Nineteen of his plays have been preserved. The life and career of Euripides are not known in great detail, and it is likely that some sources, for example constant references to him in the plays of Aristophanes, are scurrilous or at least satirical.
It does appear that he was born into a wealthy family and was talented in a number of fields other than drama. His parents were named Mnesarchus and Cleito. He married a woman named Melito and had three sons; one became a poet of some distinction. Euripides participated in just one known public activity, when he served on a diplomatic mission to Syracuse.
A great deal of his later life was lived during the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, and the travails associated with living in a city involved in a seemingly endless war may have contributed to his decision to accept an invitation from King Archelaus of Macedonia to live in that country in 408 b.c.e., and it is there that he died.
Euripides has been compared unfavorably to Aeschylus and Sophocles on account of his greater reliance on poetic oratory and rhetoric, rather than genuine dramatic intensity and because of his use of Socratic or Sophistic philosophy in his works.
However, those same qualities have in some ways made him more popular than his contemporaries in the modern world because his themes and language appear more accessible and comprehensible. Even so he received less critical acclaim than his rivals, supposedly to his chagrin.
The best-known plays of Euripides include The Bacchae, Medea, Electra, and Iphigenia at Aulis. Medea was first produced in 431 b.c.e. and highlights the oppression of women, which is a central theme in the works of Euripides. In this play the hero Jason takes Medea as a wife, and they go to live in Corinth.
After some years of happy marriage, which included the birth of two children, Jason announces his intention to abandon his wife and pursue the princess of Corinth. Deeply distressed, Medea ultimately resolves to murder the princess and her own children, thereby denying Jason the consolation of family in his later life.
She is able to escape from his revenge by riding away in the chariot of the sun god, who is her grandfather. Despite this overturning of all accepted proprieties, Euripides succeeds in causing the audience to sympathize with the plight of the abandoned woman.
The play Iphigenia at Aulis demonstrates another theme of importance to Euripides, which is the struggle between the dictates of public duty with personal morality and decency.
The play is set in the beginning of the Trojan War and depicts the Greek fleet, led by Agamemnon, becalmed at Aulis, which has been caused by the ill will of the goddess Artemis. Agamemnon determines that the only way to placate Artemis is to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia.
Unwilling though he is, Agamemnon feels he cannot escape his duty and his destiny, so he tricks his daughter into coming to join him. Once she has arrived, she learns the truth, and after some heart-rending scenes, she willingly volunteers for her sacrifice.
However, it is clear that this initial act of violence will lead to a spiral of acts in the future, and many of these episodes are explored in other plays of Euripides.
The Bacchae is perhaps the one existing play of Euripides that attempts to reconcile the outbreak of violence with the possibility of returning society to harmony once more. The action centers on the god Dionysius and his attempt to introduce the brand of unbridled lust that he accepts as the appropriate form of worship into the city of Thebes.
This is resisted by the king, Pentheus, and Dionysius takes violent revenge against the king and his people. However, those women who had been convinced to enter a state of divinely inspired violence are then depicted as having the opportunity to return to a rational, human state.
This play demonstrates some opportunity for redemption from violence and oppression on Earth. Euripides was one of the great exponents of the tragic art, which involved the classical elements of chorus, divine intervention, and savage scenes that can distance the work from the modern sensibilities.
However, the power of Euripides’s language is, compared to all the Greek tragic dramatists, perhaps the best able to bridge that gulf.