Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

(circa 485BC-406BC) Greek dramatist. Little is known of his life: most of what passes for information about it derives from contemporary comedians' slanders (as in Aristophanes' The Acharnians, Thesmophoriazusae and The Frogs). Of perhaps 88 plays he wrote, 14 survive essentially complete; two – Electra (413BC) and The Bacchae (written 407BC; 405BC) are somewhat damaged – and two – The Phoenician Women (circa 412BC) and Iphigenia in Aulis (written 407BC; 405BC) – have suffered great changes. Substantial fragments of several other plays have been found. Cyclops (undated) is a farce; the rest, technically, are tragedies; all are based on Myths. Each of Euripides' surviving plays includes elements we today would see as fantastic, but the extent to which he so saw them is debatable.

Ancient attacks on him depicted him as a misogynist and criticized him for depicting low subjects. In fact he concentrated on women more than any other known ancient writer, and repeatedly condemned class prejudice. His Medea (431BC) is a powerful early image of a Witch, but heroic and ordinary women are more common in his work, as in Alcestis (438BC). His other sexual and racial prejudices are, however, disconcertingly prominent.

He was called a Sophist – a spokesman for the often amoral new ideas of rhetoricians and logicians. In fact, logic assumed a new prominence in his plays. Most contain scenes strongly reminiscent of the new rhetoric. But he also forced his dramas into considerably stricter narrative logic than his predecessors had used, freely reshaping the myths to this end, but putting this logic in turn in the service of probing moral studies. This aspect of his work was immensely influential on later Classical writers and, through them, on Western literature generally.

Other influential (and controversial) innovations concerned plot outlines. Orestes and Electra are the oldest known melodramas, while Alcestis, Iphigenia in Tauris (circa 414BC), Helen (412BC) and Ion (circa 414BC) are more or less fanciful romances with happy endings. Helen is particularly fantastic in content and style.

In his comedy Euripides appears atheist. Although The Bacchae, in particular, troubles this claim, and many of the plays express a passionate religious searching, it is true that he never forgave the myths their inconsistencies nor the gods their cruelties. This is notable relatively early, in Hippolytus (428BC), with its scheming goddesses and misfiring divine gift, but becomes pronounced in the later romances and melodramas. Ion amounts to an attack on Oracles. In The Trojan Women (415BC) the strain of disbelief is stronger, and in Heracles (circa 415BC) the protagonist's doubts about his father, Zeus, and his heroic mission become the stuff of one of the greatest Greek tragedies.

Soon after his death Euripides became the most read and performed of the Greek dramatists, and remained so throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages. [JB]



This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.