Hippolytus | Study Guide

Euripides

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Euripides | Biography

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Early Life and Influences

Euripides was esteemed as a significant tragic dramatist of Greece in the late classical mode, along with Aeschylus (525/24–456/55 BCE) and Sophocles (c. 496–06 BCE). Few details about Euripides's life are documented, but it is generally accepted that he was born around 484 BCE and was from a fairly wealthy Athenian family who educated him to become an athlete. 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. He won entry into the annual Athenian dramatic festival in 455, participating in 22 competitions in total, and won his first prize in 441. Aside from his dramatic activities, it is recorded that Euripides served on a diplomatic mission to Syracuse, a Greek city-state that had sided with the Spartans against Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431–04 BCE).

Euripides had an interest in the secular ideas of the Sophists and philosopher-scientists such as Protagoras (c. 490–20 BCE), who was Euripides's tutor. Not only were the Sophists considered immoral atheists who corrupted young men, but some of them used clever rhetorical arguments to sway others' opinions with the intent to gain wealth and political power. The plays of Euripides reflect a correspondingly restless questing for understanding beyond Greek religion, and Euripides shared in the public criticisms leveled against the Sophists. However, Euripides did not suffer the fate of such Athenian philosophers as Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE), who was condemned to death, or Protagoras, whose books were publicly burned along with his being exiled from Athens. Even so, it is reputed that Euripides was disappointed in how his plays were received, so much so that he left Athens for the court of Archelaus, the king of Macedonia. Euripides died there around 406 BCE.

Euripides's Plays

Euripides left a large body of work—about 92 plays and many fragments. Of these, only 19 are extant, or still existing in their entirety. Of Aeschylus's and Sophocles's plays, only 14 are extant, seven for each playwright. This shows that Euripides's plays enjoyed longer-lasting popularity in revivals. Euripides's most well-known complete tragedies have enjoyed popularity into modern times. These include Alcestis (438 BCE), Medea (431 BCE), Hippolytus (428 BCE), Electra (c. 418 BCE), The Trojan Women (415 BCE), and The Bacchae (c. 406 BCE). The Bacchae is one of Euripides's three most famous tragedies, the other two being Medea and Electra. It is considered by many to be his masterpiece. Like his other works, The Bacchae not only draws on Greek mythology but also explores the tensions and conflicts between the human and the divine, sanity and insanity, reason and irrationality, social order and religious frenzy, male and female, the familiar and the unfamiliar, and the self and the other. Among other important topics for reflection, Euripides asks his audience to consider the nature of justice, religious belief, and suffering.

None of Euripides's comedies has survived, but the latter stages of Euripides's playwriting career include plays that might more accurately be called romantic dramas because they have happy endings characterized by complex character development and a revelatory moment when a character's true identity is revealed, which takes the plot in a different direction and sparks the events leading to the happy ending. These plays include Ion (c. 413 BCE), Iphigenia Among the Taurians (c. 413 BCE), and Helen (c. 412 BCE). This shift in dramatic development is credited with having laid the foundation for tragicomedies and the New Comedy style that followed. New Comedy plays flourished between about 320 BCE to 260 BCE. In this later style, the chorus became less prominent and the action focused on fictionalized stock characters based on everyday people and the relationships between them. The plot of Ion, which depends upon the reconciliation of a parent with a lost child, is reflected in Shakespeare's also late-life tragicomedy, Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1609).

Hippolytus

Euripides won the dramatic competition in Athens in 428 BCE with his play Hippolytus. According to scholars this was actually Euripides's second play about Hippolytus. An earlier version (date unknown) was considered too salacious, as it depicted Hippolytus's stepmother, Phaedra, overtly trying to seduce her stepson. The story line would have been too risqué for audiences of the time. Like many of Euripides's works, Hippolytus explores the conflicts between humans and the gods, men and women, and passion and piety. The play was well received at its first performance and has remained popular over time. However, a 1677 retelling of the story by French playwright Jean Racine (1639–99) titled Phèdre became the more produced version of the tragedy over the centuries. Racine's tragedy shifts the focus of the story from Hippolytus to Phaedra.

Family Life and Legacy

Euripides married a woman named Melito and had three sons, one of whom, thought to have been a poet, is credited with possibly having completed his father's unfinished play, Iphigenia at Aulis. Although he received the first prize for his plays at the annual Athenian Festival only four times compared with fellow-playwright Sophocles's 42 winnings, the fact that Euripides was chosen as one of three laureates more than 20 times during the years of his participation in the festival bears witness to his influence. His plays enjoyed immense popularity after his death. The relatable themes Euripides explores in his plays make them popular with modern audiences and influence literary authors of today.

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