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Abstract

Critical interpretations of Euripidean tragedy have often focused on political issues that are central to these plays, or on the poetic innovations that are present throughout Euripides’ oeuvre. Only rarely have these two subjects been broached simultaneously. This divide, however, is unnecessary and unfortunate, as many forms of Greek poetry regularly addressed ideas of a political nature—which is to say of import to the polis—and often took their meaning from the specific civic contexts in which they were performed. As such, tragedy’s ability to refer to or employ external poetic forms has the potential to acquire a political dimension, illuminating or even problematizing the civic and political issues central to the dramas. It is thus a mistake to divorce the study of Euripides’ poetic pursuits and innovations from that of his investigation and critique of contemporary Athenian society and politics: these aspects inform each other, and should together inform our understanding of Euripidean tragedy. It is this intersection of politics and poetics that I set out to examine in this dissertation. In it, I argue that Euripides’ engagement with different poetic works and genres is not simply a product of his interest in the literary tradition, but that it is closely related to his exploration of political questions that were relevant to the world of his audience. As I demonstrate, Euripides refashions these various poetic forms as part of a process of challenging and critiquing Athenian cultural and political values, and in so doing he also questions and redefines the place and purpose of these poetic forms within contemporary Athenian society. Over the course of four chapters, I look at three different tragedies and four different poetic works and genres that form the (sub)textual backbones of these dramas. In chapter one, I examine the echoes of the Iliad in Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis. Here I argue that the presence of the Homeric text in the IA forms a critique of the dynamics of authority in democratic Athens, while the vast differences between the Homeric and Euripidean armies serve to undermine the common notion that the Homeric epics contained lessons on leadership. In the second chapter, I turn to the epinician language and themes that run throughout the Heracles, and contend that the tragedy exalts epinician poetry and values, a stance that is at odds with the reception of the genre in classical Athens. In chapter three, I analyze the presence of the paean in the Ion, and assert that Euripides’ use of the genre problematizes the fusion of mythical identities that the drama enacts, and raises doubts about the use of paeans as a means to propagate local and colonial identities. In the fourth and final chapter, I return to the Iphigenia at Aulis to explore its allusions to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and show that the IA overturns the Aeschylean depiction of Clytemnestra as a threat to male society because of her ability to so easily deceive Agamemnon. By inverting these roles—making Agamemnon the deceiver and Clytemnestra the deceived—the IA rejects the Aeschylean notion that deceptive speech was a specifically feminine attribute, and suggests that it is the duplicity of male leaders that represents the true threat to Athenian society. Each of these chapters examines an issue that lies at a juncture of the poetic and the political, and demonstrates that these aspects of Euripidean tragedy are fully intertwined. My analyses are informed by readings of Thucydides, Xenophon, and other contemporary sources, all of which serve to show that the problems with which Euripides is engaged—both the poetic and the political ones—were of particular relevance to the world of his Athenian audience.

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