I have found power in the mysteries of thought
exaltation in the changing of the Muses
I have been versed in the reasonings of men
but Fate is stronger than anything I have known
(c. 480 BC – 406 BC)
Great playwright of ancient Athens
Euripides was one of the Big Three of classical Athenian tragedy (Aeschylus and Sophocles being the others). Eighteen of his complete works survive today, along with fragments of many others; he is believed to have composed approximately ninety works. Major themes in the work of Euripides include a skepticism about Greek religion, a respect for the intellectual movements of the time, the concept of a deus ex machina as a literary device to tie up loose ends, and a collection of strong female characters and strong slaves, both of which were not widely reputed in the works of his contemporaries.
The best and safest thing is to keep a balance in your life,
acknowledge the great powers around us and in us.
If you can do that, and live that way,
you are really a wise man.
Contrary to the commentary of Aeschylus, who often referred to Euripides' mother as a vegetable seller, it is widely accepted that Euripides was born into a lower noble family. What is known about his childhood is that he was born in northern Greece and at least ran in higher social circles: an inscription dating from 462 BC indicates that Euripides had some reknown as a "wine pourer" for young men of "good families," and another inscription from approximately that time names him as a torch bearer in a parade honoring Apollo. Both early inscriptions indicate a prominent if not leading family.
Euripides was likely educated in the standard Greek methods, which meant a series of studies with philosophers. He was not listed as a student of the top philosophers of the time, such as Socrates, however.
Euripides first entered the Dionysian tragedy competitions in 455 BC, in which he came in third; this play is lost to history, as is his first winning play in the competition, dating from 442 BC. Extant materials from the Library of Alexandria indicate that he was the author of 92 plays in all, 78 of which existed in the library around 250 BC. Only 18 survive today, and that is actually quite a large number compared to his contemporaries, of which only a small handful of complete works exist.
He only emerged with the first prize at Dionysia five times in his career, but he was considered to have a very strong body of work by his contemporaries. This is evident in the works of many of his contemporaries, especially Aeschylus, who often included Euripides as a character in his plays, and made fun of him as well. Further evidence of his repute is that we have such a relatively large number of his complete works intact today; this is likely due to the existence of many copies of the plays of Euripides in his time and their likely use in literary education.
In 408 BC, Euripides travelled to Macedonia to the court of King Archelaus for unknown reasons. Some scholars believe that this may have been an exile of sorts, but others believe that the Macedonian king was gathering a large number of scholars, philosophers, and playwrights in his court at the time and that Euripides was part of this general movement. In either case, in 406 BC, Euripides died and was buried in Macedonia. When word of his death reached Athens, Sophocles went into a great public mourning for the loss of a friend and a great contemporary.
I know indeed what evil I intend to do
but stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury
fury that brings upon mortals the greatest evils
Influence on Later Literature
Euripides, by his very nature, has had a greater impact on the history of literature than his contemporaries Aeschylus and Sophocles. His relevance to modern literature is great; one can see the wandering prose of Joyce, the overstuffed writings of David Foster Wallace, and the textured structures of Dave Eggers in his writings.
Take a look at Alcestis, his earliest work that we have in its entirety. The story is ostensibly about Alcestis, but it is the virtues of Alcestis in the work that indicts Admetus, who is only following what appears to be the nature of his society. Thus, in another layer, he is indicting the moral codes of society in general, or at least the morals of the old legends. The parallels to works like Joyce's Ulysses are approriate here.
Look at Helen. Rather than play on the typical, using Helen as merely a token of male desire or as a traitorous Trojan, he developed her into a woman that can be seen in a modern sense. She's intelligent, witty, and is able to secure escape for herself and her lover. It's this unexpected in the stale and expected that brings the play to life, much like The Last Temptation of Christ.
Euripides didn't write plays that appealed to the lowest common denominator; that's why he only rarely won the competitions of his day. Yet upon his death, he was mourned greatly by his peers, and it is the plays of Euripides as a whole that have had the greatest impact on modern literature.
There is one thing alone
that stands the brunt of life throughout its course:
a quiet conscience
Meditations on Euripides
Much like his contemporaries Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides had that eternal gift of being able to write to the human experience in a piercing fashion.
Euripides didn't write about characters, he wrote about people. The jealousy of a jilted lover and the resulting agony of Jason in Medea, for example, speaks to the eternal experience since the dawn of humanity. These are not the idle entertainments of sun worshippers; these literary works carry forward with them the eternal questions and truths of life, love, religion, sacrifice, and human nature.
It is due to this eternal nature of Euripides' works that his work survives and is still read today. Euripides lived in a time that, on the surface, is much different than ours. Yet, underneath such superficial matters as the church you choose to follow or the way you travel to the next village, so many universal truths of the human condition still ring true.
