Ancient Greek Theatre » Euripides
Euripides (480-407 B.C.)
The youngest of the famous authors of Tragedies is probably the most controversial of the three. Full of philosophical questions and doubts, Euripides’ plays were seldom the favorite of the audience, since he wasn’t trying to please it. Instead, he portrays human flaws and seems to disregard the role of Gods, although he respects them deeply. In fact, in one of his famous Tragedies, Medea, it is a God, Helios (the Sun), who saves the main heroine by making one of the most spectacular appearances in the history of Greek Drama.
For the appearance of Gods on stage, the Greeks had invented a certain special effect, the mechane (meaning machine), as they called it. It was a sort of a wooden crane who worked with ropes and pulleys and was used to make Gods fly or hover above the stage. This machine inspired the Latin phrase “Deus ex Machina” (God from the machine) we use till today, referring to a divine intervention that helps us in a most difficult time.Euripides’ worth and longing for innovation was gradually recognized by his peers, with Aristotle calling him “the most tragic of all poets”, referring to the deep sense of drama and the psychological insight for his characters that is dominant in his plays. He is also the author of Bacchae, the only surviving tragedy whose main character is Dionysus, the god-protector of Ancient Greek Drama and Theater.
Euripides’ plays - Synopsis
Apollo has declared that a king he favors the most, Admetus, can avoid his death, if he succeeds in persuading someone else to die in his place. Only his faithful wife, Alcestis, accepts, and the fatal day has now arrived. Death comes to claim his victim. The dying Alcestis requests a favor of her husband: that he may not marry again. Devastated, he promises not only not to marry, but to banish all entertainment and joy from his palace, as well. After Alcestis dies, Admetus’ friend, Heracles, arrives, expecting hospitality. Overlooking the objections of the chorus, Admetus welcomes him, keeping the death of his wife secret. After a vicious argument between Admetus and his father, Pheres –whom Admetus had expected to die in his place– the funeral procession moves off. A drunken Heracles emerges, but sobers up rapidly when he learns the truth about Alcestis’ death from a servant. Admetus returns from the funeral, realizing that he has made no good bargain in accepting Apollo’s favor, and that Alcestis in death is happier than he is in life. Heracles returns along with a veiled woman, whom he hands over to a reluctant Admetus. She turns out to be Alcestis, rescued by Heracles who wrestled with Death to claim back her life.
Note: Ancient Greeks considered hospitality–as well as anyone asking for it– to be a sacred duty. To cast a stranger away, no matter who he was, was regarded as a fatal sin and offence (hybris) against Gods.
Medea and Jason have arrived as exiles in Corinth, where Jason has decided to marry king Kreon’s daughter. Medea had sacrificed her honor, home and family because of her love for Jason, and now she is furious with him and Kreon. To make her anger even worse, Kreon declares that she and the two sons she has borne Jason are to be banished from Corinth immediately. The nurse and tutor worry about her state of mind, but when she appears to meet the chorus, she is extremely cool and self-possessed. She pleads with Kreon and he gives her a day to arrange her affairs. Then, Medea has a violent quarrel with Jason, who tries to argue that he was only acting for the best of his family. Later, in a chance encounter with Aegeus, the king of Athens, Medea manages to convince him to give her sanctuary, if necessary. Then she announces her morbid plan: she will send a poisoned robe to Jason’s new bride, Euridice, and then she will kill her children. The boys are sent to the palace with the fatal gift. In the meanwhile, in a great soliloquy, Medea changes her mind over and over again about killing her offspring. Eventually, her anger wins over her maternal love. A messenger announces not only the agonizing death of Jason’s bride, but also that Kreon is dead, as well. Medea goes inside the house to kill her children. Jason enters to take his vengeance on her over the death of Glauce and Kreon, but he remains devastated and heartbroken upon discovering the murder of his sons. He wants to hunt down Medea, but she is already flying away for Athens in the chariot of the Sun, holding the bodies of her dead children in her arms.
