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Blood on the stage, Euripides--World Poetry Project

Updated on January 16, 2012
Hippolytus from the Louvre
Hippolytus from the Louvre
Phaedra, 1824
Phaedra, 1824
Guerin, Phaedra
Guerin, Phaedra
Killing Aegisthos
Killing Aegisthos
Mei, Electra's vengeance
Mei, Electra's vengeance
Orestes and the Erinnyes
Orestes and the Erinnyes
Andromache protecting her son, Astyanax
Andromache protecting her son, Astyanax
Trojan women from Pompeii
Trojan women from Pompeii

The great triad of ancient Greek tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. There is some continuity between Aeschylus and Sophocles; tragedy remains with the gods, with fate, played out and resolved at a higher realm than that which the audience inhabits. Not so with Euripides. Euripides brings the gods and heroes to earth, involving them directly in the passions and doubts of Athens and Greece during the troubled times of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens was both powerful and decaying.

Euripides (485-404 BCE) lacks grace. His poetry, although admired by Dante, the Romans, and those who created New Comedy, is deeply flawed, lacking both the grandeur of Aeschylus and the admirable simplicity of Sophocles. Euripides violates his audience; he brings blood on stage, and passion is his great subject, the deformations of character and action that passion causes, and which cannot be cured by the application of reason. Medea cannot be argued out of murdering her children. Phaedra cannot choose not to love, wrongly and obsessively, her step-son, Hippolytus. There is in man, and especially in women, a force of feeling that negates all other impulses and forms of address; there is incipient madness everywhere, in everyone, but especially in the family, that single cell from which all societies are ultimately formed.

Euripides' 'heroes', and the term must be used loosely, are selfish creatures, and their actions proceed from selfishness, either calculated, as in Alcestis , or mad, as in Medea and Hippolytus . The great Athenian democracy of free men cooperating in the formation and maintenance of a free state has decayed into license, self-aggrandizement, and narcissistic rivalry. On stage, the heroes, gods, and impassioned women of Euripides act out this decay, behaving not as elevated beings beyond the corruption of everyday existence, but rather as those corrupted by everyday existence forced into situations and circumstances for which they are unready and unprepared.

World Poetry 's selections from Euripides are drawn from his Hippolytus (428 BCE), translated by H.D., Electra (420 BCE), translated by Denis Goacher, and The Trojan Women (415 BCE), translated by Mark Rudman and Katherine Washburn. Women are important in Euripides' work, as this selection affirms, appearing as victims, but also as passionate daemonic figures of power and presence. His depiction of women is often criticized, for he did create some hideous figures--think Medea enraged, slaughtering her children in high righteousness in order to punish their father--but I think this criticism, concentrating as it does only on his madwomen, may be misplaced. It makes of Euripides an anomaly, when he was not, for as we have seen in previous posts to this project, the Greek view of women was not high in Athens.

What is anomalous in Euripides, and welcome, is a depiction of these women, even the demonic women who commit great wrongs, as living beings. Here there is no logical presentation of argument over the rightness or wrongness of burying a brother against the new king's laws, as in Sophocles' Antigone . Euripides women are animated by the same passions, the same pride and the same desires, as his men. This may involve them in crime, in madness, but it also makes them real and whole in a way that the idealization and chill of Sophocles does not. We discuss the character of Medea; we discuss the politics of Antigone.

Hippolytus is a strange story. It begins with a goddess, Aphrodite, angered by neglect, for Hippolytus, son of Theseus, favors Artemis and chastity to her. She will not stand for it, and devises his punishment: his father, Theseus, has been granted three fatal wishes by Poseidon, and she will arrange that he use one to destroy his son by igniting love for the boy in the heart of Phaedra, Theseus's wife and Hippolytus's step-mother. Aphrodite is not concerned for Phaedra, who has not insulted the goddess nor neglected her, but is consumed by the need to avenge her pride upon Hippolytus. Phaedra resists her desires, for they are unlawful, immoral, and a type of madness into which she wills herself not to descend, but mistakenly shares her trouble with a nurse. The nurse does not keep the trouble secret, and so it is Hippolytus finds out that his step-mother cherishes this lust for him. He makes it clear that he does not return her affection, is disgusted by her desire, and finds the entire situation loathsome. It is not only that she cannot have Hippolytus that compels Phaedra's suicide, but the fact that, if both were free, he would not have her. Theseus blames Hippolytus for Phaedra's death, wishes him dead and sends him into exile. Poseidon fulfills the wish. Aphrodite's passion is satisfied.

The chorus chosen from this play selected for World Poetry is a song of flight. The nurse and others sing of Phaedra's inescapable passion, this thing that torments her and resides within her, and her impossible desire to escape it.

O ship

white-sailed of Crete,

you brought my mistress

from her quiet palace

through breaker and crash of surf

to love-rite of unhappiness!

Phaedra's marriage to Theseus has brought her to Athens, and to the brink of madness with desire for his son.

helpless and overwrought,

she would fasten

the rope-noose about the beam

above her bride-couch

and tie it to her white throat:

she would placate the daemon's wrath,

still the love-fever in her breast,

and keep her spirit inviolate.

