Interesting facts about a classical playwright
‘Have all the nations of the world since his time created a dramatist worthy to hand him his slippers?’ Such was Goethe’s assessment of Euripides. Even Shakespeare, it would seem, wasn’t worthy of such a slipper-carrying honour where Euripides was concerned. Here are five curious facts about the life and work of one of the great tragedians of antiquity.
1. Of the eighty or so plays Euripides is thought to have written, only eighteen have survived. Among the titles that we have lost – probably forever – are Aegeus, Antigone, Autolycus, Danae, Hippolytus Veiled, Ixion, Oedipus, Sciron, Theseus, and Thyestes.
2. The celebrated plot of one of Aristophanes’ comedies may have been inspired by a real-life event involving Euripides. According to the Life and Race of Euripides, a papyrus discovered in Oxyrhyncus in Egypt in 1911 but dating back over 2,000 years, Euripides angered the women of Athens because of his misogynistic depiction of heroines in his tragedies. The name of the author of the Life and Race of Euripides, ‘Satyrus’, suggests that we shouldn’t perhaps read this work as literal biography, but it is suggestive that Satyrus tells the exact same story as that which Aristophanes would later tell in his Thesmophorizusae. The women of Athens hold a council to decide what to do with Euripides, and Euripides sends his own father-in-law along – disguised as a woman – to listen at the meeting. Okay, so it probably never happened – but it does suggest that the plot of Aristophanes’ comedy was inspired by a myth surrounding another great playwright.
3. Euripides is the author of the only satyr play to survive intact into the modern age. When Greek tragedies were presented at the City Dionysia, they were staged as trilogies, with the three plays being performed back to back. All three tragedies would be written by the same playwright. But in fact there would be not three, but four plays performed in total, since after the tragic trilogy was over, a short knockabout comedy play, known as the ‘satyr play’, would be performed. Most examples of the satyr play have been lost, but Euripides’ The Cyclops, which focuses on Polyphemus, the Cyclops who comes a-cropper at the hands of Odysseus.
4. Euripides wrote the ode for the Olympic Games. Alcibiades asked Euripides to write the Olympic Victory Ode. Sadly, the poem has not survived.
5. When Euripides was exiled from Athens late in his life, it was said that the citizens cheered. Euripides didn’t alienate just the women of Athens: many people disliked the new brand of realism that he brought to theatre – showing kings as real people with human weaknesses, for instance. This ‘warts and all’ style wasn’t to every Athenian’s taste. But what really turned the city-state against Euripides was his increasingly political attacks on Athenian foreign policy: when Athens attacked the small island of Melos and enslaved the islanders, Euripides responded by writing The Trojan Women, which is about Athens enslaving a foreign people. The best way to shut him up, it would seem, was by exiling him.