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“Mortal fate is hard. You’d best get used to it.” – Euripides, Medea

Drama was a critical part of ancient Greek life. Drama was used by ancient Greeks to investigating the world they lived in, and explore what it meant to be human. Ancient Greek drama had 3 genres: comedy, satyr or satirical plays, and most important of all, tragedy.

Comedy: Initially comedies mostly mocked men in power for their vanity and foolishness, but as time went by they became more complex in themes and included plays about ordinary people which read more like modern-day sitcoms. Aristophanes and Menander were the most famous writers of ancient Greek comedies.

Tragedy: The word “tragedy” (or tragodia in Greek) literally means a “goat song”. Scholars assume that this name came about because a goat was either the prize in a competition or that there was some kind of a ritual sacrifice of the animal during these plays. The Athenian tragedy is the oldest surviving form of tragedy. Tragedy usually dealt with stories of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the relationships between people and the gods. In most tragedies, the main protagonist commits some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant they have been. Then, as they slowly realize their error, the world crumbles around them. Aristotle suggested that tragedy cleansed the heart by purging us of our petty concerns and worries and making us aware that there can be nobility in suffering. He called this experience “catharsis”.

The three most famous playwrights of ancient Greek tragedy were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Satyr Plays: We only have very few examples of this type of plays survive from ancient Greek times. From waht we know, the Satyr or satirical plays were short plays which were performed between the acts of tragedies and made fun of the plight of the tragedy’s main characters. It’s assumed that the actors in the satyr plays were dressed like a satyr. The satyrs were mythical half-human, half-goat figures and actors in these plays were dressed like them and also wore large phalluses for comic effect and relief.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Acropolis
Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Acropolis, Athens

The Great Playwrights of Athens’ “Golden Age”

The father of Greek tragedy is Aeschylus who died in 456 BC. Aeschylus left a number of important plays which thankfully still survive today, including The Persians and The Oresteia.

Aeschylus was followed by two important playwrights: Sophocles, who wrote several important and well-known plays such as Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus, and Oedipus Rex; and Euripides, who wrote The Trojan Trilogy, of which only The Trojan Women survives, as well as two other important plays about the roles of women in the Greek society of the time: The Phoenician Women and The Bacchae.

Aristophanes was most famous playwright of comedies. He specialized in what we would today call political satire, and his most famous works are Lysistrata, the Clouds and the Acharnians. It total eleven of Aristophanes’ plays survived to this day.

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Ancient Greek literature

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Greek tragedies: Sophocles - Oedipus King (Oedipus Rex)

An Excerpt of the Classic Monologue from Oedipus the King

The Oedipus King is a tragedy written by Sophocles and first performed around 429BC. It is based on the ancient legend of a fallen hero called Oedipus. The story has several interchangeable names including Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus Rex, or the classic, Oedipus King. The plot unfolds as a combination of a murder mystery and political thriller, and doesn’t reveal the truth to the audience until the end of the play. The story of Oedipus Rex still shocks and fascinates readers and audience around the world to this day, eventhough it was written thousands of years ago. In the story, Oedipus rules over the kingdom of Thebes, yet all is not well. Throughout the land, there is famine and plague, and the gods are angry. Oedipus vows to find out the source of the curse. Unfortunately, it turns out that he is the abomination.

Who is Oedipus?

Oedipus is the son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta and unknowingly marries his mother, who he ends up having four children with. In the end, it turns out that Oedipus has also murdered his father. All of this, of course, was unbeknownst to him. When Oedipus discovers the truth of his actions, he is wrought with horror and self-loathing. In this monologue, he has blinded himself after witnessing his wife’s suicide. He now devotes himself to his own punishment and plans to walk the earth as an outcast until the end of his days.

But what in act is vile the modest tongue
Should never name. Bury me, hide me, friends,
From every eye; destroy me, cast me forth
To the wide ocean–let me perish there:
Do anything to shake off hated life.
Seize me; approach, my friends–you need not fear,
Polluted though I am, to touch me; none
Shall suffer for my crimes but I alone.

Source: Greek Dramas. Ed. Bernadotte Perrin. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904

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