The Plays of Euripides 9781474233590, 9781474233620, 9781474233606

Over the past decades there has been something of a revolution in the way we view classical drama generally and Euripide

252 62 2MB

English Pages [161] Year 2016

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

The Plays of Euripides
 9781474233590, 9781474233620, 9781474233606

Table of contents :
Cover page
Halftitle page
Series page
Title page
Copyright page
The second edition
A Chronology of Euripides’ Work and Times
Important recent work
Important recent work
The Children of Heracles
Important recent work
Important recent work
Important recent work
Important recent work
The Suppliant Women
Important recent work
Important recent work
Important recent work
The Trojan Women
Important recent work
Iphigenia among the Taurians
Important recent work
Important recent work
Important recent work
The Phoenician Women
Important recent work
Important recent work
Important recent work
Important recent work
Iphigenia at Aulis
Important recent work
Important recent work
Men as they are
Euripides and Ibsen
Women (see also under Index, p. 144)
On the margin
The chorus (see also under Index, p. 143)
Politics (see also under Index, p. 144)
Athenocentrism (see also under Index, p. 143)
The gods (see also under Index, p. 143)
Supplication (see also under Index, p. 144)
The Judgement of Paris
Suggestions for Further Reading

Citation preview

The Plays of Euripides


Classical World Series Aristophanes and his Theatre of the Absurd, Paul Cartledge Art and the Romans, Anne Haward Athens and Sparta, S. Todd Athens under Tyrants, J. Smith Athletics in the Ancient World, Zahra Newby Attic Orators, Michael Edwards Augustan Rome, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill Cicero and the End of the Roman Republic, Thomas Wiedemann Cities of Roman Italy, Guy de la Bédoyère Classical Archaeology in the Field, S. J. Hill, L. Bowkett and K. & D. Wardle Classical Epic: Homer and Virgil, Richard Jenkyns Democracy in Classical Athens, Christopher Carey Early Greek Lawgivers, John Lewis Environment and the Classical World, Patricia Jeskins Greece and the Persians, John Sharwood Smith Greek and Roman Historians, Timothy E. Duff Greek and Roman Medicine, Helen King Greek Architecture, R. Tomlinson Greek Literature in the Roman Empire, Jason König Greek Sculpture, Georgina Muskett Greek Tragedy: Themes and Contexts, Laura Swift Greek Vases, Elizabeth Moignard Homer: The Iliad, William Allan Julio-Claudian Emperors, T. Wiedemann Lucretius and the Didactic Epic, Monica Gale Morals and Values in Ancient Greece, John Ferguson Mycenaean World, K. & D. Wardle Ovid: A Poet on the Margins, Laurel Fulkerson Plato’s Republic and the Greek Enlightenment, Hugh Lawson-Trancred The Plays of Aeschylus, A.F. Garvie The Plays of Euripides, James Morwood ii

The Plays of Sophocles, A. F. Garvie Political Life in the City of Rome, J. R. Patterson Religion and the Greeks, Robert Garland Religion and the Romans, Ken Dowden Roman Architecture, Martin Thorpe The Roman Army, David Breeze Roman Britain, S. J. Hill and S. Ireland Roman Egypt, Livia Capponi Roman Frontiers in Britain, David Breeze The Roman Poetry of Love, Efi Spentzou Slavery in Classical Greece, N. Fisher Spectacle in the Roman World, Hazel Dodge Studying Roman Law, Paul du Plessis



The Plays of Euripides Second Edition James Morwood

Bloomsbury Academic An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc



Bloomsbury Academic An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 50 Bedford Square London WC 1B 3DP UK

1385 Broadway New York NY 10018 USA BLOOMSBURY and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First edition published 2002 Second edition published 2016 © James Morwood, 2016 James Morwood has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Author of this work. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. No responsibility for loss caused to any individual or organization acting on or refraining from action as a result of the material in this publication can be accepted by Bloomsbury or the author. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. ISBN :

PB : ePDF : ePub:

978-1-47423-359-0 978-1-47423-360-6 978-1-47423-361-3

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Morwood, James, author. Title: The plays of Euripides / James Morwood. Description: Second edition. | London : Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. | Includes index. Identifiers: LCCN 2016018822 (print) | LCCN 2016019690 (ebook) | ISBN 9781474233590 (pbk.) | ISBN 9781474233606 (epdf) | ISBN 9781474233613 (epub) Subjects: LCSH: Euripides--Criticism and interpretation. Classification: LCC PA3978 .M67 2016 (print) | LCC PA3978 (ebook) | DDC 882/.01--dc23 LC record available at Series: Classical World Cover image © Bust of Euripides (Athens, c. 480 BC – Pella, c. 406 BC ), copy of Greek original, fourth century BC . DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI Typeset by RefineCatch Limited, Bungay, Suffolk


Contents Preface


Introduction A Chronology of Euripides’ Work and Times Alcestis Medea The Children of Heracles Hippolytus Andromache Hecuba The Suppliant Women Heracles Electra The Trojan Women Iphigenia among the Taurians Ion Helen The Phoenician Women Orestes Cyclops Bacchae Iphigenia at Aulis Rhesus Epilogue

1 5 7 13 19 27 33 39 45 51 59 65 71 77 83 89 95 103 109 115 121 127

Suggestions for Further Reading Index

139 143


Preface I encountered my first Euripides play at the age of fifteen. This was Bacchae. Things have never been quite the same since. For one thing, I have spent more than fifty years talking, hearing and reading about this great master, and seeing performances of his work. I hope I have mentioned in the text and the suggestions for further reading the scholars whose insights have helped me most. Two figures above all, whose mastery and love of Greek tragedy are unsurpassed, led me into the labyrinth and equipped me to take my bearings. They are Oliver Taplin and the late John Gould. For the thread to get me back out, I am profoundly indebted to Christopher Collard, who has exceeded any reasonable definition of friendship in his generous provision of critical commentary on the essays which make up this little book. I have benefited greatly from his humane scholarship, and any bêtises that have fought their way through into print must be attributed to my own ignorance or obstinacy. Quotations are given (with permission) from the translations of all of Euripides’ plays that Robin Waterfield and I have made for the Oxford World’s Classics series. While writing the notes for the five volumes of that publication, I distilled my reactions to many of the issues raised by the plays, and I am grateful to Hilary O’Shea (of Oxford University Press) for allowing me to reuse material from those books. An earlier version of the essay on Medea was published in Omnibus, and some of that on Electra has appeared in the American Journal of Philology. It is with great pleasure that I give thanks to the Fondation Hardt for allowing me to work on Euripides in Geneva on two occasions, and to the British Academy and Wadham College for sponsoring those visits. I am grateful to Ian McAuslan for his habitual support. Much of this book – as well as of other projects – was written in the Tuscan hills at the house of David and Rose Gaunt. I thank them warmly for their generous hospitality. In addition, I would like to express my appreciation viii



of the encouragement lent me by Michael Gunningham, the editor of this series when I produced the first edition, and of the unfailing helpfulness of John Betts and Jean Scott of Bristol Classical Press, and, for this second edition, of Alice Wright of Bloomsbury. James Morwood Wadham College, Oxford [email protected]



This book is based on the premise that a great dramatist sets out to do something different in every work that he creates. I certainly believe that this holds true of Euripides. The situation of his Hecuba, for example, is very similar to that of The Trojan Women of some ten years later. Yet, as I shall try to show, the two tragedies are altogether distinctive. This appears to be true of the fragmentary plays as well – Phaethon and Cretans are cases in point – but it is beyond the scope of this slim volume to discuss them. The book consists of essays on the eighteen surviving plays as well as on Rhesus, which is however unlikely to be by Euripides. I have aimed to take each work on its own terms and have consciously, perhaps at times perversely, avoided making interconnections between them. Even in the concluding section, where I comment on the plays in toto, I find myself repeatedly arguing that it is impossible to generalize about them. I very much hope that the word ‘Euripidean’ is used only once in the entire book – here in this sentence. It seems to me reductive of any major playwright’s reach and range to treat him as if he constantly swims in the same waters. In my view the only important thing that all of Euripides’ plays have in common is that each and every one of them is a masterpiece. Greek tragedy was sung and danced as well as spoken, and I am conscious that my decision to avoid any discussion of metre will seriously impoverish understanding of the plays. But if I say, for example, that the change from the iambic to the trochaic metre at 317 of Iphigenia at Aulis heightens the excitement of the dialogue, or that the racing dochmiacs of Electra (1147–71) and Bacchae (977–1023) create an effect of almost unbearable intensity, it may be clear why I 1


The Plays of Euripides

have thought it best to steer clear of technical language. Both those comments, however, remain true – and important. I have also tried to make as little use as possible of the technical vocabulary, such as parodos, stasimon and episode, that can make Greek tragedy appear something remote and alien. The drawback to this is that it leads to an under-appreciation of what the structure of the plays contributes to their meaning. I have, however, assumed a certain familiarity with some terms which are more generally used in the discussion of Greek drama, e.g. deus ex machina and catharsis. Most of these can be found in any dictionary of literary terms. It may be worth remarking here that hubris describes high-handed behaviour aimed at arbitrarily humiliating others, human or divine. Readers are warned that they should read or – better still – see the plays before coming to the essays on them. I have sketched in an outline of their plots at or near the start of each essay. Fuller plot summaries can be found in Wikipedia, Ian C. Storey and Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama (Blackwell, 2005) 258–76, and the Encyclopedia of Greek Tragedy. I have tried to avoid a plethora of line references, and have generally given these only where I feel that it may not be immediately accepted that what I say is true, or where I suspect that the line or lines in question may be difficult to track down. References are to James Diggle’s Oxford classical texts of Euripides. In my discussion of most of the works the Greek names have been Latinized (e.g. Akhilleus is called Achilles), but when the names look very strange in their Latinized forms, I have felt more comfortable in keeping to the original (transliterated) spelling.

The second edition I am delighted to have been asked to produce a second edition of this book. It has enabled me to take on board developments in Euripides scholarship over the past thirteen years as well as shifts in my own thinking. Underneath the discussions of the individual plays I have



added lists of important recent work; mainly this post-dates the 2002 edition but on a few occasions I have also included older books and articles which I feel have been underappreciated. Bibliographical details of all the books referred to in the text can thus be found either at the end of the relevant chapter or in the bibliography. The references to other writers in the text, lists and bibliography should make it clear that Euripides scholars are engaged in a collective enterprise in which no single view – and certainly not mine – is likely to be definitive. In the text I have added some additional matters over which scholars differ in order to emphasize this point. In a section entitled ‘Interpretation’ in the final chapter, I have given a different reading of a passage from Hecuba discussed earlier. I hope that readers will find it interesting to compare two (I believe) viable interpretations and may indeed come to one of their own. Finally, I should like to mention one important new scholarly development which I have been unable to place in the main body of the text: Scott Scullion has argued, in my view convincingly, that Euripides did not go to Macedon at the end of his life and die there (‘Euripides and Macedon’, Classical Quarterly 2003(2), 389–400). There is no good reason to disbelieve that he stayed in Athens. Now to the plays.


A Chronology of Euripides’ Work and Times

Dates of productions of extant plays (adapted from C. Collard, Euripides [Oxford, 1981], p. 2)


441 438 431

?425 before 423 ?423


radical democracy established


building of Parthenon begun


start of Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta plague breaks out in Athens

first production

victorious for the first time (play unknown) Alcestis – second place Medea – third place

430–428 Children of Heracles 428

Dates in the history of Athens


Hippolytus (revised version) – first place Andromache Hecuba The Suppliant Women 416

Athenians slaughter the men on the island of Melos and enslave its women and children 5


The Plays of Euripides

Dates of productions of extant plays before 415 ?before 415 415 before 412

?before 412 412

Dates in the history of Athens

Electra Heracles

415–413 disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily

The Trojan Women – second place Iphigenia among the Taurians – second place Ion Helen 411

410 ?409 408 ?408

oligarchic revolution in Athens – governments of 400 and later 5,000 democracy restored at Athens

The Phoenician Women – second place Orestes Cyclops 407/406 Euripides dies

after 406

Bacchae and Iphigenia at Aulis – first place 404

defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War


At its first performance in 438 BC , Alcestis was presented after the other three Euripides works on offer, thus filling the slot usually reserved for the satyr play (see p. 103). And while it does not fall into this genre in any literal sense – apart from anything else, it has no chorus of satyrs – its usurpation of that particular place on the bill is reflected in significant ways. For one thing, there is the folkloric nature of the story with its happy ending – an ancient commentator wrote that the change of fortune belongs more to the world of comedy than tragedy – in which a woman (Alcestis) sacrifices her life to save her husband (Admetus) and is rescued by a hero (Heracles) who snatches her back from Death. There is also the stereotypical presentation of the characters who control the action. They carry the emblems that identify them. Heracles enters wearing his defining lion skin and holding his massive club: the chorus of elderly citizens know who he is at once (478). And his characterization suggests the Heracles of comedy and the satyr play. Witness the garland and the wine-cup which are his props for his drunk scene with its boozy philosophizing. As A.M. Dale remarks, he is presented ‘in a manner discreetly reminiscent of the traditional burlesque Heracles, the coarse glutton and drunkard who rouses himself to perform prodigious feats of strength against the local monster or bully’. The god Apollo, who saved Admetus from death, is traditionally blond and appears at the outset with his iconic bow and arrows (39–40). To him there enters Death, an ogre instantly recognizable from folk-lore: he carries a sword (74–6) and quite possibly wears black wings (262, 843). This stylized mode of presentation results in strongly effective contrasts. Just as the opening scene pits the bright Sun-god Apollo against 7


The Plays of Euripides

the black figure of Death, the play, with a relentless insistence, sets the light of the upper world against the darkness of the world below. Often in Greek tragedy the expression ‘to see the light of day’ is simply an inert metaphor for life. Not here, however, where the light shines on human beings who find a rich fulfilment in their relationship with family and friends, while Hades presides over a black world of shadowy extinction (381). Admetus’ father, the repulsive Pheres, hits the nail on the head when he says,‘By my calculations, we spend a good long time down below, while life is short but sweet’ (692–3). The stain of black oozes through the play when Admetus and his household assume the garb of mourning for Alcestis (427). (A number of commentators believe – though the latest of them, L.P.E. Parker, is not convinced – that at 746 the chorus leave the stage to attend her funeral. For a chorus to exit in the course of a play is remarkable: it only happens once elsewhere in Euripides, in Helen [at 385]. If they do leave the stage here, it is at least a possibility that when they return the old men of Pherae are dressed in black.) And the polarizing of white and black and darkness and light finds an echo in the use of up- and down-motifs: up under the sun, down to the black underworld. It is between these polarities and within this folkloric framework that the play’s characters are assessed. We can only admire Alcestis, the pattern of heroic wifely virtue, and Euripides certainly rises to the challenge of making a good character come across sympathetically. The way in which she leaves no doubt of the centrality of their bed in her marriage to Admetus (175–88) could be viewed as sentimental, but not, I think, when seen in conjunction with her very decided self-esteem (e.g. at 323–5), her passionate concern for her two children, especially the girl (305–19), and her insistence that Admetus remain celibate (305–10, 314–16). The play hammers home this last demand: Admetus promises (328–31), the children witness (371–4), the chorus recapitulate (463–6). And it is precisely here that one may feel a certain reservation about her monopoly of virtue in her relationship with her husband. She had earlier faced the fact that he will marry again (181–2). This was not only realistic, it was humane. In dying for her husband, she is displaying thrilling courage and absolute love; but these qualities are surely undermined by



the fact that she uses them to extract from him a commitment to her which would prove life-denying and condemn him to reliving the past, sleeping with a statue of her dead self – a ‘cold comfort’ (348–54). Paradoxically, in her wish to block him off from a meaningful future, she undermines the justification for dying in his stead. It is certainly easy to mount a strong case against Admetus, the Thessalian king, and difficult not to find his pleas that Alcestis should not abandon him and their children in the death which he himself had prompted embarrassing and distressing (275–9, 386, 388, 391). The fact, however, remains that we know nothing of why or when it was decided that he must die and therefore of the circumstances in which Alcestis agreed to give up her life for him. In addition, Admetus was landed in a morally insoluble situation by Apollo when he tricked the Fates by arranging the possibility of a substitution for the death-doomed king (11–12, 33–4). Under these circumstances, judgement becomes highly subjective. Indeed, it is more than half way through the play that his father Pheres, who is so contemptible but who talks so much sense, raises the subject. Before then it has not occurred to anybody on stage that Admetus should not have let his wife, or any other individual, die in his place. Everybody appears to take it for granted that the king’s life should take precedence over everyone else’s. But when Pheres does launch his onslaught, he certainly scores some very palpable hits against his son: You fought shamelessly against death, and you’re living now beyond your appointed time because you condemned her to death. And do you then accuse me of cowardice – you, the ultimate coward, who proved worse than the woman who died for you, her fine young husband? 694–8, cf. 703–5, 730–3

The voice of the play now seems to turn against Admetus: indeed we soon discover that he was nasty to the servants (770–1). Yet in the great tragic tradition, this deeply flawed character can learn through his suffering (935–40). The words of his father prove to have struck home (955–61). In the upper world of sunlight he may be, but he has penetrated to the heart of darkness.


The Plays of Euripides

It will be hard for speakers of English to keep two dramatic masterpieces in that language from their minds as they watch Alcestis. One of these is Everyman, the anonymous medieval mystery play, in which God sends Death to Everyman to tell him that he must make the final pilgrimage. Death grants him permission to take someone with him, ‘if any be so hardy That would go with thee and bear thee company’. In quick succession, Fellowship, Kindred and Cousin, and Goods all refuse to journey with him. But Good Deeds stays with him until he sinks into the grave. In our play Alcestis has taken Admetus’ place on the road to death – and the way that all save Good Deeds abandon the protagonist in the medieval parallel throws her courage into the boldest relief – but he remains the original Everyman. Do Admetus’ good deeds, like Everyman’s, offer him some sort of redemption? In fact, Admetus is celebrated for his commitment to one of the major virtues of ancient Greece, the concept of hospitality. (‘xenos’, a single Greek word, means ‘guest’, ‘host’, ‘stranger’ and ‘foreigner’, and all these identities are subsumed under the term ‘xenia’ (hospitality), a fundamental value over which Zeus, the king of the gods, presided.) Apollo launches this theme at 10. He had been treated generously by Admetus, his host when Zeus had forced him to serve the Thessalian king as a hired labourer. The play insists on this value again and again, even playing variations on it with the image of the bad host and guest (Diomedes at 484, Heracles at 749–50). It is inextricably woven into the texture of the play, and it is linked with another fundamental concept that bonds human relationships, gratitude. The Greek word for this (charis) resonates throughout Alcestis. These key Greek values of hospitality and gratitude tend to serve as touchstones, identifying those who espouse them and those who reject them as good and bad respectively. Yet Admetus’ dedication to hospitality is so extreme that it can take the breath away. Immediately after the death of his wife he welcomes Heracles to his house, prevaricating about his personal catastrophe because he cannot bear to be seen as anything other than the best of hosts (e.g. at 553–60). The chorus are initially shocked by this – ‘how can you be so stupid?’



(551–2) – and Heracles is distraught when he discovers that Admetus’ weasel words have led him to cut so sorry a figure with his drunken caterwauling in a house of mourning. He feels the need to rebuke his host, even after he has done him the greatest of favours (1008–16). Admetus’ servant had earlier remarked of him, ‘He’s just too hospitable, far too hospitable’ (809). Yet the chorus soon come round to enthusiastic appreciation of their supremely xenophile master (568–9), singing ecstatically at 597–605: And now he opens up his house to welcome a guest, with his eye damp from mourning over the body of his beloved wife, newly dead in the palace. For in his nobility he is selfless to an extreme. Good men lack no virtuous qualities, and I admire their wisdom. In my heart I remain confident that a god-fearing man will fare well.

And it is precisely the fact that Admetus had welcomed him as a guest (854–9) that impels Heracles to repay the favour (842) by wrestling his wife from the grasp of Death. As he is about to set forth upon yet another labour at the play’s end, he endorses a value which he believes in profoundly, urging his host to remain steadfast in his piety towards guests (1148). Yet if Euripides had wished to suggest that the most hospitable man in Greece (858–9) can be forgiven anything, he would surely have steered clear of the considerable embarrassments of the play’s final scene, in which, despite his initial unwillingness, Admetus agrees – admittedly at Heracles’ unremitting insistence – to take a woman into his house and even to touch her. This is in total violation of the spirit of his emphatic commitment to Alcestis earlier. It is an all too easy capitulation to his gratitude to his guest-friend. Throughout the play, he has proved willing to play the part the particular scenario seems to call for. We may be forgiven for asking whether even his self-discovery, his learning through suffering that we identified above, has been superficial and evanescent. At this point I should like to use a second great English play as a point of reference. In the final scene of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale Leontes


The Plays of Euripides

is reunited with his wife Hermione whom he had thought dead. He goes to see what he believes to be her statue, but of course it proves to be Hermione herself. The statue is alive. Coming down from her pedestal, she does not speak to her husband – her later words are addressed to her daughter, not to him – but they join in a mutual embrace. Though she appears to express a desire for physical contact (V. iii. 109), the embrace is her single gesture towards him that is explicitly referred to (111). In Euripides’ play, when Admetus and Alcestis are reunited, they do not embrace (though a director could perhaps take a hint, never developed in the text, from 1131 – ‘Can I touch her?’ – to cause them to do so). And they do not speak. There would have been no problem about letting Alcestis talk since at this stage of the development of the Greek theatre Euripides could perfectly well have used a third speaking actor. (Admetus and Heracles are, of course, on the stage too.) The Alcestis of this scene need not have been played by a mute actor; and our attention is inescapably drawn to her silence when Admetus demands, ‘But why does my wife just stand there without saying anything?’ (1143). Heracles has an answer to the question. Before she can speak, she must wait for three days until she has been purified (1144–6). This may be enough for some. Others may feel that Alcestis – quite differently from Shakespeare’s Hermione – is in a sense only too like a statue, like the one envisaged by Admetus at 348–54, a cold comfort indeed. Unlike a statue, Alcestis will move. She will walk off the stage. But as she does so, she gives nothing away. Her emotions remain disconcertingly opaque. The happy end that should crown a folkloric tale is problematized. As we shall discover, there are no easy resolutions in Euripides.

Important recent work L.P.E. Parker’s edition of Alcestis (Oxford, 2007) is aimed at students and scholars of Greek but it has an interesting and accessible introduction. Niall W. Slater, Euripides: Alcestis (Bloomsbury, 2013).


Modern criticism has cast helpful light on Medea. We can now appreciate to the full the subtle ease with which Euripides conducts us into this appalling tale of a mother who murders her children as an act of vengeance upon the husband who has abandoned her. Launching the action with the lowly Nurse, soon to be joined by another slave, the worldly-wise Tutor, and his charges, the two children who have been innocently racing with each other or playing with their hoops (46), he shows us an apparently normal world. The chorus of Corinthian women are entirely sympathetic to Medea, foreigner though she is, and even if her off-stage cries have made plain the menacing turmoil of her emotions (96–7, 111–14), when she enters she appears reasonable in her arguments, justly resentful of the injury done her. While we are told of her previous violent deeds, there is not a hint of their full horror (9–10, 167). This Medea is apparently no sorceress but recognizably a woman among women, and although the Nurse informs us of the animal violence she senses within her (92, 187–8), an audience may well find itself sharing the chorus’ sympathy. Yet as the play moves on, the sympathetic woman is increasingly eclipsed. The process begins at 259–66 where she declares her murderous intentions. After the act of infanticide, the chorus refer to her as a Fury (1260). Jason calls her a lioness and the monster Scylla (1342–3). In a play from which just-dealing gods, with the exception of Zeus as the god of oaths (see below), are so conspicuously absent – the Sun, for example, failing to intervene to stop the slaughter (1258–60) – Medea makes her final appearance in their element, aloft in a possibly dragon-drawn chariot, in fact the Sun’s gift to her (1321–2). (There is no reference to dragons in the play: the evidence for them is purely from art.) She is no 13


The Plays of Euripides

benevolent deity, however, but a chillingly dehumanized demon. The audience has been led from initial sympathy to horrified revulsion. This progress has often been traced. However, previous critics have perhaps not fully seen how it is reflected in the play’s treatment of feminist issues. The exclusively or predominantly male Athenian audience may not have agreed with the views about the lot of women so cogently put forward not only in Medea’s first great speech but throughout the opening scenes of the tragedy, but surely they would have evoked rational, even sympathetic consideration. The hostile presentation of Jason for most of the play’s length doubtless adds strength to Medea’s case, and her manifest agony as she wavers over her decision to kill her children prolongs our sympathy for her to a very late stage. After all, this is the play in which the chorus is emboldened to suggest that there will be a revolution in the poets’ treatment of women:

Figure 1 Maria Callas (1923–77), rehearsing for her title role in Luigi Cherubini’s opera ‘Medea’ (1797) at Covent Garden, London, in 1959. (Photo by John Franks/Getty Images.)



