When in the ninth century AD there was a revival of learning in Byzantium and a renewed interest in the ancient classics, some plays of the three great tragic poets of the fifth century BC were selected for transfer from their fragile, perishable papyrus rolls to sheets of durable vellum sewn together like the quires of a modern book. On this new material the texts were inscribed in the new cursive style, complete with breathings and accents but, above all, with separation between the words, unlike the uncial (what we call capital) letters of the papyri, which were written in unbroken sequence line by line. How the selection was made and by whom we do not know, whether by one scholar or through some process of agreement, but it preserved for us seven plays of Aeschylus, seven of Sophocles, and ten of Euripides.
One of these plays is an odd item—Rhesos, based on an exploit of Odysseus and Diomedes in Book IX of the Iliad; a note on the manuscript says it is not by Euripides, though it appears in the official lists of his plays. The others are some of Euripides’ masterpieces, plays that inspired Aristotle to call him “the most tragic of the poets”—Medea, Hippolytus, Trojan Women, Hecuba, Orestes, Phoenissae, Andromache, and Bacchae, as well as the fascinating and in some ways enigmatic Alcestis. All of the plays are provided with scholia, or marginal notes, many of which contain comments and explanations attributed to the great scholars of the Alexandrian Library. Later, during the European Renaissance, as Greek scholars were teaching their language in Florence, Venice, and elsewhere, a fourteenth-century manuscript was found that contained nine more Euripidean plays. They are known as the “alphabetic” plays, since they are arranged in alphabetical order by their Greek titles; they are probably a remnant of what was once a complete collection of the plays.
What these plays do is present us with some aspects of Euripidean drama that are not to be found in the original selection. One of them, Cyclops, is the only complete version of a satyr play, the fourth play offered by the poet at the Dionysiac festival; it is a farcical version of the Polyphemus episode in Book IX of the Odyssey, with a chorus of satyrs equipped with leather phalloi attached to their belts. Three of the tragedies have happy endings and in two of these, Helen and Iphigenia Among the Taurians, the protagonist is a woman who by skillful deception rescues herself and others from the clutches of the barbarians. And the third, the Ion, is clearly the prototype of Menander’s comedies of the next century—a plot in which mistaken identity threatens tragic consequences that are averted by recognition. Elektra is certainly a tragedy, but, as Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in this journal some weeks ago, in this play Euripides is “the mischievous prankster who…parodied the famous recognition scene in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers,” and in Mad Herakles “he questioned the established Olympian pantheon.”
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