One of the most important Greek dramatists, Euripides (c.480-406BC) was
born in Salamis on the day of the great battle between the Greeks and the
Persians (Sept. 23).
He got a thorough education, and his first play entered the Athenian drama
festivals in 454BC, without success though. Twelve years later he won the first
prize, and was to win a total of five prizes in his life.
Euripides saw himself as a misunderstood writer and was often criticised by
people like Aristophanes (The Frogs). He kept to himself and did not involve
himself with politics.
Influenced by the Sophists and Protagoras, Anaxagoras and Socrates, Eurupides
wrote about the Greek legends and myths in an everyday language and without
traditional religious and moral values.
Euripides wanted to make his characters as people really were, not what they
should be. He was also interested in the individual, rather than the gods and
heroes. Many of his protagonists were female characters.
He was very famous in his time, but not exceedingly popular. The writer
ended his days at the court of the Macedonian king Archelaos, where he
accidentally was killed by the kings hunting dogs.
Euripides perhaps best known work is Medea, but his plays Orestes, Bacchae,
Trojan Women and Electra are also famous. Other works were Cyclops,
Alcestis, Hippolytus, Helen, Iphigenia at Aulis, Andromache, Children of
Heracles, Hecuba, Suppliants, Madness of Heracles, Iphigenia in Tauri , Ion
Euripides used the deus ex machina in his works, the sudden and unexpected
intervention of a god which would change the story. He used the chorus less
and had them dressed in more realistic costumes.
MENELAOS: It is your duty to obey, my lady. You must accept the husband who
stands before you, and forget the one whose claim has ended. In your present
position this will be the best for you. And if I come home safely to Hellas,
I will put an end to evil tales about you; only be the wife you should be to
During the long life of Euripides, who commenced writing tragedies at the
age of eighteen, he witnessed Athens emerge from a cluster of villages,
defended merely by a wooden rampart, and almost crushed for a time by the
Persian invasion, to the days of Cymon and Pericles, when a new city arose,
beautified with the works of artists more talented than those of any other
age, and when taste and intellect attained their highest development, until,
as he grew older, the luxury and failing energy of the rising generation
were slowly but surely undermining her political igour, her reputation, and
her very existence. The listeners to his compositions were of all ranks and
ages, representing, besides the various Hellenic races, foreigners from all
the neighbouring countries with whom they were in friendly communication,
and whose idlers and traders were sojourning in the fair capital, the eye of
The fates have decreed the death of Admetus, king of Pherm in Thessaly, but
Apollo has prevailed on them to accept a substitute. His father and mother
decline, but his wife Alcestis is willing to ransom him with her life. The
play opens with her doom at hand, and Death is waiting at the palace gate
for his victim. She takes leave of her husband, children, and household,
amidst tears and wailings, and, just after her decease, Hercules arrives as
a guest. Observing the signs of grief in the house, he would pass on to
another acquaintance, but Admetus will not hear of such a breach of
hospitality, and orders a servant to prepare dinner for him. The slave in
attendance is scandalised at his appetite and conviviality at such a time.
Hercules rates him for his solemn- visage,- reminding him that for all to
die is natures due ; but, when he learns that his host is mourning for his
wife, he is sobered at once, and hurries out to render such service as the
strongest of mankind can perform. Alcestis having been laid in her grave,
Death is making ready to feast on her corpse, little expecting who is about
to intervene. Her noble, and tender, and loving nature is finely told by the
poet, and a Chorus of old men express the grief of all who knew her that she
is removed from the cheery sunlight, the lucid streams, and the verdant
pastures, which gladdened her when alive. The character of Admetus, on the
other hand, is weak and selfish, he would not die instead of her, but now he
will forego all further enjoyment in life, and evinces neither spirit nor
heroism. He even reproaches his old father for not having consented to take
the place of Alcestis, and is deservedly rebuked for his want of real
affection for his wife in not submitting himself to the summons of the
fates. The appearance of Hercules, however, has cast a ray of hope on the
general gloom, for he was believed to be as generous and genial as he was
valiant and strong. A Choral song comments on -the relentless power of
necessity, and, alluding to Alcestis, they tell the king that nothing can
restore her to life, but that her tomb must be honoured, and the passing
traveller told, "Within doth lie She who dared for love to die".
