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Ancient Greek Drama
Transcript of Ancient Greek Drama
Ancient Greek playwrights explored weaknesses in human nature throughout the evolution of Greek theatre, which began as a religious ceremony and developed into a theatrical competition, that gave the playwrights the freedom to express their personal views to a public audience. Human flaws served as the basis for the different types of Greek drama, tragedy, satire, and comedy, and were used within the story lines of plays in order to teach the audience moral values, such as the Greek's emphasis on the consequences of human imperfection.
Ancient Greek Theatre
by Talia Benheim, Annie Grimley, Talia Horowitz, and Emma Waldman
The First Greek Plays
Types of Drama
The Theatre Festivals
- According to Aristotle, comedy grew out of “phallic songs" (shows that took place before the play with hilarious songs).
- Comedies mocked humans and their wants, often focusing on political and social issues.
- Some common themes found in comedies include eating, drinking, sex, wealth, and leisure.
Tragedy was recognized in 534 BCE, when it emerged from the theatre festivals.
Tragedies were Greek plays based off of Greek myths and history, often including the following major themes:
- Anxiety-filled relationships between mortals and gods
- Romance and love
- Loss and glory
- Exploitation of power
Tragedies were not only based on mistakes and human flaws, but focused on the consequences that mistakes could cause. Tragedies often brought up problems that were faced at the time (such as wars and political unrest) and sought to teach lessons through pointing out these problems.
The Outline of a Basic Tragedy
A tragedy is a representation of an action that is whole and complete and of a certain magnitude. A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.
- Introduction of the chorus
- Entrance of the chorus
- 3 or 6 ____ (between each episode were choral songs)
Main plot -
There are two different plot lines that were used in Greek tragedy:
1) Character creates an error, does not realize his mistake, his entire world collapses because of this error
2) Character is told his fate. In order to either avoid this fate or to cause this prophecy to come true, the character ends up causing his own downfall
Towards the end of the tragedy, a character known as the
deus ex machina
(usually a god) would shed some light onto the problem at the end of the play, and would either find a moral or solve the issue.
- Conclusion and dispersion of characters and chorus
Mythology in Plays
- A common theme found in the tragedies of Aeschylus is
the nature of divine justice
- Aeschylus believed that the
gods envied human greatness.
When a person was at the height of their success, the gods would send infatuation upon them, which
would cause the person's downfall.
- This sounds as if the gods were being evil, but they weren't! Their actions were actually justified because the person's downfall was a
for doing something wrong due to having too much pride in themselves.
of these gods was known as
- What we see in Aeschylus' tragedies is that at a time in Greece when the Greeks felt surrounded and protected by the gods, Aeschylus was able to disagree with the general public and found a way to express his personal views which may have contradicted with others' views.
“Divine jealousy and eternal justice formed the common fabric of a moral order of which Zeus, supreme among the gods, was the guardian”
Anthony J. Podlecki, Oliver Taplin,
Encyclopedia Britannica Online
- Greek theatre originated from the worship of
(the Greek god of wine). Worship of Dionysus spread to Greece in the 13th century.
- First Greek plays had no actors and no dialogue. Instead, they had a large chorus that chanted beautiful poetic songs, known as
- First actor to perform on stage was
. An actor could have dialogues with the chorus, which allowed for more complex story lines and enabled playwrights to express their views more easily.
- Used different
to portray different characters.
~ Athens’ first tragedian, earning him the title, “Father of Tragedy.”
~ A common theme of his plays was religion, but other themes included:
- Problems and decision-making
- Fates of influential people
- Personal and social issue
~ Added a second actor to the chorus, which added more dialogue and dramatic tension to his plays. He sometimes acted in his own plays.
~ Fought in wars in his early life, which inspired the play
~ Used intricate costumes and sets
~ Expressed theodicy in his plays.
~ Fun fact: The masks used in Aeschylus' plays were horrendous. Legend even tells us that a few woman had miscarriages at the sight of his masks and children died.
~ Sophocles' career began with writing choral chants to the gods known as Paeans.
~ Was a treasurer for Athens, an army force official, and was active in the government, not to mention a famous, successful playwright! All of these distinguished positions and his dedicated attachment to Athens probably inspired his plays.
~ One of the major impacts of Sophocles was the addition of a THIRD actor, allowing even more fluid and complex plot lines and extended dramatic conflict.
~ A major innovation that he introduced was the pictorial backdrop which helped to establish an atmosphere and setting for the play.
Some themes and contents found in his plays included:
- Flaws in thinking
- Mistakes (and how they affect others, as well as yourself)
- Representations of gods as natural forces in the world
- Belief that through pain and suffering, humans came to valid contact with universal order of things
~ Sophocles was good at convincing the audience of his own personal opinions within his plays. He was able to use different forms of language to depict the scenes in his plays.
