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Euripides: Biography & Plays

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

This lesson will give a brief biography of Euripides, focusing on the nature of his plays. His work will be put in historical context as part of the Greek Golden Age and as a driving force of the period.

The Golden Age

According to legend, Euripides was born on the day of the Battle of Salamis, the last conflict in Greece of the Persian Wars. The decades of political security that followed brought with them a period of heightened intellectual and creative work, The Golden Age. Euripides was a large part of that outpouring as a celebrated playwright. He won the Athens award five times for his work and was remembered as one of the great writers of the time.

Personal Life

His plays indicate a person with a full Greek education normal for one of the wealthy elite, and he is known to have studied with masters in painting and philosophy as well as in athletics. Euripides was not well loved in Athens, and he was at one point accused of co-authoring his plays with the 'immoral' philosopher Socrates. The unusual attention he received from the comedian and contemporary, Aristophanes, as well as the attacks he was prone to, suggest he was not well loved. Euripides was married twice, both times to women who cheated on him. After his second marriage, he lived as a recluse at a cave in Salamis.

Development of Plays

Euripides wrote when the standard cast of a play had grown to three actors. This addition allowed for more character development, which in turn gave him the chance to make his own additions, like treating traditional heroes as ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances or getting into the inner lives and motives of his characters in new ways. As one commentator has noted, Euripides' characters had the mythical names placed loosely in the circumstances that his audience required, but their personalities were Athenian, not demi-god. He also added elements to his tragedies that would eventually find their way into comedies and romances.

A Euripidean Play
A Euripedean Play

Another way in which he used his new techniques for social commentary was in giving attention to the underprivileged classes in a way that made them sympathetic. Both women and servants had his attention in this regard. Considering that his audiences were conservative males from the highest classes, it is no surprise that he was considered immoral and a potential threat to society.

Medea

Of his some 90 plays, which include Medea, The Bacchae, Hippolytus and Alcestis, probably his best example of both the inner lives of his characters and social commentary is Medea. In Greek mythology, Medea, the daughter of the kind of Colchis, was made by the gods to fall in love with Jason. Her love induced her to help Jason get the Golden Fleece by betraying her father and killing her brother. Later, in Greece, she would murder Jason's uncle before being abandoned by Jason for another woman. Medea then goes mad, murders his new bride, and leaves Jason.

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