Euripides anatomised man’s impossible moral dilemmas

Posted in Actors, Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Literature, Theatre on Wednesday, 6 February 2013

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This edited article about Euripides originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 118 published on 18 April 1964.

Electra, picture, image, illustration

Electra and Orestes

We know that two great Greek dramatists, Aeschylus and Sophocles, revolutionized the theatre from a one-man-only-on-the-stage affair by introducing other actors and actresses, and writing dialogue for them to speak.

Another great writer now completes the trio of men who made Greek plays something really worth going to watch. His name was Euripides.

Euripides, who was twelve years Sophocles’s junior, died like Aeschylus and Sophocles, in strange circumstances. According to some reports he was hunted to death by the hounds of Archelaus, King of Macedonia, at whose court he had been a welcome guest.

It is quite possible from our knowledge of Euripides that he committed some appalling insult to the king, for he was an austere and unfriendly man who was always ready to protest against authority in the most scathing terms.

He marked the autumn of this period of Athens – the man who preferred to stand coolly aloof from the passions of his time and examine with all the power of his great intellect the condition of the human soul.

Euripides was born in 480 B.C., of wealthy parents, who possessed something which was very rare in those days – a great library of their own.

Before turning to tragedy, Euripides tried athletics and then painting.

The first of his ninety-two plays was performed in 455 B.C. when he was twenty-five. Nineteen of the plays are still with us, and some of the best known are Medea, Electra, Iphigenia, Orestes, Helen and Bacchae.

He was not so popular with the Greeks as his contemporary geniuses, and scored only four first prizes in his lifetime, and one after his death. His lack of popularity was clearly due to the fact that many of his ideas ran counter to those of the ordinary men and women of his time. For instance, when Greece was about to start a war, he wrote The Trojan Women, in which he denounced war.

He was also prosecuted for impiety to the gods, a charge that might easily have led to his execution. But Euripides continued to refuse to accept the Greek gods in any traditional sense. He cut the heroic myth figures down to size. He brought everything down to earth, where men could see heroes, ideas, passions, tyranny, for what they really were.

No wonder he was unpopular!

Also, after two unhappy marriages, he became a woman-hater, in spite of the fact that he created heroines in some of his plays.

He even questioned the whole basis of the existence of the Greek city states – slavery.

“Many slaves,” he wrote, “are better men than the free.”

Euripides, so sincere and so uncompromising, was good subject matter for satire, and a number of lesser playwrights wrote comedies about his woman-hating. Some sought to show that Socrates helped him to write his plays.

Even after Euripides’s death in 406, the great comic writer Aristophanes, tried to belittle him in The Frogs.

But today we can find a contemporary ring about many of Euripides’s lines in which he questions man’s struggle to gain wealth and power at the cost of happiness. He wrote:

“Whoe’er can know as the long days go,
That to live is happy, hath found his Heaven.”

Aeschylus was the dramatist of great principles.

Sophocles was the dramatist of great characters.

Euripides was the dramatist of great moral problems.

Together they formed the most formidable group of writers ever to give simultaneously to the world the fruits of genius.

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