‘Honour,’ they sing, ‘is coming to the female sex. Women will be free of the bitter tongue of slander’ (417–20). Medea’s transformation into an infanticidal demon, however, crushes this hope. The male dramatist’s treatment of her development confirms men’s most alarming phobias about women. And to this fearful portrait of Medea Euripides adds another female stereotype in the Messenger’s description of Creon’s besotted and vapid daughter, Jason’s new bride. The dream of a justly sympathetic view of women is blotted out. Another development takes its cue from the play’s setting in Corinth. This city with its narrow isthmus and its two harbours, one facing towards the Adriatic Sea, the other towards the Aegean, was a great mercantile centre. Thus it was a place for short-term residents, for birds of passage. In the play’s opening lines the Nurse tells us of the vast journey of the Argo which has eventually led Medea and Jason from the ends of the earth to Iolkos, from where they have fled to Corinth. The play is alive with the idea of travel and it makes good geographical sense that Aegeus, the king of Athens, should be passing through the city on his way back from Delphi to the Saronic Gulf and home. Medea tells us of the problems of being a foreigner adrift in a Greek city – and it may be illuminating to think of another famous play that deals with the outsider against the backdrop of a great port, The Merchant of Venice. In Medea, the nautical imagery so beloved of the tragic writers in a political context (the ship of state, etc.) is used less mechanically than often and is very conspicuous (e.g. in 523–5). The play’s theme of travel emphasizes her altogether vulnerable position as a metic (a resident alien, i.e. foreign inhabitant) without a male, let alone a citizen sponsor. Viewed in this light, she is supremely pitiable. After she has persuaded the journeying Aegeus to provide a place of refuge for her, the chorus salute Hermes, the god of travel (759–60), and Medea gratefully exclaims that ‘this man – on those very seas where we were foundering most – has appeared as a haven to save my plans. To him I shall fasten my stern cable . . .’ (768–70). At this pivotal moment of the tragedy the nautical imagery is suddenly halted. Medea has resolved upon her grisly plot, and now a new theme enters the play, that of hands (784, 939, 959, 1071, 1141, 1206,


The Plays of Euripides

1239, 1244, 1283, 1309, 1365 in addition to the references below). This will lend a ghastly intimacy to the rest of the tragedy. Earlier Medea has used her own and her children’s hands exploitatively, to lay claim to the ties of friendship through supplication (324, 339, 709–10, 899). Already with Creon she has amorally abused that key Greek concept. But now, possessed of a terrifying certitude, she uses her hands to furnish the props for her own grisly play. She hands over to her children the fatal gifts (956) which they proceed to hand to Creon’s daughter (973). With her own hands she murders her children (1271), whose hands she has earlier kissed (1070). And she will not allow Jason to touch their corpses with his hands (1411–12) though she will bury them with hers (1378). Formerly adrift, she is now triumphantly in control, her hands in fact effectively managing her flying chariot. The play’s focus has narrowed from the wide world of Medea’s uncertainties which had centred on Corinth to the horrific actions of her hands. At the same time, the theme of travel has been renewed. The Messenger bids Medea to ‘take flight, take flight, by land or sea. Use any means of transport you can find’ (1122–3). Medea is, of course, going to flee neither by land nor sea but through the air, the element of the divine. As the tragedy opens out again from its intense concentration on Medea’s hands, it defines her anew, no longer a woman but, as we have seen, a demon. The audience’s progress from sympathy to revulsion is echoed in the dramatist’s handling of the idea of Athens. As we shall see in the discussions of The Suppliant Women and The Phoenician Women, this is the city where tragedy can find resolution, can win through to ‘the happy ending’. At 267 the chorus state their view that Medea is right to exact vengeance from Jason; it is indeed surprising to find how unreservedly they accept the revenge ethic (see pp. 41–2). There is no moral dilemma at this stage, just the problem of an escape route for Medea, and after Aegeus agrees to give her a safe refuge at his hearth in Athens, the chorus express unreserved approval of him (762–3). But when Medea now declares her intention to kill her children (792–3), they are horrified. With great moral authority, they forbid her to do this (812–13). Finding her deaf to their command, they burst into song with an ecstatic paean to



Athens (824–45) and go on to ask, ‘How then shall the city of sacred rivers or the land which gives safe conduct to friends receive you, the child-murderer, the unholy one, and give you a home?’ (846–50). Athens, which had seemed to promise a happy ending after a successful revenge, will offer a home to a woman who has broken an ultimate taboo. The values the city endorses will be monstrously subverted. The play appears to be locked in a template of reversal in which human values suffer catastrophic corrosion. It is, of course, very much Medea’s play. Nevertheless, the other characters are vividly etched. The warmly emotional Nurse contrasts effectively with the cynical Tutor. Creon is a blustering bully whose weakness is ruthlessly exposed. The amiable, somewhat slow-witted Aegeus is given a sympathetic characterization. The chorus is wonderfully alive and responsive in its maternal concern, and then slips into a bleak disillusion. Jason, an ineffably smug ladies’ man in his carapace of selfdeluding justification, is characterized with particular effectiveness. He is a ‘has-been’ of a hero, his heroic action firmly relegated to the past and in any case, if Medea is telling the truth in 476–82, crucially indebted to her. He never denies that he has broken his oaths to her – and it is here and here alone that a positive divine presence may be felt in the play. Jason has offended the Oath-god Zeus, and tellingly the most common divinelyinflicted punishment for oath-breaking was childlessness (Herodotus 6.86, Andocides 1.98). Then there is something mercantile about the way he achieved his fame. After all, it was a golden fleece that he won and he himself acknowledges that he has been trafficking in contraband love (910). For the Greeks the merchant was at the opposite pole from the hero. Yet he can talk what an Athenian audience would surely have seen as good sense, especially on the subject of the superiority of Greek to barbarian civilization (536–41), even if one ancient commentator could see the irony of such sentiments coming from the lips of this particular Greek. And then it is hard not to sympathize with his terrible suffering at the end of the play. Schooled by catastrophe, he achieves his own tragic status. But, fine as these characterizations are, Medea looms over them all. We have seen the underlying shape of the play, defined as it is by the ways


The Plays of Euripides

in which the initially sympathetic woman is transformed into a demon, the theme of women’s liberation is halted by the confirmation of male stereotyping, the woman adrift and apparently without any recourse seizes control of the action with terrifying results, and the city of Athens which promises resolution will receive a demon at the hearth of its palace. As he directs his play’s structure according to this pattern of denial, Euripides gives his protagonist a series of confrontations and great monologues and speeches (operatic arias, as it were) which are so vastly diverse in their emotional force that some good critics have felt that they appear incoherent in the mouth of a single character. If we trace the sequence of these magnificent speeches, we find her lucidly cogent championing of women’s rights (214–66) giving way to chillingly vengeful plotting (364–409) and then to the violent outrage of her onslaught on Jason (465–519). Soon we see her as a more rational and controlled plotter (764–810), though her agony at her inhuman decision to kill her children now begins to find expression. Then her brilliant acting in the supposedly conciliatory speech to Jason (869–905) is informed with deep pathos as this agony forces its way to the surface – it is of course to have full expression in the heart-stopping vacillations and the final appallingly self-aware resolution of 1019–80 where she eventually steels herself to do the deed. The emotional range of the monologues is certainly extraordinary but their progress surely makes impressive psychological sense and they are locked together into an entirely convincing whole by the fearful symmetry of the play’s design.

Important recent work William Allan, Euripides Medea (Bloomsbury, 2002). The fine edition of the play by Judith Mossman (Aris and Phillips, 2011) prints an English translation opposite the Greek. The introduction and notes are excellent. David Stuttard (ed.), Looking at Medea (Bloomsbury, 2014), a collection of essays and a translation of the play.

The Children of Heracles

The Children of Heracles was first performed at a time of war or as war approached. A likely date for the play is 430 BC , the second year of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and her allies and Sparta and hers. Its climactic event is a battle between Athenians (with allied support, 664) and Peloponnesians. Thus it is set in a hinterland between mythology and history, between past and present: the mythic history interacts with the Athenian present to complicate what appears at first sight to be a simple plot. Let us now look at that plot. The children of the dead hero Heracles together with his mother Alcmene and his nephew, the antique Iolaus, have arrived as refugees at the coastal Attic town of Marathon (which serves in the play not only as its real self but also as a displaced Athens and indeed as the whole of Attica). Hounded by Eurystheus, the hubristic tyrant of Argos who is eager to destroy them, these suppliants win the support of the chorus of old men (120–1) of Marathon and of Demophon, one of the two kings of Athens. But the goddess Persephone demands the sacrifice of a nobly-born virgin as the price of salvation and Demophon is unwilling to shed Athenian blood. The impasse is resolved when a daughter of Heracles, simply called the Maiden, willingly offers herself as the victim. The Athenians, Iolaus and Heracles’ son Hyllus and his army defeat the Argives and take Eurystheus prisoner. Heracles’ children thus survive, and Alcmene gives orders that Eurystheus should be killed and his body thrown to the dogs. The action thus deals with the safeguarding of innocent refugees, the elimination of a brutish and cowardly (813–16) tyrant, and the vindication of Athens as the supreme champion of suppliants. 19


The Plays of Euripides

Straightforward enough, one may think. Yet the audience’s experience of an actual war may have proved deeply subversive of the politically correct plot line. For the realities of international politics had cast a shadow over two highly valued Greek ideals, the inviolability of suppliants and of heralds. Contact with a holy place should have secured sanctuary for Iolaus and the supplicating children of Heracles, and by trying to pull the old man away from the altar (67–8), the Argive herald is violating a fundamental concept. The original audience would have been appalled. The fact remains, however, that ancient history contains examples of such sanctuary being abused not only by Spartans, the descendants of these children, but also by Athenians. Herodotus (6.80), for example, tells how the Spartan king Cleomenes I (reigned c. 520–490 BC ) used fire to burn several thousand Argive survivors to death in a sacred grove. (Though tried for impiety at Sparta, Cleomenes was acquitted.) If Iolaus and the children can be made to lose contact with Zeus’ altar, they become vulnerable. In Athens in the mid-sixth century BC , Cylon and his fellow conspirators took sanctuary in Athena’s temple, and when they left it to stand trial they attached a braided thread to the image of the goddess and carried it with them, thus demonstrating their reliance on literal contact with the divine. The thread broke, and the archons (the city officials), claiming that this showed that Athena was refusing Cylon and his followers the rights of suppliants, slaughtered almost all of them. As a result the archons were called polluted men (Plutarch, Solon 12.1-2). As J. Gould observes, these two cases of a breach of the rights of suppliants, one by Athenians, the other by Spartans, ‘played a dominant role in the diplomatic propaganda of the Spartans and Athenians on the eve of the Peloponnesian War’. Both sides were guilty of violating divine law and human decency. In our play, the Argive herald manhandles Iolaus, but Euripides follows the pattern of history by suggesting that Athenians can be guilty of the abuse of sacred rights as well. For the king of Athens himself is only restrained by the chorus’ urgent plea from striking the herald and thus violating his immunity (270–3). There can be no doubt, however, that for most of its length the play endorses Athenian values. It is set at the temple and altar of Zeus

The Children of Heracles


Agoraios (= Presider over Assemblies), a symbol of free Athenian debate. (King Demophon’s name may well ‘the people’s light’, i.e. their salvation.) The chorus are unreservedly welcoming of the suppliants – contrast the decidedly inhospitable reception of Oedipus by the local inhabitants when he seeks refuge at another Attic location in Sophocles’ later Oedipus at Colonus. They and their king fully understand the meaning of supplication, the chorus stating baldly (107–8) that it would be ‘an impious act for the town to hand over a group of suppliant visitors’. The point is rammed home again and again, Demophon, for example, declaring after the Argive herald has assaulted the suppliant Iolaus that he may wear Greek clothes but his actions are those of a barbarian (130–1). At Athens the rule of law holds sway. At 251–2 Demophon says that if Eurystheus wishes to make a formal charge against the suppliants, he will receive just treatment. The Athenians have no extradition treaty with this monstrous tyrant, and have instituted a law which forbids the killing of captives (964, 1019). To civilized legislation, they conjoin a civilized way of life. Athens is the city of beautiful dancing-areas, sing the chorus (359) as they dance on one of them, surely celebrating the dramatic festival in which they are participating in this ‘city of cultured elegance’ (379–80). Is the Athens of this play then the ideal city? In your dreams, as the saying goes – and as I have already suggested. If you are engaged in fighting a war, the gap between idealism and gritty reality gapes wide. We have already seen how tarnished the concepts of the inviolability of suppliants and heralds had become. Over the course of the historical war the brutality was to escalate. Even as early as 430 BC , the likely year of the play’s first performance, the Athenians captured six Peloponnesian diplomats, killed them without trial, and flung their bodies in a ditch (Thucydides 2.67). The Realpolitik of the Herald at 153–78 – what do you gain by siding with these losers? – may be chilling but it contains a lot of cool common sense. Its sentiments could have been penned by the Thucydides who later composed a dialogue in dramatic form between bloodcurdlingly pragmatic Athenians and their Melian victims who crazily believe that the gods will support the just (5.85-113). In


The Plays of Euripides

162–8 the Herald raises the question of whether Athenians should have to die in a quarrel that isn’t theirs. (His words gain resonance from the fact that 162–3 – ‘what lands of yours have been appropriated, what property stolen?’ – echo Achilles’ expostulation in Homer’s Iliad (1.1536) when he says that the Trojans have done him no personal harm by, for example, rustling his cattle or horses or ravaging his crops. What then is he doing at Troy? Simply fighting for an appalling commander.) Demophon feels that his people should fight. As well as the obligation imposed by the suppliants, there are the bonds of kinship and gratitude for Heracles’ rescue of Demophon’s father Theseus from the underworld (238–41). However, the prospect of the sacrifice of an Athenian woman brings into focus what the workings of democracy actually involve. Demophon tells Iolaus: People are gathering even now in groups – you could see them if you were there – some arguing that I was right to offer assistance to strangers who had come as suppliants, others accusing me of folly. In fact, civil war is already brewing, in case I do as the oracles order. So you must be sure to help me find a way to keep both yourselves and this land safe, without incurring the displeasure of my fellow citizens. For I am not the kind of ruler they have in the east: I will be treated fairly only as long as I behave fairly. 415–24

As idealistic certitudes melt away, the characters – save, it later transpires, for Iolaus – must learn to operate in the world of the possible. After the heroic self-sacrifice of the Maiden, a daughter of Heracles as we have seen, two extraordinary dramatic movements reflect the way in which the play subverts and complicates the apparently simple. The first of them concerns Iolaus. The Servant, a serf of Hyllus, comes to tell the old man that his master has arrived. First he finds himself cheated of a messenger speech – Iolaus works out what has happened (640, cf. 665). Then Alcmene mistakes his identity and addresses this well-disposed figure in strongly confrontational language. I join with P. Burian in finding the effect here ‘at least partly comic’. Soon ungainsayable comedy erupts when the Servant makes fun of the weak old man’s grotesquely

The Children of Heracles


unrealistic determination to join in the fighting. Iolaus has no weapons, but when the Servant brings some out of the temple of Zeus, they are too heavy for the aged hero to carry and, with a renewed bout of mockery, the Servant carts them off so that the staggering Iolaus can put them on in the ranks of the combatants. As W. Allan points out, the scene brings together ‘two traditional comic figures – the old man and the cheeky slave’ – for the first time, one might add, in extant dramatic literature. And it is tempting to believe that the subsequent rejuvenation of the ludicrously feeble old man on the battlefield, complete with his 40-mile chase and subsequent capture of Eurystheus, is presented in the same vein of ludic fantasy (843–62). Very obviously, this miraculous episode is in strong contrast with the perfunctory account of the rest of the battle scene that precedes it (830–42). The Messenger who reports it states clearly that he did not witness it himself (847), and after his account of lolaus’ triumph, he comes sharply down to earth with his blunt reminder to Alcmene that she has promised him his freedom (789, 888–91). There is no doubt something genuinely celebratory in the description of the transformed hero’s martial prowess especially when it reaches the epiphany that accompanies the rejuvenation (853–8) – but as Iolaus leaves the play, he may be more evocative of Don Quixote than El Cid. There now follows the distressing scene in which the grimly and repulsively vengeful Alcmene insists on having Eurystheus killed and his body thrown to the dogs (1050–1). Though she owes everything to the Athenians, so overriding is her hatred of her persecutor that she flouts their law and their will (963–6, 1019). Even more worryingly, the Attic chorus not only sympathize with her emotionally (981–2) but they also, after what seems in retrospect a token protest (1018–19), go along with her vindictive violence (1021). When they end the play by asserting that ‘there is nothing here we have done that will pollute our king’ (1054–5), one can only respond, ‘How do they know?’ After all, they have acceded to an act of illegal slaughter which will take place on Athenian soil. P.E. Easterling (1997: 163) justly remarks that one of the


The Plays of Euripides

major functions of the chorus is ‘to act as a group of “built-in” witnesses, giving collective and usually normative responses to the events of the play’. Here Euripides causes his chorus to challenge the stereotype. When these witnesses show approval of Alcmene’s savagery, their response is anything but normative. Their words are especially startling since the choral lyrics that conclude Greek tragedies are almost always singularly anodyne. The sympathies of the play have in fact swung round. Against expectation, Eurystheus shows courage and nobility of spirit, refusing to truckle to Alcmene (983–5, 1026); and he pays a handsome tribute to his old foe Heracles: 1 knew that your son was no cipher but a man indeed – you see, even though he is my enemy, he will at least get from me the kind of praise that is proper to a hero. 997–9

And since he knows through an oracle that the Athenians will bury him in Attic soil, he assures them (both the chorus and the Athenian audience) that his corpse will prove beneficent to their country: I shall lie, a resident alien, buried in the land for ever, looking kindly on you and protecting the city, but unremittingly hostile to these children’s descendants when they betray the kindness you have shown them today and invade in strength. For that is the nature of the strangers you championed. 1032–7

In protecting them against the descendants of the children of Heracles, their former aggressor, as Alcmene acknowledges, will become their benefactor when dead (1049). This is a breath-taking moment. Earlier in the play Iolaus has exhorted the children to show everlasting loyalty to the Athenians: Children, they have proved themselves our friends, and so if you ever do return home to your native land, occupy your father’s palace and regain his privileges, you must regard the lords of this land for ever as

The Children of Heracles


your friends and saviours. Be sure, I beg you, never to raise a hostile force against this land, but always to regard them as your closest friends. They deserve your respect for having removed from us the enmity of such a mighty country and of the Pelasgian [= Argive] people. Even though they saw that we were destitute wanderers, they did not hand us over, and did not expel us from their land. 309–19

Yet now we discover that their descendants are going to take up arms against Athens. And to move from myth to history, they have actually done so. For the Spartans were supposedly descended from the children of Heracles and in 431 BC they had made the first of a number of invasions of Attica, striking at the country’s agricultural infrastructure by destroying grain, olive-trees and vines – just as Eurystheus had planned to do (280–1). The children may have been innocent victims in the play. Their descendants will prove to be deadly enemies. The male children of Heracles have been visible throughout the tragedy, yet they have said nothing. In fact, this is the only surviving Greek drama named after characters who remain mute throughout. (The Maiden is a daughter of Heracles and she, of course, speaks; but the play’s title surely refers to the boys we can see from start to finish.) Behind their masks, these silent characters give little away. Posture and gesture – e.g. the clasping of hands at 307–8 – may prove eloquent, but fundamentally the mask is opaque, compelling the audience to project thoughts and feelings upon it. Usually these thoughts and feelings are directed by what the characters say, but not so here when they are mute. The vulnerable fledglings of Demophon’s vision (239) are the same children that Eurystheus sees as ‘the hate-filled offspring of the lion’ (1006). The play surely invites the audience to view them in both lights, as the mythological suppliants for whom their forefathers went to battle and the ancestors of an actual (historical) enemy that was trying to bring them to their knees. For the original spectators and for us today, The Children of Heracles is a profoundly disorienting work.


The Plays of Euripides

Important recent work William Allan’s edition of The Children of Heracles (Aris and Phillips, 2001) prints an English translation opposite the Greek and contains a good introduction and notes. Daniel Mendelsohn, Gender and the City in Euripides’ Political Plays (Oxford, 2002), a monograph on The Children of Heracles and The Suppliant Women.


The goddess of love Cypris (Aphrodite) launches this terrifying play by telling the audience that she is going to take revenge on the son of King Theseus, Hippolytus, who scorns her, devoting himself to the goddess of hunting Artemis in his passion for that pursuit. Cypris has caused his step-mother, Theseus’ wife Phaedra, to fall irremediably in love with him. Appalled by her feelings, she is trying to starve herself to death. However, she eventually confesses her love to her nurse who then tells Hippolytus. His horrified reaction causes Phaedra to hang herself, leaving a tablet in which she accuses him of rape. Theseus returns from abroad, reads the tablet and exiles his son, calling down a curse on him. As he is leaving the land, Hippolytus is fatally wounded after the appearance of a bull from the sea. Artemis tells Theseus that the young man is innocent, and father and son are united in a loving exchange as the latter dies. In drama as in life, words are inescapably the main means of communication, and in Hippolytus it is not only the leading characters who pour them out. Phaedra’s tablet, with its false evidence against Hippolytus, signifies (857), fawns (863), speaks (865), shouts (877), sings (879–80), accuses (1058). A corpse is the clearest of witnesses (972). Phaedra imagines the beams of a house giving voice (418); Hippolytus wishes that the palace might speak out as a witness (1074–5). At the story’s climactic moment, the whole land sounds forth a terrifying noise as it echoes the voice of the bull (1215–16). Yet the play offers a devastating exposition of the fallibility of words. The characters’ most confident speeches are set in a context which reveals the limitations of what they are saying. Hippolytus’ opening monologue (73–87) conveys the beauty of the huntsman’s life he has 27


The Plays of Euripides

chosen but also, and here we have been prompted by Cypris’ prologue, its priggish incompleteness. Determined to stay silent, Phaedra places no trust in words (139, 244, 270–3), yet when she does speak, she sounds eminently reasonable as she charts the course of her disastrous passion (373–430); even so it can be hard to pin down what she means and a certain sense of hysteria (e.g. during 405–18) hints at the volcano that seethes beneath. The speech of the Nurse which follows is supremely assured and plausible, yet profoundly corrupting, and her speaking to Hippolytus, which she confidently expects will solve the situation, leads to disaster. It also reduces Phaedra to the humiliating and passive status of an eavesdropper. Later, Theseus’ great public pronouncement against Hippolytus (885–90) is based on false information and delivered in an evil passion. He speaks for the tragedy as a whole when he cries out for a way to tell whether a voice is speaking what is just or not: All humans should have two voices, an honest voice and the one they would have had anyway so that the one that speaks dishonest thoughts might be convicted by the honest one – and then we should not be deceived. 928–31

For all the good that words do the characters, we can sympathize with Phaedra’s magnificent injunction at 706: ‘Stop talking!’ If plain words prove a catastrophic medium for communication between the tragic figures, what are the alternatives? To add authority to words through oaths proves ineffective. Blinded by his rage, Theseus brushes aside Hippolytus’ compelling imprecations (1025–31); and the vows of the chorus of women of Trozen and of Hippolytus to keep silent about Phaedra’s passion rule out any chance of persuading Theseus that he is wrong to trust Phaedra’s words. If oaths are found to be damaging, what about writing? (This, by the way, is the only complete Greek tragedy that talks about spelling [387].) But Phaedra’s tablet make it clear that the authority added by writing only increases the danger inherent in words which are merely spoken. The audience will surely respond with sympathy to the sentiment, so splendidly



dismissive of the written word, with which the Messenger concludes his great speech. He says he wouldn’t believe Theseus’ allegation against Hippolytus even if someone filled all the pinewood on Mount Ida full of writing (1253–4). If words and writing are found to be disastrously wanting, can silence prove a viable refuge, as Hippolytus appears to envisage when he states his view that only voiceless beasts should wait upon women and that this would block the channels of evil communication (645–50)? The theme of silence is clearly fundamental to the play. In his first version of Hippolytus, now lost (we have the second version which won first prize in 428), Phaedra, it seems, openly declared her love for her stepson. Now it is the Nurse who tells Hippolytus of it off-stage as the visible Phaedra listens appalled. Yet her silence in the second version will have no less disastrous an outcome than her speaking in the first; and Hippolytus’ silence about the true situation seals his doom (1307–9) while the dead and therefore silent Phaedra is the most devastating of witnesses (1336–7). Silence proves as inadequate as speech when confronted with the tragic world of Hippolytus. The failure of language to enable the characters to communicate with each other drives them into a state of isolation, or arrested development in the case of Hippolytus, frozen as he is in his adolescent companionship of young huntsmen and his verbal, though not visual communion (85–6, 1391–2) with the goddess of chastity. Unable to relate to each other in a mature way, the protagonists attempt to define their identities, but even as they insist on their personal integrity, they undermine it. Phaedra’s almost obsessive concern with her nobility and her good name is irretrievably subverted by the shameful vindictiveness with which she tries to preserve them in her death by laying her charge against Hippolytus. Theseus sees himself as the decisive man of action and there can be no doubt that he does care about his kingdom (1160–1), but he is destroyed by his impulsive violence. The worldlywise (252) old (170) Nurse, impelled by love to help her mistress, causes disaster because that love is linked with a fatal arrogance which makes her believe that she can solve any problem through any means, however


The Plays of Euripides

morally depraved. Arguing that Phaedra would be sensible to give in to her love for Hippolytus, she counsels against unreal perfectionism: You would not make a totally precise and finished job of the roof with which you cover your house. 468–9

Yet interestingly enough, the sculptures for the pediments of the recently completed Parthenon were perfectly finished. The craftsmanship of the areas which it was thought would never be seen is in no way inferior to that of what was visible. The Nurse’s corrupting moral relativism is exposed by a building only a stone’s throw from the theatre of Dionysus. As for Hippolytus himself, there is something self-regarding and narcissistic about his stance as a good man. Lines 1078–9 are revealing here: If only I could stand facing myself and look at myself, so that I could have wept for the ills I am suffering.

Good he undoubtedly is, but the emphasis with which he insists on this is unappealingly self-righteous. In addition, he gives us a disconcerting hint that he would be prepared to abandon his moral high ground if he felt that it would be of any practical use to do so (1060–3). Thus these four deeply flawed characters flounder in a quicksand of non-communication. It is not surprising that they long to escape, Hippolytus to his woods, Phaedra to join him there (215–22) or on the sands (230–1), or to find refuge in death. Even the morally adaptable Nurse initially says that she will kill herself because of Phaedra’s love (356–7), and Artemis addresses Theseus in particularly revealing lines: Why do you not hide your body in the depths of Tartarus in your shame, or change to a bird and fly upwards and soar above this woe? 1290–3

The chorus hauntingly encapsulate this poignant theme of escape in some of their finest lyrics (732–51). But the play insists remorselessly that there is no escape. The chorus find themselves reduced to a naked rage against the gods (1146), a



feeling echoed by Hippolytus at 1415. This tragedy is unusual in the way that it is framed by two different gods. At the start Cypris chillingly lays bare her vindictive plans, while at the end Artemis can offer Hippolytus only the consolation that she will exact vengeance for his fate upon a human loved by Cypris, and she proves unable to be close to her favourite at his death (1437–8). The gods are cruel indeed. And the elemental forces of earth, air and the sun upon which the characters so repeatedly cry prove of no avail to them. The fourth element, water, tends to be viewed by the play – and by Hippolytus – as an escape, as something apart from human torment (78, 121–9, 208–9, 653–4, 735–41, 748–9). Yet the great sea-god Poseidon proves the agent of unjust human vengeance. From the sea comes the bull. The characters inhabit a dark and comfortless world in which the horror represented by that bull is the fundamental reality. Summing up recent critical approaches to characterization in Euripides, Christopher Collard (1981: 11) suggested that this poet had ‘a unique, precocious ability to project personality and its workings in ways which anticipate modern psychoanalysis’. Looking back to Phaedra’s recollection of her mother’s monstrous love for the bull that fathered the Minotaur (337–8), the bull from the sea seems particularly Freudian in its significance, and its symbolic evocation of rampant male fertility suggests that Hippolytus is being destroyed by the very force which he has so determinedly repressed. In this sense it can surely be viewed as something inside Hippolytus as well as an external force. After the Messenger’s tremendous speech, the chorus sing an ode not to Poseidon, the god who sent the bull, but to Cypris, the goddess of love. This is surely, I suggest, more than a simple recognition that that goddess has controlled the action. Hippolytus’ denial of physical love imposes a terrible violence on his nature and rouses a correspondingly terrible force within him. So, despite the appearances of the gods at the beginning and end of the play, we are presented with what is essentially a human action in which flawed and isolated human beings attempt to shape their lives while at the mercy of forces which they cannot comprehend and act


The Plays of Euripides

from no rational motivation but rather from a disastrous impulsiveness. The Nurse crazily misunderstands Hippolytus’ essential nature as she gambles all on telling him of Phaedra’s love. Phaedra fails to grasp his deep sense of honour when, despite his oath of silence, she aims to undermine any allegations he may make against her by accusing him of rape. Theseus at times seems hardly to know him, scornfully denouncing this mass meat-killer and -consumer (18, 109–10) as a vegetarian (952–3). And Hippolytus loses contact with rational human discourse not only when he contemplates breaking his oath (612, 614) but more significantly in his hysterical rant against women (616–68). Operating ‘in a mist’ (the phrase is from John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi), the characters encompass their own and each other’s destruction, and – ironically enough – their thoughtless rashness causes the fulfilment of Cypris’ determined plan. Yet, despite its profound pessimism about the human condition, the tragedy focuses at its conclusion on the love of a son and father for each other. A goddess’ love is evanescent –‘How easily you take leave of our long companionship,’ says Hippolytus to Artemis (1441) – but amid the shipwreck of their lives Theseus and his dying son are united in a profound love. Euripides had denied them stichomythia (in which the characters speak in single lines) in their terrible scene of confrontation, reserving it for the play’s end (1407–15, 1446–56) where it sounds with a deeply moving intimacy. As father and son at last find the words through which they can speak the truth to each other, they finally communicate, and they communicate in loving words. In this tragedy above all, that represents a triumph of the human spirit.

