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Learn about Greek tragedy, an art form that reached its peak during the Greek Golden Age of the fifth century and influences literature up to the present day.

Following this analysis, you can then test your knowledge with a quiz!

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Definition of a Greek Tragedy

No one is quite sure where the concept of a dramatic tragedy first came from, but it probably had something to do with Ancient Greek celebrations in honor of Dionysius and goats, hence why it’s usually known as Greek tragedy. Bear with me here. The idea of bringing the myths and legends to life would’ve engaged the people a lot more than static ceremonies.

I know I’d rather see a biography of Moses or Mohammed than go through a long ritual in honor of them.The Greek tragedies mostly began with a prologue, where a character or characters would set the stage for the play. The play itself would have at least three scenes. Between them, there would be a choral interlude that was used to explain or comment on the play.

The chorus was normally made up of random citizens. According to Aristotle and Plutarch, Thespis was the first playwright and performed at the first competition in 534 B.C.E. He did the acting, too, and it’s his name from whom the word thespian comes from! The first plays involved one actor and a chorus.

Innovations of Aeschylus

Aeschylus (525/524-456/455) was the first real master of the tragedy, adding a second actor, which allowed for on stage conflicts.

He also began writing trilogies; an Aeschylus production normally ran from sun-up to sundown. More importantly, though, Aeschylus was probably responsible for standardizing how a tragedy was to be written. Aeschylus also represented the old ways in that he was moral and very religious in his plays. Aeschylus wrote between 70 and 90 plays, which included the trilogy of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and Eumenides.

These are probably the most well known plays he wrote.

Sophocles

Sophocles (497/496-406/405) was another playwright who built on the format Aeschylus had developed and added his own details. The first thing he did was to break the tradition of trilogies, which probably made it easier for his audiences to keep their interest. He also added a third character. With two actors, there was either conflict or there wasn’t, but with a third there could be alliances, misunderstandings, and greater drama in general.

It wasn’t just the plays he changed, either. He expanded the chorus to fifteen people, but it became less important because he had his characters explaining themselves more. The use of aesthetics in plays was altogether a new concept, but Sophocles broke new ground and also added scenery to his plays. Sophocles wrote 123 plays, but his most famous were Antigone and Oedipus the King.

Euripides

Euripides (480-406) was a playwright from the era whose great addition to tragedy was his use of female leads.

Whereas the male leads in Athenian tragedies had been strong and certain of themselves, with women he could portray them as more fragile. Their complexity allowed him to explore the emotions of his characters and make even more believable people in his productions. Euripides also had his actors sing monodies in which they would talk about the troubles of other characters. That took away from the importance of the chorus.Euripides also developed the concept of deux ex machina, which means ‘God from the machine’, or a moment where divine power (or, a god) comes down to solve the problems the characters are experiencing. These days, we might see this as a cliche in storytelling or an ‘easy out’ for the writer to be lazy about the ending.

But for Euripides, it meant bringing a god into the events of his play so that his story could have a more acceptable ending.We might see it as a cliche today to do this, but think about it: we still do the same thing on TV shows (but have gotten away from actually involving gods). Star Trek will come up with a last-minute piece of technology that saves the day. Soap operas will introduce an unexpected relationship that changes a situation.

Law and Order will use a nuance of the legal system to change the outcome.Euripides wrote between 92 and 95 different plays in his lifetime, some of the most famous being Medea, Women of Troy, and Iphigenia in Tauris.

Lesson Summary

Greek tragedy was a type of play that likely has its origins Ancient Greek celebrations in honor of Dionysius and goats. During the Greek Golden Age, tragedy was a constantly developing animal–always improving and expanding under a series of different playwrights. The early playwrights included Thespis, the first playwright and performed at the first competition in 534 B.

C.E. (according to Aristotle and Plato) and Aeschylus, the first real master of the tragedy who standardized its format by adding a second actor, which allowed for on stage conflicts.

Sophocles came after Thespis and Aeschylus and built on the format Aeschylus had developed by adding a third actor and scenery, did away with the trilogy format, and worked more closely with the chorus. Finally, there was Euripides, who was the first to add female leads. Despite it now being considered a cliche by many, Euripides also developed the concept of deux ex machina, which means ‘God from the machine’, or a moment where divine power (or, a god) comes down to solve the problems the characters are experiencing. Starting with simple ceremony, it moved into a living recreation of the Greek myths and legends and became a reenactment of people and places.

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