Euripedes: Alcestis, Bacchantes, Ion, Hippolytus, Medea

We finally finish off Euripedes’ works with the last five remaining tragedies. Compared to the dramas of the last few weeks, these five tragedies surely represent a high point of Euripedes’ craft and art. Unlike the formulaic form and structure that we explored last week (as noted by Alan Sommerstein), these tragedies subvert expectations and nimbly utilize different literary elements to elicit some of the most powerful tragic scenes in Greek drama.

Alcestis

This is the last of Euripedes’ numerous plays that feature a woman as its central character(s) (see Hecuba, Andromache, Helen, The Trojan Womenamong others). Admetus has been given the opportunity by Apollo to forgo death, but only if another person is willing to die in his place. Only his wife Alcestis agrees to sacrifice herself, and at the beginning of the play she is close to death. The most remarkable aspect of this play is how it makes Alcestis loom large over all of the scenes, and yet it does not put the character in the center. Throughout, Alcestis is praised almost excessively for being such a noble woman, sacrificing herself for the good of her children (who would presumably be better off without a mother than a father). There is a scene in which a servant speaks to the leader of the chorus, praising Alcestis and detailing her last farewells to the household in typical dramatic Greek-drama-messenger-style. Importantly, she says to the leader of the chorus that Alcestis is both “alive and dead,” signaling that she is not yet dead. She also praises her:

SERVANT
How should she not be the best! Who shall deny it? What
should the best among women be? How better might a woman
hold faith to her lord than gladly to die for him?

Throughout, the motif of Alcestis as the “best wife” that a man could ever have is prevalent. Compare this to the several significant instances of human sacrifice in Euripedes: Polyxena in HecubaMacaria in Heraclidaeand Iphigenia in Iphigenia at Aulis. All of them feature young women who readily give themselves up and are mightily praised when they do so. Note that Iphigenia is a bit different as she initially begs for her life from Agamemnon, but she eventually does resign herself to her fate. Additionally, there is one instance of a young man cast in the same situation: Menoeceus in Phoenician Women. In all of these cases human sacrifice is viewed as the ultimate duty a young, inferior person could give to society. In Alcestis, however, the praise for agreeing to sacrifice is taken to the highest degree, which is all the more remarkable (or on the other hand, understandable) given that there was no pressing need for such a sacrifice: no enemy or God demanding it, only cold utilitarian considerations and even selfishness on the part of Admetus.

As I’ve just described, Alcestis is talked about a lot in the opening scenes of the play, but she does not appear at all, making her a powerful offstage character. When she finally does appear, the stage directions specify a dramatic entrance, with royal guards, Admetus, her children, and attendants being part of her retinue, putting her on a throne. Then follows a dramatic death scene. Euripedes milks the emotion to almost unbearable sentimentality and melodrama: Admetus vows to never marry another woman, and proclaims how he would be devastated if she died. Finally, in an intense stichomythic exchange between the two, Alcestis finally dies, falling back on stage, a rare instance of onstage death in Greek drama. Note that while Alcestis is given ample lines in the scene, she does not affect the course of the events of the play. There is much praise for her, but only for her noble reactions to what is happening to her.

In the rest of the play, the comical side of the tragedy comes out, in which Heracles visits the palace, not knowing that they have just experienced a tragedy, and Admetus is reluctant to reveal it to Heracles, wanting to keep to the norms of hospitality. In a curious sticomythic passage between the two, the “alive and dead” aspects of Alcestis, previously revealed by the servant before she dies, returns into focus. This is a weird, even confusing literary decision as it casts doubt on the significance of the previous death scene: perhaps Alcestis was merely fainting and not fully dead yet. But the artificial Schroedinger’s cat aspect is used to evoke plenty of tragicomedy, gently critiquing the obligations of hospitality in Greek society, although the main focus is definitely on the comedy. In that sense the duality of Alcestis’ status seems forced, artificially setting up for the resurrection at the end.

