Euripides has been called “the poet of the world’s grief” by Edith Hamilton and whoever she claims to be quoting. (Edith is one of those old school scholars who thinks that if you don’t get the reference you don’t deserve to know it. There is a reason that approach went out of style.)
We think that he was born somewhere near 480 B.C. You should know that “somewhere near” in this case can mean give or take five to ten years, or ignore that date entirely because like the heroes he wrote about, Euripides had a lot of stories about him, and it seems nigh on impossible that all of them were true, especially considering how polarizing his writing was. Most of these dates come from Greek historians who liked to editorialize on events, even insert themselves into made up circumstances. Think of them as a strange combination of the Weekly World News and a partisan journalist (Fox News or MSNBC, whichever way you lean.) Never let the facts get in the way of a good story or moral.
Euripides is rumored to have written his plays in a location far from Athens, usually connected to the island of Salamis. A site on that same island was discovered in the mid-90s and is now referred to as “The Cave of Euripides.”
Euripides first competed in the City Dionysia in 455 B.C., but he didn’t win until 441 B.C. Of the Big Three Tragedians (Sophocles and Aeschylus being the other two), Euripides has the worst record at the City Dionysia in terms of wins and losses. Sophocles won 18 times over his lifetime. Aeschylus won 13 times. Euripides won 5 times, including a posthumous victory. [These facts we can be pretty sure of, because the results of the competition were diligently recorded.] Euripides came in third out of three a lot. Including with Medea, which is now considered one of the greatest tragedies ever written.
Alcestis is the first of his plays that has survived to the present day. While our records of Aeschylus and Sophocles’ works were basically collections of “Greatest Hits,” Alcestis, Medea, The Bacchae, and the rest come from a remnant of a “Complete Works” kind of text.
Euripides appears to have been married twice, with four sons and a daughter, and one of his wives might have publicly cuckolded him. (It’s very hard to tell sometimes whether these anecdotes are stories based on real events or jokes from Aristophanes comedies. Aristophanes teased Euripides mercilessly, mostly because he was such an outsider in the world of overly patriotic, fatalistic Greek drama.)
Euripides plays are marked by a love and sympathy for the human condition above all, as well as a fondness and respect for the common man. As Edith Hamilton said in The Greek Way,
[Euripides] feels, as no other writer has felt, the pitifulness of human life, as of children suffering helplessly what they do not know and can never understand. No poet’s ear has ever been so sensitively attuned as his to the still, sad music of humanity, a strain little heeded by that world of long ago. And together with that, something then even more unheeded, the sense of value of each individual human being. [Bold is mine.]
Aristophanes said in The Frogs that Euripides’ crime and mistake was that he taught the Athenians “to think, see, understand, suspect, question everything.” This was not well received at the City Dionysia, as evidenced by Euripides’ poor record.
Around 408 B.C., Euripides became so disgusted with Athens (both its refusal to acknowledge his plays and its xenophobic pro-war attitude) that he left to become the court playwright to the King of Macedonia. He wrote The Bacchae there, and it was submitted to the City Dionysia and won first place after Euripides was reportedly “accidentally” torn apart but hunting dogs.
Do not ask me how you “accidentally” get torn apart by dogs.
I’m blaming Artemis for this one. Seriously. She’s done this before.