EURIPIDES THE HUMAN

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 49-50.

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IT is evident that the three tragic poets of the fifth century wear their classic robes with a difference. While conforming superficially to the traditions of the Athenian stage, Euripides, for better or worse, was gradually transforming the type and destroying the classic mould. He was saying things which the older dramatists would have omitted, enlarging the range of subjects, and subtly changing the moral and intellectual tone of the stage. At heart a rebel against the classic mode, he injected into it a new spirit partly romantic, partly more "natural," bringing down those figues--Electra, Clytemnestra, Orestes and the others--from the idealized heights to which Aeschylus and Sophocles had raised them, into a world at once more human and more teasing to the imagination. Human nature as it is seemed more interesting to him than ideal grandeur. That is what is meant by those who call Euripides more "human" or more "natural."

In him appeared also the romantic spirit. He united the telling fact, the crude details of real life with the romantic motive and atmosphere. Barbaric and picturesque settings, ghastly episodes, striking effects were for Euripides the materials out of which he was to weave a picture of sensuous interest. It was he, inevitably, whose temper permitted the conception of romantic love between the sexes to be used as a dramatic theme within the classic form.

The life of Euripides overlapped that of Aeschylus by seventeen years, and was practically coterminous with that of Sophocles, yet he belonged in spirit to another generation. Like them he could sing of the glories of Athens with inspired breath; and like them he used the Homeric myths. Like Sophocles, he sensed the irony of the mortal situation; but, unlike Sophocles, he was disillusioned with life and grew increasingly bitter as the years went on. He never pictured a saviour of mankind such as Prometheus; rather he set forth a strictly human code, within the reach of all men if they would only cease being greedy, vulgarly ambitious and ignorant.

Though perhaps not the greatest, yet Euripides must be considered the most important of the classical dramatists, because of his influence upon later poets. His ideas, subjects, and technique were transferred to the Roman stage through Seneca, and on through him to the stage of Europe after the Renaissance. His work tends towards the confusion of comedy and tragedy--a process which changed the nature of each. Of the three tragic poets, he is the most modern in tone and temper. Euripides gave the Athenians "plenty of politics, plenty of rhetoric, plenty of discussion political and moral, and now and then threw in a little skepticism." Such is the sketch made my Goldwin Smith. To this should be added the fact that he was a true poet, full of interest and charm.

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