Note: Ancient Greeks would never had accepted that a mother can kill her children, neither make such a woman the main character in a play. But, coming from Colchis, Medea is a foreigner –she is, as they call her, “a barbarian”. Therefore, she is able to commit such an appalling and unthinkable act.
Heraclidae (Children of Heracles)
The children of Heracles, led by an old and decrepit Iolaus (Heracles’ loyal companion on his labors) take refuge from their pursuer, Eurystheus, king of Argos, at the altar of Zeus at Marathon. A threatening herald, Copreus, is driven away by a sympathetic chorus of Marathonians and Demophon, the young and noble son of Theseus, the new king of Athens. A battle seems inevitable, and one of Heracles’ daughters offers her life as a sacrifice for victory. In the battle, the forces of Theseus triumph with ease; Iolaus is miraculously rejuvenated, and even demi-gods fight for the cause of right. After the battle, Eurystheus is captured but Demophon spares him his life. Heracles’ aged mother, Alcmene, though, orders his execution, in a surprising change of character from a pathetic old woman to a vindictive Fury. Eurystheus goes nobly to his death, promising to protect Athens from invasion by the descendants of Heracles.
Note: This is one of the lesser known tragedies of Euripides, and one that is seldom performed on stage.
Hippolytus, son of Theseus and the Amazon woman, Hippolyte, devotes his life to the service of Artemis, especially disregarding Aphrodite. In order to punish the youth, the latter has made his stepmother, Phaedra, fall in love with him. An old man advises Hippolytus to respect all Gods. Phaedra enters, leaning on her aged nurse, to whom she eventually confides her love for her stepson, claiming it to exist against her will. The nurse informs Hippolytus of Phaedra’s love. Horrified, the youth launches into an argument against women. Phaedra, fearful that he will reveal the truth to his father, takes her own life, leaving behind a note accusing the youth of attempting to seduce her. Theseus enters and, upon reading the note, curses his son with death or exile. Hippolytus insists on his innocence but, out of respect for his father, does not reveal Phaedra’s love for him. He leaves into exile, followed by his companions. A messenger announces that Hippolytus’ horses were frightened by a “bull from the sea,” and that the youth has been dragged to his impending demise. The dying Hippolytus is brought on stage. Artemis appears, blames Theseus for killing his son, and promises vengeance on Aphrodite. The goddess leaves, while father and son exchange forgiveness, before Hippolytus draws his final breath.
Note: The messenger’s speech describing Hippolytus’ fatal accident is one of the most fascinating monologues in ancient Greek drama.
Andromache, the widow of Hector, the great defender of Troy, has been taken slave, given as a victory prize to Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, the man who killed her husband. Neoptolemus returns to his homeland, Phthia, as Andromache, his unwilling mistress, has borne him a son, Molossus, while his legal wife, Hermione, remains childless. When Neoptolemus goes on a trip to Delphi, Hermione and her father, Menelaus, plot to kill Andromache and her child. Andromache seeks sanctuary at the altar of Thetis, the sea-goddess and Achilles’ mother. Menelaus, breaking the law of the Gods, drives her out and is about to slain her. Thankfully, Peleus, Achilles’ aged father intervenes and saves Andromache and her child. Now, it is Hermione’s turn to be threatened, as her husband is still absent and her father has deserted her. She is rescued by Orestes, to whom she was engaged before her marriage to the son of Achilles, and they flee together. Word comes to Peleus that his grandson, Neoptolemus, has been murdered at Delphi by Orestes and a band of thugs. His deep desperation is consoled by the epiphany of Thetis, his goddess wife, who foretells the destiny of Andromache and her son, as well as their own reunion as husband and wife.
Note: Anyone seeking sanctuary at a temple could not be hurt. Driving one out of a sanctuary by force was considered a most disrespectful act against Gods, usually provoking the offender’s great punishment.
