The Zenith of Tragedy
By Matt McKeown
Euripides' plays present a complexity in tragedy that had never before been reached.
Euripides is universally recognized as one of the three greatest tragedians of classical Athens. He was a younger contemporary of, and frequent rival to, Æschylus and Sophocles, and was associated with the intellectual movement around Socrates. He has an exceptionally high number of plays preserved: while the elder two can each boast seven surviving plays, no fewer than eighteen by Euripides are still extant today. This is partly because, during the Hellenistic period (roughly defined as the era between the death of Alexander and the accession of Augustus), Euripides’ works were standard elements of education, and remained popular for centuries.
One of the innovative qualities of Euripides’ work was his interest in the disadvantaged of Greek society, especially women. More than half of his surviving plays focus on the status of women; their villainy, heroism, or victimhood is not used only as substantial plot material (as it arguably is in the Oresteia or the Theban plays), but as an opportunity to comment on the implications of social and political inequality between the sexes. In his Medea, the eponymous protagonist ultimately murders her own children to revenge herself on the lover who has betrayed and abandoned her; yet the obviously horrifying character of the murders is heightened to tragedy, because Euripides spends the first half of the play building up the audience’s sympathy for Medea, forcing them to understand the actions they rightly loathe. In a quite different vein, he depicts a hopelessly put-upon and longsuffering wife in Alcestis. Her husband has been granted a reprieve from death if he can find a substitute, but only Alcestis volunteers. He accepts, and much of the play features his self-pitying laments and hypocritical squabbles with others—like his parents, whom he blames for not offering to die, since they are already old in any case. Heracles is brought in to “save the day,” successfully wrestling Death into allowing Alcestis to come back from the dead; but the audience is left wondering what sort of life she can expect to lead among such selfish and short-sighted people.
Yet perhaps the most fascinating of Euripides’ plays is his Electra. The story of Electra and Orestes killing their mother, Clytæmnestra, to avenge their father, Agamemnon, is the only myth on which all three of the great classical tragedians have surviving plays, allowing us a rare opportunity of direct comparison in their handling. Æschylus’ The Libation Bearers is a stately, dark, chilling piece, concluding with the murder and Orestes’ subsequent madness. Sophocles’ play (also titled Electra) makes the bold artistic decision of altering its source material: Orestes avenging his father by killing his mother is treated as a just execution instead of a compulsory self-pollution, and Orestes is not driven insane by the Furies. Euripides parts company with both of his predecessors. Rather than the heroic portrait of Sophocles or the religious tapestry of Æschylus, Euripides represents every character in his Electra as complicated, flawed, and even occasionally ridiculous; Clytæmnestra herself is rendered sympathetic and regretful. He satirizes the solemnity of The Libation Bearers while rejecting the neat ending of Sophocles’ play, inviting the audience to question the stories they have been brought up with.
It is difficult to summarize the significance and power of Euripides’ work. I can only suggest to our readers that you pick up one of his plays and start reading. The Trojan Women, Hippolytus, and The Bacchæ are all excellent places to begin.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.