~ Had a questioning attitude towards Greek religion. He attempted to explain myths and religion with logical reasoning in his plays.
~ Over time, as the playwrights were allowed more artistic freedom, Euripides expressed his opinions on the gods, which probably wouldn’t allowed in earlier more conservative times.
~ Made his characters down to earth and relatable and expressed the problems and general feelings of his own time. Sometimes, in the middle of his plays, his characters would pause the story and have short debates about the controversies of the time, expressing Euripides' opinions.
~ Because his plays were more realistic and emotional, they were most popular.
~ His character's tragic fates were a result of their own wrongdoings. In other words, gods didn't interfere with the plays or cause punishment. They did, however, appear in the plays, in something that Euripides initiated called the deus ex machina, the appearance of a god in the end of a play.
~ Found less use for the chorus and started a sort of new genre: tragic or romantic comedies with happy endings.
Prometheus refers to the fire as a "spring," which is something that originates or arises from. Prometheus is suggesting what great advancements could have emerged from the fire. This enforces the Greek's value of arts.
This also teaches their religious beliefs: this is the story of how man got fire.
Prom: What say ? All too clearly I forsee
The things that come, and nought of pain shall
By me unlooked-for; but I needs must bear
My destiny as best I may, knowing well
The might resistless of Necessity.
And neither may I speak of this fate,
Nor hold my peace. For I, poor I, through giving
Great gifts to mortal men, am prisoner made
In these fast fetters; yea, in fennel stalk
I snatched the hidden spring of stolen fire,
Which is to men a teacher of all arts,
Their chief resource. And now this penalty
Of that offence [of defying the gods] I pay, fast riveted
In chains beneath the open firmament.
This shows us that Greeks valued arts and must have Aeschylus' way of showing the audience his personal view of the importance of the arts.
Ajax contemplating suicide:
Whom thou of old sentest forth from thy shores, a strong
And valiant chief; but now, to his friends a sore grief,
Devouring his lonely heart he sits.
His once glorious deeds
Are now fallen and scorned……
… Thus I, who late so strong, so stubborn seemed
Like iron dipped, yet now grow soft with pity
Before this woman, whom I am loath to leave
Midst foes a widow with this orphaned child.
But I will seek the meadows by the shore:
There will I wash and purge these stains, if so
I may appease Athena's heavy wrath……
Medea- But on me hath fallen this unforeseen disaster, and sapped my life; ruined I am, and long to resign the boon of existence, kind friends, and die. For he who was all the world to me, as well thou knowest, hath turned out the worst of men, my own husband. Of all things that have life and sense we women are the most hapless creatures; first must we buy a husband at a great price, and o'er ourselves a tyrant set which is an evil worse than the first; and herein lies the most important issue, whether our choice be good or bad. For divorce is not honourable to women, nor can we disown our lords… But enough! this language suits not thee as it does me; thou hast a city here… I am destitute, without a city, and therefore scorned by my husband, a captive I from a foreign shore, with no mother, brother, or kinsman in whom to find a new haven of refuge from this calamity…For though woman be timorous enough in all else, and as regards courage, a coward at the mere sight of steel, yet in the moment she finds her honour wronged, no heart is filled with deadlier thoughts than hers.
Medea is a play about a woman whose husband marries another woman, the daughter of the king. Her husband's new wife then expels her from the kingdom. In this excerpt, we see that Medea does not take this lightly.
In the patriarchal society of Ancient Greece, women were not seen as honorable, but this quotation shows that the plays had come far from the religious themes of Greek works and have branched out into something much more challenging and unique.
The differences in the types of Greek plays show us that the Greeks had both a more serious and a more relaxed side: they understood the consequences of human flaws and the impact that these mistakes had on society (tragedies), but at the same time were able to mock their flaws and weaknesses (comedies and satires).
In this excerpt from the play Prometheus, we see that the Greeks could not only relate to human flaws, but also flaws of the gods, who were not seen as perfect beings either.
~ In honor of Dionysus, a Greek tyrant,
, built a theatre where great festivals in honor of this god were held.
The festival evolved from a religious event to a
for the best play.
was the first winner.
~ The three genres of Greek theatre,
, emerged out of these plays
~ Satires were plays that mocked political figures of the time, current events that were happening in their time, or even the characters from tragedies.
~ To exaggerate this mockery, actors would dress as Satyrs, a half-man, half-goat. This idea came from the chorus, which, led by the god Silenus, was also made up of satyrs in humorous occasions.
~ Often involved crude humor and ridiculed the gods and mortals.
~ Were performed between tragedies in the Dionysia to give the audience a nice humorous break after the heart-wrenching tragedies that had just taken place.
