Euripides was one of the greatest Athenian playwrights and poets of Greek tragedy. His plays were extremely popular and controversial, yet held independent thought and innovative dramatic devices with an incredible form of creating mood within his plays. Euripides was often referred to as the “most tragic of all the poets” simply because his plays provoked pity and fear. His work is still read widely today because of how he reshaped the structure of traditional Greek tragedy, thus is considered to be the most socially critical out of all the ancient Greek tragedians. Medea, Alcestis, Hippolytus, and The Bacchae are a some of his most famous and well-known plays. His works were so important that they strongly influenced New Comedy, Roman drama, and were later adored by Corneille and Racine who were 17th Century French classicists. However, his focus on the realism of his characters in his plays were thought of to be too modern for his time. That being said, his plays were so groundbreaking due to the way he added new elements of comedy to his works and became the creator of the “love-drama”. Euripides rarely won the first prize in dramatic competitions due to the fact that his plays were shockers who unmasked heroes and wrote about powerless women and children in extreme and realistic situations.
Euripides’ plays differed from Aeschylus and Sophocles, the two great Greek playwrights before him, because of how he wrote his characters to have tragic fates that originate due to their flawed nature and undisciplined passions. According to Britannica Academic, “Chance, disorder, and human irrationality and immorality frequently result not in an eventual reconciliation or moral resolution but in apparently meaningless suffering that is looked upon with indifference by the gods. The power of this type of drama lies in the frightening and ghastly situations it creates and in the melodramatic, even sensational, emotional effects of its characters’ tragic crises.” In addition, many plays of his begin with a monologue that blatantly explains the situation, the characters, and the starting point of the plot. However, at the end of his plays, the god’s have an epilogue that is used to expose the future of the characters. A plot device he normally used was called deus ex machina where often a god is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly to provide a planned solution to resolve his plays. The way he went about ending his plays has been highly criticized along with how he utilizes the chorus. He was known to use the chorus less and less in his works, which many argued was a mistake because of how it took away from the dramatic element and action. Although his works were highly criticized and sometimes looked down upon on during his time, it is evident that now we understand, study, and accept the way he wrote and developed his plays. Some scholars say his plays were suggested to be ahead of his time, thus could be a major reason why modern theatre historians are so interested in his works to this day. “Euripides’ focus on the realism of his characters was just too modern for his time, and his use of realistic characters (Medea is a good example) with recognizable emotions and a developed, multi-faceted personality may actually have been one reason why Euripides was less popular in his own time than some of his rivals” (Ancient-Literature.com, Ancient Greece). Towards the end of his career, Euripides began to write tragedies. However, those tragedies he wrote were actually considered to be romantic dramas or tragicomedies. His plays were unique because they had happy endings and also were written to show the discovery of a character’s true identity. The change of the character’s identity usually lead to the happy ending, which is why his plays would be considered tragicomedy. Some plays that use this style were Taurians, Helen, and Ion. The overwhelming amount of emotion and realism portrayed in Euripides’ plays made him extremely popular, thus he became one of the most popular playwrights of Ancient Greece.
Euripides is well known for influencing Greek tragedy by exhibiting strong female characters and exaggerates the role and power of women within his plays. Euripides was known to explore the many characteristics of the female psyche in his plays. To understand Euripides’ thoughts on women, it is important to understand the basis of some of plays. For example, in The Bacchae, he portrays the ferocity of women once they are freed from their household, or commonly known as, oikos. In this play, Euripides explores femininity because of how the women in this play rebelled against their place in society and seize the power from men. Amy Lai explored the female rebellion in The Bacchae by explaining, “ The Bacchae celebrates the rebellion of women and female forces against the patriarchal society and the conventions of femininity it imposes. To a certain extent, the argument rings true. The women, especially the Thebans, reject the men and civil laws for the Dionysian cult and religious customs. Nevertheless, while the women initially hold control over men, they ultimately lose power.” It could be argued that The Bacchae criticizes the idea of female rebellion. Lai clarifies that, “Agave and her sisters, standing synecdochically for all the Theban women, must face censure and punishment for their rebellion. It seems, then, that the female rebellion must be weakened and its power compromised to restore social order and to provide the dramatic conflict with a sensible closure. In this sense, by presenting the terrifying implications and consequences of female rebellion, The Bacchae denounces the idea of female rebellion. This criticism seems motivated by the fear that women who refuse to follow the conventional code of femininity would threaten the survival of established society.” The Bacchae is a great example of how Euripides shows women outside of their natural or automatically determined place in society. He examines the traditional assignment of gender roles in The Bacchae, but also in his play Medea.
