Euripedes: Heracles Mad, Phoenician Women, The Suppliants, Cyclops

This week I finished four plays by Euripedes. I’m going slower that I’m anticipating, having yet to read anything by Aristophanes, much less starting on the Gibbon. At least in this coming week I hope to finish the five remaining Euripedes plays, among which are those often said to be his greatest: Hippolytus, Medea, Ion, Bacchantes, and Alcestis. Last weekend I also read the first part of Greek Drama and Dramatists by Alan Sommerstein, which gives a general introduction to Greek theater and individual introductions on the work of each of the four major Greek dramatists we have (and will be) reading: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes, and Aristophanes. I haven’t read any Aristophanes, but his work can be considered separately as they are mostly comedies, whereas the former three are preoccupied with tragedy.

The most important point I got from Sommerstein’s introduction on the three tragedians consisted of their portrayal of the relationship between human characters, gods, and the tragedy. In Aeschylus’s world, all tragedies can be traced back to human error. Sommerstein’s example is The Persians, which stemmed from Xerxes’ misguided decision to invade Greece. We can see that too in The Oresteia – the chain of successive family murders started from Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice Iphigenia at the start of the Trojan War. This motivation was portrayed vividly in AgamemnonIn contrast to this, in Sophocles’ world many horrific events are inevitable, with humans powerless to stop the decrees of the gods. The most obvious example is the Oedipus trilogy, which was all motivated by a simple prophecy. In this case attempted human intervention only serves to fulfill what was sought to be prevented in the first place. Lastly, Euripedes, according to Sommerstein, is concerned with the power of community to help the main hero(s) face tragedy, such as the case with Heracles in Heracles Mad, as we will shortly see. Euripedes also likes to let even his antagonists give ample justification for their actions, thus humanizing them, sometimes to the horror of his Greek audiences. In the vein of comedy, he often likes to give a strong voice to characters from the lower and marginalized classes of the time, including women and slaves.

Several elements of the four plays I read this week clearly fit into Sommerstein’s framework for Euripedes, in particular his observations about the set structure of his dramas. They typically open with a soliloquy, placing a dramatic agon (duel) of words between two characters at the centerpiece (which paradoxically often has little effect on the plot), a messenger with a long speech describing off-stage developments, and finally a deus ex machina ending that wraps everything up nicely. If you traced all of the previous posts chronicling our journey reading Euripedes up to this point, we’ve gradually noticed key elements of this structural form, in particular the use of the deus ex machina. We’ve seen Euripedes’ fondness for plays focusing on a woman as the main character – Hecuba, AndromacheThe Trojan Women, the Iphigenia plays, and so on. In Euripedes’ Electra, we noticed the long soliloquy at the beginning spelling out Electra’s predicament, uttered by her peasant husband, a class of speaking character absent in Sophocles or Aeschylus. In The Heraclidae we have the old man Iolaus debating at length with a servant about his suitability for combat, which ends without the former bludgeoning the latter into submission as is common in comedy or typical portrayal of master-slave interactions. And so on. While the deus ex machina endings of Euripedes’ plays can become tiresome, his voicing of marginalized classes breaks the naive assumption that fighting for the marginalized is a recent development.

Let’s now get into brief reviews of each play.

Heracles Mad

Heracles Mad is interesting because the deus ex machina ending is absent. The play is disjointed, consisting of roughly three sections: in the first, Heracles’ family is about to be executed by Lycus, only to be saved by Heracles at the last minute; this temporary relief is then cruelly broken by the introduction of the two goddesses Iris and Madness who drive Heracles into a frenzy where he dramatically kills his wife and children; and in the last section Heracles realizes the horror he has unknowingly committed and is ultimately comforted by Amphitryon, the husband of his mother Alcmene. In an inversion of deus ex machina, it is the gods who intervene the flow of events in the middle of the play, causing ruin instead of relief. There is no profound moral logic in why they decided to drive Heracles such; it’s presented as being the will of Hera who has always had a grudge against him due to him being the illegitimate child of her husband Zeus, similar to the Twelve Labors. This aspect is thus similar to Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy.

Lastly, in line with Sommerstein’s observation, there is a very long speech by a messenger who vividly describes Heracles’ madness and murder of his family. Previously, I thought that Greek drama’s reluctance to depict violence on stage may have been due to the moral norms of the time; but Sommerstein mentions that it is more to do with logistics, as there are a limited number of speaking parts in a Greek drama (with actors often playing more than one part, identified by the mask they wear), and it is difficult to have an actor die on stage and be immobilized. In contrast, being killed on stage and having the body brought out (a dummy with the appropriate mask affixed) is much simpler.

Phoenician Women

Another drama in the world of Oedipus, this time right before the events of Seven Against Thebeswhere Oedipus’ two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices battle for the control of Thebes, ending with both of them being killed. The focus of this play is Jocasta’s efforts to stop the brothers from warring against each other. Ultimately she fails. But the most interesting philosophical point is to examine the debate between the brothers. The original agreement between them was that each brother would rule for a year, interchanging with each other. Eteocles has finished his year, but refuses to give up the throne. He openly admits that his motivation is pure lust of power and ambition to seize the opportunity – a prime example of Euripedes giving “evil” characters a strong voice to justify themselves:

If all were at one in their ideas of honour and wisdom, there would have been no strife to make men disagree; but, as it is, fairness and equality have no existence in this world beyond the name; there is really no such thing. For instance, mother, I will tell thee this without any concealment; I would ascend to the rising of the stars and the sun or dive beneath the
earth, were I able so to do, to win a monarch’s power, the chief of things divine. Therefore, mother, I will never yield this blessing to another, but keep it for myself; for it were a coward’s act to lose the greater and to win the less.

