Euripides' plays


"It's not against any religion, to want to dispose of a pigeon" (Tom Lehrer, Poisoning Pigeons in the Park).

How seriously should we take a tragedy where the poisoning of a pigeon is the most dramatic event in the play? My latest translation is of Ion, one of Euripides' stranger plays. A young man, brought up as an orphan in Apollo's temple in Delphi begins to doubt the god's sincerity when he's presented with a father (whom he instinctively dislikes) and then a mother (for whom he feels sympathy, but tries to murder!). Are either of them his real parents? Can he really trust a god who (apparently) raped his mother and attempted a cover-up, and then fobbed him off with a father who had no part in his begetting?

My view (in brief) is that it's a beautifully constructed play about a young man becoming an adult, and realising that he can't rely on the certainties he grew up with. (October 2012)

Read Ion in my new translation:


actually former Miss World Aishwarya Rai This play is Euripides' apology to Helen for all the nasty things he wrote about her in his other plays. Helen here is as charming, beautiful and witty as she is in the Odyssey - the centre of this puzzling play. I'm not even going to try assigning the play to a definite genre. It is obvious that it is not a tragedy like Bacchae or Hippolytus; of Euripides' other plays it's perhaps nearest in style to Ion. A situation is set up which we are led to expect will lead to tragedy - but thanks to an amazing plot twist, all turns out well. Shakespeare wrote similar dramas, which he was allowed to call comedies - Much Ado, All's Well, Measure for Measure - but we obviously can't call Helen or Ion "comedies" in a Greek context.

The play takes Stesichorus' notion that the Helen who went to Troy wasn't the real thing: she was spirited off by the gods to sit out the war in Egypt. In Electra, this idea is put forward as an example of the extreme cynicism that you'd expect from immortals - but in this play such bitterness seems out of place. Far better enjoy a fast moving plot with some excellent characters (Theonoë, the self-righteous priestess is particularly fine, and the non-heroic Menelaus is a joy).

Read Euripides' Helen online in my translation, performed at the South Bank open air theatre, London

Helen - the beautiful freak


Euripides' last play that survives intact, and probably still his most controversial.

Discussion of the tragedy, and an interactive web game.


Euripides' final word on the Theban story. A mighty play which seamlessly weaves together the plots of the Seven Against Thebes and Antigone, with some of OT and OC thrown in for good measure. The first time I saw it (at the Greenwich Theatre in London in the early seventies, with Siobhan McKenna absolutely definitive as Jocasta), it was an experience that a Classicist hardly ever gets at a Greek play: genuine shock and wonder at the twists of the plot. I gasped in complete amazement when it was revealed that old Oedipus was still actually alive inside the palace! The "Phoenician Women" of the title are some young girls en route from home in Syria to Delphi - they've been trapped in Thebes by the war, and have discovered their ancient kinship with the Thebans, through Cadmus, founder of Thebes, who came originally from Phoenicia.

Read Phoenician Women online in my translation


Once dismissed as a mere "melodrama" unworthy of Euripides, Orestes would now be considered by many to be his masterpiece. Like Helen, it transcends category. The theme could not be more serious. It is a play about madness and personal responsibility for one's actions. The characters, however are superbly comic - hence the problems. Traditional scholars and critics could not handle a tragedy that was funny.

Electra is the only sympathetic character - she is tender and sweet, and her devotion to her brother makes her an interesting contrast with the psychopathic bitch from hell in Euripides' Electra.

Orestes alternates between madness and a dismal self-pity. He is a coward and a wimp who does not deserve Electra's love - or the audience's sympathy: but he gets it, because despite his general obnoxiousness, he inspires such love in his sister and friend.

Helen is patronisingly superior - Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous.

Menelaus is a caricature of the military man - unprincipled and obsessed with appearances. He will do anything for his family, unless it turns out to be inconvenient. Lacks the ironic self-deprecation of Menelaus in Helen.

Tyndareus demands the full Burl Ives treatment (as in the film of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) - a bigoted, frightening and irascible old patriarch.

Pylades does not need to be camp - but it helps.

The Phrygian slave is a wonderful part - unique in Greek drama. While the other parts are characters whose foibles make them amusing, the Phrygian is a genuine comic character. He sings, he leaps - he entertains. He steals the show. Spawn of Michael Jackson and Mr Bean.

Apollo is the god responsible for everything. He reminds one of a gameshow host, who knows there will be more suckers next week to play "Kill your parents". The final scene, where Apollo hands out the prizes to the survivors, accompanied by Helen who has quite literally become a star, is totally amazing.

Read Orestes online in my tranlation, as performed at Edinburgh Fringe Festival


Euripides' most misunderstood play. Modern readers tend to ignore the fact that it was written for an audience of men, and that womens' rights were never a issue in ancient Athens. Aristophanes' Lysistrata, where women take over the government, is funny because it's a pure fantasy (just as much as Peace, where the hero flies to heaven on specially-fattened dung beetle).

Play "The Medea Game" - an interactive tour of Euripides' play. You'll also find details of the mythological backgound and a reading guide.


A play to challenge traditional interpretations of the revenge of Agamemnon's children on their mother and her lover, a theme also covered by Aeschylus and Sophocles. Euripides is the only one where Electra is actually involved in the killing of Clytemnestra.

Brief notes here.

Footnote: Euripides' study found?

A Greek archaeologist, Yannis Lolos, claims to have found the cave on Salamis, where Euripides shut himself away to write some of his early plays. The evidence? A fragment of a bowl (of Roman period), inscribed "Euripides" - and a passage in Hippolytus which describes the sea view from the cave. Hmmm. Isn't it just as likely that some enterprising Salaminians "discovered" a suitable cave to fit the tradition, and sold the Roman tourists tacky souvenirs? (The Times 2nd January 1998)

Text of Ion? Text of Helen? Text of Phoenissae? Text of Orestes?