Friday, February 22, 2013


Jessica Morrison
Honors 201

Greek Tragedy

Tragedy emerged first in the yearly spring festivals for Dionysus in sixth century BCE. At these festivals songs were sung about heroes of late and poems were read. Homer was the author of most of those poems and he had a huge influence on tragedy developing. It is thought that Thespis combined elements that already existed in the festival to form the structure of the performances of the first tragedies. (Scodel) Gilbert Norwood stated in his book “tragedy was born at the moment when, as tradition relates, Thespis of Icaria in Attica introduced the actor”. Thespis stepped away from being a part of a chorus and distinguished himself like a protagonist of a story. Eventually both tragedies and comedies became and integrated part of the festival. Each year three playwrights submitted three tragedies and one satire to compete against each other and at the end of the festival a winner was announced. Despite some controversy of exactly when and how tragedy truly emerged, it seems agreed upon that it blossomed from the festivals and Thespis, as well as Homer, was a great contributor in its development.

The first tragedian known to us was Phrynichus, but he is not well known in modern society. The three playwrights that still have tragedies surviving today are Aeshylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. At the Dionysus festival in 498 BCE Aeshylus won first prize in the competition, jump-starting his career as a playwright. Of the known 89 plays he wrote only 7 remain today. Sophocles, the author of Antigone, later beat Aeshylus in 468 BCE, but sadly only 7 of his plays survive as well. Euripides never actually won first place at the festivals, but he first began competing in 455 BCE. His plays were thought to have a prejudice against women as it seemed the men hated the women in his pays. Nineteen of Euripides’ scripts are still around today.  

There are several elements that set a tragedy apart from other genres of Greeks plays and also some mutual ones. In the sixth century BCE masks were used in all performances, but they were used to hide the actors’ face and not to show them as the identity of their character. Thespis again comes into play as evolving masks from simple paint, to leaves, to fabric. However, a huge shift in the use of masks was in the fifth century BCE when the emergence of female protagonists and masks began to be made with color and had the intent to evoke emotion. (Calme) For the aspects of a tragic script playwrights had a meter to follow and specifics about how their hero should be. The meter in Greek tragedy was not based on stressed and unstressed syllables, but on how long it took a person to say that syllable. Depending on the section of the play or who was talking the play could be written in iambic meter, trochaic tetrameter, or anapestic meter. There are many, many other rules about how exactly the meter worked in Greek texts, but I do not have the space to include it all. (Norwood). The hero of the story was also expected to be born of nobles and take their fate seriously. A misfortune happens to this character at some point in the play and is caused by a mistake they had previously made; this is also referred to as the tragic flaw of the hero. Aristotle makes the point that the misfortune cannot happen because the hero is a bad person, but must be because of the one mistake he/she did. (Scodel) Despite these “rules” for a Greek tragedy, there are some exceptions that do not include every aspect, but for the most part those elements are what depict a tragedy from other plays.

Despite the tremendous difference in time between now and when Greek tragedies were composed, they continue to be performed all around the world. “Since the turn of the 20th century, ancient Greek plays have become part of the repertoire of all modern theatres and, since the 1970s, there has been the most remarkable explosion of performances of Greek tragedy across the world – not just Europe and the USA, but also in Japan and Africa and Russia. In London, Paris and New York.” (Goldhill) These plays can still be related to and enjoyed in today’s society and I predict they will continue to be popular for many years to come.

Above is a Greek vase depicting a production of one of Euripides' plays

Works Cited
Calame, Claude. "Facing Otherness: The Tragic Mask in Ancient Greece." History of Religions 26.2 (1986): 125-142. JSOTR. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.
Cohen, Amy R.. "The Greek Play at Randolph College." Randolph College - A Private Liberal Arts and Sciences College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Randolph College, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2013. <
Goldhill , Simon . "Greek tragedy: setting the stage today | University of Cambridge." Focus on | University of Cambridge. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. <>.
Jastrow. Mask Youngster. N.d. Louve, Paris. Theater of Ancient Greece. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.
Norwood, Gilbert. Greek tragedy. New York: Hill and Wang, 1960. Print.
Scodel, Ruth. An introduction to Greek tragedy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

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