Euripides, playwright of ancient Athens

Feature on Euripides, page 1 of 2

Link to Euripides page 2

Just as England around the year 1600 had its William Shakespeare and its Christopher Marlowe, the ancient city-state of Athens, around the year 400 BCE had four famous playwrights. Their names were Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

This is a feature about Euripides. On this page I will make a few comments about the writer and his works. On the next page I will write synopses of some of the stories that Euripides wrote for performance on the stage.

Most critics today say that Aeschylus and Sophocles were more devout in their devotion to the gods and the state. Euripides was less formal in his writing style, and more of a skeptic in both religion and politics. Euripides felt free to portray in unflattering ways the supposed behaviors of the gods, and the observed behaviors of politicians. These three writers considered together were generally serious in their outlook on the world. On the other hand, Aristophanes was a writer of comedy, typically offering silly situations and silly lines of dialogue.

Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote tragedy. This word is widely misunderstood. In literature, tragedy doesn't exactly mean a depressing outcome. A tragic event is a vehicle to convey character, a struggle in life is recognized, individual greatness is tested, a principle is upheld, human dignity is affirmed.

Unlike the works of Shakespeare and modern drama, Greek tragedy did not depict violence directly. Messengers, who may have been friends, servants, or deities, would enter and announce a report that someone had been involved in a fatal accident, was murdered, or has committed suicide.

The scholar Dudley Fitts wrote that, of the three tragedians, it was Euripides who was "a questioner, a religious skeptic, interested rather in character than in institutions and theology; a disbeliever, in conservative eyes." [introduction to Greek Plays in Modern Translation, 1966, page viii]

The philosopher Protagoras, the Sophist, who doubted the existence of the gods, influenced the author. In the works of Euripides (born circa 480 BCE, died c. 406), the gods are little more than brutes with magical powers, including Aphrodite in Hippolytus, Apollo in Ion, and Dionysis in The Bacchants.

The policies of the state are unjust, the author shows. The wars in which his city has participated were unnecessary and foolish, and the subjugation of women by men was unjustified. These institutions, he believed, were sources of pointless suffering. It's not clear whether he was advocating reform or merely despondent about fate, but, in either case, protest through the medium of the drama would be necessary.

Euripides sometimes expressed sympathy with the wartime enemies of Athens, showing them to be victims of his own city's cruelty. Not only was this tolerated under the freedom of speech of the day -- Athens actually funded the performances and awarded him prizes.

Unlike Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides dropped much of the "classical" style and wrote in colloquial language. This makes him the easiest Greek dramatist for us to read, even after the English translators have done their chore.

Euripides sometimes had characters conversing with family members, in the kitchen or bedroom, about household events -- a very unclassical approach. In a radical move, he sometimes put words of wisdom into the mouths of slaves, contrasted with foolishness spoken by royalty and deities. Another social rule Euripides broke was to make the household slaves some of the principal characters of his plays, developing complex personalities for them, including the nurse in Hippolytus and the handmaid in Andromache.

Although many scenes take place in palaces, the opening scene of Electra takes place in a peasant's cottage. Euripides' characters talk frankly about their family problems, sometimes related to adultery, their fears of rivals, or their revenge plots. Aeschylus and Sophocles would have considered Euripides' colloquial settings and dialogues to be inappropriate for the theater.

Euripides broke the rules by dressing mythical heroes in beggars' clothes and giving them human imperfections, as part of his objective to use them as instruments of his criticism of politics and religion. Aphrodite in Hippolytus doesn't care how much suffering she brings to innocent people as long as she can punish a young man who refuses to worship her. Hercules in Alcestis is drunk. Euripides caused some outrage but was very popular.

But Euripides did have one use for the gods -- to enable some of his happily-ever-after endings. Euripides was the main Athenian dramatist who used the deus ex machina ("god from the machine"). Dummies representing gods were suspended by a mechanical crane. In Euripides' Medea, Medea flies in a chariot drawn by winged dragons, achieved through the use of this sort of mechanism. A hero could be placed in a hazardous situation from which no means of escape could be anticipated by the audience, and then, just in time for the story to come to an end, the mechanical contraption, representing the performance of a miracle, could literally lift the hero out of danger and drop the actor elsewhere. It was typical for one of his plays to end with a remark similar to, "What has been unexpected, a god has achieved."

But Euripides didn't break all of the rules. Like Aeschylus and Sophocles, he took his plots from classical mythology. It was not considered permissible simply to invent stories or new characters (Aristophanes was later to become the first dramatist to do that).

It is most interesting how Euripides experimented with analyzing the psychological motivations of murderers.

Some historians have called Euripides "the first poet of democracy." This is a reference to the practice introduced by the Athenian governor Pericles (c. 495 - c. 429 BC) of permitting all male citizens to vote in the assembly, although slavery continued. It was hardly a democracy by modern standards.

CLICK ME to proceed to page 2, where I synopsize a few of the stories.

- - - - - - Commentary by M.L. for, February 16, 2019