Alcestis by Euripides (trans. Richard Lattimore)
A combination of tragic and comic elements, the play opens with Apollo and Death discussing a deal King Admetus made to cheat the fates. In order to escape death, one of his relatives had to take his place, a scenario that reminds me of the Sumerian myth about the goddess Inanna’s escape from the underworld. His elderly parents refuse to do it. So his young wife, Alcestis, volunteers. She makes Admetus promise he’ll never marry again. After Admetus goes into mourning, Heracles shows up looking for a place to stay. Admetus tries to be a good friend and host, and invites Heracles to stay at his palace. The servants get annoyed with entertaining Heracles who they think shows no consideration for their master and his loss. They inform their guest that they are mourning Alcestis, the mistress of the house. Upon this discovery, Heracles grows embarrassed and annoyed at Admetus for not telling him, but decides to do his friend a favor and win back Alcestis from Death.
In the introduction Richard Lattimore tell us that “the theme of the drama is not ‘if a wife dies for her husband, how brave and devoted the wife,” so much as ‘if a husband lets his wife die for him, what manner of man must that husband be?” Lattimore goes on to tell us that Admetus lacks the courage to face death. This is a strong contrast from heroes like Achilles who in the Iliad chooses an early death as the price to pay in order to be remembered forever and Heracles who goes to face death for the sake of his friend.
During the play, Admetus gets in an argument with his father, Pheres, who comes to mourn Alcestis. Admetus blames his father for his wife’s death on the grounds that he refused to die for Admetus so Alcestis had to do it. Pheres responds to his son that he owes Admetus nothing but his estates, certainly not his life. Admetus displays a warped understanding here in blaming his father over his wife’s death rather than himself, but the father doesn’t come off in a particularly good light either. What sort of father wouldn’t sacrifice himself for the sake of his child?
The only one willing to die for a loved one is Alcestis. She epitomizes what true love should be and what a hero should be. The play shows everything a wife or husband should be by comparing Alcestis to everything her husband is not. Euripides presents an unconventional portrait of women in this play casting Alcestis as the unsung hero rather than a male. Heracles also serves as an important contrast. Pheres won’t die for his own son, but Heracles is willing to fight death for a friend!
Admetus words of mourning and love for his wife ring painfully hollow. It is true that he does care for his wife, his grief is genuine, but we must keep in mind that he doesn’t care enough to prevent her from sacrificing her own life for his sake. He fears death more than he loves his wife. So perhaps what is really at stake in the play is true love versus superficial expressions of love. Even the friendship Admetus expresses towards Heracles is superficial; he entertains like he is supposed to, but hides his grief from his friend, not willing to confide in him, meanwhile Heracles responds with a true act of friendship by rescuing Alcestis from the underworld.
Medea by Euripides (trans. Rex Warner)
“O your heart must have been made of rock or steel, you who can kill with your own hand the fruit of your own womb” – Jason.
To oversimplify one might say Aeschylus’ strength is in poetic language and mood setting, Sophocles’ strength is in plot and pulling out the most dramatic moments from those plots, and Euripides’ strength is in developing introspective characters. Medea offers us one of the most compelling dramas and most compelling characters, not only within the surviving Greek tragedies, but out of all the literature ever written.
The drama takes place after Jason and the Argonauts succeed in their quest to obtain the Golden Fleece with the help of Medea. Jason has been exiled from his homeland because Medea tricked the daughters of Pelias to kill their own father. The play opens with Jason remarrying a second wife, the daughter of the king of Corinth. He claims to be remarrying for the sake of his original family, not just for his own sake. Despite his claims, Medea grows jealous and plots to kill Jason’s new wife along with her own children, as punishment for Jason’s infidelities.
The play warns us to beware of a woman scorned. At issue in this play is the role of women in the Greek world. In Alcestis the title character sacrifices herself for the good of her husband and children; in some ways, the play even seems critical of Admetus as a character, depicting his wife as noble and his longing for life as pathetic, not to mention his relationship with others as superficial and defined more by duty than genuine feeling. The roles reverse in this play; Medea fails to see nor cares about Jason’s “sacrifices” for her and the children, yet the “monstrous” Medea, whom often figures alongside the many female monsters and the Amazons as archetypal transgressors of gender roles, garners our sympathy nonetheless. Although Jason’s intentions seem noble from his own point-of-view, we cannot help but be incredulous that the only way he could help his wife and children is by marrying another woman.
