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  • The Child’s Voice in Euripidean Tragedy: Socialization Through Challenge*
  • Fayah Haussker


Euripides was the first playwright to develop juvenile characters who could speak before an audience.1 Nine of his extant plays include prepubescent children in the cast (Romilly 1986.82–85, Menu 1992.239–40, 1995.146), but only three feature children with singing parts on stage.2 These parts are short lyric passages alternating with adult responses or interruptions: the monody of the son of Alcestis in Alcestis (393–403, 406–15);3 [End Page 203] the amoibaion (lyric exchange) between Molossus and Andromache in Andromache that culminates in the child’s supplication of Menelaus (501–14, 523–36); and the kommos (antiphonal ritual lament) performed by the two choruses of mothers and sons of the dead Argive warriors in the Supplices (1123–64). In these short segments, Euripides presents children—usually silent secondary characters (Fantham 1986.268 and Yoon 2012.34)—as individuals in their own right who make their voices heard.4

My purpose is twofold. First, I seek to provide a comprehensive examination of children’s voices on stage, a topic that has not yet received sufficient attention either in the study of Greek drama or in that of the history of childhood. Second, I explore the basic question of why, among all of Euripides’ child characters, these particular sons are given a voice—beyond the obvious purpose of enhancing dramatic tension and pathos.5 One reason for this is that these sons are destined to survive, thus providing familial and communal generational continuity; from their point of view, all the plays can be said to have “happy endings.” Moreover, these children are old enough to understand their situation and its implications. Of particular significance are the occasions on which these children sing. In each case, it is a private or public religious ceremony—that is, a widely practiced ritual that was one of the main tools of socialization in the Greek oikos (“family”) and polis.6

While exploring to what extent the representations of the children in these passages corresponds to the image of children and their characteristics in Greek tragedy in general, I will also situate these passages within a broader socio-cultural reality and in relation to the representation [End Page 204] of childhood experiences “offstage” in two ways. First, the lyrics sung by children reflect Greek assumptions regarding minors’ responses to unsettling circumstances, predominantly the loss of a parent whether by death or absence, that also challenged the civic community of classical Athens. The songs thus provide detailed pictures of how children’s own experiences and perspectives in disconcerting situations were perceived.7 Second, there is an unequivocal and strong interconnection between voice and maturity. All these singing children undergo a process of accelerated socialization, metamorphizing from helpless minors into dynamic individuals capable of responding to their own situations—unlike children’s stereotypical characteristics in tragedy and beyond. Religious ritual proficiency, exhibited through the voice, allows the children to become active agents in their own integration into the adult community. The theatre audience is assured of their resilience: they can reach adulthood and fulfil their roles as full members of society.


Alcestis (438 bce), the first surviving tragedy in which a child sings on stage, is the only one of the thirty-two surviving tragic plays in which a monologue is performed by a child. Although the play features both a son and a daughter whose exact ages and names are not indicated in the text, only the voice of the boy, sometimes called Eumelus, is heard.8

The thematic focus of the play is Alcestis’ sacrificial act of tendering her life in place of that of her husband Admetus and the familial response to her death (Segal 1993.51–62). The presence of children on stage for more than a third of the play (entering after 242 and remaining until [End Page 205] 434, when they return to the palace with Admetus for the funeral), highlights their key role in Alcestis’ dilemma: should she fulfil her obligations as a mother or perform this enormous sacrifice as a wife?9

The son’s monody comes towards the...


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