Euripides belongs together with Aeschylus and Sophocles to the three ancient tragedians whose plays survived and who are still critically acclaimed. In Women on the Edge the authors focus on the number of his plays and add various interesting details. According to the entries in the dramatic competition of the festival Dionysia, he competed twenty-two times. The playwrights competed with a set of three tragedies and one satire play, which means that he wrote at least eighty-eight plays that he used while competing in this festival. But he won only “five first prizes, one of them posthumously, whereas Aeschylus won thirteen and Sophocles at least twenty” (Women 65). According to the authors this fact is showing that while the audience wanted to see his plays performed (for twenty-two years), they were “reluctant” to appoint him for a prize – this may be because of his modern approach and controversies that his plays aroused. From all his works only nineteen plays survived (even though it is rather a large number taking into consideration that from works by Aeschylus and Sophocles only seven by each survived).9 Some of his plays – Ion, Helen, Iphigenia among the Taurians and Alcestis – include “abrupt combinations of tones and happy endings for the central characters” (Women 66) and that is why these plays are called tragicomedies or romances.10
One of the important sources on Euripides and his works is the criticism incorporated by his contemporary, Aristophanes, in his comedy, the Frogs. Aristophanes mocked Euripides for focusing on everyday matters, instead of on patriotic themes and traditional piety of Aeschylus (who was also mocked in the Frogs). Euripides is in this comedy also satirically linked with Socrates and other unconventional modern thinkers. His mock-character in the Frogs also claims that he made the drama democratic “by giving voice to women and slaves” (Women 68). These comments together with the actual texts of his plays are the reasons for calling Euripides a social critic – he was focusing on the everyday lives from the point of view of marginalised social groups.
Aristotle, a century later, criticizes in his Poetics Euripides “more than any other playwright” (Women 69). He blames him for character inconsistency of some of his characters (Iphigenia in Iphigenia at Aulis), for “surprising and artificial plot twists” (deus-ex-machina ending of Medea), for creating characters that are not “between the extremes of good and evil” (Menelaos in Orestes is “excessively immoral”), for portraying people as they are (instead of as they “ought to be” as Sophocles did), and for “inappropriate” putting of “intellectual speech in the mouth of a female character, since women should not be portrayed as too clever or courageous” (Women 69). The last criticism is interesting taking into consideration that Aristotle was such an influence in the Early Modern era – existence of both the play (Medea was translated into Latin in 1544 by George Buchanan11) and Aristotle’s criticism of “too clever or courageous” female characters probably did not go unnoticed, especially when Aristotle after all these criticisms calls Euripides “the most tragic of the poets”.
Euripides’ plays are different from works of his contemporaries – and important fact for this thesis – in several aspects: his characters are “depicted in close-up, examined carefully (often by the characters themselves), and made comprehensible in terms of their personal histories” (Women 75); they also “confront the mythic, sometimes fantastical, events of legend, and try to understand and respond to them in a down-to-earth way” (Ibid.). These aspects make his characters more believable, they add explanations to their behaviours. Euripides also re-examines various values, mainly masculine heroism, the norms of which are represented not only in male characters, but in women as well: “Heroism may consist of sacrificing oneself, like Alcestis; keeping one’s cool and thinking quickly, like Helen; understanding the dreadful consequences of action and acting nonetheless, like Medea; or facing and accepting an absurd situation, like Iphigenia” (Women 75). Another important aspect of his characters is inconsistency between character and social status – slaves, women or aristocrats – suggesting that this status is not natural but “imposed by custom or chance”. He destabilizes social hierarchy for example by showing aristocrats in rags (Menelaos in Helen) or by letting slaves and women speak with noble eloquence. Euripides also has a distinguished attitude towards religion and gods (as seen in the above mention explanation of supernatural events in a down-to-earth way). While “tragedies by Aeschylus and Sophocles raise basic, unanswerable questions about the nature of the gods and their relations with human beings, [...] Euripides accentuates tensions of Greek polytheism” (Women 76). His views, as expressed in the Frogs, resemble those of Sophists.
Yet what is most interesting about Euripides’ difference from his contemporaries is his focus on women. Out of nineteen preserved plays, thirteen have a female protagonist.12 The female characters are represented as “speaking from the women’s point of view” and even thematically the plays deal with women’s lives and their position in the society, their relationships with men. Among the problematic topics belong “women’s social status as inferior to males, their use as objects traded between males, the restrictions on their sexuality and social interactions and on their freedom to speak their minds, the social and sexual double standard, their lack of control over their children’s destinies” (Women 81). Yet even though these plays look like they are a sort of feminist writings, it is not so – the women depicted by Euripides can be “violent, foolish, unjust. They can use rhetoric and deception to manipulate others and themselves. They can cause as much havoc and damage as male protagonists. What they cannot be is disregarded or eliminated” (Women 82).While this quote denies Euripides a position of a feminist writer, it does not mean that he was not important for the development of female dramatic characters – even if they are “violent, foolish, unjust,” as long as their wrong doings are showing a sort of mastery (planning, scheming, eloquent arguing for their cause) and have a certain psychological depth, they are fully developed and are attributed certain capabilities that the real women do not dare to strive for – they are seen and heard.
Nevertheless, Euripides only criticizes, he provides only a “rebuke of (presumably) prevailing social attitudes that stops well short of recommending corrective action” (Gregory 160). Justina Gregory in “Euripides as Social Critic” argues that while he “goes out of his way to question received ideas, he is far less interested in emending the actual position of these marginalized members of society” (161). At this point it is interesting to get back to the fact that Euripides was connected to the modern philosophers, among others especially Socrates13. Socrates’ method of finding the truth is founded on the basis of asking questions, not telling “the truth” or what is right, but letting the people find the truth inside them by trying to find the answer. By asking questions he queried the universal truths and public opinions his opponent believed in. So in light of this philosophy, Euripides’ stating of problematic social issues and leaving the important questions unanswered does not necessarily mean his lack of interest in finding the solutions and starting changes in the society. On the contrary, it may mean that he was leaving his audience to find the solution, let what they saw and heard sink deep in their thoughts and come up with the answer. He could – just like the Early Modern authors, who in the light of humanist thinking thought that they needed to teach people, to tell them how they should live correctly – simply write in accordance with the popular philosophical movement of his times.