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Euripides was the youngest of the three principal fifth-century tragic poets. From shortly after his death his plays were the most popular of any tragic poet and were repeatedly reperformed throughout antiquity wherever there were theaters. Aristotle seems to have regarded him as a close second to Sophocles and cites him again and again as a model for tragic writers, as well as occasionally criticizing him. He does not seem to have been nearly so successful during his lifetime, however, winning the first prize only five times in some twenty-two appearances in the tragic competitions. (One of these was for a posthumous first performance of plays left behind at his death.) Comic poets such as Aristophanes frequently parodied or otherwise made fun of him, sometimes in a friendly and appreciative spirit, sometimes in an (apparently) hostile one. It can be shown that this comic portrait is the head and font of most of the biographical tradition about Euripides. The tradition has recently been shown to be highly unreliable (see the work of M. Lefkowitz and M. Heath, cited below), and this has necessitated a re-examination of the plays themselves, whose interpretation, from Nietzsche onward, has frequently owed a great deal to the assumption that Old Comedy's portrait of Euripides as an associate of sophists and philosophers, an unsociable genius, and an artistic revolutionary provides a reliable key.

For the biography of Euripides, as for those of ancient writers in general, reliable evidence is in short supply. The following summarizes what can be known with a fair degree of probability.

Euripides was born in 484 or a date not far from it. We have it on reliable evidence that, despite a repeated joke in Aristophanes which made her a vegetable-seller, his mother came of noble family. He belonged to the deme of Phlya, north of Mount Hymettus, part of the Athenian “tribe” of Cecropis. An inscription, recorded by Theophrastus, commemorates his serving as wine-pourer for the young men “of good families” who danced in honor of Apollo Delios. Another notice makes him torch-bearer in a procession in honor of Apollo Zosterios. Both of these suggest a prominent family.

We know nothing of his education: the tradition gives him a variety of philosophers as teachers, but the notices are mostly impossible on chronological grounds. None of the notices connecting him personally with Socrates, Anaxagoras, et al., survives scrutiny.

Euripides began his career in the tragic competitions in 455, when he came in third. He won a first prize for the first time in 442, one of only five during his career. When the scholars of Alexandria in the third to second century collected his plays and titles, they found that 92 plays were attributed to him. Four of these were regarded as spurious. The remainder represent some 22 entries in the tragic competitions. Of these plays, 78 survived to Alexandria to be gathered into the Collected Works.

The plays we possess come down in two different streams. Sometime after ca. A.D. 250 a group of ten plays, which we call “the select plays,” were chosen, perhaps for school use, and increasingly only these were copied. By fortunate chance, however, one or two volumes of the Collected Works, containing nine plays beginning with the letters epsilon, eta, iota, and kappa, survived into the Byzantine period and were copied onto a single manuscript now in the Laurentian Library in Florence. The “alphabetic” plays, as they are called, are thus a chance cross-section of Euripides' work, and the fact that many of them, like the Heracles, the Ion, and the Iphigenia among the Taurians, are so good suggests that the general level of Euripides' writing must have been high. The extant plays with their dates are: Alcestis (438, second prize), Medea (431, third prize), Children of Heracles (ca. 430), Hippolytus (428, first prize), Andromache (ca. 425, not produced in Athens), Hecuba{\ulw }(ca. 424), Suppliant Women (ca. 423), Electra (ca. 420), Heracles (ca. 416), Trojan Women (415, second prize), Iphigenia among the Taurians (ca. 414), Ion (ca. 413), Helen (412), Phoenician Women (ca. 410), Orestes (408), Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis (after 406, posthumous first prize), Cyclops (date unknown, possibly ca. 410). The Rhesus transmitted under Euripides' name is probably a fourth-century play by a now nameless poet.

