Euripides – the most tragic of the three great Greek tragedians
Popularly acclaimed as the last of three classical Greek tragic playwrights, Euripides was a famous tragedian who gave the world many masterpieces, including Andromache (c. 425 BC), Suppliants (c. 423 BC), Electra (c. 417 BC), and Iphigenia in Aulis (c. 406 BC – posthumously produced). In many of his works, he is noted for portraying women that are intelligent and have very strong character traits.
In the article below World History Edu presents everything that you need to know about Euripides, including his major works, quotes and facts.
Not much is known about the early life and upbringing of Euripides other than the names of his parents – Mnesarchides (or Mnesarchus) and Cleito. In one account, it’s stated that his mother, Cleito, was a plant herb and vegetables seller. We know this because Aristophanes, ancient Greek comedy writer, passed a comment about Euripides in one of his plays.
He was born around 484 BC in Salamis, an island near Athens. In some accounts, his family were said to be made of mainly hereditary priests.
There are also some accounts that claim that Euripides was born into a slightly wealthy family.
Awards won at dramatic festivals
In 455 BC, when Euripides was in his late 20s, he is said to have first competed in an ancient Greek dramatic festival, i.e. the Dionysia festival. Four years later, in 441 BC, he bagged the ultimate prize at the competition and thus cemented his name as one of the best literary minds of the era – a leading candidate to succeed Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BC), the father of tragedy.
All in all, Euripides competed in the Dionysia festival about 22 times, finishing in the top three about 20 times.
Euripides bagged the first prize on four occasions at those literary contests. To put into perspective, Sophocles (c. 497 – c. 406 BC), another famous Greek tragedian and playwright, won the festival a whopping 24 times. Regardless, this revelation does not in any way take anything away from Euripides’ greatness when it comes to drama writing. Both he and Sophocles were revered in almost the same manner by Greek writers for several centuries.
Euripides’ plays certainly made huge waves in ancient Greece. This is supported by the extensive interest Aristophanes gave to Euripides in his plays.
Plays written by Euripides
According to ancient historians and writers, Euripides somewhere in the region of 92 plays. Out of those plays, only about 19 survive to this day.
Stories from Greek myths formed the major subjects in many of Euripides’ plays. It’s said those plays were his way of trying to make sense of stories, mostly those from Homeric accounts, that he felt were absurd and rude.
Euripides avoids embellishing his main characters with almost perfect traits. Instead he portrays them as flawed beings who go about their everyday activities like any other ancient Greek. The characters in Euripides’ works are not free of doubts either; instead, in some cases, the characters find themselves neck deep in problems that are anything but surmountable. Often times, the characters’ inadequacies and flaws are to blame for creating the sticky situation or predicament that they find themselves in. This way of portraying his characters is slightly different from the way the two other great tragedians – Sophocles and Aeschylus – portrayed their characters. Amidst all that senseless pain and misery, the gods sit idly with a palpable indifference at first and then appear towards the tail end of the plays.
In a good number of Euripides’ works, he is noted for portraying women that are intelligent and have very strong character traits. He empowers them well enough in order to handle the sheer amount of misery in their environment. His women characters are not always out to do good things. In some plays, he develops women characters that are viciously deceitful. Some modern day commentators cite Euripides misogynistic tendencies for creating such horrifying women characters. In the play Bacchants, we see how vicious Agave, the mother of young king of Thebes, became after losing touch with her senses.
Euripides’ plays are also noted for beginning with an insightful monologue. He ends with an epilogue often recited by the gods, in which it is revealed to the audience what type of life the characters went on to have.
Euripides used a lot of chorus in his earlier works; however, as time progressed, he reduced the chorus. Also in his later works, he appeared to have a knack for writing happy endings. In other words, he had slightly moved away from real tragedies to somewhat of a romantic dramas.
Considered as one Euripides’ greatest works, Bacchants looks at the story of how Dionysus – Greek god of festivities and religious ecstasy – journeys from Asia to Greece in order to establish a cult center there. Shapeshifting into a young Asian man, Dionysus takes the trip with women aides, who in the play serve as the chorus.