As the play progresses, Heracles gradually realizes that Admetus’ wife is really dead, and he goes into the underworld to win her back from Death, finally bringing her back to the living world and presenting her to Admetus to create a happy ending. Here, again Alcestis is not given a chance to speak, the given reason being that she is not fully purified and fully restored yet. She is just a prop, and the central active character is Admetus. I also note that the ending is a quasi-deus ex machina, one in which a demigod intervenes and solves the problem, but only after gradually realizing what the problem is. In addition, Heracles’ solution is a “real” one, involving physically (though magically) bringing back Alcestis from the dead, instead of just speaking to the characters who would immediately put aside their emotions and grievances (which is what we witnessed in other Euripedes plays).

In conclusion, Alcestis is truly a distinctive play in that it subverts common Euripedean structure. However, it is ironic in that while the titular female character is the most praised and heroically depicted out of all of Euripedes female-centric plays, she is not given much of an active role.

Bacchantes

Bacchantes is also a play that subverted my expectations for a Euripedes play. The central character is the demigod Dionysus, portrayed as vengeful, cunning, and resentful over the fact that members of his own mortal family do not believe that his father was Zeus, but instead some mortal lover of his mother Semele. Thus, Bacchantes is a revenge play. In the first part, setting up the scene for the climactic revenge, Pentheus, king of Thebes, expresses his opposition to Dionysian religion, which has resulted in many women across the country being driven into a frenzy during the Bacchic rites. He criticizes his own grandfather (and former king) Cadmus and Tiresias for wanting to join in Dionysian festivities. When Dionysus arrives at Thebes disguised as a foreigner, Pentheus at first orders him bound, and interrogates him in an stichomythic scene. While at first he regards the religion with contempt, eventually he becomes moved to “act” when a messenger brings news that the bacchantes (which included his own mother, Agave) had attacked a herd of cattle. Dionysus is brought again, and he successfully convinces Pentheus to go with him such that he can bring the offending worshipers to him.

In the second part, Pentheus is lured in to the circle of bacchantes and is violently dismembered as a sacrifice, perhaps the first instance of an unwilling human sacrifice in Greek drama. This is also remarkable as the chorus acts as the part of the revelers, contrary to their role in other plays of Euripedes, where they only abstractly comment on the action and background story but never participate actively (unlike in Sophocles and Aeschylus). Here they actually commit the murder, something which never happened even in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, the previously most active use of chorus that we have encountered to date.

It is in the third part of the play that the tragedy is revealed. When Pentheus’ severed head is brought by Agave back home to Cadmus, in another intense stichomythic exchange, she gradually realizes to her horror that it is that of her son. Initially thinking it is the head of a lion, Cadmus calms her down. As her former Bacchic frenzy subsides, she begins to comprehend what she has just did. This reveal is probably the most emotionally dramatic in Greek drama, even compared to the reveal scenes we witnessed in Sophocles’ Electra (between Orestes and Electra), Euripedes’ Helen (Helen and Menelaus), and Iphigenia in Tauris (Iphigenia and Orestes). It seals Baccahantes as one of Euripedes’ greatest tragedies But Cadmus explains that Pentheus was punished for his impiety. At the end, Dionysus reveals himself again and proclaims the fate of the royal family (such as that Cadmus and his wife Harmonia would be turned into serpents), effecting a more conventional deus ex machina ending. Bacchantes is thus a serious play about the consequences of not properly honoring the gods, even one as wild and seemingly as inferior as Dionysus.