Euripides had two gifts. He was able to place his finger on the heart of the human condition, which was something that he could share with those around him at the time. Yet he was also gifted with the ability to express these conditions in prose, setting them down with such clear lines and angles that they survive millenia later and still have the capacity to impact our modern lives.
I care for riches, to make gifts
To friends, or lead a sick man back to health
With ease and plenty. Else small aid is wealth
For daily gladness; once a man be done
With hunger, rich and poor are all as one
Extant Plays by Euripides
Major themes to note in these extant works: strong female and slave characters, tragic plots that don't always end in tragedy, and several plots that exist in modified form in modern culture. Also note that significant pieces of many more plays by Euripides still exist today; this section only covers complete tragedies.
Alcestis (438 BC)
Second Prize, Dionysia
Alcestis is the earliest extant play by Euripides. It tells the story of a young king named Admetus whose wife has recently died due to his own actions. Thanks to his friend Apollo, Admetus was able to convince Death (Thanatos) to take a volunteer's life instead of his own; Admetus' wife Alcestis was the only volunteer. Enter Heracles, the "super hero" of ancient Greek plays and often a source of merriment. Heracles sees the emotional pain of Admetus, but Admetus lies to Heracles, telling him that someone of no consequence has died. Heracles stays with Admetus and attempts to lighten the mood, but eventually discovers the truth from a servant; when Heracles confronts Admetus, Admetus admits the truth, and the melancholy of the situation even gets to Heracles. He goes off to Hades and wrestles Death for the life of Alcestis and wins, but brings Alcestis back in disguise to see Admetus. After finally realizing the error of his ways, Admetus finally is able to see the revived Alcestis as his wife.
Medea (431 BC)
Third Prize, Dionysia
Medea tells the story of jealousy and revenge; it's quite juicy, in fact. Medea has left her home and family to follow Jason (he of the Argonauts) and when she bears children for him, he dumps her for Glauce, who happens to be the daughter of the ruler of Corinth, Creon. Creon doesn't want the ex of his future son-in-law hanging around, especially since Medea's temper and jealousy are widely known, so she sends Medea into exile. Medea begs for a single day's delay, which Creon grants - a big mistake. After ensuring that she has refuge in Athens, Medea poisons Glauce and inadvertently murders Creon as well, then Medea proceeds to murder her own two children, all in a fit of revenge against Jason's betrayal. The play ends with Medea escaping to Athens and Jason facing the wrath his infidelity has wrought.
Children of Heracles (sometimes Heracleidai) (c. 430 BC)
The play opens with Eurystheus, an Argivian who has persecuted Heracles into the grave, continuing his persecution against the remaining family of Heracles. Alcmene, Heracles' sister, and her son Iolaos are guarding Heracles' youngest children in Athens while Heracles' oldest son Hyllos is seeking out further support against the Argivian armies. While Hyllos is away, a servant of Eurystheus attempts to kidnap the younger children, but the kings of Athens deny this and declare war on the Argivian armies for such an act. Before the battle, a noble maiden must be sacrificed; one of Heracles' daughters volunteers, thus symbolizing some of the tragedy of the Greek way of life. Hyllos returns with reinforcements and the Athenians win the battle, with Iolaos personally capturing Eurystheus and bringing him back to Athens. The play ends with Eurystheus as a prisoner of war, but Alcmene decides to kill the persecutor of her brother anyway.
Hippolytus (428 BC)
First Prize, Dionysia
Although I greatly enjoy Medea and other works by Euripides, Hippolytus is widely and deservedly known as Euripides' greatest work. Hippolytus is the story of a fatal love triangle, the crux of many classic tragedies. Phaedra is the wife of Theseus and stepmother of the titular Hippolytus. Hippolytus has earned the disfavor of Aphrodite, who is angry that Hippolytus has chosen to worship the goddess Artemis. Aphrodite's punishment? He causes Phaedra to fall in love with her stepson. Phaedra is wracked with guilt for loving her stepson, and eventually Hippolyte finds out about the yearning of Phaedra. When she discovers this, she kills herself rather than shame herself further. Of course, Theseus finds out about the whole matter and mistakenly believes that Hippolyte and Phaedra were having an affair, and Hippolyte leaves in shame, only to be killed by his own horses, who are terrified by sea monsters conjured by Neptune at the behest of Aphrodite. Part of the genius of this play is that there is no interaction between Hippolyte and Phaedra, even though the relations between them are the crux of the play; this allows the audience to see the plight more deeply from each character's perspective without being shaded by their interactions.
Andromache (c. 425 BC)
The titular character here is the widow of the late Hector, who was claimed as a concubine by the son of Achilles, Neoptolemus, and has a child with him. Neoptolemus was in turn betrothed to Hermione, who became jealous of Andromache. The two exchange a great deal of venom, which eventually spills over into Andromache's rude reprisal of Spartan society in general, claiming that they "specialize in evil." Eventually, Hermoine runs off with the rival of Neoptolemus, and Thetis appears to resolve everything, explaining Andromache's destiny to marry into royalty. This play is one of Euripides' lesser plays, and was primarily written to please the king of Epirus at the time, as the conclusion seems to justify his monarchy.
