Euripides, the youngest of the three great Athenian tragic poets, was born either in 480 B.C., the year in which the Greek forces defeated the invading Persian army at Salamis, or, more probably, a few years earlier (T 1.2 and 6). He wrote some ninety plays (T 1.16), of which eighteen have come down to us (nineteen including Rhesus, but that is probably not his). He died abroad, as a guest of Archelaus, king of Macedon (T 1.11 and 1.18), in the Athenian year 407/6 (T 67), a short time before his native city’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War (404). His life, therefore, spans the period of Athens’ greatest achievements in politics, warfare, art, architecture, and poetry.
Evidence about his life, apart from his work as a tragic poet, is slight. As was the case with most literary figures in antiquity, no one during his lifetime wrote about him, and by the time curiosity about his life developed, the means for satisfying it had nearly all disappeared. Much of what later authors tell us about Euripides is pure fabrication, the jokes and even the plots of Old Comedy taken as serious biography, or an attempt to extract the poet’s life from his works. The evidence of inscriptions preserved in later sources suggests that he came of a locally prominent family in his home “deme” (roughly, ward or parish) of Phlya. The contemporary comic poet Aristophanes had a running joke that his mother was a seller of vegetables. We do not know the origin of the joke or its point, but a respectable Attic historian of the next century, Philochorus, tells us that she was, on the contrary, a woman of high birth (T 2.2) and so presumably was not engaged in trade. It is doubtful that anyone could make a living as a tragic poet, and Euripides’ ability to devote so much time to his art suggests that he had independent means: he seems to have produced a tragic tetralogy — three tragedies together with a fourth play, usually a satyr play — roughly every other year. (For a fuller discussion of the life of Euripides, see Kovacs 1994, 1-36.)
What is Euripidean tragedy like, and why is it worth reading? To answer this question involves describing not only the adjective but also the noun. If you were explaining to someone from a culture untouched by Christianity what is the nature of a Wren church, it would be unwise to neglect the generic in favor of the specific. Greek tragedy, though familiar in some way to most of the English-speaking world, is nevertheless an alien art form that needs as much explication as its Euripidean manifestation. How Euripides resembles Aeschylus and Sophocles is, I would argue, at least as important as how he differs from them.
A Greek tragedy is a dramatic rendering — i.e. by means of impersonation, not narration — of a portion of Greek myth or legend. The whole is written in verse, with most of the actors’ lines to be spoken but with sung portions not only for the chorus but also for individual characters, especially at moments of high emotion. The characters and chorus are all masked and costumed in a way that expresses their sex, age, and status. The action takes place out of doors, usually before a house or palace, and a chorus of e.g. citizens is (normally) continuously present from their entrance near the beginning of the play to its conclusion. Entrance to the acting area can be made not only from the stage building behind the actors but also from two entrance ramps to the right or left, one of which typically is used by people arriving from or departing to locations abroad while the other is the local entrance.
What kind of myths do the tragic poets choose to dramatize, and what kind of experience do they prepare for their audiences? We must treat this under two aspects, the neurological and the theological or metaphysical. The first is treated well by Aristotle, who describes a tragedy as a device for producing a certain kind of pleasure. Many elements go into this complex pleasure, among them the visual and musical features described in the last paragraph, the pleasures of a heightened poetic diction, and the content of what the characters say, which often resonates with issues of the day or develops rhetorically the case on both sides of a difficult issue. But the most important element (for I think Aristotle is right here) is a plot that shows the mutability of human fortunes. The mutability can go either way, either from happiness to misery, as in the case of Oedipus the King or Antigone, or from misery to happiness, as in Sophocles’ Electra. The audience gets to experience human prosperity go into free fall and see it hit the bottom. Or conversely they see a character’s fortunes take a sudden, unanticipated uptick. Often when the direction is downward the steep dive is preceded by an apparent improvement in a character’s fortunes, as when Oedipus is cheered by the news that, contrary to the oracle he had received, he was not responsible for the death of his father Polybus, which causes the Chorus to sing a cheerful song. Some seventy-five lines later the whole truth has emerged, and Oedipus is revealed as a polluted outcast. Conversely, in Sophocles’ Electra, the title figure reaches her lowest point of misery when she holds the urn supposedly containing the ashes of her dead brother Orestes. Orestes, who has delivered the proof of his own death to his ancestral palace at Mycenae, insists on taking the urn from her, increasing her misery still further, before finally revealing his identity.
Tragedy, however, is not merely a matter of neurons, but has a theological or metaphysical background. About this Aristotle says nothing. His reticence can be explained by his being a philosopher and disbelieving in the anthropomorphic and capricious divinities of Greek popular religion and myth. He found the emotional excitations of tragedy agreeable but rejected the metaphysics behind it. We, for whom polytheism is not likely to be a live option, need not follow him in this puritanical passing over of what is there in the tragedies.