Ion

Ion is a play about Ion, an attendant at the temple of Apollo abandoned at birth, who discovers who his real parents were. Ion was the product of the god Apollo’s rape of the mortal woman Creusa, who is now married to Xuthus, a foreigner. Both Creusa and Xuthus come to the temple to inquire about their childlessness. At first, Xuthus mistakes Ion to be his bastard son, based on his interpretation of the oracle. For a moment, we are led to believe that the main punch of the story has come, as the orphan has finally found an explanation for his parents. But Ion distinctly notes that as he is still not satisfied that he does not know who is mother was (Xuthus said that it was some woman he met at a festival), although he has now been elevated to the status of Xuthus’ heir. The play then goes in an interesting direction. When it is revealed to Creusa that Ion is now Xuthus’ heir, a Tutor eggs her on to kill both of them, as Xuthus has now betrayed her by giving his inheritance to a bastard son. Creusa’s plot to poison Ion fails, and she runs away from a murderous mob, taking sanctuary at the temple. Finally the truth comes out when Creusa recognizes the basket that Ion came in. To confirm this, Athens descends in a deus ex machina again. Creusa’s attitude towards Ion dramatically shifts as she is revealed to be her son after all, instead of that of the foreigner Xuthus. In the end, Creusa does not suffer any adverse consequences for her attempted murder; it is thus viewed as a rational thing to do if Ion really was a bastard son.

The other interesting thing about Ion is the critique of the gods. After learning about Creusa’s past (but before learning that she is her mother), he criticizes the gods for not following the same laws that they have set:

ION
Yet must I blame the god, if thus perforce
He mounts the bed of virgins, and by stealth
Becomes a father, leaving then his children
To die, regardless of them. Do not thou
Act thus; but, as thy power is great, respect
The virtues; for whoe’er, of mortal men,
Dares impious deeds, him the gods punish: how
Is it then just that you, who gave the laws
To mortals, should yourselves transgress those laws?

Later, Ion criticizes the law that allows criminals to take refuge in the temple with impunity. He specifically criticizes the thought process of the gods:

ION
Strange, that the god should give these laws to men,
Bearing no stamp of honour, nor design’d
With provident thought: it is not meet to place
The unrighteous at his altars; worthier far
To be chased thence; nor decent that the vile
Should with their touch pollute the gods: the good,
Oppress’d with wrongs, should at those hallow’d seats
Seek refuge: ill beseems it that the unjust
And just alike should seek protection there.

Criticism of the god is not limed to Ion: the Tutor even advises Creusa to take revenge on Apollo for abandoning their child (and letting a foreigner inherit the throne by gifting a bastard son to Xuthus) by destroying the temple. However, this criticism of the gods is never “followed through”. At the end, after Athena reveals herself, she points out how good of a god Apollo is for successfully preserving her son Ion and reuniting him back with her. Thus he never abandoned her son after all, and technically, he has absolved himself of the accusation of allowing a foreigner to inherit the throne. Apollo’s rape of Creusa is thus implicitly retroactively interpreted as a giving her a gift of a true heir, as the man she would marry (Xuthus) would not. This is a little surprising as the forcible aspect of the rape (and that Creusa was not happy at all to have borne a son to a god) is acknowledged openly throughout the play. That being said, the deus ex machina in this play is not a crude device to resolve unattended plot points, but merely an affirmation and explanation of things that have happened. Overall, the plot of Ion is fresh and technically clever, the false reveal of Xuthus being Ion’s father creating wonderful irony later when the actual reveal happens. Ion can truly be said to be a comedy (although not in terms of being humorous, but having a happy ending), as the potential tragedy (Creusa and the Tutor’s plot to poison Ion) harmlessly fail and actually result in a happy ending.

Hippolytus

In contrast, Hippolytus is in the vein of of The Bacchantes: A tragedy that is not recognized until a horrific reveal at the end. The plot is simple: Aphrodite causes Hippolytus’ stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him. He is grossly offended when the Nurse tells him about Phaedra’s feelings, and vows to report her to his father Theseus. She hangs herself and leaves a letter on her body that asserts she was raped by Hippolytus. Theseus is enraged and exiles his son, but afterwards Artemis appears and reveals the truth. Theseus tries to recall Hippolytus back, but it is too late: he has been mortally wounded in a chariot accident and dies after forgiving his father.

