Euripides lived during the Golden Age of Athens, the city where he was born and lived most of his years. Born in 484 BC, his infancy saw the repulsion of the Persian invasion, a military victory that secured Athens' political independence and eventual dominance over the Mediterranean world. His death in 406 came as Athens was surrendering its supremacy as a result of its protracted defeat to Sparta, its main rival, in the Peloponnesian War. Sandwiched between these two wars lies a creative period of political, economic, and cultural activity that spawned many of Western civilization's distinctive traits, including the flourishing of tragic drama. The art was mastered by Euripides' older contemporaries, Aeschylus and Sophocles, playwrights who created the dramatic tradition that he would amplify significantly.
Although he is reputed to have written 92 plays, of which 17 (more than any other Classical playwright) survive, Euripides' standing as a dramatist has often been disputed, especially during his lifetime. While Aristotle heralded him "the most tragic of poets," he also criticized Euripides' confused handling of plot and the less-than-heroic nature of his protagonists. Aristophanes, a comic dramatist, constantly mocked Euripides' tendency towards word-play and paradox. Euripides' role as a dramatic innovator, however, is unquestionable: the simplicity of his dialogue and its closeness to natural human speech patterns paved the way for dramatic realism, while the emotional vacillations in many of his works created our understanding of melodrama. Admired by Socrates and other philosophers, Euripides also distinguished himself as a free thinker; criticisms of traditional religion and defenses of oppressed groups (especially women and slaves) enter his plays with an explicitness unheard of before him. More than edifying pieces of art, works such as The Bacchae, Trojan Women, Iphigenia at Aulis, Alcetis, and Electra would become basic components of the Athenian citizen's political education.
As with most of the myths recounted in ancient Greek tragedy, the story-line of Euripides' Medea, originally produced in 431 BC, is derived from a collection of tales that circulated informally around him. His audience would have been familiar with its general parameters and many of its specifics. The play's merit consequently lies in its manner of exposition and its emotional focus, which Euripides places squarely in the flights of amoral passion that afflict the protagonist, Medea. Her infamous murders of her own children challenged the Athenian moral universe that continually hovers in the background of the play.
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