Important recent work Laura McClure, Spoken Like a Woman: Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama (Princeton, 1999), 112–57. Sophie Mills, Euripides: Hippolytus (Bloomsbury, 2002).


For almost all of Andromache, Neoptolemus is away from his palace at Thetideion, and when he eventually returns it is as a corpse on a bier. His absence has left a vacuum, an absence of control that spins the action into a centrifugal anarchy. This allows the characters of Andromache, Peleus, Hermione and Menelaus to find untrammelled expression in the gap of time before he comes back – an event they await with hope, apprehension or dread. Andromache, Neoptolemus’ former concubine and the mother of his son, shows courage and nobility in the face of her persecutors. The first of these, Neoptolemus’ wife Hermione, is a neurotic driven to sadistic cruelty by her dysfunctional marriage. It is significant that when her father Menelaus leaves it to her to decide whether Andromache’s child should be killed or not, both he and Andromache are pretty sure that she will opt for death (443–4). They know her well. Her sterility is as much a psychological as a physical factor. And her sudden reversal from vindictiveness to abject terror – Orestes uses the adjective cognate with the word peripeteia* (reversal, 982), appropriately enough in a play that contains as many reversals as Andromache – makes it clear that she is a hysteric. The sympathetic treatment of Menelaus in the Iliad is here stood on its head. Morally corrupt, he comes across as a thuggish bully and a coward to boot. His final speech (729–46) could well be captioned ‘Collapse of Stout Party’. Orestes, in a splendidly kaleidoscopic characterization, emerges as glib, scheming, malevolent and (whether


This is, of course, Aristotle’s word for what he saw as a key element in Greek tragedy (1452a–b). The noun occurs nowhere in the actual plays, the adjective only four times.



The Plays of Euripides

or not he actually takes a hand in the killing of Neoptolemus as both the Messenger and Thetis report (1074–5, 1242)) murderous. The antique Peleus is another fine portrayal. He summons up every fibre of energy and determination in his defence of Andromache and his greatgrandson, and is then overwhelmed by despair when he discovers that his grandson is dead. Through the interplay of these well-defined characters, Euripides explores a significant number of themes. Waiting for Neoptolemus (the phrase is Judith Mossman’s) proves a capacious vehicle for them. We see in the aftermath of the Trojan War what it has done both to those who played a part in it and to their families. They are all war victims. The tone is set at the start by Andromache, especially in her poignant elegiac couplets (103–16), a verse form used only here in Greek tragedy. We are challenged to identify the true barbarians. The Spartan Hermione and Menelaus – in a play deep-dyed with (chauvinist?) anti-Spartan emotion, most devastatingly at 445–53 and 595–601 – and the Argive Orestes? Certainly not the Trojan Andromache. We are led to consider many aspects of the role of women, some of them highly disconcerting, for example Andromache on sympathetically suckling Hector’s bastards (224–5), and Hermione’s recantation at 929–53: ‘you have gone too far,’ the chorus of Phthian women tell her (954). ‘The contrasting histories of Andromache and Hermione illustrate the many pressures that can affect the lives of women, from social conformity to the consequences of military conquest, and these pressures in turn reveal much about their male agents’ (W. Allan, p. 195). More broadly the play conducts a discussion of marriage and concubinage (Neoptolemus’ relationship with Andromache). The setting is the Thetideion where the goddess Thetis lived with Neoptolemus’ grandfather Peleus before their marriage broke down (16–20, 1231). The old man fulminates about another marital breakdown, that of Menelaus and Helen when the latter ran off with the Trojan Paris, thus causing the Trojan War with all its fatalities and bereavements (590–615) and the ensuing traumas to which our play bears witness. Regaining his wife, Menelaus did not kill her but, as Peleus scathingly berates him, ‘when you



saw her breast, you dropped your sword and welcomed her kiss, fawning on the treacherous bitch, a slave to love, you utter weakling!’ (627–31). A negative view of marriage has already been encouraged by the way in which Andromache’s words about her furtherance of her husband Hector’s extra-marital affairs and of her nursing of his illegitimate children (222–5) are corrosive of our recollection of the couple’s moving devotion to each other in the Iliad and that poem’s portrayal of Hector as the ideal family man. Now, forced into a liaison with Neoptolemus, the son of her husband’s killer whose slave she became after the fall of Troy, she has borne him a son. He stopped sleeping with her when he married Hermione, but even so has become the victim of the latter’s jealous persecution in Neoptolemus’ absence (29–31). Euripides’ devastating portrayal of Hermione’s neurotic vindictiveness as well as her abject terror over her husband’s possible reactions to her behaviour towards Andromache and her son vividly display her dysfunctionality as a human being, let alone a wife. Furthermore, unlike Andromache, this ‘barren heifer’ (711) has failed in her primary duty as a Greek wife of bearing Neoptolemus a son. And then in our play she replicates her mother Helen’s adultery when she elopes with Orestes. She is the wife of men’s nightmares. We shall scarcely be surprised when the tragedy raises the issue of divorce (808–9, 869–75) or refers to Clytemnestra, the iconic bad wife of Homer’s Odyssey (1027). At 1186–7 Peleus cries out upon the destructive Hermione and Helen: O marriage, marriage, it is you that has destroyed this house and destroyed my city.

One editor goes so far as to invoke, without any historical justification, the unhappiness of Euripides’ own married life! In contrast to all of this, at the end of the play Thetis assures her husband Peleus that he is to be made immortal and will be reunited with her (1253–8). Their resumed union will presumably be happy; but that happiness can scarcely cancel out the grim view of marriage that has pervaded the tragedy till then. It will in any case be attained implausibly beneath the sea and in a Neverland of fable where Peleus


The Plays of Euripides

will be able to see his dead son Achilles (1260–2; cf. IT 435–8). Even if it is set in a mythological world, Andromache has until the appearance of the goddess engaged deeply with real life. In a play which deals with the question of who has the right to occupy domestic space, we are also faced with the issues of citizenship and bastardy. What, for instance, would have been the reaction of the original audience to Andromache’s hybrid (Greek and Trojan) son? In 451 BC the famous Athenian statesman Pericles had seen through a law which limited citizenship to those whose father and mother were both citizens. Yet when Pericles’ legitimate sons died, he made a tearful – and successful – appeal to the Athenian assembly to bypass his own law and grant citizenship to his sons by his mistress Aspasia, who came from Miletus, a city in Asia like Troy, though a Greek one. This had happened some four years before Andromache was first staged (?425). Even more contemporary with the play was the grant of Athenian citizenship to Tharyps, the future king of the Molossians (in northwest Greece), some time between 428 and 424 (Osborne (1981–3) 3-4, 29-30). Andromache’s son may be called Molossus; and at the end of the play Thetis says that she and her son must go to the Molossian land. ‘A succession of kings descended from him,’ she pronounces (1247–9), ‘are fated to pass through life in prosperity.’ Tharyps would have claimed to be one of them. The audience’s political world is woven into the fabric of a play set in the heroic age. They would have had to confront some religious questions too. The role played by Apollo shows him in a highly unattractive light. The chorus indignantly exclaim against his sponsorship of Orestes’ killing of his mother Clytemnestra (1031–6). And Apollo is inexorably unforgiving of Neoptolemus, who has gone to his sanctuary at Delphi to atone for his mad demand for satisfaction from the god for killing his father Achilles (51–5, 1106–7). Horrifically slaughtered, he is flung out of Apollo’s temple (1153–7); and the messenger concludes his account of this with an unsparing onslaught on the deity: Such is the treatment that the lord who prophesies to others and is the arbiter of justice to all men, has meted out to the son of Achilles as he



offered atonement. Like a base human being, he would not forget an ancient feud. How could he then be wise? 1161–5

Neoptolemus’ death is certainly shocking, but we still have to consider how good a man he is. He can hardly be blamed for leaving Thetideion and going to Delphi to try to make amends to the god. This is a pious mission. Yet, as we have seen, his absence has catastrophic consequences in his home; and under the circumstances it was surely foolhardy, in view of the situation both there and at Delphi, for him to spend his first three days in the sanctuary sight-seeing (1086–7), even if we follow I. Rutherford (1998) in regarding that sight-seeing as a pilgrim’s devout contemplation. But he proves his courage there, and it is surely a tribute to him that Andromache should look forward to his return with optimism. His appearance on a bier is a crushing blow. Now Thetis arrives aloft. She does not answer all the questions the play has raised. She is noticeably silent on the part played by Apollo in the killing of her grandson. But she does point the way into the future. Through Andromache’s Graeco-Trojan son, the family line will continue, and a play which began with an analysis of a dysfunctional marriage ends with the prospect not only of the wedding of Andromache and Helenus (1245) but also of the reunion of Peleus and a no longer reluctant Thetis for eternity (1253–8). The tragic disruption of the Trojan War will come to an end. At last the wounds can heal.

Important recent work William Allan, The Andromache and Euripidean Tragedy (Oxford, 2000). Laura McClure, Spoken Like a Woman: Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama (Princeton, 1999), 158–204.



The landscape (sea-scape?) of Hecuba is the Thracian Chersonese. This hinterland between Asia and Europe, ruled over by a violent king (9, 25–7), is an apt location for the testing of the Trojans and Greeks situated there. The constant reminders of the sea-shore setting enhance the liminal suggestiveness of this no-man’s-land. We are in Europe, but in Asia, on the other side of the strait, the smoke of the sacked city of Troy leaps into the sky (823). The main action of the first half of the play springs from the demand by the ghost of Achilles that the Greeks should sacrifice Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena on his tomb. Until this happens, he is holding back the winds necessary to bring them home (107–15). (This has been disputed, e.g. by Gregory (1999) xxix–xxxiii, but still seems the likeliest interpretation.) In the interval of time during which the characters are marooned between two continents, their essential natures are laid bare. Among the Greeks, Odysseus is very definitely found wanting. (For a very different interpretation of his role, see pp. 134–5.) According to the chorus the demagogic proponent of Polyxena’s sacrifice (131–40), he arrives in person to tear her away from her mother. The perfunctory brutality with which he makes his chilling pronouncement takes the breath away: Lady, I think that you know the army’s intention and the vote which it has passed, but I shall tell you nevertheless. It has been decided by the Achaeans to slaughter your child Polyxena on the tall mound of Achilles’ tomb. 218–21



The Plays of Euripides

He fails to repay his debt of gratitude to Hecuba for saving his life in Troy, and, as Judith Mossman (1999: 114) notes, he never explains the simple fact that it was necessary for Polyxena to die in order that the Greeks should get home. Talthybius, on the other hand, the Greek herald who tells the story of Polyxena’s death with deep emotion (518–20), shows sympathy, even empathy with Hecuba (492–9). He joins with her and the Serving Woman to form a trio of old people (497, 500, 507, 609) united in the contemplation of suffering. It is the Trojan princess Polyxena who dominates the first of the panels of the tragedy’s diptych. Ever insistent on dignity, the young girl succeeds in dying with infectious courage and nobility (547–70). Decorum is surely the keynote of Euripides’ presentation of her. She brings impressive order to the horrific brutality of her death scene. But the order that she asserts proves evanescent. Going to the sea to fetch water with which to wash her corpse, the Serving Woman finds another dead body, and that discovery activates a monstrous cruelty in Hecuba which undermines the structure of decorous order that her daughter had sought so bravely to establish. The second corpse is that of Polydorus, Hecuba’s youngest son, who has been killed for his gold by the Thracian king Polymestor who was his host. The latter cuts a repulsive figure. His violation of the key concept of guest-friendship (xenia) is insisted on repeatedly as are his hypocrisy and greed. When Hecuba and her women kill his children and blind him, an audience, whether ancient or modern, would be unlikely to waste much sympathy on him. The Greek commander Agamemnon sides with Hecuba in his judgement between them. This is an interesting characterization. Though constrained by his position as general, he is complicit with her before the deed (861–3, 902–4) and after it we can see that he thinks that Polymestor is a nasty piece of work. Throughout it all, however, he remains difficult to respect. Before we come on to Hecuba herself, it may be helpful to deal with the issue of what some have seen as the broken-backed construction of the tragedy, with the Polyxena story giving way to Hecuba’s revenge on Polymestor. For my part, I can see no problem here: for one thing,



doubleness is a feature of the language of the play’s first half (45–6, 117– 27, 510, 518). And then at the outset the ghost of Polydorus has told us that his body will be found and our knowledge of the new horror that lies in store for Hecuba adds to the pathos of her suffering over Polyxena; and in the play’s second half we are not permitted to forget that the daughter’s funeral still needs to be performed. More importantly, the design of the plot as a diptych proves an effective device for unravelling the development of Hecuba’s character. Polyxena’s heroism inspires her with noble endurance, while her revenge for Polydorus shows her descending into animalism. The divided plot locks us into a template of construction and destruction. So now to Hecuba. This is one of the great roles of Greek tragedy. She enters supported by her women, and later she faints, falling to the ground on her back (486). Yet it becomes increasingly hard to think of her as a victim. It is not simply because she can talk with such intellectual reach and energy. She can even find some comfort in Polyxena’s courage, saying that the story of her nobility has set a limit on her own sorrow (591–2). In fact, the first part of the play may have led us to believe that she will succeed in reconstructing herself – in raising herself from the ground – in a positive way by learning through suffering. If that is our expectation, we shall be seriously disappointed. At this point we need to discuss the contentious issue of how an Athenian audience would have viewed revenge. In an influential book published in 1998 Anne Pippin Burnett argued in defence of tragic avengers that ‘to the Athenian way of thinking, revenge was far from being a crime that men had to abjure if they were to enter a regulated community. It was not the opposite of order, as we tend to think, but order itself in its original and vital form . . .’ (64). In 2006 Gabriel Herman argued against this, showing that Athenian litigants ‘are generally at great pains to insist that they want vengeance only in the form of state-sponsored acts of repression and are not interested in private acts of violence’ (190–1). In 2013 William Allan argued that ‘the Athenians’ emphasis on the authority of their laws is central to understanding tragedy’s portrayal of personalized vengeance and the


The Plays of Euripides

chaos that ensues from it’. Then in Roisman (2014) 1169.1 Douglas Cairns remarked that ‘in general tragedy contrives situations in which an abstract acceptance that people are entitled to retaliate when harmed will be problematic in practice’. If we agree – as I do – with Allan’s and Cairns’ view of Athenian vengeance, it will be clear that Hecuba’s grisly actions will have tragic consequences for herself as well as her victims and that audience reaction to her would be at best ambivalent. Whatever sympathy the audience may feel with her motivation in her treatment of Polymestor, the language of the play is insistent that a deed has been done (1038, 1048, 1085, 1169). At 1187–8 Hecuba herself insists on the primacy of deeds over words. What she has done surely affects the way in which we now view her. Thus it is scarcely surprising that the general consensus among critics is that Hecuba’s prophesied transformation into a dog (1265) is in some way a reflection of the dehumanization she has suffered during the action of the tragedy. The earlier references to dogs in Hecuba have been to bloodthirsty and murderous creatures (1077, 1173) and this is the view taken by Cicero in his Tusculan Disputations (3.63.13) when he says that ‘Hecuba is imagined as having been changed into a dog on account of a sort of bitterness and frenzy of spirit’. Yet despite its depiction of Hecuba’s horrific decline, the play can sound a note of consolation. The chorus of captive Trojan women movingly transcend national barriers when they lament the universal tragedy of war from the viewpoint of their own sex: By the fair-flowing Eurotas [the river of Sparta] a Spartan girl laments at home with many a tear, and a mother beats her grey head with her hand and tears her cheek, rending it with bloody nails, for her children are dead. 650–6

And though the play does not make much of the absence of the winds which will enable the fleet to sail on its way, they are regularly brought to mind (111–12, 444–8, 539–40, 900). Then at 1289–90 Agamemnon says, ‘I see the winds are here now to escort us home.’ See the winds?



One of the play’s editors, F.W. King, suggests that the breeze had started to flutter the tents and the plumes of the soldiers’ helmets. It is not easy to imagine how such an effect could have been managed on cue in an open-air theatre, but we are surely prompted by Agamemnon’s words at least to imagine it. The winds blow. The future may hold horror for Hecuba, Cassandra, Agamemnon and Polymestor (1259–79, 1284–5) and the chorus have forgotten the partial optimism with which they earlier regarded their journey (cf. 1293–5 and 444–74); but release from this bloodstained barbarian landscape has now at last been granted them. Although they end the play with a grim vision of the slavery that awaits them (‘necessity is harsh’, 1295), at least they are no longer foundering in a liminal waste land.

Important recent work William Allan, ‘The Ethics of Retaliatory Vengeance in Athenian Tragedy’ (Mnemosyne 66.4–5 (2013)), 593–615. Anne Pippin Burnett, Revenge in Attic and Later Tragedy (California, 1998). Helene P. Foley, Euripides: Hecuba (Bloomsbury, 2014). Euripides, Hecuba, ed. Justina Gregory (Scholars Press, 1999): an edition of the play in Greek. Gabriel Herman, Morality and Behaviour in Democratic Athens: a social history (Cambridge, 2006).


The Suppliant Women

The Suppliant Women deals with the aftermath of the disastrous attack of the Argives on Thebes (the Seven Against Thebes story, see pp. 89–90). The Thebans have denied burial to the Argives who were slain in the assault. The chorus of bereaved Argive mothers have come with Adrastus, their king, to supplicate Theseus, king of Athens, and his mother Aethra to secure burial for their sons – mother–son relationships are thus given a strong stress – and so to uphold the Panhellenic concept of the treatment due to the dead. Although he is at first unwilling, Theseus is eventually prevailed upon to lead his Athenian army against the Thebans. He demands burial for the corpses and, when diplomacy has failed, roundly defeats his hubristic opponents in battle. He then oversees the due and decent treatment of the slain Argives and concludes by making a formal everlasting alliance with their country at the prompting of the goddess Athena. It is certainly tempting to approach The Suppliant Women from a political and historical viewpoint. In 423 BC , its possible date, there was no love lost between Thebes and Athens. Eight years earlier, the Thebans had made the move that launched the Peloponnesian War and in 427 they had persuaded the Spartans to raze the city of Plataea, Athens’ oldest ally, to the ground. Then in 424 after defeating the Athenians at Delium, the Boeotian forces, which included the Thebans, had at first refused to allow the Athenians to recover their dead. The three great Greek tragedians were Attic and we shall see later how easy it is in their plays to view Athens as the location where resolution is possible, while Thebes is an ‘other’ place where no solutions can be found (pp. 91–2, 132). Furthermore, the tragedy can be clearly seen as giving dramatic expression to a significant element in Athenian politics which sought to 45


The Plays of Euripides

re-establish an alliance with the Argives. This had previously been cemented in 461 BC and was to be achieved again in 420. And more generally, the debate about government between Theseus and the Theban Herald (403–55) is one of the Ur-texts of political philosophy. However, to claim primacy for the politico-historical element in the play could well prove excessively limiting. For one thing, religion manifestly plays a key role. There is the act of supplication which launches the play, the pervasive and defining issue of the treatment of corpses, and the religious location of the play at the sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis. The supplication is not without its problems since the Argive mothers who have come to Eleusis are dressed as mourners and, as such, could certainly not have attended the ceremonies there in real life. There is of course no suggestion that they wish to do so. It is as suppliants that they are there. Yet they themselves admit that they have come ‘not in a holy manner’ (63). The importunity of the women is stressed when Theseus has to ask them to release his mother from the pressure of their suppliant boughs even after they have got what they wanted (359–60). However, if supplication is not an altogether straightforward issue (see pp. 133–4), that does not detract from its mysterious power (470). The challenge it offers Theseus is the play’s donée. How, we urgently ask, will he respond? The fact that Greek literature has left us in no doubt about the primal demand for burial (think of the corpses of Patroclus and Hector in the Iliad) makes it clear how the good man should respond. Seen in this kind of perspective, Eleusis is not only a religious site. It may be on Athenian soil but it is equidistant from the enlightened city of Athens and the impious ‘other’ location of Thebes. It is the ideal site for Theseus to make a moral choice that will align him either with civilization or with barbarism. Thus the play’s religious setting is less interesting for itself than for the way it demands a response from, and thereby defines, the Athenian Theseus, whose heroic identity is an important theme (314–19, 337–45, 698–717, 759–67). He and his country are tested and found to be true. Not only does Theseus champion religious values; this king of Athens, with almost absurd anachronism, insists on his city’s democratic

The Suppliant Women


government (403–8, etc.). He has brought about the unity of Attica (659). And in this play what Panhellenism means boils down to the values that Athens supports (524–7, 560, 670–2). Athenocentrism is so dominant in The Suppliant Women that it can even find room for mention of the decidedly ambivalent Athenian quality of minding other people’s business (576). So is Theseus simply a symbolic embodiment of Athens? A straightforwardly civic reading of the play finds support in the appearance of the chorus of the sons of the dead Argives (1–954, re-entering at 1123). In one of the ceremonies performed at the outset of the dramatic festival of the Dionysia, a herald would lead into the theatre the Athenian orphans whose fathers had died in war. They would be clad in full armour. The herald would then declare that these young men had been brought up to adulthood by the people, who had now clad them in armour and were sending them on their way with prayers for success. After that, they would be invited to sit in the front seats of the theatre (Aeschines, Against Ctesiphon, 114). In a remarkable coup de théâtre, these Athenian orphans in the front seats now find themselves represented on stage by their Argive equivalents (Rehm 290 n.103). This is not only an arresting instance of a civic ceremony directly impinging on a play which it preceded; it also adds a powerful tragic charge, especially to the lines where the sons in the play wonder whether they will ever take up their shields to repay their fathers’ murder (1143–4), for the orphans in the front seats are fully armed. In a tragedy that so plainly reaches out into the contemporary world of Athens, it makes good sense to see in Theseus a symbolic representation of that city. However, it is worth considering whether the young king (580) may perhaps be a personality in his own right as well. Through an interesting literary genealogy, Geoffrey Chaucer found himself telling this story at the outset of his Knight’s Tale and he certainly brings his Theseus to individual life, causing (among other things) his heart to melt in sympathy with the pleas of the women of Thebes. Here Chaucer uses his ‘favourite line’ (it occurs three times in his works): For pitee renneth soone in gentil herte. (Pity is quick to run in a gentle heart.)


The Plays of Euripides

The Theseus of our play is certainly characterized by a Chaucerian ‘pitee’ and ‘gentillesse’. A stab of pity goes through him (288) and he undertakes a civilizing labour in the tradition of the ones he was famous for (316–17, 573, 714) when he refuses to sack the city of Thebes: he only wants to recover the corpses (724–5). The concept of an uncomplicatedly ‘gentil’ Theseus is perhaps challenged by the fact that he accepts his mother’s argument that people will think he is a coward if he doesn’t take on the Thebans (314–19, 343–5) as well as by his dismissive treatment of Adrastus in the first half of the play. But even if we feel that Euripides is humanizing his character here, the process goes no further than these rudimentary steps while Chaucer’s Theseus is a fleshed-out individual. Indeed the finest qualities of Euripides’ Theseus are clichés of Athenian drama. Supremely valorous (697–8, 707–18), he is antipathetic to Theban hubris (728, 743) and he espouses the Panhellenic right to burial (758–9, 763–7, 934–40, cf. 311, 526). In addition, pity was a distinctive Athenian virtue. Is Euripides expressing straightforward patriotism? The answer appears to be yes; and indeed the verdict of an ancient critic was that ‘the play is an encomium of Athens’. Again we fall back on a simple Theseus/Athens equation. As Christopher Collard (1975) 1.30 remarks, ‘Theseus is important not as an individual, a “character” with feelings, faults or a destiny, but as a symbol, a representative . . .’ If Chaucer’s tale has proved helpful in suggesting that Euripides’ Theseus is more of a symbol than a human being, I hope I may be forgiven for using it as a point of reference to propose something further. The English poet was devoutly Christian, and yet in The Knight’s Tale he shakes hands with the Euripides we know from almost all the plays in his pessimism about the divine powers that control the world in which we live. In The Knight’s Tale life is a ‘foule prisoun’. The supreme power is the god of chaos, Saturn. Yet the playwright of The Suppliant Women uncharacteristically sounds a very different note in this play, insisting that the gods validate justice (610–16, 731–2). This may be the poet’s public, patriotic voice. If so, the fact that we do not hear it speak out loud and clear elsewhere in the plays can be seen to endow it

The Suppliant Women


with a strange authority here. The chorus’ final words give equal acknowledgement to the king and the city as benefactors: Let’s make our pledge to Theseus here and to his city. They deserve our respect for all their efforts on our behalf. 1232–4

Chaucer’s vision in The Knight’s Tale is profoundly tragic. On the final analysis, even after all the plangent mourning, The Suppliant Women is assertively optimistic. The time was out of joint. Theseus and Athens have set it right. However, near its end the play offers a startling challenge to a straightforwardly optimistic and patriotic reading. Suddenly Evadne, the widow of Capaneus, one of the Seven against Thebes, appears aloft and gives eloquent, if hysterical voice to the intense agony of grief felt – and memorably expressed – by the chorus. Flinging herself in bridal robes on her husband’s pyre, she commits suttee. This act of selfimmolation from an Argive woman is totally unrealistic. It is uncontrolled Eastern behaviour. Herodotus (7. 107) tells the saga of the fall in 476 BC of Eion, a city on the river Strymon which divided the Greek from the Persian world. Rather than surrender to the Athenian commander Cimon, the Persian governor Boges raised a vast funeral pyre, killed his children, his wife, his concubines and his household slaves and flung them all into the flames, into which he then threw himself. The Persian king was mightily impressed by the way Boges had behaved. It is into such a world that Evadne leaps. She has crossed the river Strymon and is a profoundly un-Greek presence at one of the greatest of Greek sanctuaries. It could also be the case that the extreme grief of all the Argive women violates Greek values. Even as it moves us deeply, it may strike us as excessive. The play contains a substantial funeral oration (857–917). Are we intended to think of Pericles’ notorious reported words to the women of Athens in his celebrated funeral speech: ‘Your glory is great if you do not fail to live up to your own nature, and if there is the least possible talk of you among men either for praise or for


The Plays of Euripides

censure, (Thucydides 2.45.2). Though she breaks the stereotype by speaking her mind, Aethra certainly shows a proper Attic awareness of the woman’s role at 299–300. As Theseus asserts Athenian values, there is a sense in which West clashes with East and the male world with the female. In a play so prone to polarizations, it is possible that its Athenocentrism invites us to see something outlandish in the high-pressure supplication and the relentless keening of the Argive women. Is Euripides, in this uniquely patriotic play, insisting on the supremacy of the harmoniously balanced Athenian? One is tempted to say that all the elements have been so mixed in his Theseus that ‘Nature might stand up And say to all the world, “This was a man!” ’ And, since Theseus is scarcely personalized in The Suppliant Women, this is true not only of him but – for the dramatic moment – of every Athenian in the audience.