In Thebes, Dionysus, to his disappointment, meets very strong resistance and his worship is quickly rejected. To add insult to injury, Pentheus, the city’s king, orders for Dionysus to be arrested. Dionysus then causes Pentheus to lose his mind before leading him to the top of the mountain and watches as the young king is mauled by a group of irate women, including his own mother, Agave. Still under some kind of spell, Agave and the women decapitate the body of Pentheus. Agave then triumphantly carries the decapitated head of Pentheus back to the city. In the city, Agave, with the help of her father, Cadmus, is able to return to normalcy and she realizes what she’s done.
This play follows the story of Andromache, the widow of Trojan hero and military commander Hector, and the awful fate that befell her following the sacking of the city of Troy by the Greeks. In the play, Andromache, the daughter of Eetion, is captured by the Greeks. Every relative of hers, including her infant son Astyanax, lose their lives during the Trojan War.
Greek warrior Neoptolemus, the son of Greek hero Achilles, takes Andromache as his slave and sails to Epirus. Bear in mind, Achilles was the warrior who killed Andromache’s husband, Trojan prince and warrior Hector.
Andromache and Neoptolemus have three sons together, including Molossus, one of the ancestors of people of Molossia. However, just as Andromache was settling into life in Epirus, Hermoine, one of the wives of Neoptolemus, begins terrorizing her. Hermoine even makes plan to kill Andromache and her son.
In the first part of the play, Andromache’s life is saved by King Peleus, father of Greek hero Achilles and grandfather of Neoptolemus. Hermoine was worried that her husband was bound to kill her the moment he returned form Delphi. In the second part, Hermoine is saved by Oretes, son of Agamemnon. Oretes kills Neoptolemus in the process. King Peleus is devastated by the death of his grandson. As Peleus mourns the death of Neoptolemus, his wife, the sea goddess Thetis, descends down and informs consoles him, stating that she will grant him immortality and place besides the gods. Thetis also tells Peleus that the children of Andromache are destined to one day rule all of Molassia.
Children of Heracles
In this play, Euripides characterizes the Athenians as brave people who come to the defense of children of the Greek hero Heracles form the evil plots of King Eurystheus of Argos.
Euripides’ play Medea looks at the story of physically and emotionally abused woman who later gathers enough strength and courage to exact revenge. Medea is a princess from Colchis and the wife of the hero Jason. By Jason, Medea gives birth to two sons. For unclear reasons, Jason sends Medea packing and brings in a new a wife, a Corinth princess. Scared by her mistreatment at the hands of Jason, Medea patiently plots her revenge. Once she has gathered enough courage, she kills Jason’s wife and her own children. With no wife and children, Jason spends the rest of his life miserable and alone.
This play shows just how some people are willing to harm themselves if only it brings greater amount of pain to other person.
Iphigenia at Aulis
The Iphigenia at Aulis is definitely one of Euripides masterpieces. In the play, a fleet of Greek ships under the leadership of Agamemnon find themselves stuck at Aulis due to poor weather conditions. It turns out that Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon and the hunt, is responsible for Agamemnon’s predicament. To get his ships back on course, Agamemnon is asked to sacrifice one of his favorite daughters, Iphigenia, to Artemis. Under the false promise of having her married to Greek hero Achilles, Agamemnon invites Iphigenia to Aulis. Iphigenia discovers the deceit played on her by her father and pleads unsuccessfully with her father to spare her life. In the end, Iphigenia accepts her fate with a broken heart.
In this somewhat happy ending tragic play, it is revealed that Admetus, the king of Pherae in Thessaly, would be able to avoid an early death provided he can find someone in his kingdom to take his place. Admetus’ wife, Alcestis, decides to sacrifice her life for her husband. Seeing what awful fate lay in wait for Alcestis, King Admetus stops her from doing so. It was also in this moment that a close friend of the king, Heracles, appeared on the scene and saves everyone from the jaws of Thanatos (Death).
Cyclops is the only “joking tragedy” (satyr play) of Euripides that survives. A satyr play is described as kind of ancient Greek drama that uses the structure and characters of tragedy in a blissful atmosphere often set in a rural background. In Cyclops, Euripides portrays the famous mythical satyr, Silenus, who is old and a drunk, as the slaves of a one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus. Silenus and his satyrs are depicted as lazy and good-for-nothing servants of Polymphemus, who in Greek mythology is the offspring of Gaea, the earth goddess. Luckily for Silenus and his friends, Greek hero Odysseus stumbles upon the island of the Cyclops and goes ahead to free Silenus and his fellow satyrs.
