Tradition places the birth of Euripides on the very day of Salamis, 480 B.C. His life was devoted to dramatic composition and literary study: he possessed a library, and, avoiding casual society, wrote much of his work in a cave on Salamis. The Ionian philosopher Anaxagoras had great influence upon him, and Socrates is said to have been his friend, though one cannot easily imagine Socrates caring for caves. Euripides was twice married, and had three sons. His last years were passed at the court of Archelaus, king of Macedonia, where he died and was buried in 406 B.C.
Euripides' reputation during his lifetime was great but equivocal: he was one of the writers whom all discuss but few approve. Not till 455 did he 'obtain a chorus' (that is, have his work accepted for performance) and then he won only the third, or lowest, place. He wrote about one hundred plays, but gained the first prize only four times; after his death the Bacchae and its companions won a fifth victory. Yet there is no doubt that he was regarded as a distinguished dramatist, despite his unwelcome novelties of views and manner. In later antiquity his reputation was prodigious throughout the Graeco-Roman world.
The novelties just mentioned are not formal, like those introduced by Sophocles; in fact, there are many points in which Euripides is nearer to Aeschylus than to Sophocles. But within the customary 'framework he shows a profound change of spirit. Persons and classes hitherto condemned or ignored receive from him, not necessarily praise, but lively interest, sympathy, attention from a new point of view. The slaves and common soldiers or citizens who form a mere background in earlier work become individualized and attractive in his hands. Great persons of legend, whose characters seemed fixed by preceding writers, are studied anew: sinners, like Clytaemnestra or Phaedra, are not rehabilitated, perhaps, but explained; heroes, like Jason or Achilles, are viewed from the standpoint, not of applauding followers but of those whom they have disappointed or wronged. Sophocles said: 'I depict people as they ought to be, Euripides depicts them as they are.' Above all, he gives us many wonderful studies in female character, showing a sympathy and understanding which can be found nowhere else in ancient European literature, except in Terence. There are corresponding novelties in his literary manner--and also, we are told, in his music, but of that we cannot judge. His lyrics, though good, often beautiful, and sometimes glorious, nevertheless tend (in comparison with those of the other two masters) to be not only less important to the whole play, but lighter, more artificial; often they seem to have been definitely subservient to the music. And in the' episodes'--the play proper, as we are tempted to call it in Euripides--the style, though consummate in skill and in its own kind of beauty, has much less stateliness than that of Sophocles, not to mention Aeschylus. Its metre is relaxed, its idiom brisk and neat, coming closer to the manner of spoken Attic. Euripides is, in short, on some sides a realist: as Aristophanes makes him say, 'I introduced familiar life, the things of our ordinary experience.' Several of his 'tragedies' are really tragi-comedies; the New Comedy of Menander and others owed more to him than to Aristophanes.
His extant work comprises nineteen plays and many hundreds of fragments, of which a good number are important in particular, extensive portions of the Hypsipyle were discovered in 1906 at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. The nineteen are: Alcestis, Andromache, Bacchae, Cyclops, Electra, Hecuba, Helen, Heraclidae, Hercules Furens, Hippolytus, Ion, Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia in Tauris, Medea, Orestes, Phoenissae, Rhesus, Supplices, Troades ( 'TrojanWomen' Women'). The Cyclops is a satyric play, and Rhesus is of doubtful authorship. We shall now discuss a few of these works.
Alcestis, Euripides' earliest extant play (with the possible exception of Rhesus), was produced in 438 B.C., and gained the second prize. The scene is laid before the palace of Admetus at Pherae. Apollo tells that he induced the Fates to allow Admetus to escape death if some one would take his place. Alcestis, his wife, consented, and is to die this day. Death enters and Apollo in vain asks him to spare her. The chorus of elders enter and are told by a servant about Alcestis's farewells. She is carried forth and dies amid the lamentations of Admetus. Heracles enters, and Admetus insists on giving him hospitality, pretending that the dead woman is a stranger. Later, when the funeral procession is moving, Pheres, Admetus's father, enters to pay his respects but is repelled by Admetus because he refused to die and save Alcestis.; an ignoble quarrel ensues. When all have gone, the butler comes forth, complaining of Heracles' drunkenness. Heracles follows, and, sobered by learning the truth, announces his purpose of rescuing Alcestis from Death; he sets out. Admetus comes in with the chorus, expressing his heart-broken desolation. Heracles returns with a veiled woman, whom he says he has won as a prize at a local contest; Admetus must keep her for him till he returns. The king reluctantly consents and she is revealed by Heracles as Alcestis.--The chief qualities of this play are: (i) the charming picture of the heroine as a source of calm sunshine in her home; (ii) the beautiful odes, especially the famous song which tells how the wild beasts flocked to the music of Apollo when he tended Admetus's herds; (iii) the comic tone of several scenes--it so happens that Alcestis's rescue is due to the drunkenness of Hera'cles, which angers the butler into revealing the truth in order to shame him.
Medea was produced in 431 B.C., and obtained the third prize. The background is the house of Medea at Corinth. Jason, whom she helped to win the Golden Fleece, proposes to desert her and their two children and marry the daughter of King Creon. Medea, after a great speech on the sorrows of women, begs the chorus of Corinthian ladies to aid by silence if she finds any way of revenge. Creon enters and orders her to leave the country with her children. Medea obtains one day's grace and determines on poison as her method of revenge. She has a terrible altercation with Jason who in vain offers her aid in her coming exile. Later, Aegeus, king of Athens, arrives and Medea induces him to swear that if she comes to Athens he will protect her. Sure of a retreat, Medea makes a pretended reconciliation with Jason and persuades him to take the children to his bride that she may allow them to stay in Corinth.
But the gifts they bear are poisoned. The bride and her father die in torment; Medea, after a terrible soliloquy of agonized indecision, slays her children, and escapes to Athens on a magic chariot.--This is not Euripides' greatest play, but it contains work which he never surpassed. Medea herself is magnificently drawn.
In Sophocles the clash of will and emotion, essential to drama, arises from the confrontation of two people, each self-consistent. In Medea the conflict rages in a single soul: her tremendous willpower and passion, conflicting with love for her children, dominate the action and give it perfect unity. The other characters, in their degree, are portrayed with delightful mastery; Jason, in particular, is a marvellous blend of superficial cleverness and spiritual stupidity; his wife's passionate resentment only impels him to 'make her see reason'. The literary excellence of the drama is not less splendid. Medea's plan to seek refuge in Athen: occasions the amazingly beautiful ode on Attica.
As in his own time, so today, the reputation of Euripides is great but equivocal. Many cannot understand, and therefore suspect or dislike, a man who does several things consummately. Euripides is a tragedian, a lyrist, a wit, a student of religion, natural science, philosophy, politics, rhetoric, sociology, and morals; it is a sign of the coming disintegration of the. Attic spirit that these things are separately visible in his work. Arnold's famous sonnet proclaims that Sophocles 'saw life steadily, and saw it whole Euripides is more conscious of the separate parts than of the unity. He may be called 'decadent' in the sense that the Attic serenity and concentration are not to be seen in him. He belongs to the age of disillusionment which sooner or later impressed itself on men who pondered the villainies of the Peloponnesian War. Euripides was a man of restless mind and extraordinarily wide sympathies, so that he reacted to the war sooner than any one. He is the first exemplar of that cosmopolitan spirit which is marked in Plato and still more in Aristotle.