Euripides’ Medea begins in an interesting state of conflict. The character Jason has abandoned his wife, Medea, as well as their two children. Jason aspires to advance his station by remarrying with Glauce, who is the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth- the Greek city where the play is set. All the events of play proceed out of this dilemma, thus the involved parties become its central characters. Medea is portrayed to be an independent and strong women who does not let much stand in her way. Medea is important because Euripides used a female character to show strength rather than using a woman character for weakness. Terry Collits discusses how Medea “documents and places on the political agenda: women’s solidarity, equality before the law, sexual equality, the place of ideology in sustaining the patriarchal order, the capacity of women to appropriate male positions, and infanticide as a product of repression.” Showing Medea as an independent women who attempts to resolve her problems on her own can prove that gender roles switched and that women are being seen more equal to men. As this idea was ahead of Euripides’ time, this could be a reason why his plays were not as successful because of his ideals of women equality. This was a new idea that many had not understood, especially since feminism is so prominent in Medea. Most importantly, Medea is an important piece of work because it portrayed how patriarchal ideology was reinforced. The feminist ideals that are present in this play show how society and thinking were changing radically. By showing how Medea’s life was difficult, it could be thought of to be a call to action of how to treat women as equally as men. Although Medea only won third prize, it is perhaps Euripides’ most prestigious and most influential play.
Another important example of equality is in Euripides’ The Women of Troy. This play was important because it was one of the first works to portray the suffering of women after the Greek army defeated the Trojans. Euripides was extremely unique and therefore unlike any other playwright at this time because of how he spent time trying to understand how Trojan women were mistreated and unequal to men. During the time of Euripides, Ancient Greek society considered men to be inferior to women. This can also be an important point of why Euripides did not win many awards. Since men were so inferior, his plays made it difficult for men at this time to accept that women were just as equal. The Classics Network, an online journal and Digest, wrote an article on Euripides and his Subtle Abashment of the Male Gender and explained,
“The interactions between the men and women make the play appear to be a simple tragedy, but in reality the actions are not specifically important because the point of this play is not to account a historical event but rather to make protest against society’s treatment of women in general. Greece, during the time the play was written, viewed women as inferior and mere objects that should be concerned with household matters. Men who dominated the upper class even used women as political tools by means of strategic marriage. By describing each woman’s state of suffering and by making men appear shallow and coward, Euripides indirectly supports the idea that women can be equal to men.”
As stated earlier, Euripides seemed to be ahead of his time in terms of creating strong women characters that were as equal to men. However in this play, the male characters were portrayed as ignorant and seemingly having little strength. In addition, this play is yet another example of how Euripides tried to show the mistreatment of women in Ancient Greece. Even though he presents women as equal to men in a very subtle way, the way he writes these plays were extremely powerful.
Understanding Euripides’ work is very important when discussing why he did not win first prize in dramatic competitions. To begin with, it can be difficult to understand how the Greeks would award plays and certain works. Who was qualified to judge these works, and how does one precisely judge the artistic focus, message, and quality of a play? Poetry and theatre is subjective to the person observing, which could be a factor why Euripides did not win many awards in his day. However, his plays are still studied and analyzed by modern thespians and historians because they are groundbreaking and relevant to today’s culture. Based on how he harshly portrayed women’s equality and gender norms, it could be said that Euripides did not win awards based on how he refused to alter his beliefs and moral just to satisfy the citizens and judges in Athens. He believed in truth, and strived to portray that in his characters which were usually slaves or powerless women. Although that was not accepted during the time he lived in Ancient Greece, his works are clearly full of realism that is studied and dedicated in modern theatre. His plays were unfamiliar to Ancient Greece and hardly accepted, but that did not stop him from being the playwright he was destined to be.