Important recent work Daniel Mendelsohn, Gender and the City in Euripides’ Political Plays (Oxford, 2002), a monograph on The Children of Heracles and The Suppliant Women. James Morwood (ed.), Suppliant Women (Aris and Phillips, 2007) prints an English translation opposite the Greek and contains an introduction and notes. James Morwood, ‘Suppliant Women: An interpretation’ in Brill Companion to Euripides 2, ed. Andreas Markantonatos (forthcoming). Ian C. Storey, Euripides: Suppliant Women (Bloomsbury, 2008).


The story of Heracles is simply told. The hero has descended to the underworld to perform the last of his famous labours. His father, his wife and his three sons have taken refuge at the altar of Zeus in front of his house in Thebes in the hope that it will save them from the usurping tyrant Lycus who is determined to kill them. When they have given up hope that Heracles will return, they prepare for death. He comes back in the nick of time, however, and kills the tyrant. At this juncture the goddesses Iris, the agent of Heracles’ relentless enemy Hera, and Lyssa, the demon of frenzy, appear aloft, and the latter drives the hero into a storm of madness in which he kills his children and his wife. Coming to a realization of what he has done, he resolves on suicide. But his friend Theseus, the king of Athens, arrives, offers him a home in his city and persuades him to go on living. At the play’s end, the two friends set off for Athens. This powerful tragedy poses two urgent questions. One of them concerns the relationship between gods and mortals. Who is the true father of Heracles, the hero with a double paternity? (Zeus and the mortal Amphitryon had both impregnated his mother.) Is it the god or the man? The second question concerns the fundamental nature of heroism. Who is the true hero? Is it the strong man who civilized the land and the sea by cleansing them of monsters (352–435) and who restored the honours of the gods (851–3)? Or is it the apparently broken figure of the play’s final movement, who discovers within himself the strength to come to terms with what he has done and finds through the human bonds of friendship the resolution to set out into a desolate future? The first question is answered in an outraged indictment of the gods. Heracles’ family has clustered for protection at Zeus’ altar and the 51


The Plays of Euripides

god’s aid is sorely needed. Amphitryon and the supportive chorus of Theban elders are pathetically weak. ‘Nothing but words am I now,’ sing the latter, ‘a night time vision seen in dreams after dark’ (112–13, cf. Amphitryon at 229). They can offer no meaningful help. But, as we are repeatedly reminded, Zeus proves to be of no avail and the characters call out to him in indignant reproach. Raising his arms to heaven, Amphitryon pleads for his help, then finds himself adding (501, cf. 339–47): ‘But why do I bother? We have appealed to you often before now.’ After Heracles’ return, when the jubilant chorus feel that Zeus’ parentage of the hero has been vindicated (798–804), their optimism is premature. This is the very moment when the god’s protection of him has come to an end (827–9). Most devastatingly of all, Zeus now allows untrammelled rein to the appalling and unremitting malevolence of Hera towards Heracles. ‘O Zeus, from your seat on Hera’s throne,’ exclaims Amphitryon, hinting at the goddess’ domination of the king of the gods (1127), ‘can you see what’s going on here?’ Even Lyssa, the goddess of frenzy with her hair of a hundred hissing snakes (883), protests against what Hera is forcing her to do to the civilizing hero (846–54). In her terrifying scene with Iris (which gains added emphasis from the fact that it is the only occasion in extant Greek tragedy when two gods appear ex machina in the middle of a play), the demon born of Night (844) calls the Sun to witness that she is acting involuntarily. Theseus, like Amphitryon, is unaware of what has caused Heracles’ madness, but at once assumes that it is Hera’s doing (1189). We must surely feel that Heracles’ passionate words reflect the play’s view of the divine when he cries out against the goddess: Let the glorious wife of Zeus dance in delight, pounding with her sandal the gleaming floor of Olympus. She has got what she wanted: she has razed to the ground the foremost man of Greece, foundations and all. How could anyone pray to the kind of goddess who out of jealousy of Zeus’ affair with a woman has destroyed an innocent man who was the benefactor of Greece? 1303–10



We now come to our second question. In a tragedy which takes so bleak a view of the role of the gods, what constitutes heroic action? The famous labours are debated, celebrated and ultimately deconstructed. The play’s opening movement has attracted severe criticism, H.D.F. Kitto (1961: 237) fulminating, ‘Is there in the whole of Greek drama a set of scenes that can rival these in debility?’ Yet among their many other merits, they in fact allow a vital discussion of the absent hero to take place. Lycus pours scorn on his labours, arguing the superiority of the hoplite to the bowman Heracles (158– 64). This is not inherently an absurd subject for debate – in the Iliad the bow marks out the inferior warrior, while in the Odyssey it is the very weapon that identifies the hero – but Lycus’ words are totally undermined by his repulsive nature. His name, entirely appropriate to his instincts, means ‘wolf ’, and his hubris is repeatedly stressed (261, 557, 708, 741, 757–9). For such a brute to accuse Heracles of cowardice is not only (in Athenian terms) legally actionable (174–5), it is ludicrous and contemptible. Later the chorus reaffirm the splendour of the labours in an exhilarating and emphatically extended song of praise (348–435). Yet even this sounds a disillusioned note as it nears its end with a stanza telling of the final labour that, they mistakenly sing, has taken Heracles to the end of his life in the underworld and exposed his children to the same fate. ‘Your house looks for your strength,’ sing the elders bleakly, ‘but you are not here’ (425–35). Heracles himself raises questions about his labours. Euripides has placed the killing of his family after their completion (this could well have been his own innovation) and it causes Heracles to view them in a new perspective. Finding his family about to be killed, he declares: Who else should I defend if not my wife, children and aged father? Enough of my labours! They were pointless accomplishments compared with what needs to be done here. It is indeed my duty to risk death fighting for these children, since they were to die for their father. How could I count it admirable to fight a hydra and a lion on Eurystheus’ orders, and then not do all I can to keep death from my


The Plays of Euripides own children? People would stop calling me Heracles, glorious in victory, as they did before. 574–82

Not only are the labours which civilized the world valueless when set against the need to save his family. They will lose whatever value they do have unless he succeeds in protecting his own. This he will do, but then, in the most tragic of all reversals, he in fact kills his wife and children. Later, in an agony of horror and grief, he will come to see their destruction as his crowning labour (1279–80). All the others were less than this (1411). Everything that was civilizing and ennobling about them now appears irredeemably subverted. This is reflected in the famous lines in which he rejects the sleazy, power-crazed vision of the gods posited by Theseus (1314–19), not deigning to believe that, if they really are gods, they gain mastery over each other and have sinful sexual liaisons (1341–4). Yet he is himself the offspring of just such a liaison. Thus he disavows the divine dimension of his own nature and disowns the world of myth (the word myth has twice been used earlier in the play of fairy tales and misleading stories [76–7, 100]). It is at this moment, after he has deconstructed the divine mechanics of the world in which he has hitherto won his greatness, that he starts to rebuild himself on the secure foundations of human friendship. And it is now that he can state confidently that he considers Amphitryon, not Zeus to be his father (1265). The hero reaches his nadir when (at 1030) he is revealed on the ekkyklema, sleeping and tied to a broken pillar amid the corpses of his family and his bow and arrows. There, even if Amphitryon undoes his bonds (at or after 1123), he apparently remains until Theseus persuades him to get up some 370 lines later (after 1400). (There is no evidence that he had responded to Theseus’ bidding that he should stand at 1226, and even at 1397 he wishes he could be turned to stone there.) The great hero who has travelled the world (1197) is confined to a single tiny platform. Regaining consciousness, he resolves on suicide. Does this tableau represent his journey’s end? Does it show him frozen in the



Figure 2 Heracles at rest after one of his labours (the apples of the Hesperides; he holds some apples behind his back). A Renaissance copy of a Roman original. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.)


The Plays of Euripides

same suicidal despair that sweeps over Othello, another great man of action, after he has deludedly killed his wife? The answer is, of course, no. As Sartre’s Orestes comes to learn (in Les Mouches), life begins on the other side of despair. The key figure here is Theseus, king of Athens. Younger than Heracles, he has been rescued by him from the underworld (1401, 1222), and in his view friendship and the debt of gratitude take unconditional precedence. He is totally unfazed by the danger of pollution from the bloodstained kin-killer who lies before him (1234, 1399–1400). At first Heracles’ despair seems impenetrable even by Theseus. In a speech of tremendous emotional power (1255–1310), he expresses his conviction that the elements of earth and water will cry out against any contact with him (1295–7). Yet Theseus persists and, after his disavowal of the divine, Heracles resolves to hold out and live (1351).* The ties of friendship between two mortals (1223–5, 1352, 1425–6) have restored him. The chorus endorse the supremacy of this quality in the play when they bring it to an end by calling Heracles their greatest friend (1428). There remains one more journey. Heracles gets up and sets out from the sick city of Thebes (272–3, 542, 588–93) to a new home in Athens, the city of resolution, of the happy end (see pp. 91–2, 132). Even now things are not altogether easy. There is certainly an ungracious element in the final exchange between the two friends (1412–17). But the fact remains that Heracles has now found the deepest courage. At last he has discovered what endurance truly means. He has reconstructed himself. And the reconstructed Heracles has achieved a further victory. He has come to terms with his old self. He has decided to take his famous weapons with him (1385). As he comes back from despair, he recreates the iconic Heracles with his bow and arrows so familiar from mythology


‘This is the most important line in the play’ (S.A. Barlow). Yet as it stands in the manuscript, its first clause has been taken to mean ‘I shall have the courage to endure death’, and therefore editors have emended the Greek word for ‘death’ to ‘life’. This substitution does, however, seem a radical emendation in such a key line. I myself would keep the manuscript reading and take its meaning to be ‘I shall have the courage to outface death’.



and from art, and the icon is now infused with a new understanding of life’s challenges. Abandoned by the gods but supported by the most generous of human friendships, he is now the once and future Heracles. It is on this note of hard-won triumph that the tragedy ends.

Important recent work Shirley Barlow (ed.), Euripides, Heracles (Aris and Phillips, 1996) prints an English translation opposite the Greek and has a good introduction and notes. Emma Griffiths, Euripides: Heracles (Bloomsbury, 2006).



The outline of what was later to become the Electra story is clearly etched in Homer’s Odyssey. There we are told how Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and commander-in-chief of the Greeks, returns home victorious from the ten-year war at Troy, bringing with him the Trojan princess Cassandra. Clytemnestra, his wife, and her lover Aegisthus murder the two of them. Later – the part of the story covered in our play – the killers are themselves to meet their deaths at the hands of Agamemnon’s stalwart son Orestes. Clytemnestra is the embodiment of vicious wifehood, Orestes of filial dutifulness. His killing of his mother apparently meets with Homer’s full approval. It was not so simple a matter, however, for the three Attic dramatists, all of whom tackled this subject. In their plays they make much of two figures nowhere mentioned in Homer, Agamemnon’s daughters Iphigenia and Electra. In their handling of the mythological material, the former is slaughtered by her father to appease the goddess Artemis and enable the Greek fleet to sail to Troy. The latter, after Agamemnon’s murder, has grown up in misery, a living victim in a household presided over by her evil murderess of a mother. Homer’s simple story of crime and punishment now reverberates with new and disquieting resonances. At the same time the dramatists assert the potential for happiness in human relationships by adapting another theme from the Odyssey, that of recognition. This, a major preoccupation of the poem, finds its most poignant expression there when Odysseus eventually identifies himself to his wife after an absence of twenty years. Clearly the reuniting of Electra with her brother who has grown to manhood in another country 59


The Plays of Euripides

gives the dramatists emotionally-charged material to exploit. All three of them gratefully seize upon it in their individual ways. The Libation Bearers, in which Aeschylus handles this story, is the second play of his great trilogy, the Oresteia (first performed in spring 458 BC ). The overall approach is grandly hieratic, above all in the powerful scene at Agamemnon’s tomb where the hero’s spirit is invoked. Aeschylus examines the impossible dilemma in which Orestes finds himself. Can a man kill his mother and escape retribution? In The Libation Bearers, the provisional answer is no. Yet the play also makes explicit the horrors which would befall Orestes if he failed to do the deed. He is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. At its conclusion he has killed Clytemnestra and is chased from the stage by the invisible Furies, horrific symbols of his tormented conscience roused by the murdered mother. Euripides, whatever may have been his reaction to other aspects of Aeschylus’ play, was similarly impelled to explore this theme of a dilemma fraught with guilt. He deals with it in no fewer than four of his plays. Sophocles’ treatment of the myth at first sight appears to raise no problems at all and its action has been viewed (to borrow A.J.A. Waldock’s paraphrase of A.W. von Schlegel) as ‘a mixture of matricide and good spirits’. Yet there is a disturbing undertow beneath the surface of confident heroic action, especially in the dramatist’s presentation of the way in which Electra’s essentially loving nature has become distorted under the weight of her sufferings. While scholars have failed to establish whether Sophocles or Euripides wrote his Electra first, this was an aspect of the myth that certainly interested both of them. Euripides’ handling of the subject is highly personal and something of his intention may be suggested by his subversive satire of the symbols through which Electra recognizes Orestes in Aeschylus’ play. Euripides’ heroine pours scorn on these, only to accept the clichéd evidence of a childhood scar, a reach-me-down version of the mark by which his old nurse recognizes Odysseus in the Odyssey (21.217–19). While Odysseus was gored in a violent encounter on a boar hunt, Orestes got his scar chasing a harmless fawn, presumably a pet, at home with his sister (573–4). Euripides eagerly drains the myth of any potential nobility.



This process is at work throughout the play. Its setting is no palace – as in Aeschylus and Sophocles – but a humble cottage in a rugged mountain landscape. Orestes’ appearance here (rather than before the royal palace) can be viewed as decidedly more prudent than heroic (524–6). Clytemnestra apart, the characters are humbly costumed. ‘Rags again!’ exclaims one of the editors at the Old Man’s appearance (501). Most of the play’s language is drab, above all in the long-delayed but disconcertingly perfunctory celebration of recognition (578–95). The murder of Aegisthus, a warmly sympathetic character as he is described by the Messenger, appals by its blasphemous bloodiness, Clytemnestra’s by its perpetrators’ callous deceit. The ideas of ennobling action, of sporting prowess and of aristocratic values are for ever being questioned in this play and usually found wanting. Any possibility of heroism is subverted. The act of matricide is seen as starkly ignoble and polluting. Stained in their mother’s blood, Orestes and Electra are overwhelmed by guilt. The chorus of countrywomen, earlier so deeply responsive to Electra’s cause, end up feeling that she has done a terrible thing to her brother by driving him on to the matricide (982–4, 1204–5). The one unequivocally virtuous character, the Farmer, so considerate and hospitable despite – or in this play perhaps because of – his lowly status, has left the stage never to reappear, before a third of the action has occurred. The process of subversion is reflected in the two great choral songs (432–86, 699–746). The scope of this book does not allow for much close examination of passages from the plays; but I hope I may be forgiven here for illustrating the way in which the first of these stunning odes interlocks with and helps to delineate the subverting pattern of this tragedy. This may strike some as surprising in the case of a song which has been described as ‘the classic case of pictorial irrelevance’ and possessed of a ‘faraway sweetness . . . scarcely engaging with the business-like action of revenge’, but I hope that my readers may find themselves persuaded. The first stanza of this ode tells of the famous ships that took lightleaping Achilles to Troy. Their journey is an idyllic one as they escort the choruses of Nereids, and the dolphin, responding to the music of


The Plays of Euripides

the flute, leaps and spins around the coloured prows while innumerable oars cut the sea. Then the happy rusticity of the responding stanza (442–51) transfers this mood of unclouded joy from sea to land. Here the Nereids, carrying to Achilles his golden armour, seek him on mounts Pelion and Ossa where the Nymphs keep their watch and where the centaur Chiron has raised him to be a light for Greece (449). A delightful picture of heroic mythology has been conjured up in these twenty lines. But then, abruptly, this picture is juxtaposed with the actuality of an eye-witness account of warfare, for the chorus explain, now with conversational directness (452–7), that they have heard a description of Achilles’ armour from a man who has presumably arrived at Aulis from Troy. Now we are told that the blazons on the armour terrify (456). The heroic vision of 432–51 gives way to a horrific evocation of the brutality of the Trojan War. The armour is, of course, a work of art (443–4, 457). The craftsmanship of the forging god Hephaestus has given order and beauty to what it portrays, and for the time being the horror is held in an equipoise with the glamour of the artefacts which dazzle both literally and figuratively. For example, the picture on the shield’s base or rim, of Perseus flying over the sea with the pastoral god Hermes, undoubtedly has its beauty, yet it is a beauty grimly counterbalanced by the presentation of Perseus as a throat-cutter holding the severed head of the Gorgon (458–62). In much the same way the ‘dances in the sky’ (467) of the stars on the middle of the shield renew the attraction of the choruses of Nereids of 434, but their brightness more obviously evokes the fearful glitter of Achilles’ armour that makes Hector turn and run in the Iliad (469; Il. 22.131–7). By the end of the fourth stanza (464–75) the horror of what is portrayed on the armour has largely eclipsed any thought of the artist’s ordering skill. On the gold-wrought helmet, the music the dolphin loves is perverted into the song of the Sirens who hold the victims of their music in their talons. And the picture on the cuirass of the Chimaera running from Pegasus singularly fails to exploit the possibilities for optimism inherent in this fable. The ghastly fire-breathing monster is



portrayed with a vivid immediacy while its destruction by Bellerephon is merely hinted at. In the concluding lines (476–86) the armour is no longer viewed as a work of art. It is on operation on the battlefield and the sword does not gleam; now it is a bloodstained weapon (476), the chasing upon it a menacing vignette of warfare. If its four horses recall the winged mares of the glittering sun (464–6) and the motion of the dolphin (435), they do so only to sully them with blood and a cloud of black dust. The exquisite opening, like Hephaestus’ wondrous decoration, has been defiled by the terror of the war which, through Achilles, Agamemnon has won. The final horror of the song, Clytemnestra with her throat slit (485–6), may at present be a vision but will before long become a visible reality when she lies on the stage with a gaping wound in her bare neck (1223, 1228). With grim inescapability, her bloodstained corpse will prove a retrospective commentary on this ode. The movement of the first ode – from untarnished joy to horror and blood – recurs in the second ode (699–746) in which the gleam of the golden lamb and the flash of fire give way ultimately to the unadorned horror of Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband (745–6). Thus both of these choral songs begin with beauty and untarnished joy but then veer horrifically into blood and death in full accord with the play’s template of the corrosion of what is noble and good. The tragedy in fact ends with what may appear to be a limited optimism as Castor, the divine brother of Clytemnestra, promises Electra marriage and Orestes eventual happiness; but neither brother nor sister are cheered by this. Castor and his brother may pity their human relatives but they are nevertheless apart from them, only briefly moved by their torment before they hurry on elsewhere. For the most part, the role of the gods is seen in the bleakest of lights. Apollo, says Castor, was wrong to tell Orestes to murder his mother. Furthermore, the Trojan War was simply unnecessary. Helen, over whom it was fought, had, he assures us, never gone to Troy. Zeus sent an image of her there ‘to cause strife and killing among mortals’ (1246, 1282–3). Similarly bland statements of divine malignancy along these lines occur in two other Euripides plays,


The Plays of Euripides

Helen (38–40) and Orestes (1639–42). All of them confront us with a shockingly grim view of the human condition. Yet despite – or again, perhaps because of – its desolate vision, the play is frequently performed. A key reason for this may lie in its superb gallery of characters. There is the intellectual Orestes with his probing scepticism, a boy quite out of his element as a man of action and thus proving the base enactor of a squalid revenge. There are the low-born farmer, who lends to the first part of the play its voice of moral authority, and the aged tutor with his disconcerting combination of generous love and sinister ruthlessness. The sympathetically self-doubting Clytemnestra is vividly characterized: she is lured to her death by her daughter’s shocking exploitation of her maternal instinct. And above all there is Electra with her self-imposed water-drawing (64–78) and her refusal to attend the festival of Hera (178–80), a neurotic hugging her misery to herself like a protective covering. These roles are challenging and rewarding to act. In a fine performance they work together to expose the audience to a shattering experience.

Important recent work M.J. Cropp (ed.), Euripides, Electra (Aris and Phillips, 2013) prints an English translation opposite the Greek and offers a good introduction and notes. V. Wohl, ‘How to recognise a hero in Euripides’ Electra’, BICS 58 (2015), 61–76.

The Trojan Women

The Greeks have won the Trojan War and Hecuba, the former queen of the city, now a slave, lies prostrate on the ground. The gods Poseidon and Athena appear aloft and arrange that the Greeks will meet with disaster as they sail home as a result of their impious behaviour during the sack of Troy. The chorus of Trojan women join Hecuba, who discovers that she has been assigned to Odysseus as his slave. Three women of Troy appear in succession, the first two of them the daughters of Hecuba: Cassandra, who has been allotted to Agamemnon, Andromache, who has been assigned to Achilles’ son Neoptolemus, and the Greek Helen who seems likely to be spared by her husband Menelaus whom she abandoned for the Trojan Paris. Andromache’s son Astyanax is killed and mourned by his grandmother. Finally the chorus and Hecuba go to the ships to make the journey to Greece and slavery. In The Trojan Women, uniquely in Euripides’ surviving plays, we wait in vain for a messenger – or a messenger equivalent such as the Nurse in Alcestis – to appear. In his Latin version of the tragedy Seneca turns the Greek Talthybius into a fully-fledged messenger with a bravura speech (168–202). Euripides’ character is a herald (231, 425, etc.), a sympathetic go-between who communicates crisp pieces of information, ‘coming on like a series of telegrams’ (H.D.F. Kitto (1961) 210). His closest approach to a messenger speech is his report of Andromache’s departure and her instructions for the burial of her son Astyanax (1123–55). Delivered not with a bang but a whimper, this is a very far cry from the great showpieces which we associate with tragedy’s authentic messengers even when they are actors in the drama as a whole. And he tells Andromache that her 65


The Plays of Euripides

son is to be executed largely in halting stichomythia (i.e. with the characters speaking in single lines, 712–25).* However, if we are denied a messenger in The Trojan Women, that does not mean that little information is imparted. A key function of the prologue, after all, is to set the scene, and Poseidon and Athena certainly tell us about the past. The former informs us of the sack of Troy and the fate of its inhabitants (8–41). Athena tells us of the blasphemous behaviour of the Greeks (69–71). But the focus is strongly on the future. Poseidon informs us that the Greeks are awaiting a following wind so that they can sail home (19–21). Athena makes it clear that a dreadful fate will befall the Greek fleet on its voyage there (77–91). As Athena and Poseidon specify the areas of the Aegean where the godsent storm will devastate the ships (82–91), they launch one of the play’s most powerful motifs, the Greek geography that lies ahead for the Trojan women. Their future is another country; and the absence of messengers – who speak of the past – forces the play to dwell on that future as well as on the fearful present, as we shall see. After all, and we shall return to this later, the past is over in a very final way for the women of Troy. This focus on the future and the motif of Greek geography come together with an especially intense pathos when the chorus of Trojan women speculate about where in the Greek world they will find a home. They sing as if there is a chance of their wishes being fulfilled: Athens is their first choice, Thessaly their second (214–19). Then, after Talthybius announces that Agamemnon is taking Cassandra (249) and Neoptolemus Andromache (274) while Odysseus has won Hecuba (277), the women ask who has gained possession of themselves (292–3). The herald simply ignores their question. War has levelled them to nothing. Their future is a servile anonymity. That Cassandra tells us a great deal about the future is scarcely surprising. It is her lot to do so. She lets us know that she will prove fatal to Agamemnon and devastate his house (359–64); that Hecuba *

This withholding of fluency is lent strong emphasis by the fact that Euripides gives us far fewer lines of single-line stichomythia in this play than in any other, and here we have more than half of them (14 out of 27).

The Trojan Women


will not come to Odysseus’ palace but will die where they are at present (427–30); and that a grim future lies in store for Odysseus (431–43). Andromache speculates with poignant insecurity on her sexual future (661–72) and trundles off in a cart to what lies ahead. Shirley Barlow links Hecuba’s preoccupation with ships with the future that awaits her (her note at 686). ‘She has never been on a ship before, but Euripides depicts her imagination working powerfully as she describes her own plight in terms of the things she fears most – ships. These await her and she must face them at the end of the play.’ And the argument between Hecuba and Helen about the past (914–1032) is never resolved. It reflects the essential ambiguity of Helen’s character and perhaps makes it clear why she will no doubt survive into the future. Her future fate is in fact precisely the subject of this scene which concludes as Helen blithely exits into the fourth book of the Odyssey. As we have remarked, by denying us a messenger speech in The Trojan Women, Euripides directs us away from the past not only towards the future but also towards the present. The play is about waiting. Becalmed between the past and the future, it is essentially static – and scholars have raided the thesaurus to find words that convey monotony. A.W. von Schlegel (1840: 136) commented that ‘the accumulation of helpless suffering at last wearies us, and exhausts our compassion’. U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff wrote in 1922 that there was ‘nowhere even a glimmer of light, of trust, of hope, nowhere a glimmer of justice either in earth or in heaven’. This monotony may arise in part from a lack of action. Why, one may reasonably ask, did Euripides wish to compose his Trojan Women when a decade or so previously (some time before 423) he had treated the same themes in Hecuba? In that play he had shown the former queen of Troy responding to terrible suffering in dynamic, if malevolent action, the blinding of Polymestor and the killing of his sons. In The Trojan Women she is largely passive and enduring. Von Schlegel (1840: 136) remarks, ‘It is impossible for a piece to have less action.’ Yet two momentous events do take place in the course of the tragedy. One of them is the killing of Astyanax, which extinguishes any hope of


The Plays of Euripides

the rebirth of Troy. This execution regularly reduces critics to paroxysms of indignation. However, though it brings terrible suffering upon the Trojan survivors and is certainly distressing for the audience, the decision which Odysseus has led the Greeks to take is clearly the right one. Just before Talthybius enters with the grisly tidings, Hecuba has expressed the hope that Astyanax or his descendants may re-establish Troy (702–5). The Greeks surely have no choice but to abort this possibility. Astyanax must be killed – and with him any future for the city. The second great event is the firing and thudding collapse of Troy (1260ff.). Indeed, Hecuba’s single dynamic action in the play is her rush upon the flames of the city in her frustrated suicide bid. We ‘see’ Troy reduced to nothing before our very eyes, just as earlier, with the killing of Astyanax, we had bleakly recognized that it would never be rebuilt. If a tragedy that includes these two momentous events has struck critics as so profoundly mired in inaction, that is no doubt because they simply confirm what Poseidon told us at the outset. Troy – which the chorus later evoke so vividly (e.g. at 511–55) – is no more (8–9, 1322–4). The possibility of any revival of the past is utterly blocked amid the quite literal nihilism of the present. When Cassandra attempts to reconstruct it, endowing it with decorum and dignity, she seems crazily perverse (386–402). The future is all that is left. So finally, in one of the greatest sound effects in tragedy, the Greek trumpet blows (at 1327 [or 1310], cf. 1266–8). This is the cue given to the Trojan women by Talthybius (1266–8) to stagger to their feet and go off to the ships and their future. Modem editors ignore the trumpet call, but Gilbert Murray, who edited the first Oxford classical text of Euripides, had no doubts on the matter. ‘The Greek trumpet sounds through the darkness,’ he declares. ‘It is the sign for the women to start for their ships . . . ’ And yes, there is a certain optimism here. The trumpet’s blast puts an end to the play’s agonized concentration, its lingering agony. However horrific a future awaits the women of Troy, they are released from their paralysis. As Hecuba, who had begun the play flat on the ground, gets up, the rhythm of life starts again. It is an effect that anticipates with a

The Trojan Women


remarkable precision Thomas De Quincey’s response to the knocking at the gate in Macbeth after the protagonist’s impious murder of his king: ‘we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested – laid asleep – tranced – racked into a dread armistice; time must be annihilated; relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope. . . . Hence it is, that . . . when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced; the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that has suspended them.’

