Euripides (485-406 bce), unlike Aeschylus and Sophocles, had no significant official public life in 5th-century bce Athens. The size of his library suggests instead a private intellectual life. He won first prize at the annual dramatic contests less often than the other two because, probably, of what Aristotle later would call “irregularities” — actually his nonconformist and iconoclastic attitude regarding Greek religion and Athenian politics. He was the target of comic poets (as in Aristophanes’ Frogs), and, when 73 years old and apparently disgusted with his treatment, he accepted an invitation from King Archelaus to live in Macedonia, where he wrote a few more plays. Among these last was The Bacchae, which won first prize in Athens when presented after his death.
Euripides gained a reputation as a misogynist (and although one legend has him being torn apart by dogs at death, another claims it was women), but only because of willful misinterpretation of his plays, for he liked exploring abnormal mental states and dramatized exotic and disturbing myths that challenge the establishment:
- Hippolytus: stepmother Phaedra in love with her stepson
- Andromache: a “barren” jealous wife plans the murder of her husband’s concubine and son
- Sthenoboea: a “Joseph and Potiphar’s wife” plot
- Aeolus: a brother and sister in love
- Auge: a girl bears an illegitimate child in a temple
- Medea: a mother murders her two sons
Euripides subtle social critique included the Athenian relegation of women to lower status than men. Note how many of even his surviving plays feature women as the main character.
Euripides typically uses the Chorus in less integral ways than Sophocles. He develops the “Agon” — a direct and usually hostile confrontation between main characters delivered in rapid-fire argumentative and accusatory lines. And he typically uses “Deus ex Machina” (a God from a Machine) — a sudden introduction of an element (or the mechanized cranking down of a god on a platform to resolve human dilemmas) that provides a contrived solution to sticky plot problems. In his plays, the usage seems to comment on artificiality itself and audience expectations.
In terms of the gods and fate, Euripides paints the controlling forces as essentially amoral and indifferent to human concerns. Perhaps his fundamental questionings indicate the influence of Sophistry in 5th-century bce Athens.
19 of his 90 plays survive.