Besides plays, Euripides is said to have written a victory ode (fragments in Page, Poetae Melici Graeci, p. 391) for the Olympic chariot victory of Alcibiades, the young ward of Pericles, and an epitaph (Plut. Nic. 7) in honor of the Athenians who died in Sicily. Doubt has been cast on the latter on the grounds that Euripides, being a critic of Athenian aggression in Sicily and Melos, would not have been offered or have accepted this commission. The sole basis for the claim that he was a critic of Athenian policy, however, is the interpretation of the Trojan Women as a protest against the slaughter of the Melians in the winter of 416-15. This interpretation has been rendered highly doubtful on chronological grounds by A. M. van Erp Thalman Kip in Mnemosyne for 1987, and was in any case already very insecure.

Some time after 408, the year of the Orestes, Euripides went to Macedon to the court of King Archelaus. Some have called this self-imposed exile, but it may not have been, since a number of artists accepted invitations from Archelaus at about this time. He died and was buried in Macedon in 407/6. He is said to have been killed by hunting dogs, either accidentally let loose on him or deliberately set on him by enemies or rivals, or torn apart by women. Such a death is possible but cannot be deemed very likely. When the news of Euripides' death was brought to Athens, Sophocles donned mourning and introduced his chorus without the customary garlands.

The biographical tradition (followed by Nietzsche and much subsequent scholarship) represents Euripides as the follower of a philosophical outlook that cast tragedy's religious foundations into question, an object of suspicion to his fellow citizens, and an anti-traditionalist in his art. Almost all of this appears to be derived directly or indirectly from Old Comedy, whose evidence must accordingly be examined with some care. The Euripides of Aristophanes is a man with the following characteristics: (1) prosaic, talky, and arid in his dialogue, his manner being that either of courtroom pleader (Aristoph. Peace 528-34) or philosopher (Aristoph. Frogs 1491-95); (2) fond of putting on the stage characters who are lame and dressed in rags (Acharnians-Aristoph. Ach.); (3) determined to make tragedy less elevated by introducing common and ordinary people and things, humble objects usually banished from tragedy, and slaves with big speaking parts (Aristoph. Frogs 937-52); (4) decadent and modernist in his lyrics, with a pronounced tendency toward metrical innovation (Aristoph. Frogs 1309-63); (5) a hater of women, who enjoys portraying heroines of dubious principle in order to discredit their sex (Thesmophoriazusae-Aristoph. Thes.); (6) an underminer of received morality, who portrays shocking or immoral actions (incest, adultery, perjury) in a favorable light and whose natural admirers are the immoralist Sophists and those whom they influence (Aristoph. Clouds 1364-78); and (7) unorthodox in his religious views, believing in new-fangled divinities like Aether and not the traditional gods of the city (Aristoph. Frogs 892-93, Aristoph. Thes. 443-56).

The conclusions of a careful examination of the evidence of Old Comedy (see the section entitled “Euripides in Old Comedy” in the Introduction to Volume One of the new Loeb Euripides) are in some measure agnostic. First, the amount of truth in a comic portrait can be extremely low, and this renders it unsafe to apply the maxim “no smoke without fire.” Second, the portrait of Euripides varies a great deal from play to play, and some of the portraits, when read on their own and without importing ideas and attitudes from other plays, are either quite gentle in their ridicule or even friendly. Third, some of the traits assigned to Euripides in comedy, such as misogyny, are highly dubious, and there is little reason to think that Euripides was like this or that this is the way his contemporaries perceived him. There is no reason to allow such tenuous evidence to interfere with our reading the plays themselves against the background of the normal expectations of the fifth-century audience.

