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Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: EURIPIDES


Ancient Greek Tragedy 101 series intends to deepen the reader’s knowledge of the Greek Tragedies rooted in sixth century B.C. The fundamental purpose of this series is to present a detailed informative background and understanding of the elements of Greek tragedy as well as its prominent tragedians.

Ancient Greek Tragedy 101 is divided into Six Chapters:

4. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: EURIPIDES

5. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: SOPHOCLES

6. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Tragedy & Shakespearian Tragedy

Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: EURIPIDES

Figure 1

Portrait of Euripides

Note: Portrait of Euripides, sculpted from marble, 1st Century AD. Currently housed in Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

The son of Mnesarchus, Euripides was born on Salamis Island, Greece around 480 B.C. There is no precise information about his life; however, autobiographical clues gleaned by his works and parodies by comic poets enlighten some details. It has been assumed his family received an oracle claiming that Euripides was fated to win several victories. Upon his education in philosophy under the masters Anaxagoras and Prodicus who both were great philosophers in teaching and rhetoric in Athens, Euripides started to write tragedies many of which have won the first prize in the competitions at annual festivals in honour of the god Dionysus. He had two catastrophic marriages which ended up with the unfaithfulness of his wives. Even though the details of his death are uncertain, it is known that he became a recluse, making a home in a cave on Salamis, and spent his late years there.

Figure 2

The Cave of the Euripides

Note: Salamis, Greece: Archaeological Museum: Plate showing the ínterior of the Cave of Euripides (Schuppi, 2017)

During his lifetime, he presented a set of plays and only eighteen have survived: The most known ones are The Trojan Women, Medea, Alcestis, The Bacchae, and Hippolytus.

The poet of human frailty: Euripides

“Euripides appears as a special master for the skillful and ingenious way of rendering the pathetic statements made on the stage. He knows how to put in light the great passions, how to paint the turmoil and storms of the heart, how to arouse deep feelings of sympathy for the sufferings of his heroes, how to thrill the audience, how to inspire pity and terror, in the end, how to make use of increasing effects up until the production of an incomparable coup of theatre” (Zamfirescu, 1958, as cited in Dulgheriu, 2017, p. 259).

Euripides manifested more creative freedom than Aeschylus and Sophocles with his representations of traditional, mythical heroes as ordinary people having an active life and being in a continuous battle in their lives with their human nature. The increased tension of dramatic action in his plays was more complicated than in the previous works of other tragedians due to his presentation of his character’s oscillating inner conflicts. He puts emphasis on and reveals the passions of the human soul by using the elements that can impress or upset the human being: love, jealousy, revenge, hate, drunkenness, and pride.

The tragic heroes of Euripides differ from the traditional understanding of 'the tragic hero'. Aristotle claims the tragic hero must mistakenly bring about his own downfall, not because of the fact that he is sinful or immoral. However, Euripides portrays Medea as unsympathetic, sadistic, melodramatic, cruel and raving unlike the characteristics of a tragic hero in his play Medea. Since Medea's husband Jason left her for Princess Glauce, Medea sends a poisoned coronet and dress to kill her. Upon seeing his daughter's death, King Creon dramatically chooses to hold Glauce's dead body and kills himself. Yet, killing Glauce is not the end of her revenge on her husband Jason. She murders her children by stabbing and takes their bodies in a dragon-pulled chariot and leaves the city without even letting Jason see the dead bodies of his children.

As the audience has little sympathy for the savage Medea, all sympathy is concentrated on the unfortunate children murdered by their mother. Hence, Medea demonstrates the opposite transformation in the play: she never comprehends and repents for her actions, she has never had sympathetic characteristics, and she is not a victim of fate but her own actions. In Medea, Euripides portrayed Medea as the archetype of extreme passion, untamed emotion and vengeance by revealing the darkness of human nature. For this reason, "in his representation of human suffering, Euripides pushes to the limits of what an audience can stand; some of his scenes are almost unbearable" (Easterling and Knox, 1989, p. 87)

Figure 3


Note: The painting refers to Medea planning her revenge. [Painting] (Klagmann, 1868). Located at musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy.