After a ten-year war, Troy has fallen to the Greeks. Queen Hecuba and other captured noble women have started their journey to Greece as slaves, and have now stopped for a while in the land of Thrace, where king Polymestor rules. Hecuba had already sent there Polydorus, her youngest son, in order to protect him. But Polymestor murdered him in order to steal his fortune, upon hearing the news of Troy’s fall. The chorus informs Hecuba that the Greeks are considering to sacrifice her daughter, Polyxena, as an offering to the dead Achilles, and Hecuba debates her fate with Odysseus. The young girl enters to say that she will gladly die rather than endure life as a slave. Talthybius, the herald of the Greeks, later describes how she died nobly, and Hecuba asks to be allowed to give her daughter a proper burial. A servant woman brings in the body of Polydorus, which the women have found floating in the sea. With her grief now doubled, Hecuba asks Agamemnon to allow her to take revenge on Polymestor. Thus, the king of Thrace and his two sons are enticed into the women’s tent, where himself is blinded and his sons murdered. Agamemnon awards justice to Hecuba and protects her, while Polymestor predicts the imminent demise of the grieving queen, now a slave to Odysseus, as his ship returns to Greece.
Note: One of the most respected and tragic characters in the history of Drama, the old and noble queen Hecuba is mentioned by Shakespeare in one of Hamlet’s famous soliloquies.
Suppliant Women (Suppliants / Hiketidae)
The body of Polynices, along with those of the Argive invaders, lies unburied on the field in front of the city of Thebes. The mothers of the dead, led by Adrastus, king of Argos, seek refuge to the sacred shrine of the Mother and Daughter (Demeter and Persephone), at Eleusis. They plead king Theseus to help them recovering the bodies and convince Kreon, the king of Thebes, to allow them a proper burial. Theseus’ mother, Aethra comforts them and calls upon her son to hear them. Initially, Theseus rejects their pleas, as Adrastus had attacked Thebes first, without being provoked, but gradually he is persuaded by his mother to offer his aid, as Aethra has taken pity on her fellow-women. A herald arrives from Thebes, warning Theseus not to intervene, and the two debate about monarchy and democracy. Theseus finally leads the Athenian army off to Thebes. A messenger then recounts the victory of the Athenians, as well as the recovery of the bodies, but points out the fight has been a bloody and costly one. The bodies of five of the Seven attackers against Thebes are brought back and a eulogy is delivered by Adrastus, who claims these “villains” were in fact brave citizens and loving family men. Evadne, the wife of Capaneus, one of the dead leaders, proclaims she cannot live without her husband and falls into his funeral pyre, as her horrified father, Iphis, watches. The play ends with Adrastus thanking Theseus, promising a lasting friendship between Athens and Argos, while Athena appears to encourage the sons of the dead to attack Thebes once more.
Note: Suppliants were considered to be sacred and anyone who offered them shelter was favored by the Gods. Especially at Eleusis suppliants were treated with the utmost respect, since Demeter, the goddess who protected the city, once was a suppliant herself, seeking refuge there.
After the death of her father, Agamemnon, Electra has been forced into “marriage” with a shepherd and lives in a cottage in the farthest outskirts of Argos. Her husband, showing her respect, has not consummated the marriage. Her younger brother, Orestes and his loyal friend, Pylades, arrive at the city. Apollo has instructed Orestes to return to his homeland in Mycenae and kill his mother. Orestes pretends to be a messenger from her brother, so he is welcomed by Electra and her husband, who sends for an old man who knew the prince as a boy. This old man, his former tutor, initiates the recognition between a rather hesitant Orestes and his sister. Now, the old man and Electra make a plan to entice Aegisthus and Clytemnestra out of their palace and murder them. A messenger then reports how Orestes and Pylades have killed Aegisthus, while he was offering a sacrifice and invited the strangers to join his feast. Orestes returns with the body of Aegisthus and Electra sees his mother approaching. He expresses his doubts about the oracle that has commanded his own mother’s murder, but Electra is adamant. A bitter confrontation between mother and daughter leads to Clytemnestra’s entry into the cottage, where she is killed by her own children. Brother and sister then come out, stricken with guilt and remorse. The Dioscuri, sons of Zeus and Clytemnestra’s brothers, appear and declare that Apollo’s oracle “was not a wise one” and they go on announcing the fate of the two siblings.
