The Phoenician Women

by Euripides

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 950

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 ironic, The Phoenician Women is a brilliant product of Euripides’ late style. Despite the absence of a main character to provide dramatic focus, the logic of its thematic development and the powerful coherence of its imagery transcend the work’s limitations to create a superbly crafted poetic drama.

The ostensible theme of the play is war; however, the treatment of this theme is so complex that in the end warfare becomes a metaphor for the tragic vicissitudes of the human condition. No single character dominates the play’s action, but as the members of the Theban royal family—Jocasta, Antigone, Creon, Polynices, Eteocles, Creon, and Oedipus—interact with one another in various ways, their encounters bring different facets of family life, politics, and statecraft into conjunction with the problem of war. Interlinked images of blood and bloodshed permeate the language of the text, providing a constant reminder that the blood ties that bind the family (and the state) together cannot prevent—indeed all too frequently cause—the shedding of blood.

Looming over the entire action of the play is the changeable, and finally inimical, presence of the gods. This presence makes itself felt not through the actual presence or appearance of a divine character but rather through a complex pattern of shifting references to the gods, which takes on life in the language of the play. In the play’s closing moments the remorseless operation of divine compulsion in human affairs is recapitulated in Oedipus’s final speech. He recalls that his victory over the Sphinx was divinely ordained...

(This entire section contains 950 words.)

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and that it has led him not to glory but to incest, dishonor, and exile. Euripides’ pessimistic view of the human condition echoes in the defeated resignation of the last words Oedipus speaks: “The constraint the gods lay on us we mortals must bear.”

This complex theme is developed through an equally complex structure. Intricate patterns of linked opposites are integrated into an edifice of balanced paradox. For example, Dionysus, ordinarily regarded as a beneficial deity, is called “gentle and terrible,” and the dancing of his maenads is compared to the “dance of death”; the salvation of the city of Thebes requires that all surviving branches of the royal house of Thebes must be destroyed. The dramatic structure reflects the same principle of balance: Jocasta’s prologue speech matches Oedipus’s entering speech later in the play; her monody matches Antigone’s; the entrance of blind Tiresias led by his daughter as he returns to Thebes from Athens at the end of the play. Within this carefully balanced structure Euripides plays out his pessimistic theme: Neither human intellect, attempted negotiation, nor noble self-sacrifice can prevent the divinely ordained destruction of the Theban royal family.

The high order of artistry with which Euripides develops his tragic theme allows it to transcend his own time and speak across the centuries. For the original Athenian audience there was one final interlocking piece to his design: Thebes unmistakably parallels Athens, and the war between Argos and Thebes thus mirrors the great war between Sparta and Athens that was drawing to a close outside the city walls. As Thebes is besieged in the play, so was Athens besieged at the time of the play’s first production. The city’s resources drastically depleted, no salvation was possible for Athens, which faced inevitable defeat at the hands of its bitterest enemy, Sparta. Feeling, like Oedipus, the “constraint” of the gods, that first Athenian audience heard the chorus close the play with a deeply ironic and finally hopeless response to his last speech: “Great Victory, continually crown my life.”