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Heracles | Study Guide


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Euripides | Biography


Early Life and Influences

Few details about Euripides's life are documented. He was born around 484 BCE. He was likely from a fairly wealthy family and was initially educated to become an athlete. Among Euripides's tutors was the foremost Sophist, Protagoras (c. 490–c. 420 BCE), whose ideas influenced his own. Protagoras was a known agnostic concerning the gods—that is, he neither believed nor disbelieved in the gods but instead believed the question was unanswerable. Protagoras's viewpoint was not uncommon among the educated elite of Greek society; he famously wrote, "Man is the measure of all things." In general, Sophists valued and practiced skepticism and the use of clever rhetorical argument to sway others' opinions and acquire political power. In their own time, some viewed Sophists as respected teachers, while traditionalists viewed them with distaste and considered them to be amoral tricksters. Euripides's fellow pupil and lifelong friend, Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE), was also marred by Sophism in the eyes of many of his contemporaries. This association with Sophism was used against both Euripides and Socrates by their detractors.

Euripides might have grown up on the island of Salamis, where his parents owned some property, and he probably wrote many of his plays there. The 1997 archaeological excavation of a cave on the island found a clay pot inscribed with the playwright's name, dating from the era in which he lived. Although the inscription had been added at a later date, the discovery gave weight to historical evidence that Euripides wrote in the cave.

Euripides's Plays

Euripides was not typical of his contemporary playwrights. His plays do not treat the gods with reverence but use them more as convenient sources of information than as arbiters (those with the power or authority to decide) of justice. He tends to portray the gods as childish—unreasonable and prone to tantrums. His tragic characters are not great heroes battling fate. Instead, they are believably flawed men and women his audiences could identify with. The tragic situations they face develop from both these human flaws and from the whims of the gods. This iconoclastic (attacking widely accepted beliefs or practices) treatment of Greek theatrical traditions may explain why Euripides received only three first prizes at festivals during his lifetime. However, his plays were frequently parodied, and after his death he became the most popular of his contemporary tragedians.

Euripides's tragedies include Medea (431 BCE), Hippolytus (428 BCE), Electra (c. 418 BCE), The Trojan Women (415 BCE), and The Bacchae (c. 406 BCE). Although Euripides had a reputation for misogyny (hatred of women), several of his plays feature women as powerful protagonists. The Trojan Women is one of these. It examines what happened to the women of Troy in the aftermath of the Trojan War. Their husbands and sons were slaughtered, and the women were taken into slavery by the victorious Greeks. The play delivers a potent antiwar message. Euripides's tragedies also include at least six plays featuring the legendary Greek hero Heracles. Of these, three have survived: Alcestis (438 BCE), The Children of Heracles (430 BCE), and Heracles (c. 416 BCE). In Heracles, which is alternatively titled The Madness of Heracles, the hero rises to the heights of heroism and to the lows of madness through the intervention of the gods. In line with his lifelong skepticism regarding the gods, Euripides portrays them as petty, cruel beings willing to destroy human lives on a whim.

Euripides also wrote tragicomedies—so called because of their happy endings—such as satyr plays, which contained bawdy jokes and slapstick action.

Death and Legacy

Euripides married a woman named Melito and had three sons, one of whom was a poet. He also reportedly had a second wife name Choirile and possibly also a daughter. Euripides eventually left Athens for the court of Archelaus, the king of Macedonia. He died there around 406 BCE. Euripides left a large body of work—about 92 plays and many fragments. Only 19 survive. This is well over twice the number of surviving works by Sophocles (c. 496–406 BCE) or Aeschylus (c. 525–c. 456 BCE), who were considered the greatest of his contemporaries at the time. That so much has survived the millennia attests to Euripides's lasting appeal.

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