Aphrodite's selfish vengeance destroys Hippolytus only by accident, through the agency of Theseus' hasty assumptions and ill-considered words. It destroys Phaedra by intention.

Electra returns us to the House of Atreus, one we visited with Aeschylus in a previous post, to the children of Agamemnon, Electra and Orestes. Agamemnon has been murdered, and his murderers, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus rule over Argos and Mycenae. Electra has been forced into marriage with a peasant and banished from the city lest she bear a child who could threaten the king. It is as a woman that Electra is a threat, through the peril of alliances she might form in a proper marriage within her class, her fertility, her ability to replicate the family, providing new avengers for the murdered king. Orestes returns to Argos to seek vengeance against his father's killers, reveals himself to Electra, and together they plan the assassinations of Aegisthos and Clytemnestra. This is Euripides at his brutal best, showing the hero-penitent Orestes as an assassin, slaying Aegisthos without revealing himself as the king reads the results of a sacrifice. Electra lures Clytemnestra to them by claiming to have given birth to a son, and urges Orestes on to finish the queen when he hesitates before the horror of killing his mother. Electra claims the deed as her own responsibility, but it is Orestes who will go on to penance and forgiveness, pursued by the Furies. Electra did not strike the death-blow, but she is also not permitted reconciliation with the divine for her part in the murders.

In the included passage translated by Denis Goacher, the virtue of Agamemnon, his worth, is shown to justify the murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthos, but it is not through his own actions that he is granted dignity. Rather, it is his associates who ennoble him, for if they were great men, was not the king even greater? And of all Agamemnon's associates who is chosen to ennoble him but Achilles, the hero who refused to be subordinate to him, and who withdrew from the fight at Troy until impelled back into battle by his own rage because Agamemnon insulted him and took his woman.

And sea girls brought from the Fire God's forge

Armour of blinding gold for Achillesā€¦

Sea born Achilles! Heart of the Greeks!

Here is a call to heroics, to be as beautiful, as brave, as Achilles. Achilles stands before Troy, challenging its warriors, in bold armor that announces to all: I am Achilles. And those who stand against Achilles know who it is they are fighting, a chance Aegisthos and Clytemnestra will not be granted.

But his sword! Down the sword ran

Black war stallions, cloaked in dust,

Raised far by their radiant strideā€¦

Such was a man, whose chief you killed,

Killed with your bed-tricks


So seigneurs of the heaven shall slit you

I'll see when your hot blood shoots

When you'll gasp for the steel

For axe bites deeper than love, at your throat!

It is an odd passage. Vengeance is declared, the hunger for murder is there, and yet Agamemnon does not seem worthy of all this passion, all this rage. He is not painted as a great man, but glory reflected from Achilles raises him in the estimation of men and gives him a value his individual person may not have possessed at all.

The last selection, a chorus from The Trojan Women , expresses the despair and helpless rage of the women of Troy after the fall of the city, enslaved and stripped of their husbands, fathers, children and homes. There is in Sophocles and Aeschylus a thread of faith, a belief that if only the gods could be rightly served, if only crime and excess were avoided, justice and grace could and would be achieved. Euripides rejects this in The Trojan Women , for what had Troy done, what had it neglected?

It is a fearful thing to be flung

from the hand of the living god .

The Trojans were faithful, devoted, pious people, and still they were given over to the Greeks and destroyed.

gone are the offerings and the holy cries

of the dance in the dark night;

gone the night-long festivals,

the golden statues of the gods;

gone the moon-dials that number and trace

the moon's phases in the night's supernal silence.

The Trojan captive women speak to the dead, for only the dead remain in a secure relationship to them. The gods have shown themselves inconstant, and the living who surround them are their enemies. Their children have been taken, herded "like heifers", and the boys will be slaughtered so that they will not rise against their fathers' killers.

The herdsmen of Achaea are taking me out

of your sight, away from your arms--

leading me down to the midnight boats

whose oars clip the waves

all the way to port

hard by the double-gated island,

Pelops' keep,

where fathers eat their children.

They are enraged by their captors, by their abandonment by the divine, and by Helen, who brought this all upon them with her vanity and faithlessness.

Menalaus: May he never return

to Laconia, to the limestone cliffs

of that grubby, backwater

where men lie like stones;

to his father's smoky hearth,

to the bronze vault of the goddess.

Euripides range of emotion is not wide, but it is deep. One believes in the truth of the passions of the men and women as Euripides has written them. Sophocles may be more conducive to analyzing concepts, Aeschylus may have more grandeur, but Euripides is the most in contact with human nature as it manifests itself in the tragedies and victories of the house and the street.


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    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 6 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      this is so interesting and I agree with Ealair it is well written. I love to read about ancient Greek tragedians... so interesting. thanks for sharing


    • Ealair profile image

      Ealair 6 years ago from Dover, NH

      Very well written. Thank you!


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