Hecuba (c. 424 BC)
This play is almost a rough draft for Euripides' later Trojan Women, and is clearly the lesser of the two works. Hecuba is the queen of Troy, and the play focuses on the tragedies of her life. She first loses her daughter as a sacrifice at the tomb of Achilles, then loses her son Polydorus due to the greed of a neighboring king, Polymestor. Hecuba does get some measure of revenge, tricking Polymestor into following her into an ambush with the promise of money. During the ambush, Polymestor is blinded and his children are killed. In the end, Polymestor prophesizes the death of Hecuba, and the play ends with that prophecy about to come true.
Suppliant Women (c. 423 BC)
Suppliant Women, like Andromache, is something of a political play in that it discusses the recently-founded truce between Argos and Athens. In the play, seven Argive women are asking Athens for help in fighting Thebes because the ruler of Thebes, Creon, refuses to allow the burial of their suns. Theseus, the king of Athens, is the hero who, after a monologue criticizing the caste structure of society, agrees to help. Much of the play is spent in a debate about various forms of government, portraying monarchy as outmoded. Eventually, Athens defeats Thebes, signifying the greatness of Athenian power and democracy and its alliance with Argos.
Electra (c. 420 BC)
Electra is one of Euripides' lesser plays, yet is quite enjoyable. Electra is the outcast daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and is quite resentful towards her mother due to the fact that she and her lover Aegisthus murdered her father and married Electra off to a farmer. Eventually, her brother Orestes finds her and the two plot against Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. Orestes has little problem killing Aegisthus, but matricide makes him uncomfortable, yet when Clyteminstra arrives, the pair kill her as well, leaving them with deep guilt. At the end Castor and Pollux appear and state that their act was shameful, yet justified, and the siblings must atone for their crime.
Heracles (c. 416 BC)
Heracles is an odd play, seeming heretical in parts and yet quite firmly entrenched in religion in others. The play opens with Heracles trying to conquer the plain of Argos and as part of this quest he must perform numerous labors for Eurystheus. Before his final task in Hades, Heracles appoints his father Amphitryon to guard his family, but while he is away, Lycus attempts to take power and murder Heracles' family. When Heracles returns, he finds his house in disarray, his children kidnapped, and his father about to be murdered. He curses Zeus and the proceeds to slay Lycus. Zeus sees this as defiance and causes a madness to overtake Heracles, causing him to kill his children and wife. When Heracles recovers from the madness (due to a rock to the head from Athena), he realizes that it is wrong to question the gods, and goes to Athens to seek forgiveness.
Trojan Women (415 BC)
Second Prize, Dionysia
By 415 BC, Euripides seems to have decided that the war with Troy is a bad thing, and thus wins second prize at Dionysia with this fervently anti-war play. This is the third part of a trilogy, with the first two parts lost to antiquity. As the play opens, Troy has been sacked and pillaged, and Athena is very unhappy with the behavior of the Athenians due to their boorish behaviour in the conquest, so she gets Poseidon's help to punish them on their way home. Hecabe, the queen of the Trojans, learns that her daughter Cassandra is to be taken as a concubine by Agamemnon, which thrills Cassandra as she foresees that Agamemnon's wife will kill both her and Agamemnon, a prophecy no one understands. After this, many of Hecabe's children and grandchildren are killed or sacrificed to gods by the Greeks, and eventually Hecabe winds up on the ships of Odysseus, preparing to be returned to Athens. Their fate, however, is grim ... the play closes as the ships are about to sail and Athena's rage is reminded to the audience. Quite dark, and very opposed to the Trojan War.
Iphigeneia in Tauris (c. 414 BC)
Iphigeneia in Tauris tells the story of the princess Iphigeneia who was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon to bring favor upon his military campaign against Troy. Artemis rescued her from that terrible fate, but drops her into another terrible situation: she is now a priestess who must make human sacrifices to Artemis as the head of a cult. Meanwhile, Troy is sacked, Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, and his son Orestes kills his mother to avenge his father. To expunge the crime, Artemis causes Orestes to be selected as a human sacrifice to her, which Iphigeneia is about to perform until, at the last second, when she recognizes her brother. The two of them escape from the cult and, as the play ends, are rushing towards the relative safety of Athens with the cult in pursuit. The play is exciting, but feels almost unfinished.
