Euripides (484? 480? BCE – 406 BCE)
I realised after I'd been working on this for a while that I don't have much to say, nothing startlingly original, about Euripides' plays. That's not really a surprise, since I've never played with blackened shreds of papyrus, don't know any Greek and have never even seen a performance of a Greek tragedy. Accordingly, there are very few references to poetry or theatre here. Instead I became interested in trying to grasp the totality of his work so far as that is known, so this article has transformed into a sort of list of plays, with a few very brief comments on some of the ones that survive complete. As usual, references are not given; I will have repeated the errors of others as well as adding some of my own, in the best traditions of medieval scholarship. So check everything! If you really want to know about the Euripidean canon you need such works as the Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta
, Vol 5 (ed. Richard Kannicht, 2004), a snip from Göttingen at €368. T.B.L. Webster's The Tragedies of Euripides
(Methuen, 1967) has substantial information about all the lost plays.
I suppose most people will find this article boring - an endless list of lost plays and compressed summaries of confusingly similar legends. Setting the famous survivals back into this context has changed my view of Euripides, though. In a way I see the surviving plays less reverently. The broader context emphasizes, for example, how the characters who appear on stage had a familiarity for their audience and are almost like the stock characters in a Commedia dell'arte troupe: Agamemnon, Heracles, Clytemnestra, etc - check the plot summary of e.g. Telephus
(40), or the unexpected appearance of Orestes in Andromache
(51); also how prevalent certain motifs are, in tragedy just as much as comedy: that parents are always killing or trying to kill their children, scorned females falsely accuse their scorners, etc. The idea that the conception of Greek tragedy progressively declines from nobly austere beginnnings into tragicomedy and melodrama feels less secure.* One begins to see Victorian admiration for Alcestis
(41), Iphigenia among the Taurians
(65), and Ion
(66) as perhaps only one way of looking at Euripides. But whichever you cut it, the Bacchae
(81) remains unique and astonishing.
[* There are vague hints that the earliest tragedies (i.e. in the obscure half-century before The Persians
) were more like satyr-plays. Whatever else tragedy implied, it did not imply a compulsory "unhappy ending" involving the death of a leading character. Indeed Aristotle seems to say that people criticized Euripides' penchant for "unhappy endings" .]
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