The Technique of the Euripidean Tragedy
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The Technique of the Euripidean Tragedy book
In the last chapter we tried to show that the structure of the Euripidean tragedy differs radically from that of the Sophoclean because Euripides saw the tragic in a totally different way. He saw tragic and tragic action not as part of the character of the individual, leading to the downfall of the individual, but, in a more abstract way, as a disastrous element in our common human nature which leads to suffering, in which the guilty person may share or not. The tragedies fall into two groups, the Medea and Hippolytus, and the war-plays or social tragedies. Even in the Medea, a play which seems to depend entirely on Medea’s own will and tragic personality, we saw that there is, at least in analysis, a perceptible distinction between Medea’s personal tragedy and Euripides’ tragic conception; we saw that if the wider tragic reference is not apprehended, the heroine and the play become rather difficultnot far from melodrama, the making of drama for the sake only of dramatic excitement. In general, the characters are regarded as tragic figures in the grip of something greater than themselves, even when, as in the first group, this something is an instinctive passion in the highest degree personal. Medea’s jealousy and vindictiveness are not made objective in a goddess, but for all that Euripides is thinking of them as he thinks of the love of Phaedra and the fanatical anti-love of Hippolytus: as psychological forces which take entire possession of their victims and drive them where they will. There is not, except by dramatic accident, any struggle in the soul of the victim between this passion and another, no suggestion that the passion is the one thing that ruins a nature otherwise excellent;
to Euripides it is a universal force which shows its disastrous power through this victim, something which the end of the Medea suggests and the prologue to the Hippolytus declares to be an external dramatic agent. This, and not the character, begins to direct the action. In other words, the poet, no longer working out the inevitable action of a tragic character from the first conjuncture of situation with character to the catastrophe, can himself step in to manipulate the plot in the interests of his real tragedy. Hence the ‘irrational’ in the Medea, and in the Hippolytus the complete supersession of Phaedra by Hippolytus.