Transforming the "Deus ex Machina "

The tragic plot device "Deus ex Machina" is the unexpected occurrence of gods to resolve the problems in the play. Though Aristotle objects to this abrupt correction by gods in tragedies, in Euripides’ plays, he transforms "deus ex machina": gods no longer have the power to punish; yet, they remain as the superior will and appear in the plays.

Figure 4

The Painting of Pylades and Orestes

Note: Pylades and Orestes Brought as Victims Before Iphigenia (West, 1766). Located at the Tate Gallery.

In Orestes, Apollo appears on stage to solve the problems and set everything in order without punishments: Apollo reveals that Menelaus should return to Sparta since Helen had been put amongst the stars, he orders Orestes to journey to Athens to stand trial in their court, and he also states that Orestes will marry Hermione and Pylades and Electra will also marry. However, the solutions of Apollo still seem problematic and inadequate because of the complexity and greatness of the problems in the play. Besides, Apollo's approach to the murders of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus is no longer rooted in a mythic context, but a judicial one. Since Apollo himself, throughout the play, is being judged and questioned so frequently, the audience does not perceive him as reliable anymore and therefore they do not feel satisfied with the ending.

Moreover, in The Bacchae Euripides portrayed Dionysus, the son of Semele and Zeus and known as the god of the grape harvest, symbolizing fertility and nature, as callous, petty, vengeful, merciless, and anything but admirable. Dionysus takes vengeance on his family in the play. After Pentheus' horrific death, Agave faces the realization that she has murdered her own son while Cadmus has to endure the pain of the destruction of his family line. Though Cadmus begs Dionysus for his mercy and pity upon him, Dionysus remains ruthless.

The lack of the finer human emotions such as mercy, understanding, compassion, and forgiveness displayed by the gods does not appear only at the end of The Bacchae, Dionysus refuses to express these emotions throughout the play. Euripides structured his plays with two different transformations of the plot device called "deus ex machina". He gave gods the superior will to solve the problems of his characters; yet, he formed gods as questionable in their justifications without having the power to punish. He also portrayed gods as merciless, callous and vengeful in some of his plays.

Euripides, as the second prominent tragedian in the Ancient Greek Tragedy 101 Series, wrote great tragedy plays which differ from the other plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles in terms of the human nature of the characters and the portrayal of the gods as well as the questionability of the gods in their justifications. By humanizing the tragic hero along with the other characters, Euripides managed to form his plays as being open to psychoanalysis and open to capture the characters as people in society. By using "deus ex machina", he expressed the idea of gods as merciless, vengeful, and questionable, a concept that had never been portrayed in Greek Tragedies before. While creating his characters, plots, and devices, Euripedes refused to restrict himself to the traditional elements of tragic plays and their concepts; instead, he expressed creative freedom that allowed him to reveal human nature's habit of conflicting with itself and the superior will of the gods.


Dickerson, G. W. (1974). Aristophanes’ Ranae 862: A Note on the Anatomy of Euripidean Tragedy. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 78, 177–188.

Dulgheriu, I. (2017). Euripides – Dramatic Concept, Innovation and Style. Theatrical Colloquia,7(2) 257-266.

Easterling, P. E. and Knox, Bernard M. W. (1989). Cambridge University Press. E-Book. Retrieved from

Sourvinou-Inwood, C. (1997). MEDEA AT A SHIFTING DISTANCE: IMAGES AND EURIPIDEAN TRAGEDY. In J. J. Clauss & S. I. Johnston (Eds.), Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art (pp. 253–296). Princeton University Press.

Image Resources

Klagmann, Henri. (1868). Médée. [Painting]. Located at musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy. Retrieved from

Schuppi. (2017). Salamis, Greece: Archaeological Museum: Plate showing the ínterior of the Cave of Euripides. [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Portrait of Euripides. (1st Century AD.). [Marble Sculpture]. Located at the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. Retrieved from

West, Benjamin. (1766). Pylades and Orestes. [Painting]. Located at the Tate Gallery. Retrieved from


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Melis Güven

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