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

The Ancient Greeks took their entertainment very seriously and used drama as a way of investigating the world they lived in, and what it meant to be human. The three genres of ancient Greek drama were comedy, satyr plays, and most important of all, tragedy.

Comedy: The first comedies were mainly satirical and mocked men in power for their vanity and foolishness. The first master of comedy was the playwright Aristophanes. Much later Menander wrote comedies about ordinary people and made his plays more like sitcoms.

Tragedy: Tragedy dealt with the big themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between men and gods. Typically the main protagonist of a tragedy commits some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant he has been. Then, as he slowly realizes his error, the world crumbles around him. The three great playwrights of tragedy were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Aristotle argued that tragedy cleansed the heart through pity and terror, purging us of our petty concerns and worries by making us aware that there can be nobility in suffering. He called this experience “catharsis”.

Satyr Plays: These short plays were performed between the acts of tragedies and made fun of the plight of the tragedy’s characters. The satyrs were mythical half-human, half-goat figures and actors in these plays wore large phalluses for comic effect. Few examples of these plays survive. They are classified by some authors as tragicomic, or comedy dramas.

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

The Great Playwrights of Athens’ “Golden Age”

Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy, died in 456 BC, relatively early in Pericles’ long career as Athens’ leading politician. He left a number of important plays that still survive today, including The Persians and The Oresteia.

His mantle was taken up by the playwrights Sophocles, who wrote 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: The Phoenician Women and The Bacchae.

The leading comic author of Athens, Aristophanes, did not produce his first play until 427 BC, two years after Pericles’ death. He specialized in what we would call political satire, and of his eleven surviving plays Lysistrata, The Acharnians, and The Clouds are the most famous.

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Greek tragedies: Sophocles - Oedipus King (Oedipus Rex)

An Excerpt of the Classic Monologue from Oedipus the King

This Greek tragedy by Sophocles is based on the ancient legend of a fallen hero. The story has several interchangeable names including Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus Rex, or the classic, Oedipus the King. First performed around 429 BC, the plot unfolds as a murder mystery and political thriller that refuses to reveal the truth until the end of the play. Although it was crafted thousands of years ago, the story of Oedipus Rex still shocks and fascinates readers and audience members alike. 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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