We’ll keep this quote clear in our minds to see if it might tie in with what other authors in the Great Books have to say about the relationship between power and morality, for example Machiavelli’s The Prince. The second half of The Phoenician Women changes to a more typical plot where Creon (Jocasta’s brother) discovers from the prophet Tiresias that he must sacrifice his son Menoeceus in order to save Thebes. While Creon refuses to do so, after he leaves Menoeceus heroically reflects that it is his duty to do so and sacrifices himself anyway, in the vein of Polyxena in Hecuba and Macaria in Heraclidae. Again from Sommerstein, I learned that human sacrifice was a source of fascination to the Greek audience as it had become obsolete by the time of the plays. It’s striking that there is no negative stigma against the general practice itself: all characters who have had to be sacrificed (in Euripedes’ plays at least) have willingly done so, and while clearly the necessity to sacrifice is portrayed as a tragedy, it is treated more like a natural tragedy, something that just had to happen. There is absolutely no judgement on the morality of the practice, no raging against the gods, unlike the little bit we saw in Sophocles’ Trachiniae, when Hyllus is angry against the gods who let his father Heracles die.

A final note: in Euripedes’ version of the Oedipus story, Jocasta doesn’t kill herself after discovering that Oedipus is her son, as was the case in Sophocles’ Oedipus the KingSommerstein points out in his book that Greek drama was always an open field for the playwrights to reinterpret known legends and stories as they wished; there were very few absolute elements that could not be changed. Thus the contradictions we get if we regard all the Trojan War plays as happening in the same universe – such as Iphigenia being saved by Apollo at the last minute in Euripedes’ version of events, but not Aeschylus’ – are not to be regarded as flaws or subversions of common traditions.

The Suppliants

Another suppliant play, this time again in the world of the Theban war as the previous one. In this play, the mothers of the seven warriors who died in Seven Against Thebes (those on Polyneices’ side) beg Athenian king Theseus to approach Thebes and persuade Creon to let him retrieve the dead bodies of their sons, which are left unburied due to the orders of Creon. After Theseus successfully obtains the bodies, a scene of extensive mourning occurs, including a widow (Evadne) who jumps to her death on the funeral pyre of her dead husband Capaneus. The focus on proper treatment and burial of the dead is extremely important to Greek culture and morality: this was also the premise of Sophocles’ AntigoneIn fact Theseus’ argument with the herald of Creon at the gates of Thebes contains echoes this reasoning, in that the commandment to bury the dead is part of a higher moral code. The difference seems to be that Theseus’ argument is more naturalistic, without explicit reference to the gods or Heaven:

Let the dead now be buried in the earth, and each element return to the place from whence it came to the body, the breath to the air, the body to the ground; for in no wise did we get it for our own, but to live our life in, and after that its mother earth must take it back again…
Go, triflers, learn the lesson of human misery; our life is made up of struggles; some men there be that find their fortune soon, others have to wait, while some at once are blest…These lessons should we take to heart, to bear with moderation, free from wrath, our wrongs, and do naught to hurt a whole city.

In this fascinating interaction (which seems to serve as Euripedes’ soapbox), Theseus also takes the chance to extol the wonders of democracy instead of the tyranny of Thebes under Creon. In conclusion, this suppliant drama is fundamentally different from Aeschylus’ The Suppliant MaidensSophocles Oedipus at Colonus and Euripedes’ own The Heraclidaebecause here the suppliants are not asking for shelter to save themselves from an enemy, and the exchange between the suppliants and the “host” is not a significant plot point. Theseus’s debate with the herald is not an act of submission, as he actively debates and even adds in a threat in the end to wage battle over the right to retrieve the bodies.


Cyclops is the only known surviving satyr play from any playwright. Based on this, a satyr play is closer to comedy than tragedy, the satyrs being used as a vehicle for irreverent and lewd jokes about elements of more known legends (in this case, the Trojan War). The story is one that many know well from Homer’s The Odyssey: Odysseus coming across the island of the Cyclops, getting captured and outsmarting him by making him drunk and identify himself as No One in order to prevent other cyclops from intervening in their escape. The noted differences from Euripedes’ tragedies are the lack of an agon and the presence of more significant physical action on stage (here, the act of sneaking past the blinded Cyclops who is trying in vain to stop them). There is also no dramatic messenger scene where crucial plot developments offstage are recounted by a secondary messenger; instead, we have Odysseus himself recounting to the leader of the chorus of how the Cyclops ate one of his men.

In terms of philosophical observations, the Cyclops gets a lot of lines outlining his lifestyle practices, but there is little philosophizing being done: he simply presents his morality as a version of “might, greed, and wealth makes right.” Echoing Eteocles in a cruder way, he proclaims the uselessness of morality:

Wealth, manikin, is the god for the wise; all else is mere
vaunting and fine words…For surely to eat and drink one’s fill
from day to day and give oneself no grief at all, this is the king of gods for your wise man, but lawgivers go hang, chequering, as they do, the life of man!

In the end pure greed and strength is overcome by the guile of the ultimate trickster, Odysseus, who himself is not known to be the most morally upright character in the universe of Greek mythology, but perhaps the lesson here is that trickery wins over brute strength.

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