Biography of Euripides, Third of the Great Tragedians

Sophocles bust in Athens downtown

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Euripides (480 B.C.–406 B.C.) was an ancient writer of Greek tragedy—the third of the famous trio (with Sophocles and Aeschylus). He wrote about women and mythological themes, like Medea and Helen of Troy. He enhanced the importance of intrigue in tragedy. Some aspects of Euripides' tragedies seem more at home in comedy than in tragedy, and, indeed, he is considered to have been a significant influence on the creation of Greek New Comedy. This comic development comes after the lifetime of Euripides and his contemporary, the most familiar writer of Old Comedy, Aristophanes.

Fast Facts: Euripides

  • Known For: Famous Greek playwright and tragedian who created the love-drama
  • Born: 480 BCE in ‎Salamis Island, Greece
  • Parents: Mnesarchus (also spelled Mnesarchides), Cleito
  • Died: 406 or 407 BCE in Macedonia or Athens
  • Well-Known Plays: Alcestis (438 BCE), Heracles (416 BCE), The Trojan Women (415 BCE), Bacchae (405 BCE)
  • Awards and Honors: First prize, Athenian dramatic festival, 441 BCE, 305 BCE
  • Spouses: Melite, Choerine
  • Children: Mnesarchides, Mnesilochus, Euripides
  • Notable Quote: "There are three classes of citizens. The first are the rich, who are indolent and yet always crave more. The second are the poor, who have nothing, are full of envy, hate the rich, and are easily led by demagogues. Between the two extremes lie those who make the state secure and uphold the laws."

Early Life and Career

A contemporary of the second of the tragedy trio, Sophocles, Euripides was born around 480 BCE to his parents Mnesarchus or Mnesarchides (a merchant from the Athenian deme of Phlya) and Cleito. It is believed he might have been born on Salamis or Phlya, although that may be a coincidence of the inventive methods used to date his birth.

Euripides' first competition might have been in 455. He came in third. His initial first prize came in 441, but out of about 92 plays, Euripides won only four more first prizes—the last, posthumously.

Intrigue and Comedy

Where Aeschylus and Sophocles emphasized plot, Euripides added intrigue. Intrigue is complicated in Greek tragedy by the constant presence of the all-knowing chorus. Euripides also created the love-drama.

New Comedy, a type of Greek drama that lasted from about 320 BCE to the mid-third century BCE that offers a mildly satiric view of contemporary Athenian society, later took over the more effective parts of Euripides' technique. In a modern performance of Euripides' tragedy, "Helen," the director explained it was essential for the audience to see immediately that it's a comedy.

Key Plays

Another Euripidean tragedy that portrays women and Greek mythology, and seems to bridge the genres of tragedy, is a satyr play and comedy called "Alcestis." In the play, a buffoonish Hercules (Heracles) comes to the house of his friend Admetus. The latter is mourning the death of his wife Alcestis, who has sacrificed her life for him but won't tell Hercules who has died. Hercules overindulges, as usual. While his polite host won't say who died, the appalled household staff will. To make amends for partying at a house in mourning, Hercules goes to the Underworld to rescue Alcestis.

Tragedies that Euripides had written shortly before death that had never been performed at Athens' City Dionysia were found and entered into the Dionysia, a large festival in ancient Athens, in 305 BCE. Euripides' plays won first prize. They included "The Bacchae," a tragedy that informs our vision of Dionysus. Unlike in Euripides' play "Medea," no deus ex machina comes in to save the child-killing mother. Instead, she goes into voluntary exile. It is a thought-provoking, grizzly play, but in the running for Euripides' most excellent tragedy.

Death

Euripides may have died in Athens. Ancient writers from the third century BCE (starting with a poem by Hermesianax [Scullion]) claim Euripides died in 407/406, not in Athens, but in Macedonia, at the court of King Archelaus. Euripides would have been in Macedonia either in self-imposed exile or at the king's invitation.

Gilbert Murray thinks the Macedonian despot Archelaus invited Euripides to Macedonia more than once. He had already corralled Agathon, the tragic poet, Timotheus, a musician, Zeuxis, a painter, and possibly, Thucydides, the historian.

Legacy

Despite winning only limited acclaim during his lifetime, Euripides was the most popular of the three great tragedians for generations after his death. Even during his lifetime, Euripides' plays won some acclaim. For example, after the ill-fated Sicilian expedition, where Athens ventured into the Italian island in 427 BCE with disastrous results, those Athenians who could recite Euripides were reportedly saved from slave-labor in the mines.

An indication of the resilience of his work is the fact that 18 or 19 of Euripides' plays have survived to this day, centuries after he wrote them, and more than the plays of either Aeschylus and Sophocles.

Sources

  • Ancient Greek Dramatic Festivals.” The Randolph College Greek Play.
  • "Ancient Greece-Euripides-Alcestis." Classical Literature.
  • Euripides Biography.” Encyclopedia of World Biography
  • Kawalko Roselli, David. "Vegetable-Hawking Mom and Fortunate Son: Euripides, Tragic Style, and Reception." Phoenix Vol. 59, No. 1/2 (Spring-Summer, 2005), pp. 1-49.
  • Murray, Gilbert. Euripides and His Age. 1913.
  • New Comedy.” Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • Scullion, S. “Euripides and Macedon, or the Silence of the Frogs.” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 2, 2003, pp. 389–400.