Note: Even the will and order of the Gods could not alleviate the sin of an appalling crime, such as the murder of one’s mother. Furies, the ancient goddesses who existed before the Olympians, were responsible for the punishment of the offender and the restoration of Law and Order.
Hercules Furens (The Madness of Heracles / Heracles Maenomenos)
Heracles has married Megara, the daughter of the king of Thebes, and is now absent performing his famous labors. Meanwhile, a usurper, Lycos (his name means “Wolf”), has seized power in Thebes and is about to kill Megara and her children. Megara asks for time to prepare herself and her children. She prays for aid from Zeus, along with Amphitryon, Heracles’ stepfather. The hero returns, having completed the last of his labors. When Lycos returns to lead Megara to her death, he is murdered (off-stage, of course) by Heracles. It looks like a happy ending, but on the palace roof the messenger of the gods, Iris, appears, along with Lyssa (her name means Madness), sent by Hera to continue her wrath against Heracles. Lyssa is unwilling to assail Heracles, a defender of the gods, but succumbs to Hera’s will on the insistence of Iris. A messenger later describes how Heracles has gone mad and killed his family. With the aid of Amphitryon, the hero regains his sanity, realizing, overwhelmed, what he has done. His friend Theseus, whom he rescued from the underworld, arrives to take the grief-stricken hero with him to Athens.
Note: The will of the Gods defines the fate of Humans –or even demi-Gods as Heracles. Heracles Furens is probably Euripides’ tragedy which is most influenced by the spirit of Aeschylus.
Trojan Women (Troadae)
Troy has fallen to the Greeks after a ten-year war. Poseidon, who favored the Trojans, is saying farewell to his ruined city. Athena, a great supporter of the Greeks, offended by the ill-treatment of her temple by one of them, asks Poseidon’s aid to avenge them during their return to Greece. Hecuba and the chorus lament their fate and wonder what will become of them. Talthybius, the herald of the Greeks, announces that each woman has been allotted to separate master, the virgin Kassandra to Agamemnon and Hecuba to Odysseus. Kassandra, lost in a prophetic madness is led to her new master by force. Then, Hector’s grieving widow, Andromache, enters with her young son, Astyanax. Hecuba persuades her to live for her son, who may one day rebuild Troy, but Talthybius returns to announce that the boy must die, shattering all their hopes. Menelaus appears to take vengeance on his wife, Helen, for being responsible for the whole war. Hecuba and Helen debate the latter’s responsibility, with Menelaus taking Hecuba’s side and postponing his revenge on his wife until they reach Greece. The body of the young Astyanax is brought in to be buried. Hecuba and the women leave, as the walls of Troy are brought down in flames.
Note: Trojan Women is a timeless anti-war play, narrated through the women’s eyes. A bold yet extremely emotional decision for the audience in Ancient Greece –for any audience, in fact, even today.
Iphigenia in Tauris
In the play’s prologue, Iphigenia informs the audience she did not die at Aulis, but was taken away by Artemis to serve to her temple in the land of the Taurians, where she prepares for sacrifice any Greek males who arrive on that shore. Orestes, still hunted down by the Furies, has been sent by Apollo on a mission to finally get rid of them: he has to bring back to Greece the statue of Artemis from Tauris, aided by his friend Pylades. A messenger tells Iphigenia that two Greeks have been captured on the shore. Orestes and Pylades are brought before her to be made ready for sacrifice, but, in a clever recognition scene, brother and sister learn of each other’s identity and together they plan the theft of the statue and their escape to Greece.
Iphigenia informs Thoas, the local ruler, that one of these Greeks has polluted the statue of Artemis by touching it with his hands stained with his mother’s blood, and now the statue must be cleansed, washed in the sea. A messenger later informs Thoas that the Greek was really Iphigenia’s brother and that their ship is attempting to escape. Athena appears to prevent the siblings’ pursuit and predicts Iphigenia her future.
Note: A tragedy with a rare happy ending, Iphigenia in Tauris, stands out as one of Euripides’ most loved and uncontroversial plays.
