Hippolytus | Study Guide


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Hippolytus | Context


Greek Tragedy and Structure

Commencing in 534 BCE, an annual festival called Great Dionysia or City Dionysia was held in Athens during the Golden Age of Greece, which ended with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Every spring, for over two centuries, the festival was held in the Theater of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis, a hilltop city complex with public buildings and temples. The purpose of the festival was to honor Dionysus, the god of wine and theater. Playwrights first submitted their works for review, and then three playwrights were chosen for the competition. Each of the three contestants presented three tragedies over the course of the festival. The plays were performed on an outdoor stage from sunrise to sunset, and a panel of judges chose a winner. The plays dealt with myths and gods and tackled moral issues faced by mortals. The performances were enacted by men only, wearing masks, and included choral singing and dancing. No violence was enacted onstage; reports of wars, murders, and suicides were delivered by a messenger character. The attending audiences of the festival were Athenian citizens and sometimes foreign guests. It is unclear whether women might have attended with a male relative, but records indicate that criminals attended because it was thought the plays would instill in them a higher moral sense. According to theater historian John Russell Brown, the general perception of the societal benefits of watching tragedies was that "The good citizens of the future may weep beneficial tears in the theatre, but the unjust shall shed real tears." Most of the plays in the Great Dionysia festival were tragedies, and Euripides, along with Sophocles and Aeschylus, was among the best known of the tragic playwrights. Comedies were introduced into the festival in 486 BCE but did not have the esteem of tragedies.

Greek tragedies follow a strict structure. While there are slight variations in the organization in some plays, classic Greek tragedies consist of these parts:

  • Prologos (PRŌH-loēh-goss): Also known as the prologue, this opening dialogue introduces the setting, topics, and themes of the play.
  • Parodos (PAIR-uh-doss): This is the first appearance of the chorus. They appear on stage with no actors present.
  • Episodes (EP-uh-sohds): The actors perform in scenes and interact with each other and the chorus through dialogue and sometimes song.
  • Stasimon(s) (STASS-uh-monz): Following each episode, the chorus comments on the action through the stasimon—a choral ode. A stasimon sometimes includes information not acted out in the scenes, helping to move the story forward.
  • Exodos (EX-uh-doss): This is the final scene of the play in which the moral or message of the story is revealed or discussed. There is usually a final chorus chant. One or more of the gods involved in the play usually appears to address the mortals.

Euripides's Innovations

Of the three great ancient Greek playwrights of the 5th century BCE—Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides—Euripides was the least heralded during his time. He only won the annual spring Dionysian play festival four times—his contemporaries each won the first prize over 10 times. His plays were popular with audiences but not as popular as those written by Sophocles and Aeschylus. However, unlike his contemporaries, Euripides was more innovative in the style, structure, and substance of his plays, a feature that likely impelled his popularity over time through revivals, even to today.

Euripides wrote dialogue that was closer to the colloquial speech of his contemporary Athenians, which was a departure from other playwrights. He also used his choruses a little differently, writing complex lyrical songs that could stand apart from the play while still connecting to the action (if sometimes tenuously). As his career developed, he would use the chorus less and less to tell the story of a play. Euripides relied on the Prologos, or Prologue, to quickly relay to the audience important events, people, and ideas before the action began. In the Exodos of his plays he also relied heavily on the traditional theatrical device of the deus ex machina—a technique that involved having a god appear during the Exodos to wrap up the loose ends of the plot. The technique originated in the 5th century BCE around the time Euripides wrote his plays.

Euripides's approach to the characters and ideas in his plays was different as well. He was a skeptic, and his attitude toward the ancient myths and Olympian gods was perhaps less fawning and more sober than his contemporaries. Rather than focus primarily on the sweeping and larger-than-life mythical abilities and ideas of the gods, Euripides was more interested in mortals who try their best to stumble through the personal and moral challenges of their lives. The gods, by contrast, are treated to all-too-human conditions, such as jealousy, revenge, or petulance.

Euripides avoided making the gods solely responsible for the actions of his human characters. To Euripides, mortals must cope with negative consequences because sometimes the bad decisions they make cause them great grief—regardless of any god involved in the story. His human characters are complex. They express fears and doubts, joy and love, humility and arrogance, and they act sometimes irrationally and sometimes heroically. Humans in the world were far more interesting to Euripides than the Olympian gods. He too often found the gods childish, irrational, and indifferent to the mortals they claimed to watch over.

Euripides was fascinated by the psychological and emotional state of mortals, which may be why his reputation and influence grew so much in the years and centuries after his death. More of his plays exist than those of Sophocles or Aeschylus, and to this day Euripides remains the most popular of the great Greek tragedians.

A Familiar Story

The tale of Joseph and Potiphar's wife is from the Hebrew Bible's book of Genesis (39:1-20), which scholars believe was written around 950 BCE or earlier. Joseph was a slave in the Egyptian Potiphar's house. The longer he remained there, the more responsibility Potiphar gave him. Before long Joseph was running nearly every aspect of the house. All Potiphar concerned himself with was eating. Potiphar's wife became very attracted to Joseph, and on many occasions she asked the slave to come to bed with her. He refused repeatedly. One day there were no other servants in the house. Potiphar's wife grabbed him and insisted he sleep with her—but he escaped the house, leaving his cloak behind. Angry that a slave would deny her, Potiphar's wife told her husband that Joseph had tried to rape her and left his cloak behind. Outraged, Potiphar sent his trusted slave Joseph to prison.

The tale of Joseph and Potiphar's wife would have been familiar to audiences in 5th century BCE Athens. The Greek playwright Sophocles (c. 496–06 BCE) and, much later, Roman philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BCE–65 CE) as well as Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE) created works featuring elements of the story. Euripides sets the story amidst the Olympians and increases the drama by having Phaedra—Potiphar's wife in the biblical narrative—hang herself before the accusation she reveals in her suicide note is made public. In the biblical story there is no mention of what happens to Potiphar's wife after Joseph is sent to prison. It is noted that this biblical story closely follows an older Egyptian folktale, Tale of Two Brothers (c. 1185 BCE). In this tale the husband kills his adulterous wife and feeds her to the dogs. There is also a similar story in the Iliad, attributed to epic poet Homer (9th or 8th century BCE), in which Bellerophon rejects Anteia, the wife of King Proetus. Anteia, in turn, falsely accuses Bellerophon of trying to seduce her. In the Iliad King Proetus exonerates Bellerophon, concluding that he has an exemplary character, and Bellerophon marries the king's daughter.

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