Medea and Hippolytus Revision

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  • Created on: 05-05-16 17:43

Euripides and his Tradition

Many of Euripides' most striking dramas have not even survived. The most scandalous, perhaps, was his Aeolus, notoriously portraying brother-sister incest leading to childbirth and suicide. The most bizarre may have been his Centaurs, featuring Queen Pasiphae's adulterous affair with a bull. But the most beautfiul was held to be Andromeda, in which the Ethiopian princess, chained to a rock as a meak for a sea-monster, was resuced by the aerial epiphany of the winged hero Perseus.

According to the comic playwright Aristophanes, Andromeda was so delightful that it was the preferred holiday reading of Dionysus, the god of theatre himself, and its fragments appealing concoction not unlike Euripides' Helen: it added the theatricality of exotic spectacle and song to emotive pathos and suspense, and distinctively 'novelistic' elements such as adventure, intrigue, a barbarian setting, and a romantic liasom. Yet Alexander the Great, not professional actor, is supposed to have been able to perform a whole episode of Andromeda off by heart, and did do at his last supper; the single most significant reason for Euripides' astonishing ancient popularity was really the accessible and memorable poetry in which his characters expressed themselves. Princesses and paupers, demi-gods and warriors, practitioners of incest, bestialitym and murder: he made them all 'speak like human beings'. 

The Greeks and Romans were passionate about Euripides. A character in a comedy announced that he would be prepared to hang himself for the sake of seeing this (dead) tragedian. Aristotle's formalist discussion of tragedy complains about Euripides' use of the deux ex machina, his unintergrated choruses, and the uneccessary villainy of some of his characters. Yet even Aristotle conceded that Euripides was 'the most tragic of the poets', meaning that he was the best at eliciting pity and fear. Beside Euripides' impact on the literature of succeeding generations - especially Menander, Ennius, Virgil, Ovid, Senaca and oratory - his plays are everywhere apparent in the visual culture of the Mediterranean. Homer apart, no author stimulated the arts more; the Romans painted Euripides' scenes on the walls and carved themon their sarcophagi; the Byzantines commissioned elaborate mosaics keeping his pagan myths alive in the visual imagination of Christendom.

The nineteenth-century scholar Benjamin Jowett said Euripides was 'no Greek in the better sense of the term', for after his revivification in the Renaisaance Euripdes often suffered by comparison with the structural perfection, 'purity', and Hellenic spirit perceived in his rival Sophocles. This is, however, to oversimplify the complex and largely unwritten story of Euripidean reception and performance. Medea has been much imitated and adapted (importantly by Corneille in 1635 and operatically by Cherubini); it inspired Pier Paolo Pssolini's enigmatic Medea (1970), starring Maria Callas in her single cinematic role. Hippolytus has haunted the poetic imagination of the West, especially through Racine's influential adaptation Phedre, a synthesis of Euripidean, Seencan and Plutarchan material. Electra on the other hand, although occasionally enjoyed before the nineteenth century, was condemned to neglect in both academe and performance by A…


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