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The art form tragedy developed from a ritual incantation over the sacrifical slaughter of an animal. Tragedy literally means “song of the goat”, “tragodia” in Greek. The great tragedies of the main playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were performed annually at the spring festival of Dionysus, god of wine, and inspiration.
Tragic drama developed in Athens in the 6th century B.C., probably arising from the choral cult songs of the Great Dionysia. Tragedy began with the introduction of an actor, who played various roles by changing masks, whose actions the chorus commented upon in song, and who exchanged dialogue with the leader of the chorus. A tradition began in which three poets would each present at the festival a tragic play in three parts.
There are 32 surviving tragedies that the great Athenian playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides have left to us.
Though they are now two and a half thousand years old ancient dramas such as Eumenides, Oedipus the King, and Trojan Women retain a compelling, almost incantatory power.
Fundamental to the view of tragedy in Plato and Aristotle is the human need for pathos or suffering. Poetry arouses the emotions in such a way as to increase our ability to control them: this is called catharsis. Aristotle believed tragedy provides a venue wherein people can experience, in a controlled setting, potentially overwhelming emotions. In this way they learn to control and process these feelings.
Another aspect of Greek Tragedy, as described by Aristotle, is the idea of hamartia, or tragic flaw. It is this basic character flaw that brings about the downfall of the central character. For example, in Oedipus Rex, the tragic flaw of Oedipus is his hubris, his excessive pride. He thought he could outsmart the prophecy, but his actions with that cause him to fulfill it.
The structure of a Greek Tragedy is very predictable. It begins with the prologos, the prologue. In it, the audience is given the context for the play, usually presented by a God. The parados follows; this is the entrance of the Chorus. Then there are alternations of Episodes and Choral Odes. Finally, the exodos, the exits. At this point, the God will often return to wrap up the play.
The role of the Chorus was very important. They would advise, narrate, and foretell through their various chants and dances. Their Choral Odes also provided time for the principal actors to change their mask and robe. A maximum of three actors were allowed in a tragedy, although these three actors would often play several roles in the different episodes.
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