Important recent work Barbara Goff, Euripides Trojan Women (Bloomsbury, 2013).


Iphigenia among the Taurians

Iphigenia was not sacrificed at Aulis by her father Agamemnon (see the chapter on Iphigenia at Aulis) but whisked away by Artemis to Taurian territory where she becomes the goddess’s priestess, consecrating for sacrifice any foreigners who arrive in the region. Accompanied by his friend Pylades, Iphigenia’s brother Orestes lands here, still being pursued by the Furies as a result of his revenge killing of his mother Clytemnestra; Apollo has told him that he can only attain final release if he goes to the land of the Taurians and removes a statue of Artemis, taking it to Greece. After a number of chance events he realizes that the priestess is his sister and reveals himself to her; thereupon they plot to outwit the local king Thoas and to escape with the statue from his land. They prove successful in this, and finally the king accepts what has happened with a good grace. Geography offers one key to a fuller understanding of Iphigenia among the Taurians, for this is a play of landscapes, literal, moral and psychological. Located on the Black Sea at the very edge of the known world, Euripides gives it some explicit geographical features. Pylades talks of ‘caves which the dark sea swills with its waters’ (107); the Herdsman makes his way from woodland pastures (261) to the sea where there is ‘a broken cliff, hollowed out by the constant erosion of the rolling waves’ (262–3); the local people take refuge in the woods on the cliffs (324); there is ‘a gaping chasm in the rock, full of holy fire’ (626); and outside the harbour there are ‘the furious surges of the open sea’ (1393). It is an appropriate background for the customs of the Taurians as described by the historian Herodotus (4.103.1-3):



The Plays of Euripides They sacrifice to the virgin goddess [i.e. Artemis] both ship-wrecked men and any Greeks they take through piracy. They follow this procedure: after beginning the sacrificial rites, they hit the victim over the head with a club. Some say that they throw the body down from the cliff (for the temple stands on one) and place the head on a pole. Others agree about the head, but say that the body is not thrown over the cliff but buried in the earth. The Taurians themselves say that this deity to whom they sacrifice is Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon. As for the enemies they overcome, this is what they do. Each man cuts off the head, takes it away to his home, and then fixes it on a long pole and sets it high above his house. . . . They say that these heads are set on high to guard the whole house.

In Iphigenia among the Taurians the spoils hung up under the temple coping (74) may well be the heads of dead foreigners; and certainly the

Figure 3 Fresco from the first century BC depicting the approaching sacrifice of Iphigenia from which she may have been saved by the goddess Artemis. It is based on a now lost picture by the Greek artist Timanthes from the fifth century BC. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images.)

Iphigenia among the Taurians


Taurian king Thoas wants to hurl the escaping Greeks ‘over the rugged crags or impale their bodies on stakes’ (1429–30). Edith Hall (1989: 112) is surely right to suggest that the barbarous Taurian society which Euripides presents ‘constituted a dramatic bringing to life of chapters in Herodotus, and was therefore entirely new to tragedy’. This remote and savage terrain is a fitting location for Iphigenia’s sacrifice of human beings, her fellow Greeks too (but see 258–9), and for the terrifying recurrence of Orestes’ delusional madness brought on by guilt at his matricide (281–94). Its coast is washed by the Black Sea which is insistently called inhospitable (125, 218, 341, 395, 1388). There is a play on words here, for the sea’s name in Greek means hospitable (an attempt to make it so by avoiding reference to the bad weather conditions for which it was notorious). In recording the truth about the inhospitable reception that this sea gave to strangers, Euripides shows it as essentially un-Greek, since hospitality to strangers was a key ingredient of Greek social behaviour. So the play sets up a colliding antiphony between Greek and Taurian values. This is made even more explicit by Euripides’ choice of captive women from the Greek island of Delos to constitute his chorus. The beauty of this island is rapturously evoked in their lyrics as they long for the festival gatherings of the Greeks, long for Artemis goddess of childbirth who dwells by Mount Cynthus by the feathery palm tree and the flourishing bay and the youthful sacred shoot of the pale-green olive dear to Leto in her travail, and the lake that whirls its waters round in a circle where the melodious swans pay service to the Muses.* 1096–105

The island of Delos is in the centre of the Aegean, right at the heart of the Greek world, midway between the cities of Ionia (on and near the west coast of modern Turkey in Asia) and those of the mainland. These supremely Greek maidens set in high relief the barbarous nature of the * The palm tree was ‘dear to Leto in her travail’ (1102) because the goddess is said (Theognis 1.5) to have supported herself by the branches of the tree while giving birth to Apollo (and presumably Artemis). This birth was accompanied by the singing of swans (104–5 – Callimachus, Hymn to Delos, 249–52).


The Plays of Euripides

land at the edge of the world where they now find themselves. Witness, for example, how in the passage just quoted they re-assimilate the savage Artemis whom the Taurians have, according to Iphigenia, created in their own image (389–91), to the idyllic world of Greece. At the same time, the focus on Delos – with its international Hellenic associations (‘the festival gatherings of the Greeks’ [1096]) and its situation at the heart of the Athenian empire – facilitates the shift of focus from Argos in southern Greece, the actual homeland of Iphigenia and Orestes, to their destination in Athens. This re-directioning is essential to the play’s happy ending. For if the escapees were to return to Argos with the image of Artemis, they would be going to a place whose royal household was almost Taurian in its brutality, a theme which launches the play and is repeatedly stressed. The Argive Iphigenia only escaped slaughter at her father’s hands by the miraculous intervention of Artemis; and, when a girl back at home, she had portrayed a particularly disastrous episode from the family history as she wove in a palace where the maiden’s quarters were seen as an appropriate place to display a man-slaying spear (812–17, 823–6). No, the image of the goddess must be taken not to Argos but to Attica, the country whose main city was Athens. This had always been Orestes’ destination (90), and early in the play we find Iphigenia lamenting that she cannot join in civic worship as a female citizen either of Argos or of Attica (221–4). At the end it is to Attica that Athena, the goddess of Athens, orders the fugitives to go. The Delian identity of the chorus – at the time of the play’s composition (before 412) the island was Athenian territory – points us in this direction. The play’s vast geographical expanse leads to an arresting coup de théâtre when Pylades, promising to deliver Iphigenia’s letter to Orestes after what she had assumed would involve an odyssey to Argos, has only to walk a few paces across the stage in order to do so (791–2). But more important is the way in which the play’s geography articulates significant thematic concerns. The friendship of the Greeks Orestes and Pylades, which so moved the composer Gluck in his opera Iphigénie en Tauride, is communicated with especial force against the savage

Iphigenia among the Taurians


barbarian backdrop; and the commonality of Greek supplication is movingly conveyed when Iphigenia moves among the chorus and touches them as she asks them not to reveal the escape plan (1056–78). However, it would be too simple a response to the play’s polarization of Greek and Taurian values to say that it endorses the former and rejects the latter. For one thing, Orestes is not an entirely admirable character. His catastrophic family heritage and his torment over his act of matricide, evoked with a terrifying intensity at 281–300, win him our sympathy. What are we to make, however, of his wish to run away at 102–3? (In the event, Pylades stiffens his resolve.) His account of his reception in Athens as a matricide is distinctly sulky (947–60), but that may be understandable. However, how are we to regard his proposal that he, Pylades and Iphigenia should kill the Taurian king who is their host? Certainly his sister is shocked by this highly un-Greek suggestion (1020–1). In fact it is tempting to feel that the barbarian king Thoas has espoused the supposedly Greek concept of piety with a fullness of spirit that the tricky Hellenes of the play do not themselves display. When he is told that Orestes and Pylades have killed their mother, he exclaims, in a much-quoted line, ‘By Apollo, not even among barbarians would anyone have dared to do this!’ (1173–4); and at the play’s conclusion, with unstinted generosity he accepts Athena’s instructions to call off the pursuit of the Greeks, saying that he will stop the spearmen he is sending against the foreigners (1484). Greek used a single word for ‘guest’, ‘host’, ‘stranger’ and ‘foreigner’, subsuming all these identities under the concept of hospitality. The king who rules by the inhospitable sea embraces a relationship that makes himself a host and the foreigners his guests. He shows true nobility. Iphigenia among the Taurians has a visceral excitement. We root for the Greeks as they make their bid for escape with the image of Artemis. But here too lies a problem. The play remains strangely silent as to what the goddess feels about the theft of her image. Indeed, when Iphigenia appeals to her for support as they try to get the ship with the image on


The Plays of Euripides

board out on the open sea, Artemis does not respond favourably. They are in fact driven back closer to the barbarian land (1397–1406). It is entirely characteristic of Euripides that he should complicate and problematize his saga of danger, escape and derring-do. As the Greeks return from the ends of the earth to Greek civilization, they leave behind them a king who, though still a barbarian, is now imbued with Greek virtue. On the final count, racial clichés are not an adequate guide to moral worth. Thus Euripides deconstructs the easy polarities of racial stereotyping which may at first sight have seemed implicit in his play’s geography.

Important recent work L.P.E. Parker (ed.), Euripides, Iphigenia among the Taurians (Oxford, 2016). The text is given only in Greek but the full introduction and notes are valuable. Matthew Wright, Euripides’ Escape Tragedies (Oxford, 2005).


Creusa, the daughter of the king of Athens, was raped by Apollo and exposed the child that resulted from their union. The god Hermes rescued the baby, who then grew up at Delphi under the name Ion as the temple servant of Apollo. Creusa and her husband Xuthus, now king of Athens, are childless and come to Delphi, where the play is set, to consult the god. Creusa meets her son, but of course neither of them is aware of their relationship. Xuthus is led by the god’s response to believe that Ion is his son. An old man tells Creusa that Apollo has given her husband a son. She sings a passionate song of grief and accusation, telling of her rape by Apollo, and then schemes with the old man to kill Ion. The plot miscarries and Ion enters to exact vengeance on Creusa. She takes refuge at the altar of Apollo, whose priestess now shows her the clothes and jewellery found with Ion as an infant. Creusa recognizes them and mother and son are reunited. Athena appears, predicting a glorious future for Ion as king of Athens. Coleridge’s Kubla Khan builds a stately pleasure dome in a savage landscape where the sacred river Alph runs ‘through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea’. In Ion we find the same superimposition of civilizing structures on what is rugged and awesome. The chorus of Creusa’s slave-women sing of the caves beneath the Athenian Acropolis, the scene of Apollo’s rape of their mistress, now the queen of Athens, where she later exposed the infant Ion, the offspring of the brutal coupling: O abode of Pan, rocky neighbour to the Long Rocks with their caverns, where the three maidens of Aglaurus dance and tread with their feet the grassy swards before Athena’s temple, to the quavering sound of 77


The Plays of Euripides the songs of the pipes when you play them, Pan, in your sunless caves. There once a wretched young woman, unmarried, the mother of Apollo’s child, exposed the baby to be a feast for birds and bloody meal for beasts, the terrible outcome of a bitter union. 492–506

Here Euripides evokes the dance on top of the Acropolis in an enchanting vignette. But below lie the sunless caves. Such an antiphony pervades the play. The action is located at Delphi, a city that clings to the precipitous slopes of Mount Parnassus with its ‘sheer cliff and terrace as high as heaven’ (714–15). (It is not surprising that the Old Man needs help to get him up to the shrine [738–9].) Yet here is the wondrous symmetry of Apollo’s temple, the object of so much delighted commentary at 184–218; and here again we see (232) on the temple representations of Heracles and the gods fighting monsters and giants, of civilization in conflict with dark, menacing forces. In the same way, the tent erected for the celebratory banquet is a massive and beautiful structure, its tapestries illustrating the radiant order of the cosmos. Yet Heracles, however much the civilizer, had won them through violence; and they also portray barbarian and Greek ships in conflict, hybrid semi-human creatures, and the hunt (1132–62). The superb extemporized banqueting hall will prove the scene of an attempted murder. The ambivalence is omnipresent. One of the two drops of the Gorgon’s blood is fatal while the other cures illness (1005, 1011–15). Ion frightens the birds from the temple, yet it is a bird that saves his life by exposing the murder plot against him (1202–5) and the play’s ultimate happy destination, the Acropolis at Athens, is ‘the rock of the nightingales’ (1482), a bird that can signify a poet or a poet’s song. In a drama that speaks with such ambivalence there can be no cast-iron certitudes. This is made disconcertingly clear when Hermes unfolds Apollo’s overall design in his prologue and then hides behind some laurels to see how things will work out in practice (76–7). He is sensible to do so since the play’s action departs from the god’s plan in one important respect (mother and son recognize each other at Delphi,



not Athens [71–2]), and the god has to improvise some speedy repair work (1563–8). In any event, even if Apollo’s purposes are ultimately benevolent, the fact remains that he subjected Creusa to the trauma of rape and its consequences and condemned her to the misery of guilt and loss for all the years it has taken for Ion to grow up. Within this profoundly ambivalent geography, both symbolic and literal, two journeys take place. The callow Ion travels to full manhood, the bereft Creusa to fulfilled motherhood. Euripides charts the former’s spiritual and emotional development with extraordinary psychological insight, largely by showing his dramatically shifting responses to the god to whom he has so far dedicated his life and to the Athenian woman who has suddenly appeared in it. The delightful freshness of his opening song – as he sprinkles the water over the entrance to Apollo’s temple and sweeps it with his broom of laurel – communicates an ingenuous simplicity which is in urgent need of an education in the true ways of gods and men. The play is above all the story of that education, a schooling which will enable him to enter the world of human and divine relationships outside the protected enclosure of Apollo’s sanctuary. His mother’s development is equally radical. Euripides conducts her through the agony of concealing her own story as a friend’s (338), her open criticism of the god (384–9, cf. 905–22), her total disillusion with him (774–99) and her heart-rending account of her rape with its combination of delusive beauty and brutality and the poignancy of her cry to her mother (887–97). Yet she learns to accept what Apollo has done to her, even to express approval of him (1609–13), and finds within herself an unconditional love for her rediscovered son that leads her to risk death in order to embrace him (1401–5). The audience has to come to terms with the fact that she plots to poison the guiltless Ion, but we may forgive her the more readily in that she has fallen under the influence of one of Euripides’ most repellent characters, the Old Man. Lies flow as glibly from his lips as appallingly impious proposals (815– 29, 974–6), and his loyalty to his mistress is broken when he is tortured into giving evidence against her (1215–16). Creusa could scarcely have fallen into the hands of a more vicious counsellor.


The Plays of Euripides

The parallel nature of the journeys of mother and son is emphasized by the symmetrical position of their two appearances together, in the first and the last of the scenes between the leading characters (before the appearance of the dea ex machina). Their opening encounter consists mainly of the longest stichomythia (in which the actors address each other in single lines) in extant Greek tragedy. Ion and Creusa feel an instinctive closeness to each other: she – not the friend she invents – has lost her son, he has lost his mother. There is a sensitivity and tenderness in Euripides’ deployment of the irony here that make it wonderfully touching. The characterization has something decidedly modern about it. We sense emotional needs and possibilities in the two of them that go far deeper than anything directly implied by what they say. And the unparalleled intimacy of the scene is retrospectively underlined by the semi-farcical episode between Ion and Xuthus, Creusa’s amiably buffoonish husband, that follows it. The recognition scene is equally moving, allowing Creusa and Ion to give full voice to the emotions that, because of their ignorance of each other’s identity and Creusa’s invention of the friend, they were at a loss to express in their earlier encounter. Their closeness is lent a striking emphasis when the playwright causes Ion to address his mother in one of the first two stage whispers in surviving dramatic literature (1521ff.; the other is at Aristophanes, Birds, 1647). So there is a happy ending. Yet the play’s ambivalence – the pleasure dome and the savage and holy place beneath – makes it inevitable that problems will remain as it draws to its close. Athena, the goddess of Athens who arrives, as we might expect, to clear everything up, finds herself having to explain why she – and not Apollo – has appeared ex machina. The latter, she says ‘chose not to come to meet you himself, in case his past deeds should provoke you to open criticism’ (1557–8). She makes it clear that, for the happy ending to stay in place, Xuthus must be kept in blissful ignorance (1602), deludedly believing that Ion is his son. Doubts about the ability of Apollo to effect a comprehensively satisfying resolution remain unallayed. As a historical footnote, it may be relevant that at the time Ion was performed (?before 412), the oracle at Delphi did not command total respect from the Athenians since they considered



it to be supportive of the Spartans, their enemies in the Peloponnesian War. They believed that the oracle had prophesied that the Spartans would win the war if they fought according to their ability, and that Apollo would help them, when invited and when not (Thucydides 1.118.3, 1.123.1 and 2.54.4). However, at the end of Ion the play’s characters feel no such doubts. Things seem to them to have worked out for the best; and if Apollo does not tie up every loose end, that may not be in accord with the traditions of drama but it certainly reflects real life. It may be helpful here to consider another play in which the innocent baby of an appallingly wronged mother is exposed in a comfortless spot with tokens which much later establish the child’s identity. This is Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. Earlier in that play Apollo’s oracle at Delphos (Shakespeare, like Chaucer before him, conflates Apollo’s two greatest cult centres, Delphi and Delos) has declared that ‘the king shall live without an heir if that which is lost be not found’. Miraculously, the lost daughter Perdita is found. Is the Euripides of Ion tilling the same kind of soil as the Shakespeare of the late romances, who shows us how the finding of what is lost can bring recovery and renewal? The miraculous reunion of Ion and Creusa does not, of course, cancel out her past suffering or Xuthus’ continuing delusion, but it is more than enough to give a benediction to the present and to validate the future. And that future will reach out beyond the Athenian royal family and their city to embrace the vast areas of the Greek world which will be colonized by the children of Creusa and Xuthus (1581–94). Present joy and future fulfilment – are not these sufficient cause for celebration?

Important recent work K.H. Lee (ed.), Euripides, Ion (Aris and Phillips, 1997) prints an English translation opposite the Greek and has a good introduction and notes. Laura Swift, Euripides: Ion (Bloomsbury, 2008).



When Helen was first staged in 412, it was only months after Athens had suffered a devastating defeat. Under brilliant Spartan leadership, the Syracusans had wiped out two fleets and armies which Athens had sent to Sicily (in 415 and 413). The historian Thucydides commented that the Athenians ‘had little hope of being able to survive’ (8.1.2). If Athens had fallen, it could have expected to suffer the fate it had meted out to the island of Melos in 416, the killing of all its men, and the selling of all its women and children into slavery. Furthermore, in 413 the Spartans had built a permanent fort on Athens’ soil some thirteen or fourteen miles from the city, and had thus reduced it to a continuous state of siege as well as providing a refuge for vast numbers of its slaves. March 412 certainly seems a bizarre time to put on in Athens a play celebrating the triumphant exploits of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and the ingenuity and innocence of Helen, his wife, who did not run off to Troy with Paris. Can we really believe that an Athenian audience would have been rooting for them as they try to break out of their dangerous entrapment by a barbarian king in mythological Egypt? What makes it all the more bizarre is the fact that Helen is so richly enjoyable. A. W. von Schlegel (1840: 141) defined it as ‘the merriest of all tragedies . . . a play of adventure, full of wonderful happenings and appearances’. There is, for a start, a splendid dramatic panache about the initial entry of each character. Helen herself, who launches the play, must obviously be endowed with outstanding beauty. Then Teucros, the leading Greek archer in the Iliad, comes on with his bow and arrows (76). Menelaus makes a ridiculous entry clothed in flotsam and jetsam from the wreckage of his ship (422). The playwright pulls out all the 83


The Plays of Euripides

stops for the son et lumière entrance of the Egyptian mystic Theonoe, which is heralded by the crashes and thuds of the bolted doors and accompanied as she appears by gyrating torches (859–60, 865–72). Her brother, the king Theoclymenus, strides on, complete with dogs and hunting gear (1169). And it may be that at the play’s end Castor and Polydeuces appear on the stage machine (a kind of crane) riding dummy horses (cf. 639 & 1665). Within two hundred lines of each other, Helen and Menelaus make two of the most spectacular – and under-appreciated – costume changes in Greek drama. In their scheme to make their get-away, the former eclipses her beauty in the black clothes and cropped hair of mourning (1053–4, 1087–9, 1186–7) while the latter casts aside his ludicrous concatenation of rags and enters in glorious robes and full armour (1282–3, 1376–7, 1382–3). Now splendidly garbed, he at last looks like the hero who conquered Troy. Appearances are enormously important in this play, a feature that inescapably raises the question of what is appearance and what reality. The vividly suggestive props and the two startlingly complete transformations are characteristic of the quality of a film cartoon that the play possesses. This is enhanced by the huge passages of stichomythia, single-line exchanges between characters, which pit them against one another in lively contrast or ironic misunderstanding. They are drawn in vivid colours too. Menelaus, for example, the one-time hero of the Trojan War, can indulge in a war hero’s absurd braggadocio (842–54) and Theonoe combines a heart of gold with a ponderously vatic mode of expression. And there is one moment that challenges the audience’s preconceptions in an astonishing way. This is when the chorus, for the only time in the surviving Greek tragedies, go off into the stage building during the action of the play (at 385). The bold strokes of dramatic presentation and the lively characterization are appropriate to this gripping story of escape. So, in staging this appealing, energetic drama with its happy ending at this potentially disastrous moment in the history of Athens, is Euripides trying to take his audience away from grim reality? Does escape equal escapism? The fact that one of Euripides’ sources is the fourth book



of the Odyssey – in which Menelaus tells Odysseus’ son of his fabulous adventures on his way home – may appear to confirm this. After all, when Homer’s Menelaus is overcome with grief over the horrors of the Trojan War, Helen slips into his drink a drug that banishes all sorrow. Can Euripides’ play about her be the dramatic equivalent of that drug? Here too history gives food for thought. Euripides sets his play in Egypt, and in the 460s the Athenians and their allies had sent two expeditions against that country. After a six years’ war, they had suffered a terrible defeat, losing nearly 250 ships (Thucydides 1.104, 109–10) and 50,000 men (about 200 men to a trireme). If Thucydides is right about the number of ships, there can have been few people in the first audience of Helen who had not lost a relative in this catastrophic enterprise of some forty years before. If the spectators did find themselves thinking back to it, the scale of this campaign, and its transformation from initial triumphalism to ultimate disaster, will surely have struck them as prefiguring the Sicilian expedition. A war from the previous generation had just been experienced again with all its accompanying horrors. Beneath the colourful surface of an apparently escapist entertainment, Euripides, by his use of Egypt as his play’s location, evokes the harsh reality of war. After all, the causality of the Trojan War that this play insists on is grimly horrific: Euripides’ Helen never went to Troy and so the war was fought over a phantom; and the Trojan War was Zeus’ device to save the world from over-population (38–40; cf. Electra, 1282–3 and Orestes, 1639–42). One of the tragedy’s great moments comes at the old Servant’s appalled realization, before he retreats into banal generalities, that all the sufferings at Troy were merely over a cloud (707). Later the Messenger tells us how the nobly garbed Menelaus reverts to grisly thuggery as he slaughters unsuspecting Egyptians. It is in fact the great choral ode about Demeter’s suffering and despair over her lost daughter Persephone (1301–52) that most profoundly conveys the agony at the heart of the play’s experience. Demeter may laugh as the instruments of her cult are given back to her (1349) but tragedy is not far to seek. The goddess’ heartache and the world’s sterility have been so powerfully conveyed, and the audience may remember that the daughter cannot be


The Plays of Euripides

fully restored: she must spend the winter months in Hades’ kingdom below. If there is throughout the play an undertow of pain, a sense of the tragedy of war and of loss, there is also an acknowledgement that we are not in a stereotypical world where cunning and virtuous Greeks outwit stupid and brutal barbarians. The Egyptian Theonoe insists on the piety for which her father was famous, and, despite a great deal of talk about her brother Theoclymenus’ despotic nature, when he eventually appears, he proves supremely amiable and shows a sympathetic awareness of the Greek concepts of supplication and xenia (the right relationship between host and guest) which would have marked him out in the Odyssey as a good man. When Helen and the none-too-bright Menelaus trick him by exploiting his eager espousal of these concepts, they surely appear in an unattractive light. In the play’s penultimate scene, when the Servant so courageously intercedes with Theoclymenus, bidding him not to take vengeance on Theonoe for her connivance at the Greeks’ escape, we witness a tug-of-war between the voice of piety and the Egyptian king’s despotic instincts. But after the Dioscuroi tell him to do so, he happily embraces the value of piety and concludes with a generous tribute to Helen (1686–7). Thus one conspicuous aspect of the drama is the schooling of a barbarian to Greek virtue. Meanwhile the Greeks have forfeited some of the sympathy that the play inevitably directs towards them because of the excitement of the ‘are-they-going-to-make-it?’ plot. In part, as we have seen, this is due to the means that they use to trick Theoclymenus. Equally telling is the gung-ho racism of both Menelaus and Helen which comes across strongly in the Messenger’s speech. This proves especially piquant in view of the fact that all the Egyptians we have seen prove to have hearts of gold. A romantic play of adventure and escape? A discussion of the counterpoise between appearance and reality? An unsettling manifesto against war? A challenge to racial preconceptions? Euripides’ Helen is all of these things and much else. The play speaks with many different voices, and therein lies the fascination of its problematic nature. Yet it



is given an underlying unity by the characterization of its heroine, a dazzling compound of emotion, intelligence and shrewdness – and above all of infinite allure. She is one of the great creations of Greek drama.

Important recent work Euripides, Helen, ed. W. Allan (Cambridge, 2008). The text is in Greek but introduction and notes are first-class. Matthew Wright, Euripides’ Escape Tragedies (Oxford, 2005).


