Sophie Mills

in Classics

ISBN: 9780195389661
Published online December 2012 | | DOI:

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Euripides is one of the great Athenian tragedians whose dramatic output has survived, if only partially, into the modern era. His contemporary, the comic writer Aristophanes, mocks him for technically flawed and intellectually subversive plays, and it may be significant that, as compared with Aeschylus’s thirteen and Sophocles’ eighteen, he won only five first prizes at the Dionysiac competitions: for an unknown play in 441 bce, for Hippolytus (428 bce), and posthumously for the trilogy that included The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis. However, since he competed regularly at the Dionysia, one can hardly call him unpopular with the Athenians, who, like many people in the early 21st century, must sometimes have enjoyed provocative art. See pages 52–94 in Euripides and the Tragic Tradition (Michelini 1987), cited under Dramatic Structure and Technique and Electra/Elektra: Scholarship. His reputation for problematic and flawed plays, which has had a huge influence on modern Euripidean criticism, dogged him even as early as Aristophanes and Aristotle and lasted until well into the 20th century for two main reasons. First, August Wilhelm von Schlegel and Friedrich von Schlegel considered Sophocles’ plays the perfect tragedies in their thematic clarity and “unity”: see Behler 1986 (cited under Later Critical Reputation) in the journal Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies. The diversity of mood and shifts in tone that characterize Euripidean tragedy, especially those plays without conventionally “tragic” endings, put him at a disadvantage within these standards. Second, whereas only a highly select seven plays each by Aeschylus and Sophocles survive, eighteen tragedies and one satyr play ascribed to Euripides have come down to us out of a total of ninety-two. Some, such as Hippolytus, Medea, and The Bacchae, have always been admired, partly because they conform more closely to a supposedly Sophoclean “unity,” but with almost three times as many plays as the other two tragedians, his extant work inevitably seems more uneven in technique and theme, and plays such as the Children of Heracles and Suppliants have received general disapprobation. Some later tragedies, such as Iphigenia in Tauris, Ion, and Helen, baffled earlier critics: how are they tragedies when their plots are fantastical and their endings happy? Criticism since the early 1970s has, however, come to appreciate Euripides on his own terms, reevaluating their centrifugal quality as integral to successful Euripidean rather than failed Sophoclean drama and redefining what tragedy can be to encompass Euripides’ contribution. Moreover, his abiding fascination with controversial questions—social equality, the morality of war, nature versus nurture—and apparent interest in psychology have made him a favorite with modern audiences.

Article.  20072 words. 

Subjects: Classical Studies ; Classical Art and Architecture ; Classical History ; Classical Literature ; Classical Philosophy

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