Then comes the final scene, in which Hercules has compelled Death to release
his prey, and restores the devoted wife to-the-arms of her astonished
Jason, has deserted his wife Medea for the daughter of Creon, King of
Corinth, who cannot rest until the Colchian witch is out of his dominions.
An old nurse tells a servant of Jason of Medeas sad condition, and her
apprehension for the two children, whom she begs may not be brought near
their sorrow-frenzied mother, for she fears her wrath will not abate until
it has swooped upon some prey. Medeas voice is heard within, exclaiming,
Cursed sons of a loathed mother, die, ye and your sire and let all our house wane away.
The Chorus of Corinthian women comment on her wild and whirling words; and
again is heard the plaint of the indignant princess. The Chorus sympathise,
and Medea comes forth, expatiating on the hardship of being a woman, and the
few prizes and many blanks in the lottery of marriage. She entreats them to
keep her counsel if she should reveal her secret purpose, which they promise
to do, admitting her right to avenge herself on her husband, Creon now
enters and bids her not linger to quit his realm with her two sons. Speaking
aside, she says "My enemies crowd on all sail, and there is now no haven
from despair" but she kneels to the king, and obtains his consent to
delay her departure till the morrow. Then she confides to the Chorus her
intention that the father and the girl and he my husband shall perish
by dagger or drug, vowing that none shall wring her heart and still be glad.
After an intervening Chorus, Jason enters and assures her that he has done
his best to avert her banishment, and offers a handsome provision for
herself and children. Medea turns upon him with a recapitulation of the
services she has rendered him and scornfully rejects his pretended sympathy.
Still he calls the gods to witness his desire to serve her, but she tells
him to go to his new bride, and warns him that he will wish the new wedding
undone. The Chorus celebrate the power, and deprecate the wrath of Venus and
Aegeus, King of Athens, opportunely appears to offer shelter and protection
to the injured heroine, whose plans of vengeance are now altered. She
recalls Jason, regrets her angry words, and will even conciliate his new
wife, and the king, with a robe and crown, on condition that her children
shall not quit the realm. Jason assents, but the gifts are poisoned, and
Glauce and Creon expire in torments.
Jason rushes in to arrest the sorceress, demanding of the Chorus, seeks
she to kill me too ? Nay, they reply,
The boys have perished by their mothers hand, Open these gates and see thy
He does so, and would kiss their dear lips, but Medea taunts him with
her wrongs, and mocks his love for the offspring he had consented to banish.
Agamemnon is awaiting in his tent at Aulis the arrival of his wife,
Clytemnestra, and their daughter, Iphigenia. It is night, and the occupants
of the camp are asleep, not the sound of birds is heard, nor of the sea, the
winds are hushed in silence.
The king of men is agitated with grief, for Diana detains the Greek fleet on
its way to Troy with contrary winds, because he has shot one of her sacred
deer, and Calchas, the soothsayer, has declared that he must sacrifice his
daughter to appease the goddess. He has accordingly sent for her and her
mother, on the pretext of marrying her to Achilles, but has afterwards
written a letter enjoining them to remain at home, which Menelaus has
intercepted, and an angry debate ensues between them. Agamemnon remains on
the stage, and, receiving tidings that his wife, with Iphigenia and the
infant Orestes, have arrived, he- tells his woes to the audience.
At daybreak the camp is astir, and the brothers are reconciled, Menelaus
retracting his unkind words, and declaring that neither love nor ambition
shall divide them. The queen and her children then appear in their chariot,
and are welcomed by a Chorus of women, whom Clytemnestra addresses.
