(480 B.C – 405 B.C)
There are more than twice as many surviving plays of Euripides than of either Aeschylus or Sophocles (eighteen as compared with six or seven apiece of the others). There is also a parodic portrayal of the playwright in Aristophanes’ Frogs and a fanciful biography of him written in the third century B.C.E. which relied on details from the playwright’s own works as well as various other spurious sources. Even so, it is difficult to discern the facts of the playwright’s life, and ultimately there is as little known about him as about most famous people from antiquity. Euripides was born to a wealthy family in the Athenian deme of Phyla, though there were stories that he came from modest origins as well, most likely because he often portrayed humble people in his plays.
The tale that he isolated himself in a cave at Salamis to write his plays probably more reflects his lack of interest in politics or public life than an actual physical isolation. He first competed at the City Dionysia in 455 B.C.E. He won fewer first prizes only four than did Aeschylus or Sophocles during his career, but the story that he fled Athens for Macedon in disgust at his lack of popularity is undoubtedly false. Nevertheless, he did die at the court of King Archelaus of Macedon in approximately 406 B.C.E.; the story has it that he was torn to pieces by the king’s guard dogs, which echoes his propensity in tragedies to include unusually violent deaths for his characters, such as the demise of King Pentheus in Bacchants, who is ripped apart by a raving band of maenads led by his own mother. Euripides had three sons, one of whom, also named Euripides, may have produced some of his tragedies after his death .
Eighteen of Euripides’ plays survive. (A nineteenth, the Rhesus, is of doubtful authorship.) The plays securely attributed to Euripides include: Medea (last place in 431 B.C.E.); Electra (417 B.C.E.); Trojan Women (second prize in 415 B.C.E.); Bacchants and Iphigenia at Aulis (first-prize winners produced together posthumously in 405 B.C.E.); and a satyr play, Cyclops (date unknown). In addition, there are substantial fragments of eleven others, including Oedipus, Cretans, and Archelaus, written for his patron in Macdeon. Euripidean drama focuses on individual characters and their personal circumstances, the paradoxical nature of human life and its vicissitudes, and the internal struggle that the tragic hero undergoes. As a consequence, the structure of his plays sometimes follows a predetermined plot to its foreseeable, if regrettable, outcome; at other times, his plays swerve as unpredictably as his characters do. Euripides featured characters who commit the most extreme acts humans are capable of incest, rape, betrayal, murder and allowed them to stand up for themselves. He sometimes drew criticism for portraying women who defended roles that were contrary to Athenian values, like Agave in The Bacchants, who glories in her newfound bloodlust, and Medea in the play that bears her name.
Euripides often added startling innovations to familiar stories from myth. Some of his tragedies, like Ion, include elements more familiar to Middle and New Comedy: a son born out of wedlock is eventually recognized and reunited with his parents with the help of the gods. The amazing variety of Euripidean plots, from the very bleak Trojan Women, portraying women who must face a future as the sexual slaves of the men who killed their families, to the almost lighthearted Helen, which chronicles the awkward reunion of Helen and Menelaus after the Trojan War, ultimately de fies categorization. Euripides was criticized in his own time for portraying ordinary people as they were instead of noble denizens of a tragic past, but he often seems like the most “modern” playwright. His plays were among the most popular in later revivals.