Euripides (480-406 BCE) was a Greek dramatist, born in Athens. As a youth he was an athlete, winning prizes at Eleusinian and Thesean gymnastic events. After studying philosophy under Anaxagoras (along with his friend Socrates), rhetoric under Prodicus and dabbling in painting, Euripides realized that literature was his forté.
Euripides is identified with theatrical innovations that have profoundly influenced drama down to modern times, especially in the representation of traditional, mythical heroes as ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. This new approach led him to pioneer developments that later writers adapted to comedy, some of which are characteristic of romance. Yet he also became “the most tragic of poets”,[nb 1] focusing on the inner lives and motives of his characters in a way previously unknown.¹
He wrote some 80 dramas, out of which 19 remain. Medea, Electra, and Trojan Women were performed during his lifetime but his work became increasingly popular after his death. The Bacchae, for instance, was performed in Athens only after he had died.
Euripides is also relevant to contemporary psychiatry and, in particular, depth psychology. His play Heracles (416 BCE) most effectively personifies Madness as the daughter of Heaven and Night, sent to drive Heracles insane:
Madness has mounted her chariot
Groans and tears accompany her
She plies the lash, hell-bent for murder
rage gleaming from her eyes
A Gorgon of the night, and around her
Bristle the hissing heads of a hundred snakes²
Fully versed in the myths and legends that permeated his culture, he was also aware of the Sophists and the early scientists and philosophers like Anaxagoras.³ So Euripides didn’t buy into but, rather, satirized the popular religion of his day. He did believe in the idea of divine providence but was skeptical of many of the religious beliefs and practices that dominated the ancient Greek world.
Put simply, he preferred to find his own answers to questions concerning ultimate truth. As such, he’s been called ‘the poet of the Greek enlightenment,’ among a variety of other things by his detractors and admirers.4
² Euripides, cited in Eric Flaum and David Pandy, The Encyclopedia of Mythology: Gods, Heroes, and Legends of the Greeks and Romans, Philadelphia, Courage Books, 1993, p. 99.
³ Peter Burian ” Euripides ” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Ed. Michael Gagarin. © Oxford University Press 2010. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome: (e-reference edition). Oxford University Press. Toronto Public Library. 25 May 2012 http://www.oxford-greecerome.com/entry?entry=t294.e458
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