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Abstract

The biographical tradition asserts that Euripides had been a painter before he was a tragedian and that his artworks were on view in Megara. While this story is likely fanciful, it does testify to the long-standing recognition of Euripides’ interest in the visual arts. In this dissertation, I interrogate the relationship between the works of this tragedian and his visual milieu. Athens in the late fifth century was a place of great innovation and expansion in the world of visual arts: the continued production of red-figure vases, the growth of new iconographies and artforms, and drastic innovations in architecture and sculpture. Euripides and his audience lived in a city of images where their experience of divinity was shaped by and understood through material culture. I examine the way that Euripides responds to the city’s visual environment and explores the boundaries of tragedy as a visual medium itself in three plays. These tragedies alternately draw on the authority of images, contest their interpretation, or question the possibilities and limitations of visuality. In the Ion, images of Athens’ autochthonous kings and its patron deity are woven through the tragedy to authorize an unusual variation in the plot and to place the action under Athena’s purview. The Ion draws on the persuasive power of images to create a visual argument for the intrinsic connection between Athena, Athens’ autochthonous history, and the Ionians. In the Helen, the relationship between Helen and her earlier representations is pivotal to the plot. Euripides first presents a Helen who aligns herself with the visual tradition, but when that threatens to leave her vulnerable to the same repetitive cycle of abduction that characterizes her counterpart in the iconographic tradition, she changes her costume in a drastic break from previous representations. The Bacchae, similarly, challenges the iconographic tradition, even while using it as a source of authority. First, by invoking material representations of Dionysus through reference to the new imagery of the god contemporaneous with the production. Then, by using the ambiguity of the representation of Dionysus as the foundation for exploring the question of the appearance of divinity and the possibilities of the theater as both a visual and a temporal medium to produce an experience analogous to epiphany. Through this analysis of Euripides’ use of the visual tradition, I hope to show that understanding the visual and material context of the production of tragedies not only adds further nuance, but is vital for understanding this genre.

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