Euripides was the youngest of the three great dramatic playwrights of Greek antiquity. An outspoken social critic and artistic innovator, he wrote plays that were considerably less popular with Athenian audiences of the fifth century b.c.e. than those of Aeschylus and Sophocles, his older theatrical peers. His disenchantment with official Athenian policy led him to forsake his native city late in life, and he spent his last years as a voluntary exile in the court of King Archelaus of Macedonia. Succeeding generations, however, found Euripides’ unique blend of intense emotion, psychological realism, and lush poetic dialogue more congenial than the relatively austere dramas of his rivals, and his plays were frequently revived and produced in late Hellenic and Hellenistic times. The fact that nineteen complete plays by Euripides exist while only seven each by Sophocles and Aeschylus survive is evidence of Euripides’ preeminence as dramatic poet in later antiquity.
Written late in his career, The Phoenician Women is remarkable in several respects. It is the longest of Euripides’ surviving plays, and it boasts the largest cast of characters in any Greek drama. Moreover, it is the most innovative and original retelling of the story of the royal house of Thebes, a tale that had already served as the basis for some of the earlier dramas of Euripides’ peers. The broad mythic resonance, exceptional range of emotional and melodramatic material, and linguistic richness of The Phoenician Women made it a favorite with actors, audiences, and scholars, and it became one of the most widely read, performed, and studied of the great Greek dramas for nearly one thousand years after its first performance. Knowledge of Greek language and literature, however, died out in Western Europe in the years following the collapse of the Roman Empire, and when it was revived during the Renaissance the prevailing taste for more tightly constructed dramas, such as Sophocles’ Antigon (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729), caused The Phoenician Women to suffer a loss of reputation and popularity from which it has not yet fully emerged.
Verbally ornate, artistically ambitious, simultaneously intellectual and emotional, and bitingly...
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