, the elderly, and children—and his lampooning of religious and secular hypocrisy. But he remains a shadowy figure whose actual political and religious beliefs have been lost. Lacking sufficient evidence to say with certainty how his philosophy manifested itself in his life, many critics have turned to focusing on his dramatic technique and structure. In this context Euripides does not quite measure up to Sophocles or Aeschylus—the poetry of Medea does not reach the heights of beauty that Sophocles achieved in Antigone. Euripides's forte is irony, and he finds a ready audience in the modern period, as Vellacott explains: "Our present generation responds readily to irony, revels in it; therefore we should have the better chance of understanding Euripides." Literary criticism devoted to his play, Medea appears only occasionally nowadays. Writers and artists ranging in cultural background continue to reinterpret Euripides's version of Medea, but they never overshadow Euripides's.

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