Agamemnon receives them with simulated joy and suppressed fear, whilst their
happiness and curiosity respecting the approaching nuptials, and their
innocent ignorance of the genealogy of the supposed bridegroom, are masterly
creations of poetic fancy.
Agamemnon vainly tries to persuade his wife to
return to Argos, leaving him to conduct the marriage ceremony, and, at his
wits end, goes to consult Calchas. During his absence, Achilles arrives to
report that he can no longer restrain the impatience of the Myrmidons to
reach Troy, and is astonished at being saluted by Clytemnestra as her
son-in-law. Highly indignant on learning from an old slave the plot, he
promises to do all in his power to rescue the victim. Agamemnon returns to
find that his secret is divulged, and is implored, first by his wife, and
then by his daughter, to change his purpose. But he assures them that he
cannot recede; and presently Achilles rushes in, with the intelligence that
the soldiers insist on the sacrifice.
Iphigenia now heroically volunteers to
die, in order that the Greeks may triumph in their expedition, and that her
father may gain un ending renown. All admit the necessity, and a solemn
procession is formed, the Chorus chanting a funeral hymn as they proceed to
the altar of Diana. The goddess, however, appears to the weeping mother, to
tell her that her daughter is not dead, but has been spirited away to the
IPHIGENIA AT TAURUS
She has been a priestess of Diana, in her temple at Balaclava, for twenty
years, without news of her country or kindred, when a Greek vessel arrives
at the barbarous region, and two strangers secretly survey the temple, with
the object of carrying off the image of the goddess to Attica. They are
Orestes and his friend Pylades and Iphigenia relates that she dreamt of
her brother the previous night.
A herdsman arrives with intelligence of the
capture of two youths on the beach, who will be a grateful offering on
Dianas shrine, and bidding the priestess make ready for the sacrifice. On
learning from them all that has happened since she left Argos, she decides
to spare one of them, that he may convey a letter to her father. An exciting
contention takes place between the two friends which of them shall do her
commission, each claiming the privilege of dying for the other. Then brother
and sister recognise each other, and all three plot together to deceive
Thoas the king, and make their escape with the statue.
A soldier brings intelligence to Thoas that the strangers were bearing it and Iphigenia away
in their boat, but that the sea swept the galley back to the beach. The king
instantly summonses his people to avenge the insult, and the capture of the
fugitives is imminent, when Minerva appears, and apprises Thoas it is her
pleasure that both Iphigenia and the statue shall be carried to Greece, for
the establishment of Dianas worship there, and so Agamemnons children are
saved, and the faithful Pylades is to marry their sister, Electra.
Cadmus, a prehistoric king of Thebes, was grandfather to Bacchus, and the
play opens with a crowd of Theban women of all ranks, dressed in skins and
ivy, brandishing poles, and dancing, goaded to frenzy by the appearance of a
handsome stranger, with a retinue of damsels, who claims kin-ship with the
royal house, and who announces himself to the audience as the wine god. The
king and his seer, Tiresias, are preparing to join in the general excite.
ment, but are restrained by his grandson, Pentheus, to whom he has ceded the
sceptre, and who announces his determination to put down this new worship,
threatening to imprison the women, and to cut off the strangers head. Cadmus
counsels him, for the credit of the family, to acknowledge the new deity,
but Pentheus spurns the advice and the enthusiasts depart for the
The Chorus deprecate the blasphemy of Pentheus, and warn him of
the- consequences of his impiety. Bacchus is now brought before him
manacled, and, although greatly struck with his personal attractions, he
consigns him to the royal stables as a prisoner.