Prometheus Bound is a play about a god, Prometheus, who gave the gift of art to the humans against the other gods' wills. Because of this, he was punished by Zeus for the rest of eternity. In this excerpt from the play, Prometheus is giving his personal view on the mistakes he made and the consequences that will come.
How do the dramatic works of some of the most celebrated ancient Greek playwrights and authors reflect the values and / or concerns of the ancient Greek peoples?
Question to Consider
Trevelyan, R. C., trans. "Ajax By Sophocles." Classics.mit.edu. Accessed
February 22, 2014. http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/ajax.html.
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, selected speeches,
The Harvard Classics, 1909-1914). Antigone
“Ancient Greek Comedy.” In Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Accessed
February 15, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_comedy.
B&N. "Medea Euripides." Sparknotes.com. Accessed February 22, 2014.
Cole, Toby, and Helen Krich Chinoy, eds. Actors on Acting.
New York: Three Rivers Press, 1970.
“Dionysus.” In The World Book Encyclopedia, 215. 99th ed. Vol. 5.
Englert, Walter. “Ancient Greek Theater.” Reed College. Accessed February
19, 2014. http://academic.reed.edu/humanities/110tech/theater.html.
Fonseca, Ruben. “Ancient Greek Theater.” Edited by Martha Eikmann and
Renee Brenner. http://www.cartage.org.lb/en/themes/arts/architec/ancientarchitectural/greekarchitecture/greekbuilding/theater.htm.
Freeman, Charles. The Foundation of the Western World. New York:
Penguin Books, 1999.
“The History of Western Theatre.” In Spanish Union. 15th ed. Vol. 28 of
Britannica. The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002.
“Thespis.” In The World Book Encyclopedia, 257. 99th ed. Vol. 19.
New World Encyclopedia. “Ancient Greek Comedy.”
Newworldencyclopedia.org. Last modified October 5, 2012. Accessed February 9, 2014. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Ancient_Greek_Comedy.
PBS. “The Different Kinds of Greek Drama and Their Importance.”
www.pbs.org. Accessed February 7, 2014. http://www.pbs.org/empires/thegreeks/background/24c_p1.html.
Necessity = Zeus
The Ancient Greek playwrights emphasized human imperfection in their dramatic works.
They picked out flaws in humanity. This is not much different from the media today.
Flaws in human nature, such as pride and the need for success are still applicable to our lives today.
We confront these flaws in the same way that the Greeks did and also express how uncomfortable we are with these flaws through entertainment and the media.
The play Ajax is the story of a man, Ajax, a very strong Greek soldier whose pride in himself drives him to do bad things. In this excerpt, Ajax has been accused and is contemplating suicide.
"Seek the meadows by the shore" = impossible!
He's telling us that he will do the impossible, or whatever it takes, to correct his mistakes, or "stains."
This mistake has ruined relationships, so there is a lesson to be learned. The next line refers to him as lonely. It's just an example of mistakes to be learned, and how your mistakes affect you.
One can see how much the Greeks emphasized how human flaws such as pride, can hinder your success and how you must swallow your pride and right the wrong.
One single mistake can cause you to turn from a hero to a coward.
In this case, Medea didn't make a mistake. She is the victim. This play focuses on the consequences of a mistake on others rather than the action or punishment for the guilty.
She does agree that women aren't the same when it comes to war and fighting, but still argues that no matter what, women deserve honor. This play was written at a time period when playwrights had more freedom, and this is evident through the text.
We see that the focus on this play is on Medea, the victim, rather than her husband. This shows us that the Greeks were not only concerned with punishments, but also with teaching lessons of the consequences of your actions.
"Whoever neglects the arts when he is young has lost the past and is dead to the future."
Prometheus knows that he has to suffer the consequences because of his disobedience to Zeus. This shows that the Greeks believed that one must own up to their actions.
"Always desire to learn something useful."
Lived from around the 450s BCE to around 380 BCE
First comedic playwright, also wrote satires
Pushed limits when it came to what was socially acceptable for plays - used sexual, crude, rude, or untasteful jokes in his plays
Mocked political/public figures and important events in his works, so naturally they include a lot of history
Not only did he mock political events, but he even mocked the works of other tragedians.
After Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, the current events of the time became sensitive topics that did not belong in comedies
Aristophanes changed his style of play to what is known as "New Comedy" around the third century.
He stopped attacking specific public political figures like he had done before, he started to mock philosophers who challenged Athenian beliefs
Athenians stopped funding elaborate choruses and plays, so he had to tone down his act a bit (which included less extravagant and startling chorus songs/props/clothing/etc)
Much like the other playwrights in his time, Aristophanes wrote plays about human flaws, yet instead of interpreting their impact, he mocked them. Still, as we see with the creation of "New Comedy," the Greeks recognized how much was too much.