An Introduction to Greek Tragedies

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Hello, this is Caleb Jacobo again with the third lecture in a series that will attempt to give context to some of the great works of literature that I have found to be vital to my studies. I will say it again, I am no expert in literature and I have no degree to speak of, but I am a literature enthusiast and I understand that the journey through great literature is a tough journey to embark on, but I hope that some of these recordings can at least spark your interest enough to read these great works and enjoy them as fully as you can.

Today we are going to talk about Greek Tragedies, what they are, who the big names are, and some tips on getting the most out of them.

What is a Greek Tragedy? Well, Greek Tragedy started as a ritual celebration of the God of wine, Dionysus, each year around April or early March. The ritual was required viewing event for all the men in the ancient Greek town. Greek tragedies were performed in trilogies of three plays presented over three days, at the end of which, a fourth play, the satyr, that is not part of the tragedy, but satirized the serious dramas the people had to watch.

The Greek tragedy looked a bit different from modern plays. It was performed wearing masks that helped the audience, who had no megatron monitors to display the intricate moving of an emotional face, or recognize who was who. It was very important to the Greeks that the communication was clear, and the masks helped them accomplish that. Early Greek tragedies, having developed from the well known bard performances of epics such as the Iliad and Odyssey, had only one actor on stage at a time. Most of the tragedies that survived to today show only two or three actors on the stage at once.

Another difference is that Greek tragedies used what is called a Chorus. The Chorus, again because of the Greeks’ emphasis on making the communication clear, would pose questions in the form of lyrics that the main character must answer to the audience. The Chorus acted as the audience’s voice, asking the right questions at the right times and guiding the people through the story.

So imagine if you can that you and all your friends and your entire state being required by law to watch a movie. These guys took this stuff very seriously. You might think that it was odd to make something like a play required viewing for a state, but if you were Greek, and there was no television or movies where mass amounts of people are exposed to a common experience, Greek plays promoted and instructed the audience on how to think and feel about the world around them. The Greeks understood that art is an effective form of mass communication.

Who cares? Movies are better right? Well, to our modern standards of valuable entertainment, it may seem that way, but the effect of Greek tragedies, as we now see, are very different from our forms of entertainment today. They transcend entertainment to cultural myth and belief systems. If you combine that with the obvious genius of inventing modern drama, and the weight that the message of these plays, you will have clear impetus to read through these beautiful works.

So who should you read? I’d like to point out first that there is no surviving trilogy today. That being said, you should read them all. That being said, you can cheat a little and get this amazing three volume collection I bought online called Greek Tragedies (fitting right?). If you don’t want to buy them, at least take a look to see which plays they cover, and look up a free version online. If you want a specific place to start, read Sophocles’ Oedipus The King, you will be semi familiar with it if you enjoyed english class. If not, you will be blown away by the impact of that play.

That concludes this lecture, An Introduction to Greek Tragedies, I hope that you read these, they are not very long, but they are very important for cultural literacy if nothing else.


4 Responses
  • Tom Morrison Reply

    Greek essay. I have the impression a rewrite and perhaps a slight further development would make it better. Obviously for someone who knows nothing, this prelude is fine, but even then a sonata would not be out of line and would better serve both the person with some slight knowledge and entice the total debutante to the plays. The purpose certainly is to encourage reading the actual works, not to provide cliff notes, and that purpose is clear in the essay and is achieved, Salute.

  • John McGrath Reply

    Ancient Greek literature often names the main theme in the first word or within the first few words. The Iliad, for instance, starts with the the phrase “myden agan,” excess of impulsive passion, the characteristic of the young warrior hero whose destiny is to die young and so he must live intensely and extremely. The Odyssey starts with “andra,” the word for adult man, the man who aims to live long and have a family life and so must live prudently, shrewdly, wisely in order to survive and move on. The Antigone starts with the theme word “konon,” one meaning being blood relative and normally translated as sister. But the word literally means “common,” common in blood but also the common good. Thus the play is structured around the obligation of blood ties in conflict with the obligation to the common good as represented by the state. Both Antigone and Creon, the king and her uncle and the father of her affianced, go to extremes and fail to find the common ground between the conflict of values that they have precipitated. Some theme words (or prefixes) flow through the entire text. For instance, in the Suppliant Women the word for face, “fusis,” shows up with various prefixes, each indicating the attitude of Zeus or the women’s plea for Zeus to assume a face direction that would show an attitude of acceptance and compassion.

  • Ron Troyst Reply

    I love that you gave a background on Greek tragedy. I remember in school we were required to read some of the most well known Greek Tragedies, but it was never properly explained to us the value and significance behind them. Thank you!

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