The Phoenician Women

An awful lot happens in The Phoenician Women, and until recently criticism of the play has been bedevilled by Aristotle’s stipulation that the action of a tragedy should be complete, whole and unitary (Poetics 1450b23-4, 1451a32). It is easy enough to see why The Phoenician Women should appear to fall foul of that dictum, easy to understand why an ancient critic pronounced it ‘overstuffed’. For one thing, it contains four messenger speeches. However, from the 1950s onwards, the ways in which the play can be seen as a unified whole have been increasingly appreciated. Indeed, held together by its ‘juxtapositions and implicit parallels and contrasts’ (D.J. Mastronarde (1994) 3), it now proves to sit well with what Aristotle goes on to say he means by a whole and unitary action: the component events should be so structured that if any is displaced or removed, the sense of the whole is disturbed and dislocated: since that whose presence or absence has no clear significance is not an integral part of the whole. 1451a32–6, translated S. Halliwell

In fact, there is now a danger that the unity we have currently arrived at has found room for so many things that The Phoenician Women may assume the appearance of being overstuffed all over again. So if the modern critics’ delicate spools of thread have proved a not altogether satisfactory guide through the labyrinth, can we find a more helpful vade mecum? I suggest that the Menoiceus scene can provide us with one. Let us have a look at it. Thebes is in danger of extinction. Its king Eteocles arrogantly refuses to honour his oath and hand over the monarchy to his brother 89


The Plays of Euripides

Polyneices, who has now led an expedition here (the Seven Against Thebes plot, to use Aeschylus’ title) with the intention of taking and sacking the city. The local seer Teiresias, with considerable hesitation (891–909), tells Creon, the brothers’ uncle, that the only way to win safety for Thebes is to kill his son Menoiceus (912–14), thus appeasing the anger of the war-god Ares over the slaughter of the earth-sprung dragon by Creon’s ancestor Cadmus, and winning his alliance (934–6). The appalled Creon refuses to sacrifice his son to save the city (963–6) and tells him to flee. The boy agrees to go to Dodona, but after his father has left the stage, he tells the chorus that he will in fact save the city. He will give his life for the sake of Thebes. After he has gone to the battlements to kill himself and fall into the dragon’s lair (1009–11), the chorus express their admiration for him (1054–9). And the city is indeed saved after the brothers have killed each other in battle. Unsurprisingly, this is the episode in The Phoenician Women which has been viewed as most obviously irrelevant to the Seven against Thebes plot. It is certainly more or less self-contained (though see Jocasta’s words at 1204–7). Yet critics now perceive its strong thematic relevance to the play as a whole. Among other motifs, the boy who gladly sacrifices his life for Thebes is there to show himself all that is most unlike his cousins, the quarrelling brothers Eteocles and Polyneices, who place their private desires above the good of their country. E. Rawson (1970) 111

One could, incidentally, add Creon’s name to those of the brothers. However, it seems to me that this scene plays a more fundamental role in the tragedy’s design. It is in fact a sub-plot. The sub-plot is a notable feature of Shakespearean drama, in which a story of lesser import may echo or contrast with the main action of the play. In Hamlet, for example, the family of Polonius (Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia) is used by Shakespeare to set up a series of contrasts with the family of the prince himself. Likewise in King Lear Gloucester’s family (Gloucester, Edgar and Edmund) provides a commentary on the family of

The Phoenician Women


the king. The sub-plots are of dramatic interest in themselves, but, as we have said, they tend to function at a less complex and on the last count less intense level than the main plot. While interrelating with it, they are subservient to it, in the sense that they offer a counterpoint – inviting us to compare and contrast – which assists with the identification of the themes of the play as a whole. The grim saga of lust and murder in Middleton and Rowley’s Jacobean chiller The Changeling is given a grotesque emphasis by its comic sub-plot which tells of love in a madhouse. In the Menoiceus episode, Euripides has given us what is perhaps the only true sub-plot in what survives of Greek tragedy. Here we see him paving the way for what became in the Renaissance a stock in trade of dramatic composition. I suggest that the Menoiceus sub-plot acts as a kind of ‘control ‘, defining what the whole play is about. This seems all the more likely if, as appears probable, the episode is Euripides’ own invention. As the audience focused on the themes of the sub-plot, they would more easily identify those of the play as a totality. Thus the Menoiceus sub-plot helps to pin down various key motifs in The Phoenician Women such as prophecy, parents and children, devotion to city and country (and its absence), idealistic self-sacrifice (and its absence), order and chaos, and the animalism of Thebes’ past. Froma Zeitlin (in Winkler and Zeitlin eds (1990)) has suggested that the Attic dramatists used Thebes as a location dramatically ‘other’ than Athens itself.* ‘Thebes,’ she writes, consistently supplies the radical tragic terrain where there can be no escape from the tragic in the resolution of conflict or in the institutional provision of a civic future beyond the world of the play.

Athens, in contrast, ‘is the scene where theatre can and does “escape” the tragic, and where reconciliation and transformation are made possible’. *

Zeitlin develops her ideas interestingly in ‘Staging Dionysus between Thebes and Athens’, 147–82 in T.H. Carpenter and C. Faraone eds, Masks of Dionysus (Ithaca NY, 1993). Oliver Taplin has argued against ‘any simple formulation of Athens-positive/ Thebes negative polarity’, and Rush Rehm has argued that it is not ‘Thebes per se, but the choices made by certain Thebans, that lead the city to ruin’. These are useful caveats, but I continue to find Zeitlin’s stance on this matter helpful and illuminating.


The Plays of Euripides

Zeitlin’s view certainly proves helpful as a guide to Euripides’ three surviving Theban plays (the other two are Heracles and Bacchae), and it is lent an arresting confirmation at the end of The Phoenician Women when Oedipus and Antigone – the parents and children theme – go off to Athens where the father will find a resolution in death at Colonus (1705–7). Such a view of Thebes is given a further confirmation by the way in which it contrasts with the sub-plot. By his self-sacrifice, Menoiceus does bring about the resolution of the conflict. He does ensure a civic future for Thebes. He achieves the closure which is so spectacularly absent from the main plot that scholars cannot even agree whether Euripides wrote the end of the play as we have it. Menoiceus’ own uncompromising heroism emphasizes the perversion of this ideal all around him. The simple order that he so courageously asserts is a key value in this play. Jocasta, who is characterized most movingly, labours hard to achieve it by bringing her two sons together (272–3). She fails catastrophically. Then, when those brothers have mortally wounded each other, they find ways of expressing their love for her. Polyneices even refers to his brother as his friend. As they die full of love, not hate, they seem to promise a future of order and harmony (1437–54). This is hideously disrupted when Jocasta seizes one of their swords and plunges it through her neck. Even though she embraces both their bodies while she dies, she takes no thought for the future (1455–9) and the fighting breaks out anew (1466ff.). The plain, contrasting fact that Menoiceus wins through to order adds to the bleakness of its absence in the totality of the play. What of the chorus of fifteen Phoenician maidens after whom the play is named? Travelling to Delphi to serve Apollo as temple slaves, they have arrived in Thebes at this moment of fearful crisis. Sharing a common ancestry with the descendants of Cadmus, they react with a poignant empathy to the action of the tragedy, evoking the agony and – decidedly less so – the ecstasy of the city’s mythological heritage. The etymology of their name suggests blood and thus they are

The Phoenician Women


appropriate temporary residents of this bloodstained city. Yet they will pass on from the world of Menoiceus’ triumphant yet tragic closure and the ‘other’ terrain of the Thebes of tragedy. Those geographies they at least can escape.

Important recent work A.N. Michelini, ‘The “Packed-full” Drama in Euripides: Phoenisssae’, in J.R.C. Cousland and J.R. Hume eds, The Play of Texts and Fragments: Essays in Honour of Martin Cropp (Leiden, 2009), 169–82. Thalia Papadopoulou, Euripides: Phoenician Women (Bloomsbury, 2008).



Orestes was one of the most popular plays of antiquity. It is not difficult to see why. Throwing familiar mythological materials into his creative melting pot, Euripides minted them anew. His Orestes takes the breath away with its exuberant inventiveness, its helter-skelter plot, its mixture of tragedy and comically crazy surrealism. Yet most of the play’s shocks and surprises come only after its action has spiralled out of control (from 1098). Before then it maintains for the most part a consistently tragic tone. Euripides visualizes an Orestes who has stayed in his home city of Argos after killing his mother there, and the greater part of the drama finds the characters anticipating and then reacting to the Argives’ decision about what to do with the matricide in their midst. This new scenario, Euripides’ innovation, subjects Orestes, his family and his friend Pylades to extreme emotional pressure. A gallery of sharply-observed personalities emerges from the crucible. Orestes and Electra are bound together in a mutually supportive relationship that proves deeply moving. Her role is defined by her posture at the start of the play as she sits by her brother’s unconscious and prostrate body. In her protective love she has forgone sleeping, eating and washing to look after him (302–3). Orestes is an extraordinary case study of a character undergoing a major nervous breakdown, though this is mainly in remission. He looks like a corpse (385): unwashed (42) like his sister, he has a sticky crust on his mouth and his eyes, and lank and greasy hair hangs over his face (219–20, 223–6, 387). Even more tellingly, we actually witness one of the terrifying fits of hallucination brought on by his killing of his mother (255–77). Euripides explicitly links the family bond between brother and sister to 95


The Plays of Euripides

the profound friendship of Orestes and Pylades by an unmistakable echo of language and movement (cf. 221–2 and 800). As so often in literature, Pylades is the very type of brotherly love, and never more convincingly so than here. When the play flies off the rails, there is a certain continuity in the fact that what holds these characters together survives intact. The two duos are transformed into the three musketeers. Their closeness is emphasized by Euripides’ virtuoso exposé of the siblings’ uncle Menelaus as a fair-weather friend. His final speech in his first scene with his nephew is a masterpiece of evasion (682–716). He hides behind a smokescreen of verbiage, and he will renege on his commitment to try persuasion on the Argives (704–5). He does not even go to the assembly (1058). The fact that his wife Helen, who had been endowed with a sympathetic hesitancy near the start, is later to put her seal on all the property in Orestes’ palace adds colour to the nephew’s allegation that his uncle wants to become the next king (1108, 1058–9). Tyndareus, the father of Helen and Clytemnestra, has meanwhile offered us a striking study in curmudgeonly if eloquent old age, and his alarming description of Orestes hints at the shape of things to come (479–80): The serpent who killed his mother is here in front of the palace, noisome lightning gleaming from his eyes. How I loathe him!

The characters have been established. Now we hear of the Argive assembly. It is tempting to view what happens there in the light of contemporary Athenian politics. As I shall suggest later, this is a helpful approach up to a point, but it has its dangers. Spot the real-life moborator (903–5) – Is it Cleon? No, he was too early. Then it must be Cleophon – is an enjoyable enough game, but it is essentially a reductive one. More profitable perhaps is the recognition that this is a fully democratic assembly at which everybody who speaks is given a hearing. We are told about it by an old family retainer of Agamemnon’s (863, 868–70). Naturally he does not like it when his former master’s children are condemned to death, and he suspects that strings are being pulled (889), but we know where he is coming from. He even manages to praise (943) Orestes’ pathetically inadequate speech to the assembly –



from which the matricide simply omits his strongest argument, that Apollo had told him to commit the murder (28–30, etc.); and he fails to repeat his ‘What should I have done?’ of 551 and 596. Of course the Messenger is well disposed to Orestes and Electra, as are the chorus of Argive women (968–9, 974–5), though even they are appalled by the act of matricide (819–43). There is no reason to assume that the dramatist shared their point of view. The Argive assembly has reached an understandable verdict through the proper process. The trio (of Orestes, Electra and Pylades) resolve to kill themselves, but then at 1098–9 Pylades suggests that, since they must die, they should see how they can make Menelaus suffer too. When at 1105 he exclaims, ‘Let’s kill Helen’, the effect is as shattering as Beatrice’s sudden demand that Benedick should ‘Kill Claudio!’ – Claudio had rejected her beloved friend Hero at the altar – in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, another play that challenges any neat distinction between comedy and tragedy. As the roller-coaster Grand Guignol of the finale gets underway, Orestes, who began the play lying flat on a mattress, is energized, activated. From now on the Greek word for sickness (nosos) which has beaten like a constant pulse in the play’s language is heard no more. But the protagonist’s new dynamism must not blind us to the new nastiness of the terrorist trio. Their vileness is given emphasis by the contrast between them and the warmly sympathetic and trusting Hermione whom they catch in their trap. Orestes mistakes squalid revenge for heroism, but it is Pylades, mystifyingly identified by an ancient scholar as the one good character in the play, who in fact proves the most malevolent, the sinister agent provocateur who sets all this escalating chaos in motion. Yet the brilliant comedy – above all that of the Phrygian’s dazzling monody in which he relates the hectic events inside the palace – and the breathless vitality of the concluding dramatic movement prevent us from taking it all too seriously. Apollo’s all-will-be-well epiphany at the end of the play is notorious for the absurdity of his instruction to Orestes to marry the very woman to whose neck he is holding a sword (Hermione, 1653–4), an instruction to which Orestes and the girl’s


The Plays of Euripides

father unhesitatingly accede. And the abruptness with which the god declares, ‘As for Argos, Menelaus, let Orestes rule it’ (1660), gives us another delicious moment. Compare, from Hilaire Belloc’s Lord Lundy, ‘Go out and govern New South Wales!’ We seem to have entered a world of escapist fantasy. But escape from what? Here we can legitimately turn to the world of contemporary politics. Orestes dates from 408 BC . At this stage of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta (hisses for Menelaus?), Athens was in a parlous state. The total destruction of her expeditionary forces to Sicily in 413 had led to an instability which the oligarchs exploited in 411 to oust the democracy and create a government of four hundred. When Athens then lost the island of Euboea, she found herself completely at the mercy of the Peloponnesians and was only saved by the Spartans’ lack of initiative. Thucydides’ suitably Laconic observation was that ‘on this occasion as on many others, the Spartans proved to be quite the most extraordinarily helpful enemies that the Athenians could have had’ (8.95-6, translated Rex Warner). A government of five thousand took over from the four hundred, and then in 410 democracy was reestablished and the Athenians achieved some military successes. There were, however, many scores to be settled. Hundreds of citizens were fined, stripped of their rights or put to death; and amid all this civil strife there must have burnt a terrible fear of what would happen to them all if they were defeated. They had committed horrific war crimes, such as the massacre of all the men of Melos in 416: what kind of vengeance would they suffer? The end of an era seemed to be approaching. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. When chaos hems him round, what is the dramatist to create? In the conviction that life may be short while art is long, he can stage a play that, as well as being theatre in itself, embodies theatre as a whole. That at least will endure. In Orestes Euripides plays variations on the greatest of Athenian dramas, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, on its fiftieth birthday. He stages a commemorating pageant of the great names of the Attic theatre: Electra, Orestes, Helen, Menelaus, Hermione and Tyndareus (the last often referred to but never appearing elsewhere in the extant plays). What a cast-list! Even the Greek



herald Talthybius, who features in two of Euripides’ plays about the aftermath of the Trojan War (Hecuba and The Trojan Women) is given a role in the messenger speech (887–94). The playwright eventually grants Orestes the great hallucinatory scene he has never succeeded in playing in the whole of theatrical history until now. (The closest he came to it was at the end of Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers.) Euripides homes in more specifically on his own tragedies. He plays on his image, propagated by Aristophanes, as the ultimate detractor of women when he quite gratuitously makes his female chorus remark, ‘When they involve themselves in the affairs of men, women always make things worse’ (605–6). More significantly, there is the unmarried Electra (72) and much else from his previous treatments of the myth surrounding her family with its amalgam of lust, treachery, cheating and murder. We experience the calling up of Agamemnon’s spirit from the underworld (1225–39 cf. Aeschylus, Libation Bearers 456–509 and Euripides, Electra 677–84), we hear of the gods’ clear-out of the earth’s population (1639–42, cf. Electra, 1282–3 and Helen, 38–40), of Orestes’ trial at Athens (1648–52, cf. Aeschylus Eumenides 566ff., Electra 1258–9, Iphigenia among the Taurians 942–4, 961–7), of his loving friendship with Pylades (cf. e.g. Electra 82–4 and Iphigenia among the Taurians 598, 605–8, 708–10), and above all of the role of Apollo, so repeatedly identified as the agent of Orestes’ tragedy and the guarantor of resolution.And the play harps insistently upon the history of this supremely dysfunctional family. When M.L. West remarks of Electra’s monody (note at 982–1012) that ‘no one who did not know the stories already would understand them from this account’, the response must surely be that we understand them well: we’ve seen the plays. It is a good thing that Apollo’s intervention prevents the Tantalids’ palace from going up in flames, not only of the literal kind but also those of this family’s destructive passions (609, 621), for Euripides had not finished with its denizens just yet. He will write one more drama about them, Iphigenia at Aulis. It would be tedious, though far from difficult, to list still more ways in which Euripides here plays allusive games with the dramatic heritage of which he was so important a part. His celebration of the Attic theatre’s past greatness is conducted with an equally celebratory exploitation


The Plays of Euripides

of all its resources. More than any other tragedy, Orestes makes the audience aware that it is a play, something that the genre is generally studious to avoid. Euripides has a field day here with his metatheatrical effects. In tragedy the characters very rarely address the audience. Yet here (at 128), after Helen has left the stage, Electra demands of the spectators, ‘Did you see how she has trimmed just the ends of her hair?’ At 131–3, she says (more or less), ‘Oh no! It’s the chorus again.’ Now there follows the scene, an extension of a poignant episode in Heracles, in which she pleads with the chorus to sing and dance quietly (140–86). This is a heart-stopping exchange, partly because to reduce the chorus to a pianissimo is to challenge their essential function. Something strange and wonderful is happening. And then again, as the play reels into overdrive, the Phrygian eunuch (1528) displaces the traditional messenger speech with his wonderfully over-the-top monody, its extravagance gaining emphasis from its contrast with the old family retainer’s ultra-conservative narration in the play’s first half. In this punkah-wallah (1427–9) we have a messenger who utterly subverts the stereotype with his oriental exoticism, his abject negation of the heroic, and his capacity to generate mirth. Later (1591) Menelaus challenges Pylades to speak. Orestes breaks in with the words,‘His silence is agreement. There’s no need for him to speak as well as me’ (1592). The fact of the matter is that Pylades must remain silent. His part is now being performed by a mute actor so that the actor who had played him can assume the role of Apollo. (There were only three speaking actors in Greek tragedy at this time.) The playwright may here be drawing attention, quite unnecessarily but very deliberately and surely in a spirit of humorous celebration, to a limitation of the dramatic conventions. He also glances slyly, in its anniversary year, at the Oresteia, at the stunning moment in The Libation Bearers when the exact opposite happens: Aeschylus’ Pylades, whom everyone must have judged from his silence to be a mute, suddenly breaks into speech for three extraordinarily emphatic lines (900–2). We have already discussed the god Apollo’s pronouncements from on high, and we have seen good reason to find his reassurance – that he



will ‘put right the relations between the city and Orestes’ (1664) – far from convincing. These words will have had a hollow ring in a city rife with civil dissension. It is hard not to believe that the deus ex machina convention is being sent up. Most startling of all is the play’s final coup de théâtre at 1625. West summarizes: There is now a spectacular tableau on four levels, unique in ancient drama: the chorus in the orchestra; Menelaus and his followers in battle array before the house; the conspirators with their swords and torches on the roof, probably symmetrically stationed on either side of their captive; and the two beautiful deities above them all. Perhaps about forty persons in total. note at 1625

In this most giddy and heady of all the great moments of Attic tragedy Euripides revels in the achievement and the potential of the theatre. As Athens disintegrates, one of its greatest cultural constituents asserts itself triumphantly. The chorus end the play with an appeal to the goddess Victory to crown them. Did Orestes win the dramatic competition? We do not know. But a play that offers so exhilarating a celebration of the whole corpus of Attic drama certainly had a strong claim.

Important recent work Matthew Wright, Euripides: Orestes (Bloomsbury, 2008).



When the hero of Homer’s Odyssey rounds Cape Malea, the southeastern promontory of the Peloponnese (9.80–1), he sails off the rational map of Greek geography and enters a world of myth, magic and monsters. One of the latter is the Cyclops. In his adaptation of Odysseus’ encounter with the single-eyed giant whom he blinds, later making his escape, Euripides exploits this Homeric idea among a number of others. At one point his Odysseus tells us that he’s just seen ‘the kind of unbelievable deeds you’d expect to find in stories, not in real life’ (376). In the context of this play we need not be surprised. In their search for Dionysus, Silenus and the chorus of satyrs have passed Cape Malea too (18). A modern audience will enter a strange world as well, for Cyclops is the only satyr play that survives complete. A kind of anti-masque, replete with crude and comic elements, to round off the three tragedies which preceded it, this genre always featured a chorus of satyrs together with their father Silenus. The chorus wore masks with snub noses and equine ears, and a furry loin-cloth with an erect phallus and a short horse-tail attached. Their father was bald and his phallus drooped. In this play, they have been separated from their master Dionysus, god not only of wine and the liberated spirit but of theatre too, and forced into servitude by the Cyclops. Unlike in Homer’s unspecified location, there is no wine on the monster’s island of Sicily (123–4, ‘a barbaric dystopia, . . . a stark and bleak contrast to the Homeric model’ (O’Sullivan & Collard (2013) 43– 4) and he tries to suppress their dancing (204–5). They may sing the first pastoral ode in surviving literature (41–81) but they resist assimilation into the world of the Sicilian pastoral. Randy (186–7, 439–40) and switching from spirited expressions of courage to abject cowardice, they are festive figures eager to make Dionysiac holiday (620–3). 105


The Plays of Euripides

Figure 4 An actor wearing the costume and contemplating the mask of father Silenus. To his left stands the actor about to play Heracles. (Photo by Leemage/UIG via- Getty Images.)



Set against them in his opposition to holiday, as it were playing Malvolio to their Sir Toby Belch, is the Cyclops (204–5). Gullible (273– 4) and hubristic (318ff.), he has no understanding of the key Greek concept of hospitality. He masturbates (327–8) and eructates (410, 523), and his singing is unmusical (426, 489–90). The chorus will not in the event go into his cave to join in blinding him, not only because it is highly unconventional for a chorus to enter the stage building nor simply because they are cowards but also because there can be literally no shared ground between them. The Cyclops recognizes this when he remarks, with some wit, that he won’t eat them because, if he did, ‘they’d leap about deep in his stomach and ruin him with their dancing’ (220–1); and when they explain to Odysseus that there’s no wine on the island, they say, ‘That’s because there’s no dancing in this place’ (124). The Greek word that negates dancing here is a(= non)-chorus. A Greek chorus both sang and danced in the theatre of which Dionysus was the god. No wine means no dance, no dance means no chorus, no chorus means no theatre. The Cyclops has thus pitted himself against everything involved in the theatre of Dionysus, and Odysseus points out how very unlike these two figures are (436). Even so, when Odysseus gives the Cyclops wine, the latter makes quite an effort to commit himself to the world of holiday, several times expressing the wish to break down the social barriers that divide him from his fellow Cyclopes (445–6, 507–9, 531–3). However, as the chorus perceive, he is essentially ineducable in this respect (492–3). The climax of his drunkenness is a perversion of Dionysiac revelry when he drags off the bald Silenus to serve as his ultra-reluctant Ganymede (the catamite of Zeus) (582, 587, 589). Even in his cups the Cyclops remains, like Shakespeare’s Caliban, a thing of darkness. There is no way in which he can be absorbed into Dionysus’ world. This satyr play looks to its theatrical situation in other ways that have nothing to do with Dionysus. Euripides here seems to be giving a comic twist to his Iphigenia among the Taurians, in which Greeks arrive at a strange shore where nothing is known of hospitality, they have to make a get-away in order to avoid bloody extinction, and a Greek becomes or


The Plays of Euripides

seems likely to become a participant in this horror – here, Odysseus (406), in Iphigenia among the Taurians, Iphigenia. Questions from other Greek tragedies are raised too, e.g. What should happen to Helen after the Trojan War? (179–86, see especially The Trojan Women) and Should the war have been fought if the cause was just one woman? (280–1, 283–4, see passim). There is a moving correspondence between 304–7 and Hecuba 322–5 where the Odysseus of each play says that there are enough Greek dead and mourning family members as it is. However, the most notable of the play’s intertextual features is surely the way in which it offers a rehabilitation of Odysseus, a character whose enterprise and inventiveness make him so appealing in the Odyssey but cause him to be viewed as malevolent and scheming by characters in Greek tragedy. (Sophocles’ Ajax is the exception that proves the rule; but see Hecuba, The Trojan Women and Iphigenia at Aulis for highly unsympathetic judgements from Euripides’ dramatis personae.) When Silenus first spots Odysseus approaching, he describes him as ‘a high-ranking military chap’ (86) but on discovering his identity, he crisply encapsulates the stereotype we know and hate from tragedy: ‘I have heard the name – a sly, glib talker, the son of Sisyphus’ (104). Odysseus – perhaps wearily – responds, ‘That’s me. But there’s no need to be rude’ (105). Silenus has packed a great deal into threequarters of a line. The Machiavellian speaker (cf. 313–15) is denied his legitimacy (in Homer he is the true son of Laertes) and dubbed the bastard son of a man notorious for his double-dealing on earth and condemned to an eternal punishment in the underworld. As R. Seaford says: It must be disheartening and deflating for Odysseus to find that, epic hero though he is, his reputation for chatter and the unsavoury story of his parentage have preceded him to a faraway island, and that they should be well known even to Silenus.

Yet the Odysseus who emerges from Cyclops challenges the stereotype. On his entrance he shows decorum by interviewing the senior figure.



He is coolly courageous and, in Greek terms, justly vengeful (441–2). He observes the rules of hospitality, which he flouts in the Odyssey when he and his men eat the Cyclops’ food before he arrives (9.231–2). His bravura declarations are impressive (198–202, 603) and he twice challenges the gods in language that steers just the right side of hubris (353–5, 606–7). Like Homer’s hero he is a modern man, his inventiveness communicated in a technical simile abbreviated from Homer (Odyssey 9.383–6): You know how a ship-builder spins his auger back and forth with a belt? That’s how I shall turn the brand in the Cyclops’ eye. 461–3

Compare 477, where he likens himself to an architect. He understands the value of cooperation (472, 650–3). Clearly he will have no problems in dealing with the primitive Cyclops. By setting Homer’s Nobody plot in motion (from 549), he activates the ludicrous buffoonery of the play’s final scene, thus espousing the spirit of comedy. Even if he comes across as a coldly clear-headed magister bibendi making mock of pretentious talk about wine (153–4), he shows a full understanding of what friendship, a fundamental Greek value, means, determined as he is to save not only his own men but the satyrs (if they want to go) and even the two-faced Silenus from the island (176, 427, 466–8). In his wish to reunite the chorus with their god Dionysus (429–30, 435–6), he embraces the satyric. A modern man he may be but he shows a remarkable sympathy for these funny figures, left-overs perhaps from an antiquated era of theatrical performance. The Odysseus of this play is thus the proponent of festive holiday and of Dionysiac liberation and laughter. As he walks out of the theatre of Dionysus, possibly for the last time in any of the plays that have come down to us (for a discussion of its date, see O’Sullivan & Collard (2013) 39–41), we may feel that the god himself is endorsing this portrayal of a much maligned dramatic figure.