The big metaphysical distinction that informs Greek myth is that between the divine and the human. The gods live a life of untroubled ease, being free from both death and old age. By contrast, the human lot is subject not only to death and old age but also to the limitations imposed by ignorance of the future and often of the past and present as well. Erring mortals often pursue an apparent blessing that will turn out to be bane, or flee an apparent bane that will turn out to be blessing. Often bad choices are the result not only of this congenital ignorance but of divinely sent delusion (atê) or deliberate deception. Mortals are at the mercy of gods who, to be sure, sometimes punish the wicked, but who also show personal hatred against individuals or families. Conversely, they sometimes bring unexpected happiness to those they have decided to favor. There is no Greek tragedy without a divine background. Tragedy conceived thus is exhilarating in more than a neurological sense since, even if you don’t believe in the Greek pantheon, the archaic world-view is a dizzying look into the abyss, describing accurately the fact that neither wealth nor birth nor piety offers a defense against the fact of mutability: each of us may find that tomorrow brings a complete reversal of today.
Mutability is the motor that drives Euripidean tragedy as much as that of his great predecessor Aeschylus and great rival Sophocles. Here, too, the gods are behind the action, and this is true even when the intervention is left implicit, as I argue is the case in Medea (Kovacs 1993). In Heracles the great panhellenic hero, son of Zeus, returns from the last labor imposed on him by his envious cousin Eurystheus of Tiryns to find his family besieged at an altar by a wicked usurper, Lycus. His fortunes move from bad to good as he despatches the tyrant and protects his family. But that is not the end, for the goddess Iris, despatched by the jealous Hera, wife of Zeus, tells her reluctant companion Lyssa (the spirit of madness) that she must bring delusion on Heracles so that he will kill his wife and children. Lyssa goes in, and the predicted result is achieved. Heracles comes to from his fit of madness, and only the intervention of his friend Theseus prevents him from taking his own life. But Theseus persuades him to live in Athens, where, when his time comes, he will be buried and receive the honors due to a hero.
A swift change of fortune in the opposite direction is illustrated by Iphigenia among the Taurians. (To judge by the number of references to it in the Poetics, this was Aristotle’s second-favorite play after Oedipus the King. It illustrates tragedy’s other pattern, disaster barely averted and happiness restored.) The plot makes use of a mythical variant, attested in a lost epic poem: Agamemnon thinks he is sacrificing his daughter to Artemis to still the adverse winds at Aulis, but in fact the goddess puts a doe in her place and miraculously spirits Iphigenia off to the Tauric Chersonese (the Crimea) to be her priestess. To this variant Euripides joins a mythical variant of his own invention: Orestes, who in Aeschylus’ Oresteia killed his mother Clytaemestra and was acquitted in Athens, has a further task laid on him by Apollo: he is told that if he is to win peace he must go to the land of the Taurians and remove the statue of Artemis from there to a more civilized home. Accompanied by his trusty friend Pylades, he takes ship to Tauria, and before they can find a way into the temple to steal the statue, they are captured. Their fate looks grim because the Taurians have the custom of sacrificing all strangers to Artemis, who in their view delights in this kind of carnage. It will be Iphigenia’s duty to preside over the sacrifice of her own brother (whom she has no way of recognizing since he was a babe in arms when she left Greece). Orestes concludes (pardonably) that Apollo has sent him here to get rid of him. But a seemingly chance event leads to a recognition between the siblings: Iphigenia decides to spare one of her captives to act as a messenger to those back home who think her dead. In the course of delivering the message she reveals her own name and that of her brother. Once brother and sister have learned each other’s identity, the three Greeks set out to escape to Greece with the goddess’ statue. Iphigenia fools the Taurian king Thoas into letting them escape by telling him that the statue requires to be purified by sea-water from the polluting effects of contact with a matricide, and thus the three reach the waiting Greek ship and win their freedom, aided by the intervention of Athena.
I have hitherto emphasized what makes Euripides a tragic poet, what he shares with Aeschylus and Sophocles. What characteristics differentiate him from other tragic poets? I would name three things.
(1) Antiquity recognized in Euripides’ works a striving after clarity of presentation (saphêneia). The other two tragedians have in their separate ways something of literary chiaroscuro about them. Sophocles in particular often fudges the details of oracles and other plot elements. Euripides does this sometimes, but much less. Clarity of presentation begins from the first words of every Euripidean play, which are a monologue, spoken by a divine or human character, explaining the action antecedent to the play and the present situation. (This non-dramatic prologue may be a revival of the practice of earlier dramatists.)
