Euripides (ca. 480 BCE-406 BCE) was one of the three great tragic playwrights of fifth-century Athens, along with Aeschylus and Sophocles. Only about eighteen of the supposedly over ninety plays he wrote survive, more than any other classical dramatist’s.
He was born on Salamis Island, the son of Mnesarchus, a tailer. His mother was Cleito. Mnesarchus received a prophesy that his son would win crowns for victory, thinking it meant in athletics, but the prizes Euripides won were in the field of drama.
Most of his career spanned the historical struggle between Athens and Sparta for supremacy in Greece before the downfall of Athens. Young Euripides was a dancer and torch-bearer at the rites of Apollo Zosterius. He studied painting and philosophy under Prodicus and Anaxagoras. Both of his wives, Melite and Choerine were unfaithful to him. Though he had three sons, the legend is that he became a recluse in a cave on the island of Salamis where he had a library and composed his plays. He was an intellectual who made innovations in the dramatic form he inherited from the two older poets, Aeschylus and Sophocles. He eventually went to the court of King Archelaus in Macedonia where he died in 406 BCE. These details are the traditional account of his life but not verifiable by modern scholarship. Unlike Aeschylus who was a soldier and Sophocles who was a state official, Euripides was seen as a private intellectual and lampooned as such in the satiric plays of the comedians of the time. They also joked that he co-wrote his plays with the philosopher, Socrates, a sign that his plays were thought to be intellectual and freethinking.
His first competition in the Athenian Dionysia, the dramatic festival that honored the god Dionysios, was in 455 BCE, one year after the death of Aeschylus. He did not win a first prize until 441. He won first prize only five times. His plays seem more modern than the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles because there are more open questions about the validity of religion in his work, which shocked the audience. The characters are also less heroic and more human. Even a villain like Clytemnestra is given motives for her actions, and Electra has some weaknesses. Euripides shows understanding for the position of women in society. The comic poet, Aristophanes, criticized Euripides for his new ideas. Greek drama was, however, a public forum for the discussion of cultural and historical concepts. “Electra” considers the nature of justice, for instance, and the characters could be contemporary Athenians. Euripides’s use of Greek was quite lyric but somewhat less formal and elevated in style than earlier drama. The influence of Euripides on later playwrights was considerable, especially in terms of realistic characterization.