Ion (c. 413 BC)
Ion repeats the theme of recognizing long-lost relatives, this time the reunion of mother and son. Ion is a steward who believes that his father is Xuthus, but in fact he is the child of Apollo and Creusa. Xuthus and Creusa are married, but childless, and Creusa believes that Ion must be killed in order to allow her and Xuthus to have children. She plots Ion's murder, not knowing that they are mother and son, but her plot is revealed to all at a banquet when her poison is spilled. Ion chases after her, but a priestess reveals their true relationship, leaving Creusa overjoyed and Ion deeply troubled. The play questions the infallibiilty of Apollo quite severely, leaving many to question Euripides' acceptance of the established religion of the time.
Helen (412 BC)
Helen is one of the more entertaining of Euripides' works to a modern audience, featuring a wonderful and strong central female character and an overall structure more like a romance than a tragedy. The play opens with a jealous Hera swapping Helen with a body double, sending the real Helen to Egypt (meaning the Trojan War was fought over a doppelganger). After many years, Menelaus is shipwrecked in Egypt with the false Helen, who thusly vanishes, so after wandering, he finds Helen in hiding in a temple, trying to avoid her suitors. The real Helen and Menelaus are thusly reunited, and the pair attempt to escape her suitors, using reason and Helen's sharp wit (she often seems more intelligent than Menelaus). Helen tricks one of her suitors to give her a ship to bury Menelaus at sea in exchange for her hand in marriage, but she and Menelaus use the ship to escape. The play is notable for portraying the Trojans Helen and Menelaus as heroic, unusual for ancient Greek playwrights.
Phoenician Women (c. 410 BC)
Second Prize, Dionysia
Phoenician Women is an overly complicated continuation of the Oedipus saga. It focuses primarily on the conflict between Eteocles and Polyneices, the two sons of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta. Jocasta is attempting to mediate between the two, and Polyneices is seen as the more virtuous of the two brothers for being willing to disarm. Eventually, the two brothers battle anyway, and in the midst of the slaughter the two brothers kill each other and in her anguish Jocasta slits her own throat. The play is largely Euripides' commentary on the continuing wars, expressing his disfavor towards them and his belief in democracy's superiority to tyranny.
Orestes (408 BC)
Orestes is an interesting play. On a basic level, it seems quite bad, as the plot seems almost nonexistent and what does happen is, for lack of a better word, boring. But look closer at the genius here: it's almost an anti-tragedy, thwarting all of the basic assumptions of Greek tragedy. It strongly feels like Hamlet in that much of the play is merely Orestes dealing with the guilt of murdering his parents. Unlike many tragedies, however, justice is not served in the end: all of the villains in the play are rewarded at the conclusion by Apollo, showing the absurdity of the whole matter. It is a very unusual play, in that most of the dynamics of a drama are thrown asunder.
Bacchae and Iphigeneia at Aulis (405 BC)
First Prize, Dionysia; awarded posthumously
When Euripides went into exile in 408 BC, he questioned greatly whether his works would be remembered, and spent his final years working on this pair of plays. Upon his death, his son retrieved these final two plays, contributed a few touches of his own to them, and submitted the works to Dionysia.
Iphigenia at Aulis deals primarily with the relationship between the brothers Menelaus and Agamemnon in the context of the start of the Trojan War. Agamemnon is beginning to have doubts about the war, which is being fought to retrieve Menelaus' dear Helen, and these doubts are upsetting Menelaus greatly. The brothers debate and eventually cause each other to see the other side of the picture. However, before Agamemnon has a chance to re-evaluate the war, his niece is sent off to be sacrificed in the name of Apollo. Achilles is appalled by all of this and attempts to rescue Agamemnon's niece, but she chooses of her own free will to be sacrificed. At the last minute, however, her body is switched with that of a deer by Artemis, setting up Iphigeneia in Tauris.
Bacchae deals primarily with the worship and celebration of the god Dionysius (and thus a commentary on religion itself) and how far the wrath of Dionysius goes when this is interfered with, while at the same time showing Dionysius' rage towards his own family for rejecting him. His cousin, Pentheus, attempts to stop the Bacchus rituals that are happening in Thebes, but Dionysius himself shows up and wreaks havoc, tricking Pentheus to dress up as a woman and climb a tree, then convincing his followers to destroy the tree, sending Pentheus to his death. Pentheus' mother goes mad and, encouraged by Dionysius' magic, displays his head as though it were a mountain lion, bringing great shame upon the family. The play ends with Dionysius excoriating his family a final time for their shunning of him.
Note on title translations: Many Greek plays have several variations in spelling, and Euripides' work is no exception. In each case, I selected the most common spelling or one of the most common spellings.
The Euripides Home Page, accessed June 28, 2005 and June 30, 2005
The Internet Classics Archive | Works by Euripides, accessed June 29, 2005
Euripides: 10 Plays
Paul Roche (translation and foreword), 1998, ISBN 0451527003
Euripides and His Age
Gilbert Murray, 1979, ISBN 0313209898