The Plays of Euripides

Important recent work Patrick O’Sullivan and Christopher Collard (eds,), Euripides, Cyclops and major fragments of Greek satyric drama (Aris and Phillips, 2013). An English translation faces the Greek and the introduction and notes are interesting and helpful.


The outline of the story of Bacchae can be conveyed briefly. The god Dionysus, the son of Zeus by the Theban princess Semele, explains that he is angry that he is not acknowledged in the city of his birth. He tells us that he has driven the women of Thebes to Mount Cithaeron in madness. Pentheus, the present king of the city, ignores the advice of the prophet Tiresias and his own grandfather Cadmus to welcome the god and sets out to suppress his worship. Dionysus, now in a human guise, gradually attains ascendancy over the king and eventually persuades him to don female garb and to spy on the women on the mountain. Here he is torn to pieces by the women under the leadership of his mother Agave, who believes that he is a lion. Cadmus brings Agave back to her senses and she understands the horror of what she has done. Dionysus appears again in divine form and tells them what the future holds for them. In 1903 the great theatre director Max Reinhardt confessed to Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the Austrian poet and playwright, that he found Greek drama lifeless and statuesque. Hofmannsthal’s response was to read Breuer and Freud’s Studies in Hysteria and then write a version of Sophocles’ Electra. His adaptation packs a tremendous punch, but the twentieth century would find another tragedy more fundamentally in tune with a Freudian and post-Freudian era than Sophocles’ play – Euripides’ Bacchae. The denial by Pentheus, king of Thebes, of Dionysus, the god of wine and the pleasure principle, seems to us the only too explicable cause of the breakdown of his personality. E.R. Dodds (1994: 97–8) calls him ‘the dark puritan whose passion is compounded of horror and unconscious desire’, adding that ‘it is this which leads to his 109


The Plays of Euripides

ruin’. And G. Devereux (1970) has argued that in the scene in which Cadmus brings Agave back to her senses, Euripides gives a condensed picture of the process of insight-and-recall-oriented psychotherapy, the first record of a psychotherapy anywhere. So Bacchae is a play that manifestly speaks to our modern consciousness. For English-speakers there is a further reason for its popularity, the fact that it has been published in an outstanding edition by an Irish scholar and is the subject of a brilliant monograph by another. The editor, E.R. Dodds, through his focus on Dionysiac ecstasy, gives his readers a privileged entry into Bacchae’s strange and alarming world. The monograph, R.P. Winnington-lngram’s Euripides and Dionysus, (1997) is a treasure-house of illuminating insights. However, it also illustrates how difficult it is to keep one’s balance when approaching this most visceral of all ancient plays. Writing in the late 1930s, he found in Bacchae a devastating exposé of the Fascist mentality. Dionysus becomes Hitler or Mussolini. The subject of the play (p.  178) is ‘the Dionysiac group and its disastrous potentialities; . . . the drugged peace which alternates with furious violence; the exclusive and undiscriminating cult of emotion.’ Well, yes, but hang on a minute. It is surely possible to take a very different approach and view the Dionysiac religion as life-enhancing. Nowhere is it more necessary for the critic to keep a cool head than in this play about the abandoning of control – or is it the mindless acceptance of it? The audience finds itself tugged in two different directions by a tragedy which centres on a figure who is both ‘most terrifying and most gentle to mortals’ (861). There is much in the play to support a positive assessment of Dionysiac worship. The chorus of Asian bacchants sing wonderful lyrics to what one presumes were exhilarating accompaniments. Full of missionary zeal (68–9), they communicate exuberant ecstasy. The victims of religious persecution, they sing their Va, pensiero (Go, my thoughts – the song of the Hebrews enslaved in Babylon in Verdi’s opera Nabucco) in two of Euripides’ most moving songs of escape (402–16, 862–76). The Theban bacchants (62–3) live a liberated and democratic



(37) life on the mountain where the land flows with milk and honey (142–3, 708–11), and it is only the threat of violence that unleashes non-ritualistic violence in them (729–35, cf. 138–9). Left to themselves they are wondrously peaceable. Further appealing aspects of the Dionysiac are communicated in the enchanting and affectionate scene where the antique Teiresias and Cadmus prepare to set out to the mountain to worship the god: this religion is rejuvenating and makes no distinction between young and old. Though smarting at his rejection by Thebes, Dionysus does give Pentheus a chance to see the error of his ways (or is it simply enough rope to hang himself?), only to meet with a characteristic threat of violence (787–809). And the king of Thebes is far from sympathetically presented at his first appearance. He is melodramatically aggressive when he threatens to cut off the stranger’s head (241), and the initial impression is constantly reinforced. Dodds (1944: xlii) draws attention to absence of self control; willingness to believe the worst on hearsay evidence or on none; brutality towards the helpless; and a stupid reliance on physical force as a means of settling spiritual problems

– all that plus ‘the sexual curiosity of a Peeping Tom’. The rebarbative nature of this portrayal may well push the audience into Dionysus’ camp. Yet there is much evidence to support Winnington-Ingram’s hostile view of the god and his worshippers. In driving the Theban women from the city to worship him on the mountainside (32–8), Dionysus has profoundly disrupted the city’s social structure. The women have abandoned not only their looms but their children too (701–2). Later, even though their violence is activated by others as we have seen, they attack and ransack the agricultural villages which give the city its food (748–54). Their transgressive behaviour hits at the very fabric of the community. As for Pentheus, however unattractive a figure he cuts, he cannot know – not even the chorus know – that the stranger is a god. He thinks, reasonably enough though under the circumstances mistakenly, that it means something to be a king, and we can scarcely blame him for wishing to restore order to his fractured city. Furthermore, it is hard not to feel some


The Plays of Euripides

sympathy with his attempt to assert his own identity when it is already fragmenting: DIONYSUS: You do not know what your life is, or what you are doing, or who you are. PENTHEUS: I am Pentheus, the son of Agave and of my father Echion.* 506–7

Pentheus’ name communicates sorrow (penthos in Greek): Dionysus points this out in the next line. As this man of sorrow becomes ever more the plaything of the god, as Euripides’ characterization of him makes him increasingly open to Dionysus’ teasing humiliation and conquest, especially after the latter swings into full attack mode with his chilling ‘Ah!’ in 810 which serves as a kind of hinge for the play, we may begin to feel not only terror but outrage. Pity and terror, the emotions that Aristotle associates with the catharsis of tragedy (Poetics, 1449b24–8), are certainly evoked as Pentheus’ degradation intensifies. Dionysus dresses him up as a woman and causes him to hallucinate (918–22). The god’s sadism (616–37, 849–56, 1346–8) is matched by the chorus’ savagery which erupts in a song in which an unparalleled feeling of menace and horror is communicated in a rhythm of intense excitement (dochmiacs 977– 1023). At the moment of his final doom, Pentheus recognizes his error (I have done wrong, 1120–1, cf. Cadmus at 1344), using the Greek word harmartia, another key element in Aristotle’s theory of tragedy (Poetics, 1452a29). His self-recognition may be that of a tragic hero, but it remains unacknowledged by Dionysus. Later Cadmus will pay a moving tribute to his grandson, though it has to be admitted that he praises him for his doughty support of his family, not for his civic role (1308–12). If we now feel some appreciation of Pentheus’ qualities, what must be our response to his mother Agave? Having killed her son, she appears with his head impaled on a thyrsus. She is degraded by what she carries since *

For an illuminating discussion of 503–8 see Rutherford (2012) 3–4.



such treatment of a human being is non-Greek in its (quite literal – see pp. 71–2) barbarism. We witness her appalled realization that it is not a lion she has slain but her son. It must have been agonizing to see and hear her delivering the speech, now lost (after 1329), in which she takes the limbs of the dismembered Pentheus in her hands and laments over each one of them in turn. It may be that even the Dionysiac chorus are stirred to sympathy (1184, 1200). Finally Dionysus appears ex machina to allocate punishments. A crucial exchange shows an unjustifiably selfcritical Cadmus locked in an impasse with the inexorable deity: CADMUS: Dionysus, we beseech you, we have wronged you. DIONYSUS: You understood me too late. You did not know me when you should have. CADMUS: We realise that. But you have come down on us with too heavy a punishment. DIONYSUS: Yes, for I, born a god, was treated with outrage by you. CADMUS: It is not fitting that gods should be like mortals in their rage. 1344–8

That horrific dialogue articulates the mutual incomprehension of men and gods. Its bleakness takes us close to the dark and comfortless world of Shakespeare’s King Lear, in which Gloucester cries out, As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport. IV.i.37–8

If we feel that Dionysus’ treatment of suffering humanity is anything but a sport, indeed in only too deadly earnest, we should remember that he may well be wearing a smiling mask (439, 1021). Later in Lear Gloucester counters his earlier cri de coeur by insisting that ‘The gods are just’. In Euripides’ play a god reacts to his rejection by the city where he was born. His reaction may strike us as unacceptably cruel and excessive, but the fact has to be faced that this is how a slighted divinity behaves. As a deity who appears uniquely both at the beginning and end


The Plays of Euripides

Figure 5 Bacchants depicted on the Hieron Vase dancing; one holds a thyrsus. (Photo by DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images.)

of the play, Dionysus remains terrifyingly in control throughout. This is the stark but simple truth with which the tragedy’s surviving characters and its audience have to come to terms.

Important recent work Sophie Mills, Euripides, Bacchae (Bloomsbury, 2006). David Stuttard ed., Looking at Bacchae (Bloomsbury, 2016) – a collection of essays.

Iphigenia at Aulis

The differences between Euripides’ last two surviving plays are an index of this dramatist’s Protean inventiveness. Bacchae is intense and compressed, Iphigenia at Aulis elastic and expansive. It is curiously appropriate to each tragedy that Bacchae has come down to us in a truncated form while Iphigenia at Aulis as we possess it includes much material that is clearly not by Euripides, and that the compressed force of the former still makes an unparalleled impact while the varied unity of the latter proves roomy enough to accommodate everything that has ended up inside it. One reason that Iphigenia at Aulis successfully finds living space for so much dramatic material is that, like several other Euripides plays, it is essentially about waiting (see especially 804, 813, 815: ‘why are we waiting?’). The Greek fleet cannot sail from Aulis to Troy and sack the city until Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis, and both the army and the play are becalmed until that can happen. The action starts at night, with the wheeling stars (6–8) and Agamemnon’s lamp (34–5) establishing the illusion of darkness in the sunlit Athenian theatre, and at 156–9 the sun dawns on what could be called the longest day. One of the most distinctive features of Iphigenia at Aulis is the way in which it sets up a striking contrast between the masculine arena of the fighters at Aulis and the feminine world of those who come to see them. With the assistance of some vocabulary and concepts which evoke the Iliad (e.g. at 39–40, 206–7, 232, 273–4, 288–93), the sense of a stalled army comes across vividly, conjured up in such suggestive vignettes as that of Protesilaus and Palamedes playing draughts (194–8). Then as the long day wears on, the soldiers become increasingly truculent (see e.g. 1351–8). Exploring this masculine world, Euripides 115


The Plays of Euripides

finds room to examine the responsibilities of the generals who wield the power – Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, 16–18, 446–50 – and the route to political success (337–48). Into this masculine world there enters the chorus of youthful (615) but married (176) women. These are a group of sight-seeing day-trippers from Chalcis on the island of Euboea and their eager curiosity is appealingly conveyed. From any realistic standpoint their presence at Aulis is highly improbable, but, poised in age between the maiden Iphigenia and the motherly Clytemnestra, they prove dramatically apt observers of the action of Iphigenia at Aulis. More significantly, their arrival establishes a polarity between women’s priorities and the ultimately brutal world of masculine Realpolitik. The entry of Clytemnestra and Iphigenia is given a prelude of enchanting delicacy. The Messenger tells us that ‘they are cooling and refreshing their feet by a fair-flowing spring’ (420–1). The baby Orestes speechlessly

Figure 6 Achilles (helmeted) playing dice with Ajax, just as Protesilaus and Palamedes play draughts (Iphigenia at Aulis, 194–8). Detail of a vase by Exekias. (Photo by DEA /De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images.)

Iphigenia at Aulis


communicates the women’s insistence on the primacy of the family (465–6, 621–4, 1118–19, 1241–5, 1450, [1623]); and the feminine fragility of Iphigenia is stressed (e.g. at 614). The strong presence of the feminine in the play adds a powerful charge to her very vocal conversion – is there a deliberate contrast here with Aeschylus’ gagged Iphigenia (Agamemnon 235–7: – after her cries of ‘father!’ (228))? – to the male world of military values when finally she so enthusiastically embraces the prospect of her sacrifice. Her name will prove the true guide to her personality as it ultimately emerges in this play. iphi is Homeric Greek for ‘with strength’, ‘with power’, and genia tells us that she was born with them. It was this total reversal of Iphigenia’s way of thinking that led Aristotle to level the charge of inconsistency against Euripides on the grounds that ‘the girl who beseeches is in no way like her later self ’ (Poetics, 1454a 32–3). Of course she is not the only character to change radically in the play. At 332 Menelaus accuses his brother Agamemnon of constantly shifting: ‘your thoughts are crooked, changing with every moment.’ Then at 471 Menelaus himself totally reverses his own position and at 511 Agamemnon reverses his. The Old Man assures Agamemnon of his trustworthiness in 45 but then betrays him at 870–87. Clytemnestra makes her belief in a sense of shame clear in her first scene with Achilles (see especially 851–2) but later casts it aside (994, 1343–4, cf. 901) and, of course, will be totally transformed after her daughter has been sacrificed, as she foresees at 1171–84. Changes of mind are embedded in the language of the tragedy: see 346, 388, 402–3, 500–1. Following in the footsteps of Bernard Knox,* modern scholars have acknowledged the way in which Euripides has by this means prepared the ground for Iphigenia’s famous reversal at 1368. Indeed, we are unlikely to be surprised when Achilles suggests that she may change her mind again when she sees the sword at her throat (1428–9). And if the play’s ending (1578–1629), the work of a far later writer than Euripides (M.L. West, ‘Tragica V’, BICS 28 (1981) 61–78), reflects his *

‘Second Thoughts in Greek Tragedy’ in Word and Action (Baltimore, London, 1979) 231–49. The article was first published in 1966. Knox himself was largely anticipated by Markland in his 1783 edition of the play.


The Plays of Euripides

original conclusion – and a passage in Aelian (On the Nature of Animals 7 39; cf. Eur. F 857) suggests that it may well do so – overarching all is the change of mind of the goddess Artemis when she saves Iphigenia from the sacrifice that she has demanded if the Greeks are to sail to Troy. Euripides may also have set the scene for such shifts of mind, for the play is located by Euripus, the strait which separates the island of Euboea from Boeotia in mainland Greece. The current in this strait changes seven times a day (Strabo 1.3.12) and we know from Aeschines (3.90) and other writers that the name was used proverbially of an unstable man. The word Euripus recurs throughout the play (11, 166, 804, 813, 1323). Has Euripides set his tragedy by this strait with its famously shifting currents because he wishes it to be an external symbol – an ‘objective correlative’, to use T.S. Eliot’s expression – for the psychological shifts that his characters undergo? If so, the shifting currents of human motivation are an essential feature of the play’s mental geography and Iphigenia’s reversal makes good dramatic sense. Yet as we so often find with this playwright, things do not seem quite as simple as that. There are undercurrents to the shifts. While I take Menelaus’ change of heart at 471 to be genuine, the fact that he launches his speech with an oath by Pelops (473) surely arouses some suspicion, for the latter was a famously treacherous character. When the chorus say that he has spoken words worthy of Tantalus (504–5), a notorious evil dealer on earth, that suspicion may be compounded. What then are we intended to think of his chilling suggestion that he and his brother arrange the murder of the prophet Calchas and the fact that Agamemnon does not seem to be shocked by this proposal (519–20)? A third hero fails to escape untarnished: while Achilles is attractively characterized, he does not act, he poses. Then what are we to make of the melodrama that pervades the tragedy? There is the happy snapshot of the doomed family group at 627–9. The play’s characters, especially Agamemnon, appear to be seeking to drown the stage in tears (39–40, 477–8, 496–7, 650, 683–4, 888–9, 1550). And there is the potentially comical frequency of the presentation of Orestes to evoke sentiment. The humour can be explicit.

Iphigenia at Aulis


Certainly Achilles’ initial bashfulness when confronted by Clytemnestra always raises a laugh in Cacoyannis’ film, and that redoubtable woman can seem entertainingly akin to a matron of Roman comedy, as possibly in this clipped exchange at 739: AGAMEMNON: Do what I say. CLYTEMNESTRA: No, by the sovereign goddess of Argos.

The melodrama and the humour may perhaps direct us to an element of hysteria in the play. In the light of all that, let us look again at Iphigenia’s reversal. The chorus’ comment on her great speech is ambivalent: The part you play, maiden, is a noble one. But fate and the goddess – that is where the sickness lies. 1402–3

They admire Iphigenia, but even so they see that something fundamental is very wrong. Reactions here are bound to be personal. David Kovacs, the most recent editor of the whole of Euripides, considers that her sentiments here ‘are to be taken seriously and that they are in no sense “ironic” or “merely conventional” ’ (162). Speaking for myself, I feel that Euripides endows Iphigenia with a kind of heroism when she makes a coherent pattern out of her own life in the cruel and anarchic world of Iphigenia at Aulis where humans are at the mercy of malevolent or chaotic forces whether divine or human. I also believe that the high patriotic ideals adopted by Iphigenia are viewed by Euripides as false ones. I believe this especially in view of the fact that this play was written as the Peloponnesian War neared its end – a war in which the Greek city states had torn each other apart and the fighting had lost any sheen of glamour or nobility. Spartans and Athenians may be moored in alliance with each other around the bay at Aulis (247–9, 265–7) in our play, but, in historical fact, within two or three years of its composition Sparta finally defeated and occupied her hated rival. So much for Panhellenism! Indeed the ‘Panhellenic motif ’ (W. Stockert) is hammered out with such monotonous insistency (370, 410, 965–7, 1271, 1352, 1378–1401) that it


The Plays of Euripides

takes on the hollow boom of an empty slogan. Even so, we must surely admire the way in which Iphigenia finds within herself the strength to construct an identity which holds a valid meaning for her, and she goes off to die with this identity fully intact. Against this self-construction of Iphigenia must be set the imminent deconstruction of Clytemnestra. Agamemnon had won her by violence (1149–52). Even so, she has proved the model wife (1157–64). At 1171– 84 it becomes clear that she can see that if Agamemnon kills her daughter, she will be nursing her bitter feelings as she waits at home for the whole duration of the Trojan War. Her response to Iphigenia’s plea that she should not hate her husband is that ‘he must run a terrible race because of you’ (1454–5). It is only too evident what she means. Even if the ‘happy ending’ of the substitution of a deer as the sacrificial victim reproduces Euripides’ intention, we are forced to look ahead to the horrors of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (458 BC ), a trilogy familiar to our play’s original audience (knowledge of Aeschylus’ work is required from the audience of Aristophanes’ Frogs, contemporary with Iphigenia at Aulis, at 1124 and 1128). Inevitably we shall think of her killing of her husband and her murder at the hands of Orestes, whom she may well be holding in her arms at this moment. Thus we are denied a sense of closure, and Euripides’ dramatic career ends on a profoundly disquieting note.

Important recent work Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, ed. Christopher Collard and James Morwood (Aris and Phillips, 2016). An English translation is printed opposite the Greek and there is an introduction and extensive notes. Euripides, Bacchae, Iphigenia at Aulis, Rhesus, ed. David Kovacs (Loeb, Cambridge Mass, 2002). English translations are printed opposite the Greek. Pantelis Michelakis, Euripdes: Iphigenia in Aulis (Bloomsbury 2006).


The play is set at night during the Trojan War. The Trojan Dolon volunteers to spy on the Greeks. Rhesus, the king of Thrace, arrives with a powerful force to assist the Trojans, and Hector, the Trojan commander-in-chief, and the Thracian plan an attack on the Greeks the next morning. Rhesus and his men camp for the night without making proper defensive provision. The Greeks Odysseus and Diomedes capture Dolon, who cravenly tells them where Rhesus is camped. They slaughter the sleeping Rhesus and capture his famous horses. Rhesus’ mother, a Muse, explains to the Trojans that the blame lies not with Hector but with Odysseus, Diomedes and the goddess Athena. She foretells posthumous honours for her son. It is almost certain that Rhesus is not by Euripides – it is thought to date from the fourth century BC – but it is generally included with his works because the poet did write a Rhesus, and I would be sorry to omit this ‘fast-paced, action-packed theatrical Iliad in miniature’ (Edith Hall (2010) 298) from this survey. While nearly half of the Greek tragedies which have come down to us relate to the capture of Troy and the events surrounding it, Rhesus is the only one in which the action coincides with events in the Iliad, the so-called Doloneia (Book 10). This episode adds a new dimension to Homer’s poem, showing a chilling interrogation (of the captive Dolon) and a contemptible display of cowardice (by Dolon), as well as a night-raid with its horrific bloodstained slaughter of Rhesus and other defenceless sleepers. It sits well within the fabric of an epic whose subject ‘is War and the Pity of War’, to quote Wilfred Owen on his own poetry. The playwright of Rhesus makes virtuoso use of the Homeric material, 121


The Plays of Euripides

not just of Book 10 but of the whole poem, highlighting, for example, Dolon’s total unsuitability for his spying mission. In the Iliad (10.334–5) he merely puts on ‘a grey wolf ’s pelt and a cap of marten skin on his head’. In Rhesus he tells us that he will actually disguise himself as a wolf (208–12). The chorus declare that his is a glorious task (197) but soon express the altogether more appropriate wish that Hermes, ‘lord of cheats’ (217), may assure him success. The Greek word for trick (dolos) is implicit in his name, and Hector spells out the etymology unmistakably (158–9). But he is not convincingly tricky, simply ludicrous. The play vividly communicates the larger-than-life Thracian ethnicity of the hero Rhesus. The Messenger tells Hector that he saw him standing like a god on his horse-drawn chariot. The yoke beam which joined the necks of the team of colts was of gold, and they gleamed more dazzlingly white than snow. On his shoulders his shield blazed with images inlaid with gold. Bronze Gorgons as on the goddess’s aegis were set upon the horses’ foreheads and clanged forth fear with many bells. 301–8

In addition, the river Strymon ‘with its lovely bridges’ (349–50) and the mineral-rich mountains of Thrace are powerfully evoked. This is the shortest surviving tragedy, yet it has a cast-list equalled in number only by The Phoenician Women. All of its characters are sharply etched. Hector, for instance, the plain-speaking Trojan commander, has been lured by his recent success against the Greeks into a dangerous and presumptuous self-confidence. F.A. Paley sums him up as ‘a vaunting, hasty, impetuous chieftain . . . much too confident in his own conclusions’. But he can see reason in time, and he gives in generously (138, 339). His bark is decidedly worse than his bite. His cousin Aeneas is shown to be a shrewd counsellor, Dolon a vainglorious hubristic braggart. The Messenger, a herdsman from Mount Ida, is portrayed with a finely detailed sensitivity. He does not take offence at Hector’s hasty abuse (266–74). He evinces decidedly more military awareness than Hector on the subject of Rhesus’ arrival (284–6). He shows initiative



and is a good linguist (296–7). When we may have thought that his function had been completed, he intervenes to give Hector sound advice which the latter gracefully accepts (335, 339). His decency and the unaffectedness of his simple rusticity add conviction and emphasis to the important passage where he communicates the impressiveness of Rhesus and his army (301–16: the opening has already been quoted). The wonderment is delightfully in accord with the characterization. There is a touch of naivety here too: he thinks that Rhesus is more than a match for the pre-eminent Achilles, even visualizing the latter in flight. This view is altogether unrealistic. But of all the characters, Rhesus is surely by far the most remarkable. Many times too large for life, is he the noble savage of the Messenger’s awe-struck vision (301–8; 335: ‘simply by appearing he would terrify our enemies’, cf. 380–7, 513–15) or the ultimate miles gloriosus? No doubt he is both. His boast may have struck us as crazy braggadocio: A single span of sunlight will be enough for me to destroy the towers, fall on the fleet, and kill the Achaeans. On the day after that I shall leave Ilium and go home, having cut short your labours. Let no-one among you lift his shield in his hand. I shall smash the Achaeans and put an end to their loud boasting. . . . 447–53

but it certainly worries the chorus (455–7). His hubris knows no bounds, and yet when the goddess Athena confirms that nothing can stop him from destroying the Greek camp if he survives the night (600–4), she gives divine authority to his claim. There is something decidedly farouche about him, and perhaps it is not altogether surprising when his mother, the poignant Muse, tells us that he will be resurrected as a Bacchic shaman (970–3). Further reasons for the play’s success lie in four innovatory features. One of these is that, while Rhesus contains two messenger speeches, the countryman’s narrative of the arrival of the Thracians and the charioteer’s horrific account, complete with its chilling nightmare, of their slaughter, we are denied a third to tell us what happened to Dolon.


The Plays of Euripides

We have to infer this from throw-away comments of Odysseus and Diomedes (573, 575–6, 591–3). But of course the Athenian audience would have been familiar with the grim Homeric account of the Trojan’s capture and death (Iliad, 10.339–459), and the Greek heroes’ hints would have activated their memories in a remarkable substitute for – displacement of – a messenger speech. The other three features are matters of staging. The play is located on the plain outside Troy. Hector lies on the ground on a bed of leaves (9) and his attendants sprawl around him. The naked simplicity of the ‘set’ is unique in Greek drama after Aeschylus. Secondly, since gods appear above the stage building in the middle (rather than at the beginning or end) of only one other extant Greek tragedy (Heracles), Athena’s entry ex machina at 595 is remarkable. It is made even more so by the fact that, uniquely in tragedy, she later pretends to be another goddess. This is an arresting variation. As a footnote here, I draw attention to one other remarkable, though not unique event: at 564 the chorus leave the stage. This happens only four or five times in the whole extant corpus of Greek tragedy. The other unique feature of the drama is that it takes place entirely at night, as Fries (2014) 4–5 remarks, ‘both a cause and a symbol of human improvidence’. Electra and Iphigenia at Aulis begin in darkness too, but in Rhesus it continues almost to the end. Since the play was first performed in daylight, its night setting had to be established by the language. The word ‘night’ is often repeated (it occurs five times before 22), we ‘see’ the constellations and the moon, and we hear the nightingale (528–30, 546–50). The characters’ sense of hearing is heightened (e.g. at 565–9), and they can hear but not see the goddess (608–9). Through a dramatic technique used by the Peking Opera and famously exploited by Peter Shaffer in his farce Black Comedy, the audience can see with total clarity the characters who operate, both literally and metaphorically, in the dark. This would have proved especially exciting in the chaotic and fast-moving scene in which Odysseus is chased onto the stage by the chorus and gets away by the skin of his teeth (675–91). The events of this catastrophic night are put on display with a quite literal clarity;



and the unseen darkness is intensified by the fact that the Trojan password is Phoebus, the god of the sun (521).* Whoever wrote Rhesus, he undoubtedly took delight in unpacking bold theatrical effects. At the end of this night-foundering play, dawn appears (985) but its brightness only serves to illuminate Hector’s tragic delusion. When he declares that ‘the rays of this rising sun herald the day of freedom for the Trojans’ (992–3) and the chorus add that ‘perhaps the god who fights on our side will give us victory’ (995–6), we know that it is a false dawn which heralds only their destruction. It is a grimly effective conclusion.

