Euripides was born on the Greek island of Salamis
near Athens into a reasonably prosperous family.
He made his home there, most likely on an estate
owned by his father, and it is said he penned many
of his dramas in a seaside cave. He was married
twice, both times unhappily, and had three sons. A
scholar and an intellectual, Euripides counted
among his friends some of the leading philosophers
of the day, including SOCRATES, an admirer of his
plays; and the Sophist Protagoras, who debuted his
agnostic work “Of the Gods” at Euripides’ home.
Euripides saw roughly 88 of his plays produced,
but he was honored at the Greek drama festivals
only four times.Visionary and avant-garde, Euripides’
plays reflected his unorthodox views, which
were not shared by the general public during his
lifetime. He was soundly ridiculed, and the comic
playwright ARISTOPHANES parodied his plays in The
Thesmophoriazousai (411 B.C.), which includes a
group of women conspiring to punish Euripides
for his depiction of deranged female characters.
Around 408 B.C., Euripides, an embittered,
dispirited old man, went into self-imposed exile at
the court of Archelaus of Macedon, where he
wrote his masterpiece The Bacchae. There he died.
His son Euripides the Younger produced the
dramatist’s final plays posthumously in Athens,
where they won the prizes that had proven so elusive
when their author was alive. It is said that the
tragedian SOPHOCLES clad his own actors in
mourning upon learning of his great rival’s death.
Euripides was an iconoclast from the outset.He
did not treat with the traditional reverence the legends
that were a playwright’s source material. Instead,
he manipulated and reinterpreted them and
introduced within that context the conflict between
fate and free will. The “bad boy of Athenian
drama,” as Euripidean scholar Daniel Mendelsohn
calls him, Euripides “questioned the established
Olympian pantheon,” slyly rearranging “traditional
mythic material in bitter fables” and deconstructing
tragic conventions. He also attacked
traditional Greek customs and ideas, such as the
treatment of women as inferior, the shaming of illegitimate
children, the practice of slavery, and the
glory of war.
Euripides’ greatest contribution to dramatic art
is his penetrating character studies, psychological
analyses that investigate how human beings behave
when they are subjected to sudden ill fortune. He
creates pathos without descending to the maudlin
or sentimental. The philosopher ARISTOTLE called
Euripides the most tragic of the tragedians.
Improbably enough, Euripides’ oldest surviving
work, Alcestis (438 B.C.), is a comic drama. In this
play, as in Electra (413 B.C.) and Medea (431 B.C.),
Euripides uses DEUS EX MACHINA, a literary device
in which the gods appear or an unexpected event
occurs to resolve the conflict.
Other tragedies by Euripides include Children
of Heracles (ca. 429 B.C.), which follows Heracles’
disinherited family, who are persecuted by the king
of Argos; Hippolytus (428 B.C.), in which a vengeful
god causes a queen to fall in love with her stepson;
Hecuba (ca. 424 B.C.), in which the Queen of Troy
is driven mad by the brutality and injustice of the
Trojan War and exacts violent revenge; and Suppliant
Women (422 B.C.), which dramatizes the pleas
of the mothers of fallen soldiers to bury their sons’
Euripides’ later plays include The Trojan Women
(415 B.C.), another compelling indictment of war.
According to writer Erich Segal, “The ruthless
tyrant Alexander of Pharae was so ashamed to be
crying at the sorrows of Hecuba that he had to leave
the theater before The Trojan Women was over.”
The Bacchae (also The Bacchants, 408–406 B.C.) features
a well-constructed plot in which the title
characters are the priestesses and female worshipers
of Bacchus, also known as Dionysis. Dionysis
is the offspring of Zeus and of Semele, the
deceased daughter of Cadmus, the Phoenician
prince who founded Thebes.
Dionysis is a young and new god.When the play
opens, he has returned to Thebes from his travels in
the Orient. Slander against Semele is rife in the land
of Dionysis’ birth; the Thebans say that Zeus is not
the father of Dionysis, that Cadmus perpetrated
that rumor to save his daughter’s good name, and
that Dionysis is therefore not of divine birth.
To teach the city a lesson and assert his mystical
powers, Dionysis has bewitched the women of
Thebes, and the city “shrills and echoes to [their]
I bound the fawn-skin to the women’s flesh
and armed their hands with shafts of ivy. . . .
I have stung them with a frenzy, hounded them
from home up to the mountains where they
wander, crazed of mind and compelled to wear
my orgies’ livery. . . .
Dionysis, disguised, appears in the city, where he
is ill-treated by the young king Pentheus. Pentheus
refuses to recognize Dionysis as a god, failing to realize that the stranger he repeatedly attempts to
shackle and imprison, whose “girlish curls” he has
forcibly shorn, is indeed the deity.
After repeated confrontations, Dionysis finally
hypnotizes Pentheus into donning the outlandish
attire of the Bacchae, complete with a blond wig,
and a possessed Pentheus flees to the mountains to
join the revelers. There, as a messenger later recounts
in garish detail, Pentheus’s own mother,
Agave, “foaming at the mouth and her crazed eyes
rolling with frenzy,” leads a pack of madwomen
who rip him limb from limb. In a ghoulish climax,
Agave picks up her dead son’s disembodied head
and impales it on her staff. As she is released from
the Dionysian spell and recognizes her trophy,
Agave sees “the greatest grief there is,” and the
wretched woman is banished from Thebes.
The play demonstrates that the irrational,
amoral, ferocious, chaotic forces of nature, as symbolized
by Dionysis, can wreak hideous destruction
if they are denied. Pentheus is a callow youth and
vulnerable to the dangers of his own lack of selfknowledge.
He rejects the god instead of embracing
the primitive part of himself. According to translator
William Arrowsmith, when Pentheus becomes a
parody of Dionysis, “we see in his costume and
madness not merely his complete humiliation but
the total loss of identity the change implies.”
Arrowsmith pronounces The Bacchae “a masterpiece:
a play which, for dramatic turbulence
and comprehensiveness and the sheer power of
its poetry, is unmatched by any except the very
greatest among ancient and modern tragedies.”
Euripides’ plays are frequently produced. His
contemporary attitudes, social criticism, psychological
insights, and especially his humanity make
his work timeless.
English Versions of Works by Euripides
Euripides. Translated by Anne Marie Albertazzi.
Edited by Harold Bloom. Langhorne, Pa.: Chelsea
House Publishers, 2002.
Euripides I. Translated by Richmond Lattimore et al.
Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.
Euripides’ Alcestis. Notes by H. M. Roisman and C. A.
Luschnig.Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,
Medea and Other Plays. Translated by John Davie. Introduction
by Richard Rutherford. New York:
Penguin Classics, 2003.
Works about Euripides
Conacher, D. J. Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme, and
Structure. Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
Mendelsohn, Daniel. Gender and the City in Euripides’
Political Plays. Oxford: Oxford University
Zacharia, Katerina. Converging Truths: Euripides’ Ion
and the Athenian Quest for Self-Definition. Leiden,
Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 2003.