Creusa, daughter of the king of Athens, was raped by Apollo and bore him a child. Disgraced, she tried to get rid of the infant, which was rescued by Hermes and taken to Delphi, where he has grown up as the temple servant of Apollo. Creusa is now married to a foreigner, Xuthus, but they are childless. They embark on a journey to Delphi to consult Apollo, and the first person she meets, Ion (his name means “the one who goes out”), is her son by the god, but neither is aware of the other’s identity. Xuthus consults the oracle, and is told that the first person he meets going out of the temple is his son. This person, of course, is Ion. Creusa finds out from an old man that her husband has been given a son by Apollo. She sings a marvelous song of grief and accusation, recounting her rape at Apollo’s hands, and then with the help of the old man, she plots to kill Ion. A messenger announces that Ion escaped death by a poison meant for him, that the old man was captured, and that Ion is on his way to take vengeance on Creusa. She takes refuge at the altar of Apollo, and is rescued by his priestess, Pythia. She later shows Ion the clothes and jewelry found with him as an infant. Creusa recognizes them as her own, realizing Ion is her own son. Athena then appears to straighten things out and to predict a glorious future for Ion, who is to become a king of her city, Athens.
Note: Ion is a tragedy that at times resembles a comedy. It has great characters, yet it is not often performed on stage.
The fatal war is now over; Troy has fallen to the Greeks, and one of them, Teucrus meets Helen in Egypt. She tells him she never went to Troy and a ghost was sent in her place, instead. Teucrus informs her that she is universally hated for being responsible for the conflict. Shipwrecked, Menelaus arrives on the coast of Egypt, along with the fake “Helen”, the ghost he has taken with him from Troy, and sees this woman “who looks just like Helen”. Eventually, he is convinced her story is true, and husband and wife are joyfully reunited. But now they have to find a way to flee Egypt and escape king Theoclymenus’ wrath. The couple begs Theonoe, the king’s wise sister, for aid and, with her assistance, a plan is devised. Helen tells the king that she has just learned her husband has died in the shipwreck, and requests a ship to scatter his remains at sea. Menelaus and his sailors seize the ship and sail off into the sunset, while Helen’s brothers, the Dioscuri, forbid the Egyptian king from stopping them.
Note: A play often considered to be in fact a Satyr-Drama, because of its innovative main idea, Helen is the only tragedy that portrays the fatal queen of Sparta in a positive light.
Phoenician Women (Phoenissae)
Both Jocasta and Oedipus are still alive and in Thebes. Oedipus’ sons have pushed their father away, but his curses haunt them still. Eteocles has failed to yield power to his brother Polynices after one year’s rule, as they had already agreed, and the latter has arrived to besiege his own city, leading a vast army from Argos. Jocasta attempts to reconcile her two sons but fails. Kreon and Eteocles plan the defense of Thebes, while the former encounters the seer Tiresias, who tells him that only the sacrifice of his son, Menoikeus, to Ares will save Thebes. Kreon immediately plans to send his son away to save him, but Menoikeus willingly goes off to leap from the walls of Thebes, in order to save his city.
News comes of the encounters at the seven gates of the city, and that the two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, have decided to resolve the issue in single combat. Another messenger arrives, to tell not only of the brothers’ mutual doom but of Jocasta’s suicide over their bodies. Finally, the aged and blind Oedipus appears and is sent into exile by the new ruler, Kreon.
Note: The title of the play refers to the chorus of the Phoenician Women who are witnesses to all these tragic events and narrate them from their own point of view. Let us not forget that in Ancient Greek Tragedies the Chorus represented the People of the city, as well as the Common Sense.
The Argives are threatening to put Orestes and Electra to death for killing their own mother. Their only hope is that Menelaus, who has just returned to Greece with Helen, will intervene on their behalf. Electra has been caring for her brother, who is driven mad by the Furies, punishing him for the murder of his mother, as he suffers another attack of them. Menelaus enters. He is aghast at his nephew’s condition and promises his help, but Tyndareus, Orestes’ grandfather, appears and, being furious with his grandson, demands his execution. Menelaus finally decides not to intervene, leaving Orestes hopeless. The latter’s friend, Pylades, returns to Argos and convinces Orestes to defend himself in front of the assembly, which has already decreed that the siblings must die. Orestes, Electra, and Pylades discuss death but they also want to take Helen along with them, as they consider her to be the only responsible for their troubled fate.