The god, however, releases
himself, and, after appearing to his worshippers, again stands before
Pentheus. A messenger brings the news that the revellers are spreading all
over the country, and Pentheus decides to go and witness the orgies, with
the view of suppressing them without resorting to force. Notwithstanding his
recent denunciations, he, in his eagerness to carry out his idea, accents
the gods offer to be his guide, and is persuaded to assume the dress of a
Calling to his women that the man is in their net, Bacchus
bereaves him of sense and makes him a laughing-stock for all Thebes. The
Chorus respond in jubilant strains, anticipating his doom. Pentheus is now
seized with madness, and a messenger relates his miserable end. Led by the
god to Mount Cithaeron, he falls into the hands of the women, amongst whom
he recognises his mother, Agaoi, crying out to her,I am thy child, thine
own, my mother ; but she knows him not, and tears out his arms from his
shoulder, upon which Ino, his kinswoman, and the rest of the women, entirely
dismember him, and carry away his limbs to Thebes as trophies, the returning
procession being ushered back to the city by a choral hymn of ghastly
triumph at the massacre, his mother bearing his head, which, in her frenzy,
she believes is a lions, to suspend in the temple.
Bacchus now appears and decrees that Cadmus shall become a dragon, and his
wife assume a brutish shape, but that, in after ages, they shall resume
their human forms, and be borne by Mars to the Isles of the Blest.
In order to establish a divine pedigree for the Ionic Greeks, whose
ancestors had emigrated from Athens, Euripides adopts a legend that Creusa,
the daughter of one of her early kings, who was married to Xuthus, a
military leader, bore a son to Apollo, whom she named Ion, and concealed in
a cave under the Acropolis, from whence he was carried by Mercury to Delphi.
Here he was reared by one of the vestals, and dedicated to the service of
his fathers temple. Xuthus comes to consult Trophonius, a neighbouring
oracle, why his wife has no offspring; and Creusa to obtain, ostensibly for
a friend, , tidings of her son. Encountering Ion, she tells him her history,
and is rebuked for aspersing the god, the Chorus remarking that mankind
seldom realise their wishes.
Xuthus enters with the intelligence that
Trophonius has referred him to Apollo, but has hinted that they will not
return home childless. Ion converses again. with Creusa, and admits having
heard of Apollos intrigue. Xuthus now re-appears, with an injunction from
the Pythoness to address the first male stranger he meets as his son. Ion
is, of course, the stranger, but he recoils from the salutation, and
threatens Xuthus with an arrow in his heart.
After some discussion, however,
they mutually accept the relationship, but Xuthus proposes to conceal the
discovery from his wife, who may not care to acknowledge a ready-made son
and heir, although she will no doubt take to him in. time. Meanwhile, he
will celebrate the event by a sacrifice to Apollo and a feast to the
Delphians. As he leaves the stage be begs the Chorus, who are ,Athenian
women, not to reveal the secret; but as soon as Creusa returns, attended by
an aged servant, they tell her everything, except the name of Ions mother.
Jealous and indignant, she confides to the servant her intention to poison
the youth with some of the Gorgons blood which she possesses, when lie is
beneath her roof, but the servant points out she will certainly be
suspected,` a step-dames hate is proverbial.
So she entrusts him with the poison to infuse secretly into Ions goblet
after supper. In the midst of a choral ode, an attendant enters hastily in
quest of Creusa, saying the plot has failed, the old man is arrested and has
confessed, and the Delphian authorities are in pursuit of her. The Chorus
elicit from the messenger that an ill omen having been uttered as Ion was
about to drink, he poured his wine on the ground, and a dove that drank some
of it died in convulsions, which led to the discovery. Creusa now returns
she has been doomed to death by the Pythian Council, and Ion is to be her
executioner. Clasping the altar, she appeals for life, but is told,"Ill
becomes it that the unjust and just alike should seek protection there."
The old prophetess, however, who tended Ion as an infant, produces the
basket and embroidered clothes in which he was found, and Creusa claims them
as her work. She embraces her long-lost son, and acknowledges that Apollo is
his father. Minerva comes forward and explains the reasons for the
concealment, bidding Creusa seat her son on his grandsires throne, with a
prediction of the fortunes of the Ionian race, and that she shall be the
mother of another son by Xuthus, from whom will descend their rivals the