Also at issue in the play is the place of a foreigner living among Greek lands. On the surface the play suggests that a foreigner could never truly adopt the ways of a “free people” like the Greeks; it is the perspective of the play that a foreigner only understands violence, and perpetuates tyranny through this violence. This stereotype suggests Medea cannot work out her differences with Jason or Creon or Jason’s new wife through discussion, the only real option for her as a foreigner is that everyone who stands in the way of her goals must die. However, while still playing into this stereotype the Ancient Greeks had of foreigners, Euripides humanizes her and makes us sympathize with her concerns even as we are still horrified by her act of violent revenge, which includes her own children. Euripides is an enigma in that he deals with typically Greek concerns, but unlike Aeschylus or Sophocles, he leaves the impression that he is clandestinely questioning traditional Greek values and beliefs rather than bolstering them blindly.
Heracleidae by Euripides (trans. Ralph Gladstone)
Eurystheus, the king of Argos, fears that the children of Heracles might someday seek revenge against him for his poor treatment of their father when he performed the twelve labors as the king’s slave. The king hunts down Heracles’ children wherever they seek asylum. The children eventually find refuge in Athens. Political intrigue ensues as some citizens want to help the refugees, while others do not want to die for the sake of strangers, believing this act of political asylum will spark a war. Eurystheus decides to invade Athens with an army and is defeated; he is then captured and paraded through the city in chains.
Not exactly one of Euripides’ stronger plays, this mediocre play’s main significance seems to be as a cultural memory of the Dorian invasion (the sons of Heracles). Ancient Greece and its many city-states were a product of multiple invasions of Greek-speaking people. The play serves as a reminder that the non-Dorian Athens and the Dorians cities should live in peace because they once had this ancient relationship. There are also seems to be a dichotomy working in the story between the “free” Greeks of Athens who reject their king’s wish (thus showing democratic values, despite a monarchy being in place) versus Eurystheus who occupies the stereotypical role of the tyrant that lords it over his people.
Hippolytus by Euripides (trans. David Greene)
Hippolytus, the virgin son of Theseus, swears eternal chastity and dedicates himself to Artemis. This irritates Aphrodite who causes Hippolytus’ stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with her stepson. When he rejects her advances she commits suicide and gets revenge by writing a fake note that Hippolytus raped her. When Theseus finds this fake note, he curses his son due to the misinformation, which leads to his death.
This play captures some of Greek society’s deepest anxieties. Hippolytus’ sworn virginity goes against the normal behavior of young men his age, while Phaedra’s lust for her stepson would have horrified the patriarchal male who headed Greek cities. Likewise, Theseus’ crimes at first seem like the typical stuff of Greek tragedy, acting rashly without the proper foresight, but with the social taboo that the victim of lack of foresight is his own innocent son.
The Cyclops by Euripides (trans. William Arrowsmith)
The Cyclops adapts the scene from the Odyssey where Odysseus and his crew get trapped inside a cave with a man-eating Cyclops and have to trick their way out by maiming the Cyclops’ single eye. In Greek thought, monsters like the Cyclops represents the world outside Greece where barbarians and monsters roam, which stands in direct opposition to the Greeks and civilization. However, Euripides challenges this view somewhat by showing an underlying cruelty in the Greek heroes who are supposed to represent civilization; the violence Odysseus enacts on the Cyclops leave a bad taste in our mouth. However, I fear my description will make this sound like a dark-toned tragedy. When, in fact, there are comical and playful elements to this play.
Greek plays were generally performed as trilogies with a fourth satyr play attached to them. The primary importance of this play is that it is our only extant example of a complete satyr play, full of burlesque drunkenness and sexual innuendo that adds a touch of playfulness that hides a rather dark world-view.
Iphigenia in Tauris by Euripides (trans. Richard Lattimore)
One of the stories that serves as background for the Iliad is the tale about Iphigenia’s sacrifice. In order to sail to Troy, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis.
Well in Euripides’ play, it turns out that Iphigenia survives. At the last minute Artemis whisked Iphigenia away and replaced her with a lamb, which has similarities with the binding of Isaac from the Bible. Artemis brought the former princess to the foreign land of Tauris where she now serves as priestess to the goddess and sacrifices strangers found in the land. Eventually she is reunited with her brother Orestes when he is captured as a stranger in the land who must be sacrificed. This play shows Euripides experimenting with Romantic comedy rather than pure tragedy. The unlikeliness of the events that reunite Orestes with his sister in a foreign land are touching, even as an intense longing for home punctuates the sometimes convoluted plans to escape the country, comical misunderstandings in the dialogue, and silliness of plot elements (they just sacrifice strangers to the goddess for no good reason) with a more dramatic note.
Heracles by Euripides (trans. William Arrowsmith)
“The man who would prefer great wealth or strength more than love, more than friends, is diseased of soul.”
Not considered one of Euripides’ stronger play, I personally enjoyed it a lot, even though it violates most of Aristotle’s poetic principles with its disjointed structure and external plot devices.
