Of the 66 tragedies and 22 satyr plays Euripides wrote, the following survive: Alkēstis, 438 b.c.e. (Alcestis, 1781)
Mēdeia, 431 b.c.e. (Medea, 1781)
Hērakleidai, c. 430 b.c.e. (The Children of Herakles, 1781)
Hippolytos, 428 b.c.e. (revised version of an earlier play; Hippolytus, 1781)
Andromachē, c. 426 b.c.e. (Andromache, 1782)
Heklabē, 425 b.c.e. (Hecuba, 1782)
Hiketides, c. 423 b.c.e. (The Suppliants, 1781)
Kyklōps, c. 421 b.c.e. (Cyclops, 1782)
Hērakles, c. 420 b.c.e. (Heracles, 1781)
Trōiades, 415 b.c.e. (The Trojan Women, 1782)
Iphigeneia ē en Taurois, c. 414 b.c.e. (Iphigenia in Tauris, 1782)
Ēlektra, 413 b.c.e. (Electra, 1782)
Helenē, 412 b.c.e. (Helen, 1782)
Iōn, c. 411 b.c.e. (Ion, 1781)
Phoinissai, 409 b.c.e. (The Phoenician Women, 1781)
Orestēs, 408 b.c.e. (Orestes, 1782)
Bakchai, 405 b.c.e. (The Bacchae, 1781)
Iphigeneia ē en Aulidi, 405 b.c.e. (Iphigenia in Aulis, 1782)
Euripides (yew-RIHP-uh-deez) was the last of the three great Attic tragedians. Conservatives, represented mainly by the comic poets, complained that he debased tragedy by introducing ragged heroes, immoral women, and the subversive casuistry of the sophists. Euripides himself was not, as they allege, of low birth and unhappy in his marriages, though he may well have been a bookish recluse. He was more obviously concerned than were his predecessors with current political and social problems–one can trace his growing disillusionment with the Peloponnesian War from the Andromache to the Trojan Women–but he never held public office, won only four prizes, and was ready to leave Athens for Macedonia (c. 408
The formalism of Greek tragedy, because of its religious origin and associations, made marked deviations from the accepted subject matter and structure impossible, but within the traditional pattern Euripides effected startling changes in manner and substance. Instead of the traditional palace or temple facade, his setting may be a peasant’s hut or a remote barbaric shrine. The persons, whatever grand names they bear, are recognizable contemporary types; Sophocles once remarked that whereas he represented people as they should be, Euripides represented them as they are. Vocabulary, syntax, and meter (in the spoken parts) are far removed from the formal grandeur of his predecessors and virtually colloquial. The plots are richer in intrigue, and a detached character, frequently a deity, often introduces the play with an explanatory prologue. Most characteristic is Euripides’ use of the deus ex machina, or “god out of the machine,” to impose a traditional or happy ending where the course of the action would logically point to a different conclusion.
The availability of this device to effect a prescribed consummation allows the playwright greater freedom within the play, but almost always Euripides purposely makes the contrived ending difficult to accept and seems to hope that the intelligent part of the audience will supply the tragic ending the action implies. The choral odes are often little more than detachable interludes of song and dance to punctuate the episodes; as independent lyric utterance the odes have a new immediacy, suppleness, and poignancy. The psychological background and clarification that Aeschylus and Sophocles put into their choruses Euripides often presents in set speeches of his characters. Sometimes he will interrupt the unity of a play with a preachment, such as Medea’s attack on marriage, or even a joke, such as the parody of the Aeschylean recognition scene in the Electra.
These innovations in manner are all functions of a more significant innovation in spirit. In Euripides’ hands tragedy moved from the heroic to the bourgeois, from the abstract and timeless to the concrete and immediate, from theological speculation to social reform. His strategy is to transpose the traditional legends to a contemporary key, and to weigh the character of the actors and the morality of their actions by a realistic rather than an idealistic gauge. A decent man like Jason uses Medea badly because he shares the common view, which the result shows was mistaken, that women and non-Greeks are inferior. A decent man like Admetus is willing to let his wife die for him because he, too, thinks women inferior–wrongly, as the audience sees. Hippolytus is abnormally afraid of sex because he himself suffers from the social stigma of bastardy. Electra turns psychopathic and brutally murders her quite conventional mother and stepfather because of false notions of noblesse oblige. Basic to Euripides’ criticism is the sophists’ distinction between Physis and Nomos, nature and convention.
Does a belief or institution–the superiority of Greek over barbarian, man over woman, king over commoner, the legitimate over the baseborn–rest on nature or convention? If on nature, one can only yield, as one yields to the law of gravity or to the gods. (It is a mistake to say that Euripides was a rationalist; he may not have liked the gods, but plays such as the Hippolytus or The Bacchae indicate that he believed in them.) Euripides was not concerned, as Aeschylus was, with justifying apparent flaws in the universe, but much of human misery derives from outworn conventions which, having been made by humans, should be reformed by them. By contrast with Sophocles’ tragic doom, which is illuminated but not mitigated, by heroism, Euripides is optimistic in envisaging the possibility of improvement and humanitarian in his sympathy for the individual victims of the flaws in society’s conventions. He is at once philosophic, in his general reflections, and sensitive to the private suffering of his appealingly human characters. It is because of his concern for human rather than heroic characters (a reason that women figure so largely in his plays) that his treatment tends to be pathetic rather than tragic.
Euripides was a poet, not merely a pamphleteer or an inspired teacher. His intellectuality and his impatience with illusion did not blunt his sensitivity to the beauty and worth of all life. There are no villains in his plays (unless it be Apollo, especially in the Ion), only sick sufferers. It is because his apprehension of the world and its people is so encompassing and so essentially lyrical that his plays are sometimes badly constructed and sometimes crowded but always directly appealing. Audiences found him warm and relevant long after his starker predecessors had grown cold and remote. Euripides, not Aristophanes, is the direct antecedent of Menander’s comedy of manners, and he may be considered the progenitor of the mainstream of European drama.