“The sure sign of the general decline of an art,” says Macaulay, “is the frequent occurence, not of deformity, but of misplaced beauty. In general tragedy is corrupted by eloquence.” This symptom is especially conspicuous in Euripides, who is constantly sacrificing propriety for rhetorical display; so that we are sometimes in doubt whether we are reading the lines of a poet or the speeches of an orator. Yet it is this very quality which has in all ages made him a much greater favorite than Aeschylus or Sophocles; it is this which made tragi-comedy so easy and natural under his treatment; which recommended him to Menander as the model for his new comedy, and to Quintilian as the model for oratory. In the middle ages he was far better known than his two great contemporaries; for this was an era when scholastic subtleties were mistaken for eloquence, minute distinctions for science, and verbal quibbles for proficiency in dramatic art. Pitiable also is his habit of punning, as in the Bacchae, where his Greek may be rendered, “Take heed lest Pentheus makes your mansion a pent-house of grief.” Even Shakespeare, the most incorrigible of punsters, has nothing worse than this. Yet Aeschylus is fully as bad, speaking for instance of Helen in his Agamemnon as “a hell to men, a hell to ships and a hell to cities.”
The Art of Euripides
The works of Euripides have been more variously judged than those of the other two great masters. His art, it has been said, is tamer than theirs, and his genius rhetorical rather than poetical, while the morality that he teaches belongs to the school of Sophists. On the other hand his admirers claim that he is the most tragic of the Greek tragedians, the most pathetic of the Attic poets, the most humane in his social philosophy and the most skillful in psychological insight. Doubtless he owed to Socrates the philosophy interwoven in his tragedies, causing him to be named the “stage philosopher,” one haunted by the demon of Socrates. Though he did not live in the most stirring period of the nation’s life, he was, both in spirit and in choice of themes, intensely patriotic, and to him is due the spread of dramatic literature more than to any other of the ancient bards. Tragedy followed in his footsteps in Greece and Rome; comedy owed him much, even in the style of Aristophanes, who ridiculed him, and in Menander, who borrowed his sentiments. When the modern drama grafted the classical element on its crude growth, the plays of Euripides were, directly or indirectly, the most powerful influence in the establishment of a living connection between them.
When Attica was given over to the invading army of Xerxes the women and children were transferred to the island of Salamis, and here, according to Plutarch and Suidas, Euripides was born on the day of the great victory. In the table known as the Parian marble his birth is given as a few years earlier, and some have placed it on the day of the battle of the Euripus, from which was formed his patronymic. His father, Mnesarchus, was a man of means and respectability; but his mother was probably of lowly origin–a seller of herbs, if we can believe Aristophanes, who treats the matter as one of public notoriety.
The Career of Euripides
It is related that his father was promised by the oracle a son who, honored by all men, should win great reputation and bind his brows with consecrated wreaths. Hence he was trained for an athlete and won some prizes at the public games; he was also known as a painter; but it was as a dramatist that he was destined to achieve enduring fame. He was well educated, attending the lectures of Anaxagoras, Prodicus and Protagoras, to whom he probably owed many of his sophistical and rhetorical mannerisms. He was on terms of intimacy with Pericles and Socrates, both of whom were his fellow-pupils. While taking a lively interest in the questions of the day, he lived a retired and somewhat misanthropic life, happy in the possession of a valuable library, and passing most of his time in dramatic composition. As Philochorus relates, most of his tragedies were composed in a dark cave in the isle of Salamis, which was an object of curiosity many years after his death.
Euripides was a voluminous writer, the number of his plays being variously stated at from seventy-five to ninety-two, including several satyric dramas. Of these nineteen have survived, with numerous fragments of others, though many of his best works have been lost and more have suffered from interpolations. He began his public career as a dramatist when twenty-four years of age, but was nearly twice as old when he gained his first decisive victory, winning the first prize only four times during his life and once after his death. Yet he was highly esteemed, not only in Athens but throughout the Hellenic world, and as Plutarch tells us, some of the Athenian captives, after the disaster of Syracuse, obtained their liberty by reciting passages from his dramas.
The last years of Euripides were passed in Magnesia and in Macedonia, where he was the guest of Archelaus, though the motive for his self-exile cannot be clearly ascertained. We know that Athens was not always the most favorable spot for eminent literary merit. The virulence of rivalry reigned unchecked in that fierce democracy, and the caprice of the petulant multitude would not afford the most satisfactory patronage to a high-minded and talented man. Report, too, insinuates that Euripides was unhappy in his own family. His first wife, Melito, he divorced for adultery; and in his second, Chaerila, he was not more fortunate. Envy and enmity among his fellow-citizens, infidelity and domestic vexations at home, would prove no small inducements for the poet to accept the invitation of Archelaus. In Macedonia he is said to have written a play in honor of that monarch, and to have inscribed it with his patron’s name, who was so pleased with the manners and abilities of his guest as to appoint him one of his ministers. No further particulars are recorded of Euripides, except a few apocryphal letters, anecdotes and apophthegms. His death, which took place B.C. 406, if the popular account be true, was, like that of Aeschylus, in its nature extraordinary. Either from chance or malice, the aged dramatist was exposed to the attack of ferocious hounds, and by them so dreadfully mangled as to expire soon afterward, in his seventy-fifth year.
