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Ancient Greek Playwrights

ARISTOPHANES

Aristophanes, the most famous writer of Greek comedies, was born in the 440s b.c.e. He lived through the upheaval of the Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431 to 404, and stripped Athens of her place as cultural and political capital of the Greek city-states.

Many of his plays comment on the long war—perhaps the most famous is Lysistrata, whose heroine leads a sex strike in order to bring about peace. He often made fun of tragedy and the tragedians: Aristophanes’ Frogs is one of the best ancient critiques of the other playwrights that we still have.

He produced his first play in 427. Before his death in the 380s he had written 44 comedies, of which we have eleven.

AESCHYLUS

The first great tragedian, Aeschylus, was born around 525 b.c.e. He produced his first dramas in 498, and he had his first victory in 484. We know he was still working in 458, when he produced his trilogy Oresteia.

Aeschylus actually fought in the front lines against the Persians at Marathon in 490. We don’t know much about the rest of his life, but we do know that his Persians (financed by Pericles) was such a success that he was invited to Sicily by Hieron of Syracuse to restage it. He died in Sicily, having returned there sometime after 458. His tombstone mentions that he was an Athenian and that he fought at Marathon, but does not mention his plays.

His life bridged the Archaic and Classical ages, and Aeschylus’ plays reflect that fact. Considered even by the ancients to be difficult and old-fashioned, Aeschylus was also quite innovative in the structures, personnel, and even subjects of his plays. He wrote around 89 plays, of which we have only seven.

SOPHOCLES

Sophocles, an older contemporary of Euripides, was born 497/496 b.c.e. at Colonus outside Athens. He first competed in 468, when he won first prize and beat his great elder Aeschylus at the same time. He won eighteen victories at the Great Dionysia, and he never placed lower than second.

We know that Sophocles was active in Athenian public life: he was strategos (one of ten elected generals) with Pericles in 441/0, an office he probably held more than once. He was also personally involved in bringing the healing cult of Asclepius to Athens. He died in 406, soon after Euripides.

Aristotle admired Sophocles (and particularly his Oedipus the King) because he wrote good plots about important people. Many people share Aristotle’s point of view and consider Sophocles the greatest Greek playwright. We know of a total of 123 plays written by Sophocles, of which a mere seven survive.

EURIPIDES

Euripides was the youngest of the three great tragedians. Born in the 480s b.c.e., Euripides first competed in the Great Dionysia in 455. He competed twenty-one more times, but won only four times, including with the tetralogy that included Bacchae andIphigeneia at Aulis, produced after his death in 406.

Most of what has come down to us as Euripides’ biography is pieced together from jokes made about him in comedies, and thus is not particularly reliable. He seems not to have taken part in public life; he may have had a bad marriage; and one of his sons (or a nephew) was a tragic poet, too. There is also some evidence that he may have been an intellectual recluse, and he perhaps had a large library.

The ancients criticized his plays for being too pedestrian and too easily resolved. Euripides also had a reputation for literary misogyny, but modern audiences might wonder at such a charge leveled against the creator of the heroines of Alcestis, Medea, Iphigeneia at Aulis, and Hecuba.

We are fortunate still to have nineteen plays by Euripides.

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