A Bluffer’s Guide To Ancient Greek Tragedy

An introduction to some of the key ideas about one of the world’s most powerful and strange body of plays.

Some of the richest and earliest literary works to be handed down to us are the tragedies of Ancient Greece. Written in the 6th and 5th centuries BC by playwrights such as Aeschylus, Phrynichus, Sophocles and Euripides, these powerful and weird works offer us a window on the civilisation which paved the way for our own.

But how do we begin to understand plays written 2,500 years ago when the world was flat, gravity unheard of and the gods a renegade rabble living on a mountain down the road? What was the purpose of these shocking, moving and often bloody works? And what can they teach us about the drama we watch today? Here are a few ideas.

The Unities

One of the earliest and most famous commentators on Greek Tragedy was the philosopher Aristotle. He identified three common rules which seemed to apply to every tragedy: the Unity of Action, the Unity of Time and the Unity of Place.

The Unity of Action meant that the plot of each play focused on a story line. So, for example Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex follows the tragic rise and fall of Oedipus as he attempts to escape the Oracle’s prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. The Unity of Place meant that the action played out in a single location and the Unity of Time dictated that it should all take place in a single time span, usually a day.

These ideas resonated with a lot of writers in subsequent generations. John Milton, took them as a guide for his tragic work Samson Agonistes, while Thomas Hardy reflected them in his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, the story of the rise and fall of Michael Henchard.

However, although the Unities can be found in nearly every Ancient Greek tragedy, it’s worth remembering that they were not necessarily rules that the writers consciously followed. Instead, they are common traits that a man who lived more than a hundred years after the plays were written pointed out.

Catharsis

Another of Aristotle’s central points about Greek Tragedy, which he set out in his Poetics, was about the emotional response they evoked. He called this catharsis, literally ‘pity and fear’, and suggested that the purpose of the tragedies was to purge the emotions of the audiences by making them feel the tragedy of central characters’ downfall.

So when the Bacchae in Euripides’ violent play of the same name go into a frenzy and tear the human characters to pieces, the audience’s foreknowledge of what is going to happen and horror of witnessing it is supposed to act as a kind of release, perhaps an almost religious experience.

Dike

The concept of Dike or justice, taken from the goddess of the same name, is that balance must be maintained. A wrong must be righted by another wrong on the other side, blood must be spilled in return for blood, and families must take revenge for the death of their loved ones.

The problem is that once the balance has been upset and families start taking revenge on one another there is no easy way of ending it. As in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, a trilogy which follows a grudge going back and forth across several generations, the duty of revenge seesaws between the two parties indefinitely. This idea is reflected in modern films, such as The Road To Perdition, where Tom Hanks’ character’s dying action is to save his son from being caught up in a similar cycle of revenge by killing the man he is about to shoot.

References

  • Eagleton, Terry. Sweet Violence: The Idea Of The Tragic. Blackwell Publishing. 2003.
  • Easterling, PE. The Cambridge Companion To Greek Tragedy. Cambridge University Press. 1997.
  • Kitto, HDF. The Greeks. Penguin. 1991.

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