The Athenians entreated Archelaus to send the body to the poet’s native city for interment. The request was refused; and, with every demonstration of grief and respect, Euripides was buried at Pella. A cenotaph, however, was erected to his memory at Athens.
Euripides, in the estimation of the ancients, certainly held a rank much inferior to that of his two great rivals. The caustic wit of Aristophanes, whilst it fastens but slightly on the failings of the giant Aeschylus and keeps respectfully aloof from the calm dignity of Sophocles, assails with merciless malice every weak point in the genius, character and circumstances of Euripides. The comedian banters or reproaches him for lowering the dignity of tragedy, by exhibiting heroes as whining, tattered beggars; by introducing the vulgar affairs of ordinary life; by the sonorous platitudes of his choral odes; the voluptuous character of his music; the feebleness of his verses, and the loquacity of all his personages, however low their rank. He laughs at the monotonous construction of his clumsy prologues; he imputes to his dramas an immoral tendency, and to the poet himself contempt for the gods and a fondness for new-fangled doctrines. He jeers at his affectation of rhetoric and philosophy. In short he seems to regard Euripides with sovereign contempt, bordering upon disgust.
The attachment of Socrates and the admiration of Archelaus may perhaps serve as a counterpoise to the insinuations of Aristophanes against the personal character of Euripides. As to his poetic powers, there is a striking diversity of opinion between him and the later comedians, for Menander and Philemon held him in high esteem. Yet Aristotle, whilst allowing to Euripides a preëminence in the excitement of sorrowful emotion, censures the general arrangement of his pieces, the wanton degradation of his personages and the unconnected nature of his choruses. Longinus, like Aristotle, ascribes to Euripides a great power in working upon the feelings by depiction of love and madness, but he certainly did not entertain the highest opinion of the genius. He even classes him among those writers who, far from possessing originality of talent, strive to conceal the real meanness of their conceptions, and assume the appearance of sublimity by studied composition and labored language.
For the tragedians of later times Euripides was the absolute model and pattern, and equally so for the poets of the new comedy. Diphilus called him the “Golden Euripides,” and Philemon went so far as to say, with some extravagance, “If the dead, as some assert, have really consciousness, then would I hang myself to see Euripides.” He had warm admirers in Alexander the Great and the Stoic Chrysippus, who quoted him regularly in several of his works. Among the Romans, too, he was held in high esteem, serving as a model for tragedy, as did Menander and Phrynichus for comedy.
In his survey of the shades of departed poets, Dante makes no mention of Aeschylus or Sophocles, but classes Euripides and Agathon with the greatest of the Greeks. Those who are familiar with the literature of the middle ages can easily understand why the works of Euripides became so popular among the nations of Europe. The pupil and friend of the most eminent of the sophists who succeeded the rhapsodes of the Homeric age, he was himself a sophist, supplanting with his precepts the rhapsodical element in the Hellenic drama. He also gave to his audience some of the physical doctrines of his master, Anaxagoras, going out of his way to show that the sun is nothing but a great ignited stone, that the overflow of the Nile is caused by the melting of the snow in Ætheopia, and that the æther or sky is an embodiment of the diety.
Euripides was the first one to introduce women on the stage, not as heroines but as they are in actual life. Yet he is often far from complimentary to the other sex, the result, probably, of his two unhappy marriages. Thus, for instance, after a burst of indignation before the nurse, who approaches him with overtures of love on behalf of Phædra, he makes Hippolytus express his opinion of womankind:
O Zeus, why hast thou brought into the world
To plague us such a tricksy thing as woman?
If thou didst wish to propagate mankind,
Couldst thou not find some better way than this?
We to the temples might have brought our price
In gold or weight of iron or of brass,
And purchased offspring, each to the amount
Of that which he has paid; and so have dwelt
In quiet homes unvexed of womankind.
Now, to import a plague into our homes,
First of our substance we make sacrifice,
And here at once we see what woman is.
The father that begot her gladly pays
A dowry that he might be rid of her,
While he may bring this slip of evil home.
Fond man adorns with costly ornament
A worthless idol, and his living wastes
To trick her out in costly finery.
Ha has no choice. Are his connections good,
To keep them he must keep a hated wife;
Are his connections bad, he can but weigh
Against that evil a good bedfellow.
His is the easiest lot who has to wife
A cipher, a good-natured simpleton;
Quick wits are hateful. Ne’er may wife of mine
Be wiser than consorts with womanhood.
In your quick-witted dames the power of love
More wickedness engenders; while the dull
Are by their dullness saved from going wrong.
This is sufficiently bitter, but nor more so than the words which Euripides is accustomed to use when speaking of women.
In the time of Euripides the Attic drama reached the zenith of its glory, when the works of the great classic triad–Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides–followed each other in rapid succession.