(2) Perhaps allied to this clarity of presentation is a certain abstractness and generality that appears in long speeches by characters. Without losing sight of the particular dramatic situation, characters often frame their arguments in ways that reveal abstract principles and concepts and suggest resonances with the fifth-century world of the audience. Thus in Hecuba, when the Trojan queen has learned that the Thracian king Polymestor has murdered her son Polydorus and thrown his body unburied into the sea, she begs Agamemnon for justice in a highly abstract manner that perhaps owes something to current philosophical argument:
I am perhaps a slave and weak. But the gods are strong, and so is the law that rules over them. For it is owing to law that we believe in the gods and live our lives distinguishing what is just from what is unjust. If this law, coming before your tribunal, is destroyed, and if those who kill their guest friends or dare to plunder the gods’ sanctuaries do not pay for their crimes, no more justice exists among mortals. (Hecuba 798-805)
Nomos (law or custom) is one of the most characteristic abstractions of late fifth-century thought and the center of contemporary intellectual controversy. For some thinkers, such as Antiphon, nomos was mere convention and set in opposition to phusis (nature, natural inclination). For others such as Herodotus it seems to have enjoyed the status of a quasi-divine principle. Opinions differ whether Euripides intended his audience to think in the above passage of the dismissive sense of nomos or not.
Likewise, in Medea, after Jason has delivered an eloquent defense of himself and his actions in marrying the daughter of Creon and abandoning Medea, Medea says,
In many ways I differ from the majority of mortals. In my view the unjust man who is eloquent incurs the greatest penalty. For since he is confident that he can wrap his unjust deeds in a cloak of words, he boldly commits any knavery. Yet he is not so very clever. That is your case. So give me none of your specious arguments or your eloquence, for one word will lay you flat.
One of the developments of the late fifth century was the rise of formal training in rhetoric. Its detractors, then as now, complain that rhetoric will help the unjust case to defeat the just. Yet for all of their fifth-century overtones Medea’s words retain their force within the drama: to call Jason a glib liar illuminates who he is in the play.
(3) More startling still is the clarity with which Euripides allows his characters to criticize the gods and their management of the world. In Sophocles such criticisms are usually implicit, as when Oedipus says, in Oedipus the King, that it was Apollo who visited his sufferings on him (with the injustice of this act left inexplicit). But in Euripides’ Ion, for example, both Ion (son of Creusa, whom Apollo has raped) and his mother complain of the injustice of Apollo and the other gods:
What is wrong with Apollo? Raping maidens and then abandoning them? Fathering children in secret and looking on with indifference while they die? . . . . How can it be just for you [, o gods,] to lay down laws for mortals and then yourselves be guilty of lawlessness? I realize that this will never happen, but if you and Poseidon and Zeus, heaven’s king, were to pay the penalty to mortals for your rapes, the payment would leave your temples empty of their treasures. (Ion 437-47)
O luckless women! O criminal deeds of the gods! To what tribunal shall we bring our plea for justice if it is the injustices of our rulers that are destroying us? (Ion 252-4; cf. also 384-9)
It must be noted that when Creusa learns that Apollo has rescued her son from death as a baby and has rescued him twice more from death at the hands of Creusa herself, who acted in ignorance that he was her son, she unsays all her harsh words against Apollo. The rape sticks but is somehow forgiven.
Even more radical is the doubt Heracles is made to express when he finds that in a fit of madness he has killed his own children. In response to Theseus’ argument that the gods do terrible things, committing adultery with or imprisoning one another, and still inhabit Olympus, so there is no reason why Heracles should commit suicide, he says:
I have never thought nor will I believe that the gods engage in illicit amours or fasten chains about one another or that one god is another’s master. For a god, if he is truly a god, requires nothing: these are only the wretched tales of poets. (Heracles 1341-6)
It must be noted, however, that no matter how striking this speech is and how enlightened its sentiments, it contradicts the mythical presuppositions of the play. Hera hates Heracles because of Zeus’s affair with Alcmene, Heracles’ mother, and Heracles’ view that a true god has no needs is simply false.
It used to be confidently believed, on the basis of a couple of jokes in Aristophanes and a biographical tradition that retails manifest untruths about Euripides, that the poet was a disbeliever in the gods of Greek popular religion. Whatever may have been true of Euripides in his private opinions, his plays are perfectly consistent with, and supportive of, the general view of the relations between gods and men that goes by the name “the archaic Greek world view”. To interpret them as purveying a skeptical point of view requires considerable violence, including the supposition that Euripides is using an ironic mode he intends only a small part of his audience to understand, while the majority are meant to take the play at face value (a telling concession this, that at face value the plays are consistent with popular religion). E. R. Dodds (1951) 49 called Sophocles “the last great exponent of the archaic world-view”. That title arguably belongs to Euripides.
Note: Numerals preceded by T refer to ancient notices, or testimonia, on the life of Euripides as numbered in Kovacs 1994, where the relevant ancient texts are edited with facing English translation. For a full critical edition of the ancient testimonia on Euripides see Kannicht 2005.
Dodds, E. R. 1951. The Greeks and the Irrational.
Kannicht, R. (ed.) 2005. Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, vol. 5.1: Euripides. Göttingen.
Kovacs, D. 1993. “Zeus in Euripides Medea”, American Journal of Philology 114: 45-70.
Kovacs, D. 1994. Euripidea. Leiden.
Citation: Kovacs, David. "Euripides". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 14 September 2009 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=1452, accessed 24 September 2023.]