Other notable plays by Euripides
Here are three other notable works by Euripides:
Madness of Heracles
This play follows the story of how a temporary mad Heracles killed his wife and children. Hera – the jealous wife of Zeus – had caused Heracles to lose his mind.
Hecuba (c. 424 BC)
Euripides’ play Hecuba is another story taken from the events of the demise of Troy following the Trojan War. In this play, Queen Hecuba – the widowed wife of Trojan king Priam and the mother of Hector and Paris – is taken as a slave by the victorious Greek army. Her misery is even made worse when the Greeks sacrifice her daughter Polyxena to the ghost of Achilles. In the play, many of Hecuba’s relatives, including her son Polydorus, are killed.
Hecuba is able to convince Agamemnon to let her exact revenge on Polydorus, the Thracian who killed Polydorus. She blinds Polymestor and kills two of Polymestor’s sons.
Hippolytus (c. 428 BC)
A young man, Hippolytus – son of Theseus, king of Athens, is falsely accused by the king’s wife, Phaedra, of raping her. Hippolytus, who had taken a vow of chastity, had earlier rejected Phaedra’s advances. Angered by the rejection, Phaedra cooked up those false accusations. Theseus is left with no other choice than to execute his son, Hippolytus. However, just before Hippolytus takes his last breath, the goddess Artemis reveals the truth to both Theseus and Hippolytus, and both father and son forgive each other.
The three great tragedians
For a time in the Hellenistic period, Euripides received greater admiration than Sophocles and Aeschylus. His plays were more appreciated for their depth in realism and very powerful emotional effects, as compared to the strict and heavy political and religious themes in tragedy plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus.
His use of very powerful themes in his plays is probably the reason why he’s been described as the saddest of the three great Greek tragedians. For example famous ancient Greek polymath Aristotle once described Euripides as “the most tragic of Greek poets”.
The fact that Hellenistic authors and scholars preferred Euripides to Sophocles and Aeschylus is the reason why nineteen of his plays survived, compared to seven each for Sophocles and Aeschylus.
More on Euripides
- Euripides was not active in the political landscape of Athens, unlike Sophocles. He did however once serve as an Athenian diplomat on a mission to Syracuse in Sicily.
- He was such a dedicated scholar of letters and knowledge that he created his own personal library. To enhance his knowledge of the natural world, he mingled with renowned thinkers and scholars of the time, including Anaxagoras (c. 500 BC – c. 428 BC) and Protagoras (c. 490 BC – c. 420 BC).
- In accounts written several decades after his death, Euripides is said to have had an abysmal marriage. According to those accounts, he was married to a woman called Melito, with whom he fathered three sons. One of his sons plied his father’s trade and became a good poet of his era. Some historians have stated that it was likely this son of his who completed Euripides’ unfinished play Iphigenia at Aulis.
- For his play Iphigenia at Aulis, he was posthumously given the top honor at the Dionysia festival.
In his later years, he moved from Athens to Macedonia, where he had accepted an invitation to serve in the court of the Macedonian king, Archelaus.
He died in Macedonia in 406 BC. There are some that say that Euripides relocated to Macedonia because his plays did not get the attention that he, Euripides, wanted them to get. Others say that it was because of the Peloponnesian War that was still raging at time.
Top 5 quotes by Euripides
Euripides – a 5th-century BC famous classical Greek tragic drama writer – had a tremendous amount of influence on Greco-Roman literature. He was one of the three most acclaimed Greek tragedians of his era. The other two are Sophocles and Aeschylus.
Quick Facts: Euripides
Born – 484 BC
Place of birth – Athens, ancient Greece
Died – 406 BC
Place of death – Macedonia
Most notable works – Bacchae (405 BC), Medea (431 BC), Andromache (c. 425 BC), Electra (c. 420 BC), Suppliants (c. 423 BC), Trojan Women (c. 415 BC), Iphigenia at Aulis (c. 414 BC)
Most known for – One of the three great tragedians of ancient Greece
Mother – Cleito
Father – Mnesarchus
Spouse – Melito
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