Heracles is off performing his final labor when Lycus usurps to the throne of Thebes and plans to murder Heracles’ children and wife. Heracles returns in time to save them, but then Hera drives him into a fit of madness and he ends up killing his children and wife himself. Theseus arrives, wanting to repay Heracles for saving him from the underworld, and comforts his friend in his grief.
The play breaks into two separate units: the celebrated hero Heracles who performs the twelve legendary labor and the unfortunate Heracles who accidentally kills his wife and children in his madness. A unity is formed between the two parts of the play through tragic irony: Heracles comes home just in time to rescue his wife and kids only to go mad and kill them himself. Euripides seems less interested in writing a traditional tragic plot like the kind outlined in Aristotle’s Poetics and epitomized by Sophocles in which the drama revolves around the character’s struggles, and more interested in experimenting with irony as a plot device, the character successfully struggles against an event, only to have an external force (what Aristotle might view as a Deus Ex Machina) overturn his success and making him undo his success with his own hands, which gives the play a very modern feel.
The first half of the play shows him to be the most celebrated hero; his actions show human beings at their best, the hero we all wish we could be. The second half of the play is complete chaos, reiterating the age old theme in Greek tragedy and Greek literature, and even later Roman Literature, that fortune is fickle and can betray you at any moment. The hero goes from the most celebrated to the most tragic of men in the blink of an eye. You can have everything you possibly want one day and lose everything the next. If Heracles in the first half represents our deepest hopes and aspirations–the hero we all wish we could be–then Heracles in the second half captures our worst fears: the death of our wife and children and the loss of agency to forces beyond our control.
In the quote that I chose to open my post, Heracles tells us that he would give up the limelight for a chance to see his wife and children alive again. He would prefer to live the unnoticed life and be with his children than to have fame and notoriety, but at the expense of all his joys being taken from him. Euripides again is challenging traditional Greek values. Heracles who would choose the quiet unnoticed life with his family stands in stark contrast to Achilles who chooses death and eternal fame over a long and quiet life with his family at home.
Reduced to a slave, Hecuba, once Queen of Troy and wife of the dead, King Priam, suffers further indignity of losing her daughter, Polyxena, as a sacrifice to Achilles’ ghost who wants her as a bride in the land of the dead. If that wasn’t bad enough Hecuba soon discovers that Polymestor, King of Thrace and a false ally to the Trojans, has killed her last surviving son, Polydorus, who was staying under his protection during the Trojan War. In response, she plots revenge to murder his sons and poke out his eyes.
As the introduction of my edition notes, this is a story about power and shrewd political maneuvering. Like any disingenuous politician, Odysseus makes promises when his life is at stake, but his vows are empty words when it comes time to pay back the debt. Agamemnon also performs a pretty show of concern for Hecuba’s plight, but will not lift a finger to help her in avenging her son’s death when it is not politically expedient. Hecuba nonetheless forces his hand. It might be tempting to assume the tragedy centers around the loss of her children, but the real tragedy of the play is Hecuba’s indignity, the degradation of the once powerful to a mere slave who cannot get the powerful to protect her interests, or keep their promises, or pursue justice. She lives at the whims of everyone else, until she has no option left but to murder children as revenge for her own lost children.
When the other Greek playwrights explore the evil actions of women, they often tell the story by focusing on a male main character who is being harmed or who has been wronged by the actions of these women. By making the main characters the male characters striving with these evil women (with a few exceptions), those plays present themselves from the male point-of-view and the general message is to beware of women who go beyond their prescribed societal role because terrible things happen as a result. By casting Hecuba as the main character, Euripides is able to explore the reasons behind their terrible actions, which usually involves their treatment, betrayal, and that they are voiceless in a patriarchal society. Notice how Medea also explores these same ideas. Euripides makes the audience who would normally take such characters for granted and makes them reexamine the reasons by their terrible deeds. In other words, he is critiquing the patriarchal society and social structures that force such voiceless women into monstrous acts.
Greek tragedy and literature continually attempts to remind us that a person’s fortune can change in a heartbeat, that fate and life itself is fickle; nowhere is this more pronounced than in Hecuba whose tragic tale puts the likes of Oedipus to shame, in my opinion.
Andromache (trans. John Frederick Nims)
After his death, Hector’s wife, Andromache, becomes a slave to Neoptolemus and marries him. Neoptolemus, who is the son of Achilles, is also married to Hermione. When Andromache grows pregnant with his child, the barren Hermione grows jealous and conspires to murder Andromache and her baby. Soon Hermione regrets her decision and fears Neoptolemus will banish her or worse as punishment for her attempted murder. Her cousin, Orestes, arrives on the scene still angry that Neoptolemus got to marry Hermione rather than him. Hermione runs off with Orestes, after the latter murders Neoptolemus.
Written at the onset of the Peloponnesian war, this propaganda piece depicts the Spartans as vile, ruthless, and morally deficient.