One of things which stood to me is the play’s echoes with other stories among the Great Books. Hippolytus’ refusal of Phaedra’s feelings and his resulting being framed for rape is extremely reminiscent of the Biblical story of Joesph and Potiphar’s wife; it can be said to be a tragic version of it, where instead of ending up as second-in-command to Pharaoh, Hippolytus ends up dead in an accident. Theseus’ inability to see the truth is comparable to Lear’s blind condemnation and exile of Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear – the parallel runs even to the ending, where Lear is reconciled with Cordelia but is then unable to prevent her execution. The overall plot of Hippolytus is unique among Euripedes’ plays, not being a revenge or suppliant play. The emotional lynch pin here is not anger or empathy but shame – many lines are devoted to describing how Phaedra is inflamed with passion to the point that she becomes physically sick, but she is too ashamed to reveal it to Hippolytus, and becomes angry with the Nurse when she does reveal it to him offstage. Hence Hippolytus represents an innovation in plot design.

Despite the plot parallels however, Hippolytus is not presented as an angelic, perfect figure like Joseph or Cordelia; instead, Aphrodite’s act of making Phaedra to fall in love with him is described by Aphrodite herself in the opening soliloquy as having the purpose of punishing him for hating love and marriage. When Hippolytus learns from the Nurse about Phaedra’s desires, he breaks out in a rage against women in general, boldly and explicitly proclaiming his hatred of women. Hence ultimately Hippolytus’ death is somewhat justified, and Hippolytus is no different than The Bacchantes. But we must not be lulled into a false sense that everything in Euripedes’ world is just; Heracles Mad, where Heracles is driven into a murderous frenzy by Hera because of no fault of his own other than being Zeus’ bastard, is a glaring contrasting example.

Medea

This is Euripedes’ most famous play, and said to have been shocking to audiences back in 431 BC such that it came last in the competition for plays during the City Dionysia. The plot is even simpler than Hippolytus: Medea is the barbarian wife of Jason, and when her husband decides to marry a non-foreign woman, she kills both his new wife and her two children and escapes to Athens. While the act of filicide is undoubtedly violent and shocking even to a modern audience, such violence was not unheard of – did they not watch Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers in 458 BC, which involved a son (Orestes) killing his own mother (Clytemnestra)? For me personally, despite its fame, I cannot see much difference between it and numerous other revenge plays, including the playwright’s own Hecuba, Orestes, and Electraamong others. The comparison with Hecuba is especially apt, as here the female heroine is also thrust in a vulnerable initial starting position, but then rebels against her fate by bold independent (though horrifying and morally reprehensible acts). Hecuba tries to enlist Agamemnon before murdering Polymester; the same is true of Medea, who is assured by Aegisthus that he would protect her if she could escape to Athens. As here, Medea is murdering her own children instead of an enemies’, so the seriousness of the tragedy is ramped up.

In terms of individual traits, just like Hecuba, Medea also exhibits remarkable traits of determination and refusal to resign herself to her circumstances. In fact, she goes beyond the normal extent of courage in that she is displayed to be able to overcome hesitation and moral uncertainty thanks to focusing on her desire to take revenge on Jason. One is tempted to compare that attitude to those of Polyxena, Macaria, and all other young women in Euripedes’ plays who were instantly resigned to the prospect of having to sacrifice themselves – in contrast to them, is what Medea doing effectively going against “fate”? Does fate even exist in the world of Medea? In the last scene, Medea appears in deus ex machina style, perched on top of a mechane, a Greek theater device usually used to lift actors depicting gods into the air. Technically, she is in the chariot of the sun god Helios, but absolutely no gods appear explicitly in this play, unlike the case of the other plays we are reviewing in this post, each of which have the deeds of a god as central to the background of the plot. Thus, Medea’s appearance on the mechane may be viewed as symbolic of her taking charge of her own destiny. On the other hand, the closing lines of the play, sung by the chorus, does describe Zeus’ background role:

CHORUS
Many a fate doth Zeus dispense, high on his Olympian throne; oft do the gods bring things to pass beyond man’s expectation; that, which we thought would be, is not fulfilled, while for the unlooked-for god finds out a way; and such hath been the issue of this matter.

In conclusion, while Medea does go over the line a bit, Euripedes stops short of getting rid of the gods altogether.

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