Finally, they decide to take her daughter, Hermione, as a hostage in order to try to escape. Orestes and Pylades go into the palace, and Hermione is lured inside. A Phrygian eunuch crawls over the roof and announces the two friends have tried to kill Helen, but that her fate is unknown. Menelaus arrives to find Orestes and Hermione on the palace roof, with Electra and Pylades holding torches to burn the place down. Apollo appears and announces that Helen has been taken to dwell among the Gods, that Menelaus is to rule Sparta, and that Orestes and Hermione are to be married and live happily ever after.
Note: Orestes is considered to be one of the most bizarre yet most human tragedies of Euripides, who does not hesitate to show the characters’ deepest flaws on stage.
Iphigenia at Aulis
To get the winds blowing to sail his ships away to Troy, Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis, in order to be absolved for a former offense against the goddess. Unwillingly, he has sent word to his wife, Clytemnestra, to send their daughter to Aulis, where the army remains still and helpless. Agamemnon has sent word that Iphigenia is to be married to the young and brave Achilles, but now he sends to Mycenae an old man with another letter, telling Clytemnestra not to send the child in Aulis. The old man is intercepted by Menelaus, and the two brothers have a furious argument, with Agamemnon refusing to sacrifice his daughter and Menelaus demanding the expedition to retrieve his wife, Helen, from Troy. A messenger announces the imminent arrival of Clytemnestra and Iphigenia, and Agamemnon’s great distress at his situation changes Menelaus’ mind. Unfortunately, Agamemnon realizes that the army will insist on the expedition and that his daughter is doomed, either way. Clytemnestra and Iphigenia are greeted by Agamemnon, and then encounter Achilles who knows nothing of the trick of the marriage. The old man reveals everything to them, and Clytemnestra begs Achilles to save her daughter. Husband and wife debate the matter bitterly, while the army, as a true mob, demands the maiden’s sacrifice –even Achilles being powerless to stop them. In a noble act, Iphigenia declares she is willing to die for her country, so that the Greeks may conquer Troy. She asks her mother not to hold a grudge on her father, and gracefully leaves to her death.
Note: Great scenes which confirm Euripides’s ability to deeply empathize with his characters’ feelings and psychology stand out in this great tragedy, where a young girl proves to be more noble and brave than the mob of grown men who long for her death, just to be able to go to war.
Dionysus has come to Thebes to bring his worship to his home city. The women of Thebes have been driven from the city to the mountain for not believing in him, while the god himself, disguised as a human priest, awaits the appearance of the king, his cousin Pentheus. The seer Tiresias and Pentheus’ aged grandfather, Cadmus, have offered gifts to his temple and prepare to join his revels, but are stopped by Pentheus. The disguised Dionysus is brought before Pentheus who then imprisons him in the stables, but the god escapes spectacularly, as lightning and fire destroy the building. A messenger brings Pentheus news of the women on the mountain, who exist in harmony with nature. Some men attempt to capture them, provoking their riot. Pentheus prepares to lead out his army to stop them, but Dionysus reappears, asking the king: “Would you like to see them on the mountain yourself?” Pentheus falls under the spell of the god, who leads him off to the mountain, dressed as a female worshiper. A messenger then reports how the women discovered the disguised Pentheus was a man and tore him apart with their bare hands, being thrown into a furious ecstasy, thus becoming Bacchae, the faithful worshipers of Dionysus. Agave, Pentheus’ mother, arrives carrying what she thinks is the head of a young lion, while in fact she holds in her hands the head of her own son, whose murder she herself unknowingly provoked. Cadmus brings her back to reality and the horror of what she has done literally breaks her down. A glorious Dionysus appears to justify his vengeance and to announce the future fate of the characters.
Note: Bacchae is one of the most dramatic of all ancient tragedies and the only surviving one in which the protagonist is Dionysus, the god who protected Drama and Theater, since they were created in his honor.