Euripides, the Greek dramatist, had a profound influence on the development of later Western drama. According to legend, he was born on the island of Salamis on September 23, 480 B.C., the day of the great naval battle in which the Greeks defeated the Persians; historians set his birthdate in 484. Euripides’ family soon fled to Athens, where he received a comprehensive education before beginning military service at age 20. His first play was produced in 455, when he competed in the Festival of Dionysus, a competition Sophocles had won only 13 years prior to Euripides’ initial entry. Euripides’ first of four victories in the Festival came in 442. Euripides also showed talent and interest in other areas of study, particularly natural science and philosophy. Although he is believed to have written many dramatic works, only 17 tragedies and one satyr play survive today, among them Alcestis (438), Medea (431), Hippolytus (428), and The Trojan Women (415). Throughout his dramatic career, Euripides was both praised and criticized for his unique and unconventional style, particularly the natural, realistic language of his heroes and his independence from traditional religious conventions; he is credited with bringing drama closer to the experience of the ordinary citizen. Aristotle called Euripides the most tragic of the Greek poets; he is sometimes called the philosopher of the stage. Euripides eventually became disaffected with life in Athens and moved to Macedonia, where he died in 406—according to legend, attacked and killed by the king’s hunting dogs.
In Suppliant Women (date uncertain), Euripides depicts the tragic aftermath of a war known as the “Seven Against Thebes.” In the drama, Evadne, whose husband Capaneus has died, commits suicide by throwing herself from a cliff onto his funeral pyre. Her elderly father Iphis witnesses her death and laments the torments of old age. Two cruxes in the text are often rendered in disparate ways in different translations: Iphis’ vow to starve himself and destroy his body, apophthero [“utterly ruin, destroy”], and his further insistence that the aged should not attempt to prolong their lives with various medical regimens but should leave and die, and “get out of the way of the young.” Suicide in old age or to lessen burdens on younger generations is not, however, to be confused with that of younger people with more emotional reasons, and the chorus of Greek women in Suppliant Women do not approve of Evadne’s suicide, saying “Alas, woman, it is a dread deed you have accomplished.”
Euripides, Suppliant Women, lines 980-1113, ed. and tr. David Kovacs. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1998, odd-numbered pp. 110-125, some punctuation deleted.
from SUPPLIANT WOMEN: THE SUICIDE OF EVADNE, WATCHED BY HER FATHER
Look, I see the resting place and consecrated tomb of Capaneus here and gifts from the temple Theseus has dedicated to the dead. I also see near at hand Evadne, the glorious wife of lightning-slain Capaneus and the daughter of King Iphis. Why does she take this path and stand on the high cliff that towers over this temple?
What light, what gleam
did the sun on its chariot shine forth,
and likewise the moon, astride her steed,
swiftly accompanying my bridal celebration
through the dark night with her swift-moving torches?
On that day with songs sweet-resounding
in honor of my marriage the city of Argos
raised tower-high my happiness
and that of my bridegroom,
Capaneus of the bronze panoply.
And now it is to him I have come, running
crazed from my house
to enter upon the same
pyre blaze and burial,
to bring my toilsome life and its labors
to a toilless end in Hades.
The most pleasurable death, you know,
is to die with one’s dearest as he dies,
if fate so ordains.
You see this pyre, above which you stand, the storehouse of Zeus, where lies your husband, bested by the blaze of the thunderbolt.
I see that my journey’s end
is here where I stand (for fortune
is stepping along with me),
and it is here that to win glory
I shall launch myself from this cliff.
After leaping into the fire,
joining my body in the glowing flame
with my dear husband,
and laying my flesh near his.
I shall come to the marriage chamber of Persephone!
Never, where my life is concerned,
shall I abandon you lying dead beneath the earth!
Light the bridal torch, begin the marriage! May good luck
attend you, all lawful marriages
that may come to my children
in Argos! And may the wedded bridegroom,
as goodness ordains, dwell
fused in love to the pure impulse
of his noble wife!
But look, here your father himself, aged Iphis, draws near to receive new and unwelcome tidings, tidings he did not know before and which will grieve him when he hears them.
O unhappy women, unhappy old man that I am I have come with a double burden of grief for my kin: I want to transport my son Eteoclus, killed by the spears of the Cadmeans, back to his native land by ship and to find my daughter, Capaneus’ wife, who sprang up and left her house, longing to die with her husband. Previously she was guarded closely in the house. But because of our present misfortunes I relaxed the watch, and she went off. But we think she is most likely to be here. Tell me if you have seen her.
Why do you ask them? Here I am upon the cliff like a bird, perched high in my grief, father.
My child, what impulse, what errand is this? Why have you stolen from home and come to this land?
To learn my plans would make you angry, father. I do not want you to hear them.
But is it not right for your father to know?
You would be a foolish judge of my intent.
But why have you adorned yourself with this finery?
These clothes have a glorious aim, father.
You do not look like a woman in mourning for her husband.
No: it is for a new purpose that I am decked out.
And yet you show yourself near his pyre and tomb?
Yes: I have come here in glorious victory.
What victory? I want to learn from your lips.
Over all women the sun looks on.
In the works of Athena or in prudence of thought?
In goodness: I shall lie next to my husband in death.
What do you mean? What is this diseased riddle you are telling?
I shall leap upon the pyre of dead Capaneus here.
My daughter, hush! Do not say this before the crowd.
But this is the very thing I want, that all the Argives should know it.
But I will not consent to your doing this.
That makes no difference. You will not be able to seize me in your grasp. See, my body is sped: this is unkind to you but kind to me and to the husband with whom I share the pyre.
woman, it is a dread deed you have accomplished!
My miserable life is at an end, Argive women!
Cruel are the griefs you have suffered!
Can you bear, poor man, to look on this deed of utmost
You will never find another more hapless than me!
You have taken a share, old sir, in the fortunes of Oedipus,
both you and my luckless city!
Ah me! Why is it not possible for mortals to be twice young and twice old? If something is amiss at home, with our second thoughts we put it to rights, but we cannot do this with our lives. If we were twice young and old, when anyone made a mistake we could correct it when we had received our life’s second portion.
I, for example, saw others begetting children and longed for them, and this longing was my undoing. If I had known this and had experienced what a thing it is for a father to lose his children, I would never have come to my present pitch of misery. I begot and fathered a brave young man and now I am deprived of him.
Well, then, what am I to do in my misery? Return home? And then am I to look at the deep desolation of my house and the emptiness of my life? Or should I go to the house of Capaneus here? I loved to do so before when I had my daughter. But she is gone, she who always used to draw my cheek to her lips and hold my head in her hands. Nothing is sweeter to an aged father than a daughter. Sons are more spirited but not as endearing. Servants, take me swiftly home and hide me in the dark! There I shall starve my aged body and end my life! What good will it do me to touch the bones of my son?
Old age, so hard to wrestle with, how I detest you! I detest also those who wish to prolong their lives, using meat and drink and magic potions to turn aside the stream and avoid death. Since they do the earth no good, they should vanish and die and get out of the way of the young!