Historians posit that Euripides, the youngest of the three great tragedians, was born in Salamis between 485 and 480 B.C.E. During his lifetime, the Persian Wars ended, ushering in a period of prosperity and cultural exploration in Athens. Of the art forms that flourished during this era, drama was by many measures the most distinctive and influential. Among Euripides’ contemporaries were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Aristophanes, and these four men dominated the Athenian stage throughout the fifth century B.C.E. Though scholars know little about the life of Euripides since most sources are based on legend, there are more extant Euripidean dramas than those of Aeschylus and Sophocles combined. In his own lifetime, however, Euripides was the least successful of his contemporaries, winning the competition at the City Dionysia only four times.
Though his plays sometimes suffer from weak structure and wandering focus, he was the most innovative of the tragedians and reshaped the formal structure of Greek tragedy by focusing on strong female characters and an intelligent serving class. Although his contemporaries also depicted complex women (Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra and Cassandra; Sophocles’ Electra, Antigone, and Deianeira), Euripides concentrated on the interiority of his characters. Because of this focus on psychological motives, some have called Euripides the father of the modern psychological tragedy.
Euripides would often take a myth and delve into a problematic event or action that calls the rest of the myth’s ideology into question. In Alcestis, for example, he takes a story of a wife's goodness and transforms it into an indictment of her husband, and, by extension, an indictment of the patriarchal values that the old legend promoted. His Orestes can be seen as a brilliant anti-tragedy, a work that questions the aesthetic assumptions of Greek drama. In this work, he includes the happy conclusion of his original mythic source but leaves us knowing that the characters are undeserving of this happiness.
As one of the darkest and most disturbing of the Greek dramatists, Euripides questions authority, and, in his plays, he reveals a fascination with the oppressed, including women, barbarians, and slaves. His complex representations of perverse, violent, and monstrous women demonstrate his interest in the role of women in society. He further questions hollow or hypocritical ideals. While Aeschylus depicts a vision of history and teleology and Sophocles portrays heroes, Euripides creates real men with all-too-human weaknesses. His is a voice of conscience, unafraid to reveal the world underneath Athens’ veneer of cultural and social advancement. The views expressed in Euripides’ tragedies seem almost prescient. After years of warfare (the Second Peloponnesian War began in 431 B.C.E.) and internal political strife, Athens fell to Sparta in 404 B.C.E., two years after the death of Euripides.
At the invitation of King Archelaus of Macedon, Euripides left Athens in 408 B.C.E. (although he may have faced danger in Athens for his subversive ideas). In Macedonia, he wrote The Bacchae, a complex play that depicts the destructive power of chaos and the godly wrath of Dionysus. The play is arguably Euripides' masterpiece, but he did not live to see it performed in Athens. He died in 406 B.C.E., and in 405 B.C.E., his son returned to Athens to produce Euripides’ last works at the City Dionysia. The Bacchae and its companion pieces won first prize.