Some of Comedy's portrait is confirmed by such a reading. Most of the plays contain passages that owe something to contemporary philosophical speculation, though it is often the unsympathetic characters who sound like the Sophists. The style of the plays is-comparatively-bare of ornament, and there is a large rhetorical element, particularly the pairing of effective speeches on both sides of a question. In the later plays especially, the lyric passages, both choral and solo, exhibit metrical (and presumably musical) innovation that owes a great deal to the lyric poet Timotheus and other contemporary artists. But just as it is better to assess Euripides' portrayal of women from the plays themselves rather than accept Old Comedy's unsupported word that Euripides was a misogynist, so it is reasonable to form our own judgment from the plays themselves about the extent to which Euripides' views on religion, morality, and art are sharply at variance with those of Sophocles or his audience. There is plenty in the plays themselves to suggest a high degree of continuity with earlier Greek poetry. In particular, both in plays that end in disaster and in those that end happily, the action and words, of characters and chorus alike, draw attention-it is Greek poetry's most venerable theme-to the precariousness of human existence, the limits of mortality, and the unpredictability of the future especially in view of the power of the gods. In the “tragicomic” plays, disaster is usually avoided by the narrowest of escapes, and often the escape owes something both to human piety and virtue and to divine intervention. In the plays that are tragic in our sense, blameless sufferers come to terms with the mortal condition and derive what solace they can from such justice of the gods as is visible. The divine order is often inscrutable or even repellent-as it is in Sophocles as well-but its reality is arguably affirmed rather than denied. The preponderance of this and related themes explains why Aristotle, who regards swift change of fortune as the life-blood of tragedy, gives Euripides full marks as “the most tragic of the poets.” In addition to his manifest charm as a writer of elegant verse, he is a poet of incident and juxtaposition. These reveal most clearly the face-grim or smiling, as it may turn out-of the world in which human beings must live.

The Greek text of Euripides' extant plays, with full apparatus criticus, is to be found in J. Diggle's Oxford Classical Text edition, 3 vols., soon to be complete. A new Loeb edition, 5 vols., with Greek text, facing English translation, notes, and introductions, is being prepared by D. Kovacs. Until the appearance of R. Kannicht's edition of the fragments, the standard edition is A. Nauck, Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, 2nd ed. with a supplement by B. Snell (Hildesheim, 1964). There is a series of commentaries published by Oxford, mostly with the old Oxford text of Murray. Also useful are some of the editions, with translation and brief commentary, in the Aris & Phillips series. A selection of ancient testimony on Euripides' life and art with English translations in D. Kovacs, Euripidea I (Leiden, 1993).

Some important work:

    A. P. Burnett, Catastrophe Survived: Euripides' Plays of Mixed Reversal (Oxford, 1971). D. J. Conacher, Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme and Structure (Toronto, 1967). Entretiens sur l'Antiquite Classique, VI: Euripide (Vandoeuvres and Geneva, 1960). Seven papers followed by discussion. M. Heath, The Poetics of Greek Tragedy (Stanford, 1987). --, Political Comedy in Aristophanes (Gottingen, 1987). D. Kovacs, The Heroic Muse (Baltimore, 1987). --, “Zeus in Euripides' Medea,” American Journal of Philology 114 (1993) 45-70. M. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets (Baltimore, 1981). A. Lesky, Greek Tragic Poetry, tr. M. Dillon (New Haven, 1983). A translation of Die tragische Dichtung der Hellenen, 3rd ed. (Gottingen, 1972), containing discussions of all the plays and full bibliography. J. D. Mikalson, Honor Thy Gods: Popular Religion in Greek Tragedy (Chapel Hill, 1991). A. W. Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, revised 2rd ed. with a supplement and corrections by J. Gould and D. M. Lewis (Oxford, 1988). K. Reinhardt, “Die Sinneskrise bei Euripides,” in Tradition und Geist (Gottingen, 1960), 223-56. A. Rivier, Essai sur le tragique d'Euripide, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1975). E. Segal, ed., Oxford Essays in Greek Tragedy (Oxford, 1984). Also printed as Greek Tragedy: Modern Essays in Criticism (New York, 1983). W. Steidle, Studien zum antiken Drama unter besonderer Berucksichtigung des Buhnenspiels (Munich, 1968). P. T. Stevens, “Euripides and the Athenians,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 76 (1956) 87-94. H. Strohm, Euripides: Interpretationen zur dramatischen Form (Munich, 1957). O. Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action (London, 1978). U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Einleitung in die griechische Tragodie (Berlin, 1907) [=Euripides: Herakles, vol. I (Berlin, 1895, reprinted Darmstadt, 1959)]. G. Zuntz, The Political Plays of Euripides (Manchester, 1963).
David Kovacs
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