The Trojan Women (trans. Richard Latimore)
The play highlights the sorrow of the women of Troy, especially Hecuba, as they lament the destruction of their lost city and the death of their husbands.
Electra (trans. Emily Townsend Vermeule)
Euripides offers another interpretation of the Orestes revenge myth. He ups the ante of his predecessors, Aeschylus and Sophocles, by transforming Electra into a truly miserable creature, embittered by her father’s death and mother’s betrayal, and forced to marry a lowly but kind-hearted farmer. Orestes is even more of a reluctant hero in this version, mindlessly following Apollo’s orders to kill Aegisthus, but balking at the task of killing his own mother when the time arrives. Only Electra’s insistence fueled by her resentfulness pushes him to finish the deed. Like in many of his plays, Euripides paints a complicated picture of justice where the punishment somehow seems worse than the crime.
Ion (trans. Ronald Frederick Willets)
After being seduced by Apollo, Creusa exposes her baby to the wilderness to avoid the shame of telling her parents. The child was rescued by Hermes and raised in Apollo’s temple at Delphi. Years later, Creusa has married Xuthus and they travel to the oracle to find out if they will remain childless forever. An intricate plot ensues that unravels the mystery of Ion’s birth and reunites son with mother.
In typically Greek fashion, the story highlights the importance of origins, not only through questioning the legitimacy of his paternity to Xuthus and his quest to find his mother, but also the motif where Ion’s constantly fears that his parents will turn out to be slaves. The price Ion must pay for his truth-seeking is that it may turn out he is low-born. This theme of origins is further expressed in that the story serves as an origin for the Greek tribes: Ionian, Dorian, etc.
The Bacchae by Euripedes (trans. William Arrowsmith)
Many readers and scholars consider this work to be Euripedes’ masterpiece. This play depicts the insanity and wild frenzies associated with the Dionysian cult. Dionysus returns home to Thebes to punish Pentheus and the rest of his family who disbelieve his divinity; they accuse his mother, Semele, of lying about his paternity as the son of Zeus to cover up sexual impropriety.
After arriving in Thebes, Dionysus masks his identity, pretending to be a priest of the Dionysian cult, while driving the countryside insane with his powers. Pentheus worries about the insanity overtaking his people and seeks to suppress the Dionysian cult by capturing the priest who seems to be at the heart of all the troubles. However, it is really Dionysus pretending to be the priest.
Dionysus decides to punish Pentheus by dressing him up as a woman, and leading him up into the mountains where his own family, caught in the ecstasy of Dionysian madness, tear the king from limb to limb. Pentheus’ own mother returns to the palace parading her son’s head, thinking she has killed a lion. Soon she learns the truth that she has murdered her own son.
On one level, the play is about the dangers of denying a deity his divinity and power. Some questionable interpretations of the play see parallels with the Jesus story. Usually with the more explicit goal to demonstrate that the Gospels copied the Dionysus story. Such arguments suggest that Pentheus is like the priests denying Jesus his divinity and putting him on trial. Of course, Dionysus isn’t crucified in this play, Pentheus isn’t a priest (rather a king), and Dionysus wins in his struggle. Basically the only similarity is that he is a divine figure whose divinity is being questioned and whose cult is trying to be suppressed by an authority figure. In other words, there is far more dissimilarity than similarity.
The little similarity that exists can best be explained by archetypes that naturally occur to human minds rather than any kind of explicit copying or imitating. It is worth pointing out that while the prophets from the Old Testament aren’t divinities, but rather representatives of G-d’s message, they, too, are often denied or challenged by authority figures, which further suggests that the one element that is remotely similar between the Gospels and this play doesn’t even require the Gospel writers to turn to an outside culture for inspiration.
The play is more than just about the consequences of challenging a deity though. It is about the consequences of denying our own wild and frenzied nature. Dionysus was a god of wine. His worship as presented in the story represents freeing ourselves from the controls of rationality. His followers dance up in the mountains, wild and frenzied, communing with the earth. When the characters give into Dionysus they become wild, ecstatic, irrational, and free from social inhibitions—much like the effects of wine. However, the play also shows a dark side to all of this freedom from inhibition and rationality when Pentheus’ mother tears her son limb from limb under the delusion that he is a lion. This event is like a counter warning within the play: reason and our emotional desires must balance each other.
The reserved uptight Pentheus (the representative of rationality’s extreme and rigid control) almost seems to enjoy dressing up like a woman, to bend the boundaries of social taboo, to spit in the face of the rules. In this sense, we might view Dionysus as merely releasing people to be their true selves. On this symbolic level, it isn’t Dionysus’ divinity that Pentheus denies, but his own wild nature and irrational desires. Pentheus fears what Dionysus represents. He is the antithesis of his own orderly power as king. He is the antithesis of order, control, and rationality.