Dive into Greek tragedy and begin to familiarize yourself with the dramatic (no pun intended) escapades of the ancient Mediterranean.
Do you want to read ancient Greek tragedies, but don’t quite know where to start? Then this post is for you.
I explain a bit about what Greek tragedy is and then I provide a list of the most accessible plays. The list includes all three famous tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
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Greek Tragedy: The Basics
When we say Greek tragedy, we almost always mean Athenian tragedy. Starting in the 5th century BCE, tragedies were an integral part of Athenian culture and wealthy citizens took turns sponsoring the productions.
Financing drama was considered a civic duty, just as important, for instance, as outfitting ships for the navy. This gives you an idea of how important drama was to the ancient Athenians.
The performance of tragedies was the central event of the City Dionysia, a large public festival held annually in honor of the god Dionysus. At the festival, three playwrights would present a set of four plays each, and then judges would award first, second, and third prizes.
Today, the works of three tragedians survive. We have 7 plays by Aeschylus (one of which was perhaps written by his son), 7 plays by Sophocles, and 18 or 19 plays by Euripides (one is suspect).
In the remainder of this article, I offer recommendations for works by each of these authors. I would start with the Sophocles or Euripides, since Aeschylus is a bit more old-fashioned and can be harder to follow.
Theban Myths: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone
Thebes is a city in Boeotia, a region in central Greece. The mythical Theban royal family had a troubled history which featured patricide, incest, suicide, and several bouts of murderous madness. For this reason, Thebes was an extremely popular tragic location – and it is the setting for two of Sophocles’ most famous plays.
Have you heard of Oedipus, the poor soul who accidentally murdered his father and married his mother? Well, he was from Thebes.
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (also called Oedipus the King or Oedipus Tyrannus) tells the story of Oedipus and how he discovers his incestuous relationship with his mother/wife, Jocasta. Prophecies abound and the play dramatizes the age-old struggle between fate and free will.
Sophocles’ Antigone continues the sad history of Thebes and focuses on Antigone, who is Oedipus and Jocasta’s daughter. After the scandal produced in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus can no longer be king. His sons Eteocles and Polynices fight over his throne and eventually kill each other on the battlefield.
The action of Antigone begins when Creon, the new king of Thebes, forbids the burial of Polynices. Antigone is determined to give her brother the proper funeral rites despite Creon’s commands. Her defiance triggers the conflict of the play and raises its central question: How far should we obey authority?
The Aftermath of the Trojan War: Aeschylus’ Oresteia
Most people have heard of the Trojan War, even if they know virtually nothing about Greek mythology. Paris, a Trojan prince, kidnapped Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, and her husband started a war to bring her back to Greece.
Does this ring any bells? Well, the Greeks were off fighting at Troy for 10 years, and a lot can happen in 10 years. When the warriors finally returned home, many of them met with less-than-warm welcomes.
Aeschylus’ trilogy The Oresteia tells the story of one of these returning warriors. Agamemnon is the leader of the Greek troops and the king of Argos (a city in southern Greece). Unfortunately for him, his wife Clytemnestra has taken a lover during his 10-year absence. Clytemnestra sets in motion a plot to kill Agamemnon and things go downhill from there.
One more thing you should know: 10 years ago, back when the Greeks were sailing to Troy, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to ensure safe passage for his fleet. This is part of why Clytemnestra hates him so much!
Start with Agamemnon, the first in the trilogy, and then move on to Libation Bearers and Eumenides. (“Eumenides” means “the Kindly Ones” and refers to the Furies – goddesses of the underworld who pursue murderers and avenge the shedding of kindred blood. This gives you an idea of how the tale develops!)
Euripides’ Medea and Hippolytus
You might have heard of Medea – the woman who kills her own children to get revenge on her husband Jason (yikes, I know). Euripides’ Medea is the most well-known version of this myth. The action takes place in Corinth (south-central Greece), where Jason decides to abandon Medea and marry a young princess. Medea, predictably, is not pleased.
As you read, bear in mind that Medea is not Greek – she is a “barbarian” from Colchis (a city on the Black Sea, in modern Georgia). Medea met Jason when he and the Argonauts were on a quest for the Golden Fleece, and she used her supernatural abilities to save him from harm. But despite her power, she is at a disadvantage because of her foreign birth and this is ultimately why Jason refuses to honor his marriage to her.
My final recommendation is Euripides’ Hippolytus, which deals with the Athenian royal family and is set near Athens. Phaedra – the wife of Theseus, king of Athens – falls in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. She is ashamed of her passion, but unable to conceal it . . . and so begins a web of lies that culminates in disaster for everyone.
Why is Greek tragedy a good starting point?
I am writing my dissertation about ancient epic, but tragedy is my favorite genre. It is also the most practical choice if you are just getting started with classical literature. Why?
Tragedy requires less classical cultural competence than epic. There will be a limited number of characters and they will be listed at the beginning of the play. Familial relationships and other pertinent information are typically included in this cast of characters. You may still have to look things up occasionally, but you aren’t likely to get lost in the same way as in epic.
Tragedies are much shorter than epics while still having entertaining plots. Typically they are from 1000 to 1700 lines long (about 40 to 80 pages). This means that you can read a tragedy comfortably in one or two sittings. Furthermore, the story arcs of tragedies tend to be more unified and straightforward, which makes it easy to understand what is occurring even if you have no knowledge of the mythological context.
It is often easier for us to relate to tragedies than to other ancient genres. Why? Well, part of this is just my personal preference. But tragedy poses – in a stark, uncompromising, refreshing way – questions that we still ask ourselves today. How far should we obey authority? Fate or free will? How do we cope with the aftermath of war? Furthermore, tragedy gives a much greater voice to underrepresented figures like women and servants. This leads to more diverse perspectives which, in turn, positively impacts the creative atmosphere of the play. I know I, as a woman, certainly appreciate the female presence!
Tragedy is an ideal stepping stone into the rest of classical literature. Many of the characters in Greek tragedy also appear in Greek and Roman epic, comedy, etc. So you can start building up your classical knowledge in bite-sized pieces and before you know it, you will be reading The Iliad. In the meantime, the amazing world of tragedy lies before you. A word of warning, though – tragedy is a dark world. Most tragedies end in, well, tragedy.
Time to Read Greek Tragedy!
Are you excited to start reading Greek tragedy? I hope that this whirlwind introduction has proved helpful! There are many translations of all these plays available online, so you can satisfy your curiosity for free.
If you prefer physical copies, I recommend the University of Chicago Press’s Complete Greek Tragedies series. The translations are excellent and there are additional reading aids that provide information on the historical and cultural context.
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