Important recent work A. Fries (ed.), Pseudo-Euripides, Rhesus (De Gruyter, 2014). The Greek text is accompanied by an authoritative introduction and notes.


By a startling coincidence, another play starts with confusion over a password (12) in the dark. It too was written for a daylight theatre. It is Hamlet.



Men as they are This book has operated on the premise that Euripides minted a new dramatic world for each of his plays. If we are to discuss what they have in common, we may be sensible to start with the dictum of Sophocles, his equally great contemporary, who, according to Aristotle (Poetics, 1460b33–5), said that while he portrayed men as they should be, Euripides showed them as they are. Certainly Euripides’ presentation of his characters can strip them of any heroic glamour – even if it does not dress them in rags quite as often as Aristophanes’ satire suggests! His corrosive strategy is evident above all when we compare his treatment of the family of Agamemnon with that given them by Aeschylus and Sophocles. The latter two conceive these royal characters, even those deep-dyed in evil, on the grand scale. Euripides, combining truthfulness to life with human understanding, reveals them as members of a horrifically dysfunctional family. He cuts them down to size; and he makes them speak in an appropriate register. As Aristotle says (Rhetoric, 3.2.5), Euripides led the way in giving his characters language taken from ordinary conversation.

Euripides and Ibsen If Aeschylus and Sophocles construct their characters, Euripides is liable to deconstruct his. A comparison has often been made between the Greek dramatist and Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), the Norwegian playwright who 127


The Plays of Euripides

effectively invented modern theatre by, among other things, his creation of recognizably human characters to whom ordinary people like us can easily relate. Just as Ibsen gives us a no-holds-barred exposé of the Norwegian national persona in his characterization of Peer Gynt, so Euripides shows us that Heracles, the greatest of Greek heroes, must unlearn all his heroic values in order to discover for the first time what it really means to be a man. There are in fact a number of ways in which Ibsen may help us orientate ourselves in thinking about Euripides. After all, which modern dramatist has come closer to recreating the electricity with which Euripides portrays the legacy of a corrupt generation to its offspring, or the deadly guilt that treads on the heels of sin, than the author of Ghosts and Rosmersholm? Who has offered us so comparable a challenge to social assumptions and conventions as the creator of A Doll’s House, the playwright who set contemporary social issues at the heart of his work? These are two dramatists who strike powerful blows in the defence of those whom society marginalizes or disables. Their theatre remains far more punchily ‘in-yer-face’ than the plays dubbed with that title in the 1990s in a movement that seems to have fizzled out. Euripides and Ibsen are still triumphantly alive.

Women (see also under Index, p. 144) The mention of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House may remind us that Nora’s slamming of the door as she walks out of her husband’s house at the play’s conclusion is the only moment in the annals of theatrical feminism to rank with Medea’s great tirade (230–51). Euripides’ portrayal of women has led to the spilling of a great deal of ink. We can certainly find much in the plays to support the comic view of Aristophanes that he projected a shockingly candid image of them. Yet many would say that there is even more there that bespeaks a dramatist with a profound empathy with, and sympathy for, women. Through his Creusa, for example, he gives a rape victim a full and passionate voice as well as articulating her maternal feelings with a moving sensitivity, and he even makes us feel for the murderess Clytemnestra by endowing her with heart-warming human



qualities both in Electra and Iphigenia at Aulis, where the murder of Agamemnon lies in the future.

On the margin The dramatist’s sympathies reach out to other marginalized characters too. A number of the plays, Alcestis, Medea, Andromache and Heracles among them, communicate a moving sense of the vulnerability and helpless dependence of children. Commentators have been touched by the fact that Heracles in his name-play refers protectively to his children whom he is so tragically to kill, by a word which means ‘little boats taken in tow by a big ship’ (epholkides, 631; cf. 1424). The playwright’s Shakespearean ability to breathe life into his secondary characters can grant heroism even to slaves. In Helen when the Egyptian king Theoclymenus wants to kill his sister Theonoe because of the help she has given to the Greeks, his servant (presumably in fact a slave) shows considerable courage in standing up to him and trying to stop him. There are parallels to this wonderful episode in the serf ’s admonition of Alcmene in The Children of Heracles (961–74) and the servant’s attempt to reason with Hippolytus (Hippolytus, 88–120), but a more arresting comparison is with the end of III .vii of King Lear, when a similarly nameless servant, appalled by Cornwall’s abuse of Gloucester, draws his sword on him and is killed for his kindness. Two great dramatists here shake hands across the millennia.

The chorus (see also under Index, p. 143) The chorus is possibly the most difficult aspect of Greek tragedy for a modern audience to relate to. Certainly, efforts to recreate it in the twentieth century, most notably by T.S. Eliot in such verse plays as Murder in the Cathedral (1935) with its chorus of Women of Canterbury, have evoked mixed reactions. In the Attic theatre, a group of fifteen would sing and dance to the accompaniment of a double-reed wind


The Plays of Euripides

instrument called the aulos – and their leader would talk to the individual characters – most probably in a space between the main acting area and the audience. This positioning may suggest that they served as intermediaries between the action and the auditors and I have already quoted Easterling’s judgement that one of their major functions is ‘to act as a group of “built-in” witnesses, giving collective and usually normative responses to the events of the play’. However, the idea that their responses tend to be ‘normative’ needs handling with considerable care, for Euripides’ choruses, in common with almost all the choruses of Greek tragedy, are not made up of young adult males who could be seen to represent their community in a central way. On the contrary, they consist of old men, women, slaves and foreigners who inhabit the margins of the city’s life. If one leaves on one side the satyr play Cyclops, the nonEuripidean Rhesus and the second choruses (of boys and hunters) in The Suppliant Women and Hippolytus, fourteen of his choruses are female, three male. Sometimes this group from the side-lines is very marginal indeed – the excitable female day-trippers from Chalcis in Iphigenia at Aulis, for example, the Greek slave-women in Iphigenia among the Taurians and Helen, and above all the non-Greek slave-women (thus marginalized three times over) adrift in Thebes in The Phoenician Women. As John Gould observes, the chorus express ‘not the values of the polis [city], but far more often the experience of the excluded, the oppressed, and the vulnerable’. It is the dramatist who has chosen such figures to be his choruses. Nothing in the myths forced him to do so. As he sets these marginal groups beside his protagonists, he articulates a relationship between them which is unique in every play. Thus generalizations about them can be so bland as to prove meaningless. Gould, however, draws our attention to a key and illuminating fact. Once they have arrived in the theatre, the chorus are always there – the exceptions in Euripides are (possibly: see p. 8) the funeral procession in Alcestis (746) and the exit into the stage building in Helen (385, cf.327–9) – and their collective presence for the play’s duration must make a difference to audience and actors which has to be individually assessed from tragedy to tragedy. It certainly gives an additional charge



of poignancy to the celebrated lyrics of escape that Euripides so frequently causes them to sing. They are the only dramatic figures for whom escape from the action is next to impossible.

Politics (see also under Index, p. 144) If the chorus, that central element of Greek tragedy, so regularly inhabits the margins of the city’s life, it may strike us as paradoxical that it is now common practice to view the plays in a political context. The rationale behind this is that the dramatic festival of the Dionysia began with civic ceremonies – libations poured quite possibly by the ten generals, the presentation of the tribute from the cities in the Athenian empire, a parade of war orphans – which inevitably set the plays that followed in a political, Athenian framework. This kind of contextualization originally aroused much odium academicum, but its leading practitioners have been careful to calibrate their argument so that it avoids the narrowly doctrinaire. Simon Goldhill, for example, points out that the plays may well have a transgressive force and thus time after time implicate the dominant ideology put forward in the preplay ceremonies in a far from straightforward manner; indeed, the tragic texts seem to question, examine, and often subvert the language of the city’s order.

Sophocles’ Antigone, in which the heroine challenges the king, putting private obligations before those to the state, is the most obvious expression of this kind of challenge. If it is objected that many important aspects of the plays don’t in fact seem to be politically charged, it may be worth pointing out that what I take to be Shakespeare’s greatest play about love, Antony and Cleopatra, could with equally good reason be called his greatest play about politics; that Beaumarchais’ wonderful comedy about the workings of the human heart, The Marriage of Figaro, first performed in Paris in 1784, five years before the Revolution, is a blazing revolutionary


The Plays of Euripides

manifesto; and that the entire oeuvre of Chekhov lays bare the reasons why the society it portrays would inevitably be swept aside in 1917. In the same way, two of Euripides’ most tender and intimate scenes are between Ion and Creusa. Yet fundamental to Ion is the fact that she is the queen of Athens and he is the heir to the city’s throne. It is this that tears them apart and the calming of the violence unleashed by their political roles is lent an unforgettable pathos when queen and prince can eventually relate as mother and son. Their political functions finally pulse in harmony with family love. Perhaps disappointingly, the debate about this matter has lost its bitterness and now leads to helpful books such as David Carter’s Politics and Greek Tragedy (Bristol Phoenix Press, 2007) which advance views with which it would be hard for any reasonable person to disagree.

Athenocentrism (see also under Index, p. 143) We have found good cause earlier in this book (see especially pp. 91–2) to refer to another way of looking at the plays that has become conventional. This is to see Athens as the location that validates ‘the happy ending’ (e.g. in Heracles), while other cities, above all Thebes, are essentially ‘other’: in them no escape from tragedy, no ultimate resolution will be found (e.g. in The Phoenician Women). Athens and the ‘other’ can certainly prove a helpful polarity. Yet the fact remains that Euripides’ plays were to prove enormously successful in cities far from Athens, indeed in some cases probably hostile to her. They clearly worked well in environments where their Athenocentrism was irrelevant.

The gods (see also under Index, p. 143) Another minefield in the discussion of this playwright is his presentation of the gods. Here, as everywhere else, it is impossible to generalize. In his terrifying name-play, Heracles abjures the world of the gods



and puts his trust in human relationships. In the bleak world of Hippolytus, the chorus ‘rage against the gods’ (1146), while, however, at the conclusion of Ion, though it may well be the case that some doubts over Apollo’s role remain unresolved, we are left with the strong conviction that he is the fundamentally benevolent engineer of the happy ending. What is never in doubt in Euripides is the enormous power of the gods and the terror and joy that they inspire. The Nurse in Hippolytus assures Phaedra in exhilarating lines that Cypris (Aphrodite), the goddess of love, roams in the air, she is in the surge of the sea, all things are born from her. It is she who sows and gives love and it is through love that every one of us on earth is created. 447–50

Equally unforgettable is Tiresias’ tribute in Bacchae to wine, the god’s gift to men, the drink which puts an end to sorrow for wretched mortals when they are filled with the juice of the vine, and gives sleep to bring forgetfulness of their daily round of cares. There is no other cure for our toils. 280–3, cf. 772–4

Supplication (see also under Index, p. 144) An important contribution to the debate on this subject, one of great significance in Euripides’ plays, is F.S. Naiden’s 2006 book, Ancient Supplication (Oxford) whose message, I suspect, has yet to filter through to writers on Greek tragedy. Naiden has read not only the whole of Greek and Latin literature but the Bible too and he (in my view convincingly) overturns the conclusions of John Gould in his famous 1973 article ‘Greek Supplication’ in JHS. Gould’s basic argument was that if a supplicant got his approach to the person supplicated and his subsequent gestures right, he was likely to be on a winning wicket. Not


The Plays of Euripides

so, argues Naiden. Among a number of other factors, the content of the supplicant’s appeal and the response to it were also of critical importance. By and large, the person supplicated had nothing to fear either from gods or from men if he rejected the appeal. My own feeling is that supplication in fact retains a strong force in tragedy, as is implied, say, in Hecuba when Polyxena says to Odysseus, ‘I see that you are hiding your right hand under your cloak and turning your face away so that I may not touch your chin. Courage! You have escaped from my Zeus of Suppliants!’ (342–5). (Zeus is the god presiding over supplication.) The worldly-wise Odysseus would not be making these efforts to avoid contact with her if he weren’t seriously worried. Yet even so, Naiden’s view that he and other supplicated individuals could have legitimately rejected the supplicant’s appeal is surely well worth bearing in mind.

Interpretation In the section on Hecuba (pp. 39–40) I quoted the passage in which Odysseus tells Hecuba that the Greeks have decided to kill her daughter Polyxena (218–21), and I hope that I shall be forgiven for repeating it: Lady, I think that you know the army’s intention and the vote which it has passed, but I shall tell you nevertheless. It has been decided by the Achaeans to slaughter your chid Polyxena on the tall mound of Achilles’ tomb.

I commented there that the ‘perfunctory brutality with which he makes his chilling pronouncement takes the breath away’. This was my view in 2002 when I wrote the first edition of this book. I have let it stand because it is still a perfectly tenable judgement and indeed remains the common estimate of this passage. However, over the years I have come to feel that a very different view may be equally valid. Rather than coming across as simply brutal, Odysseus’ bluntness may be the expression of an appalled embarrassment at what he feels must be done. How could he possibly



convey so grim a message in a diplomatic fashion? At least he has the courage to go through with the terrible scene when he could have left it to Talthybius to tear the girl away as happens with Astyanax in The Trojan Women. He may also be doing his best to make something horribly unacceptable totally clear. He is surely endowing it with a sense of objectivity when he employs the terminology of the Athenian assembly (‘it has been decided’, 220): he makes the decision sound official. There are other points one could make to suggest a less crassly insensitive characterization of Odysseus – I have made them in an article entitled ‘Hecuba and the Democrats’ (Greece & Rome 61, 2 (2014)) 194–203 – and my readers must decide for themselves what they think of this reading of the role. Could an actor make it convincing? But my point here is to exhort readers not to take any judgement made about the dramatis personae as final. In the Attic theatre the playwright was the director and Euripides will have told his Odysseus how he wished him to play the role. His advice, of course, is now lost and we must be on our guard against fixing on what seems to us a definitive view of a character. Otherwise we risk the hubris of the famous harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who declared, ‘You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.’

Staging In the course of this book we have unsurprisingly had cause on a number of occasions to refer to matters of staging (see ‘conditions of performance’ in index, p. 143). There now follows a brief summary of what we know of the theatre of Dionysus at Athens in the fifth century BC when these plays were first performed. Modern scholarship suggests that, while the traditional estimate put the capacity of the theatre at some 15,000, it was in fact between 4,000 and 7,000 (E. Csapo, ‘The men who built the theatres: theatropolai, theatronai and arkhitektones’ in P. Wilson (ed.), The Greek Theatre and Festivals: Documentary Studies (Oxford, 2007), 87–115, 96–7). The Olivier Theatre, the biggest auditorium in London’s National Theatre, seats 1,100.


The Plays of Euripides

The performance space was a large flat area at the foot of the slope beneath the south-east corner of the Acropolis, on which there was raked wooden seating (bleachers). The dancing area for the chorus, the orchēstra, was rectangular or circular. On the far side of the orchēstra was the stage building, the skēnē, with a wide central door. It represented whatever building a play’s setting called for, ranging from a palace to a humble cottage (Euripides’ Electra) to a general’s tent (Iphigenia at Aulis). Its roof could be used for the appearance of gods, if they were not flying in on the mēchanē (see below). While the actors, who wore masks denoting gender, age and social standing, could share the orchēstra space with the chorus, it may be that they tended to perform in a section further away from the audience, possibly (by the end of the century) on a wooden stage platform about 1 metre high. Scene-painting was being developed in the second half of the century but we cannot say confidently what its contribution was. Two pieces of stage machinery need to be mentioned: the ekkyklēma (the ‘roll-out’) was a wheeled platform which emerged from the door of the stage building in order to display a tableau of what had happened in the house; and the mēchanē (the ‘device’) was a kind of crane used to carry actors, especially if they were playing gods, through the air. The entrances were to the right and left of the acting area. In the fifth centrury BC they did not have a fixed significance, but presumably they helped to establish the topography of each play, one being used for entries and exits to and from the countryside, for example, and the other for those to and from the city.

The Judgement of Paris Despite my refusal to generalize about the creator of plays that strike me as each and every one of them unique, I hope I may be forgiven, if in my final paragraph I break my self-imposed embargo on the word ‘Euripidean’ and say that there is an episode to which the dramatist’s thoughts repeatedly recur, giving birth to a poetry that seems to me (treading humbly in the footsteps of another devotee of Euripides,



T.C.W. Stinton, who wrote about him from the same address some fifty years ago) to sum up a quality that particularly pervades the whole body of his work. This is the visit of the goddesses, led by Hermes, to be judged in a beauty competition by Paris (Alexandros), then a herdsman. I quote the account given by Iphigenia in Iphigenia at Aulis: Ah! Ah! Snow-beaten valley of the Phrygians and Ida’s mountains, . . . if only you had never given a home to Alexandros, the oxherd reared among the oxen, a home by the sparkling waters where the springs of the Nymphs lie and the meadow, lush with its green shoots, and roses and hyacinths for goddesses to pick. There once Pallas came and Cypris [Aphrodite], the schemer, and Hera and Hermes, Zeus’ messenger – Cypris, vain of the love which she inspires, Pallas, proud of her martial prowess, and Hera, of the royal bed of Zeus – they came to judgement, to a hateful contest in beauty which meant death for me . . . 1283–1308

Figure 7 The Judgement of Paris as depicted on a Greek vase. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.)


The Plays of Euripides

The idyllic landscape, with its gleaming spring, its fresh greenery and lovely flowers, is the setting for the judgement between three beautiful goddesses that led to the tragic slaughter of the Trojan War. It is surely in this wonderful poetry that communicates a nexus of beauty and horror, of calculating divinity and helpless humanity, of pure waters and the bloodbath still to come, of burgeoning life and imminent extinction, that we sound out the heart of the matter.

Suggestions for Further Reading Texts and translations All of the plays with exception of Rhesus are available with texts and literal translations in the series published by Aris and Phillips, Warminster. All of them, including Rhesus, are available in the Loeb Classical Library, edited and translated by David Kovacs (Harvard University Press). The translations from which I have quoted are those by James Morwood and Robin Waterfield published in the World’s Classics series by the Oxford University Press. The five volumes all contain excellent introductions by Edith Hall as well as full notes. However, many other good translations are available, e.g. from Chicago University Press, Focus Classics and Penguin Classics, and all can be recommended.

General books Collard, C., Euripides, ‘Greece and Rome’ New Surveys in the Classics 14 (Oxford University Press, 1981). Csapo, E. and Slater, W.J., The Context of Ancient Drama (University of Michigan Press, 1994): comprehensive source material. Easterling, P.E. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge University Press, 1997): a good guide to modern scholarship in this area. Gould J., Myth, Ritual Memory, and Exchange (Oxford University Press, 2001): a lucid exposition of tragedy in performance, a helpful essay on dramatic character, two stimulating pieces on Bacchae, and important writing on the chorus. Hall, E., Inventing the Barbarian (Oxford University Press, 1989). Michelini, A.N., Euripides and the Tragic Tradition (University of Wisconsin Press, 1987). Mossman, J. (ed.), Oxford Readings in Euripides (Oxford University Press, 2002): a collection of essays.



Suggestions for Further Reading

Pelling, C.B.R. (ed.), Greek Tragedy and the Historian (Oxford University Press, 1997): a collection of essays including an interesting contribution by Christina Sourvinou-Inwood on religion. Roisman, H.M. (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Greek Tragedy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014) (3 vols) Rutherford, R.B., Greek Tragic Style: Form, Language and Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 2012): Rutherford’s analysis of how the characters say what they say is highly illuminating. Taplin, O., Greek Tragedy in Action (London, 1978). Winkler, J.J. and Zeitlin, F.I. (eds), Nothing to Do with Dionysos? (Princeton University Press, 1990): especially valuable essays by S. Goldhill on ‘The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology’ and Zeitlin on ‘Thebes: Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama’.

Monographs Croally, N.T., Euripidean Polemic: The Trojan Women and the Function of Tragedy (Cambridge University Press, 1994). Foley, H.P., Female Acts in Greek Tragedy (Princeton, 2001). Hall, E., Greek Tragedy: Suffering Under the Sun (Oxford, 2010). Mastronarde, D.J., The Art of Euripides: Dramatic Technique and Social Context (Cambridge, 2010). Mossman, J., Wild Justice: A Study of Euripides’ Hecuba, (second edn, Bristol Classical Press, 1999). Stinton, T.C.W., Euripides and the Judgement of Paris (The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, 1965). Winnington-Ingram, R.P., Euripides and Dionysus (Bristol Classical Press, 1997).

Other scholars mentioned by name in the text Barlow, S.A. (ed.), Euripides, Heracles (Warminster, 1996) and Trojan Women (Warminster, 1986). Burian, P., ‘Euripides’ Heraclidae: An Interpretation’ (Classical Philology 72 (1977), pp. 1–21). Collard, C. (ed.), Euripides, Supplices (Groningen, 1975) (2 vols). Dale, A.M. (ed.), Euripides, Alcestis (Oxford University Press, 1954).

Suggestions for Further Reading


Devereux, G., ‘The Psychotherapy Scene in Euripides’ Bacchae’ (Journal of Hellenic Studies 90 (1970), pp. 35–48). Dodds, E.R. (ed.), Euripides, Bacchae (Oxford, 1944). Halliwell, S. (ed. and trans.), Aristotle, Poetics (Harvard University Press, 1995). King, F.W. (ed.), Euripides, Hecuba (London, 1938). Kitto, H.D.F., Greek Tragedy (London, third edn, 1961). Mastronarde, D.J. (ed.), Euripides, Phoenissae (Cambridge University Press, 1994). Mossman, J. M., ‘Waiting for Neoptolemus: The Unity of Euripides’ “Andromache” ’ (Greece & Rome Vol. 43, No. 2 (Oct., 1996)), pp. 143–56. Murray, G., Euripides and His Age (London, 1913). Osborne, M.J., Naturalization in Athens, Vols 3–4 (Brussels, Royal Academy, 1981–3). Paley, F.A. (ed.), Euripides (London, 1872). Rawson, E., ‘Family and Fatherland in Euripides’ Phoenissae’ (Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies II [I970], pp. 109–27). Rehm, R., ‘The Staging of Suppliant Plays’ (GRBS 29.3 (1988), pp. 263–307). Rutherford, I., ‘Theoria as Theatre: Pilgrimage in Greek Drama’ (Papers of the Leeds International Latin Seminar 10 (1998), pp. 131–56). von Schlegel, A.W., A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, trans. J. Black (London, 1840). Seaford, R. (ed.), Euripides, Cyclops (Bristol Classical Press, 1998). Stockert, W. (ed.), Iphigenie in Aulis (Vienna, 1992). Waldock, A.J.A., Sophocles the Dramatist (Cambridge University Press, 1951). West, M.L. (ed.), Euripides, Orestes (Warminster, 1987). von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, U., Griechische Tragoedien (Berlin, 1922).


Index This index is necessarily selective. Under ‘chorus’, for example, the reader will find references not to every mention of the chorus but to those passages where something is said about it which is relevant to its role as chorus. The page numbers at which the discussion of each play begins can be found on p.vii. actors, number of 12, 100 Aristotle Poetics 89, 112, 117, 127 Rhetoric 127 Athens and Athenocentrism 3, 5–6, 15, 16–17, 19, 20–1, 22, 23, 24–5, 36, 41–2, 45–50, 51, 53, 56, 66, 74, 77, 78, 80–1, 83, 85, 91–2, 96, 98, 101, 119, 131–2, 135 barbarians 17, 34, 43, 49–50, 71–4, 75, 76, 83, 86, 113 charis 10 Chaucer, Geoffrey 47–9, 81 children 5, 8, 13, 14, 16, 19, 20, 24, 25, 35, 42, 47, 53–4, 67–8, 92, 111, 116–17, 118, 120, 129 chorus 8, 10–11, 13, 14–15, 16, 17, 20, 21, 23–4, 30, 36, 42, 43, 47, 49, 52, 53, 61–3, 66, 68, 73–4, 75, 77, 84, 90, 92–3, 97, 100, 101, 103, 105, 107, 110, 112, 113, 116, 119, 122, 124, 129–31, 136 conditions of performance 14, 21, 84, 115, 124–5, 129–30, 135, 136 costume 61, 83–4, 103, 104, 127

Euripides, death of 3 Everyman 10 friendship 16, 51, 54, 56, 57, 74, 92, 95–6, 99, 107 geography 66, 71, 74, 76, 79, 103, 118, 122 gods 7, 10, 11, 13, 15, 17, 19, 20, 27, 29, 30–1, 32, 36, 37, 47, 48, 51–2, 54, 63, 65, 72, 73, 77, 78–9, 80, 85–6, 90, 97–8, 99, 103, 105, 107, 109, 111, 112, 113, 118, 119, 124, 132–3, 134, 137–8 gratitude, see charis Herodotus 71–3 history 5–6, 19, 20, 21, 25, 36, 45–6, 49, 71–2, 80–1, 83, 84, 85, 98, 119 Homer 22, 35, 46, 53, 59, 60, 62, 67, 83, 84–5, 86, 103, 106, 107, 115, 117, 121–2, 124 hospitality, see xenia hubris 2, 19, 45, 48, 53, 105, 107, 122, 123, 135 humour 7, 22–3, 80, 95, 97, 98, 100, 103–7, 118–19, 128, 131 Ibsen, Henrik 127–8

democracy 5–6, 22, 46–7, 96–7, 98, 110–11 deus ex machine (mēchanē) 52, 80, 84, 100–1, 113, 124, 136 education 79

marriage 8, 33, 34–6, 37, 63 messengers 22, 23, 28–9, 31, 36–7, 61, 65, 66, 86, 89, 96–7, 99, 100, 122, 123, 124 metatheatre 100




oaths 13, 17, 28, 32, 89, 118 politics 15, 20, 36, 45–6, 47, 96, 98, 116, 131–2, 135 revenge 13, 16, 17, 31, 40, 41–2, 64, 71, 97 satyr play 7, 103, 107–8 Shakespeare, William 11–12, 15, 56, 68–9, 81, 90, 97, 105, 113, 129 slaves and servants 9, 13, 22–3, 35, 43, 65, 77, 83, 85, 86, 92, 129, 130, 131 staging, see conditions of performance sub-plot 90–1, 92 supplication 16, 19, 20, 21, 22, 25, 45, 46, 50, 75, 86, 133–4

Theatre of Dionysus at Athens 47, 115, 131, 135 Thebes and the ‘other’ 45, 46, 48, 91–2, 93, 132 war and its aftermath 5, 19, 20, 21, 34, 37, 42, 45, 47, 48, 53, 63. 65, 66, 67–8, 81, 84, 85, 86, 90, 92, 98, 99, 106, 119, 120, 121–5, 138 war-orphans 47, 131 women 13, 14–15, 18, 29, 32, 34, 40, 42, 46, 49–50, 61, 62. 66, 73, 77, 92–3, 97, 99, 106, 109, 111, 116, 117, 128–9, 130 xenia 10–11, 40, 73, 86