Greek Drama

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The art of drama developed in the ancient Greek city-state of Athens in the late sixth century B.C. From the religious chants honoring Dionysus arose the first tragedies, which centered on the gods and Greece’s mythical past. In the fifth century, Greek audiences enjoyed the works of four master playwrights; of these, three—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—were tragedians. The early works focused on the good and evil that existed simultaneously in the world as well as the other contradictory forces of human nature and the outside world. All three tragic playwrights drew their material from Greek myths and legends; they each brought new developments to the art form. Aeschylus, whose Oresteia trilogy examines the common tragic themes of vengeance and justice, brought tragedy to the level of serious literature. Sophocles wrote perhaps the greatest tragic work of all time, Oedipus the King. The last great tragedian, Euripides, questioned traditional values and the ultimate power of the gods. In plays such as Medea and Antigone, Euripides explores the choices that humans make under difficult situations. C. M. Bowra pointed out in his book Classical Greece that “Greek tragedy provides no explicit answers for the sufferings of humanity, but it . . . shows how they happen and how they may be borne.” Indeed, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King expresses a truly sorrowful course of events and how one man, though his life is devastated, forges a new identity and learns to live with himself. The myth of Orestes, as seen in Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy and Euripides’ Orestes introduces other major themes in Greek tragedy, namely justice (divine, personal, and communal) and vengeance.

Comedy most likely also developed out of the same religious rituals as tragedy. Aristophanes was the greatest writer of comedies in the early period known as Old Comedy. He used biting satire in plays such as Birds and Lysistrata to ridicule prominent Athenian figures and current events. Later comedy relied less on satire and mythology and more on human relations among the Greek common people.

Greek drama created an entirely new art form, and over the centuries, the works of these ancient Greek writers have influenced and inspired countless writers, philosophers, musicians, and other artists and thinkers. Greek drama, with its universal themes and situations, continues to hold relevance for modern audiences.

Representative Authors

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Aeschylus (c. 525–456 B.C.)
Aeschylus was born about 525 B.C., probably in Eleusis. He was the first of the best-known ancient Greek tragic dramatists. He lifted the dramatic presentations from a choral performance to a work of art. He also is significant because he added a second actor on stage, allowing for dialogue, and reduced the number of the chorus from about fifty to about fifteen. With Aeschylus, tragic drama was presented through action, not through recitation. Aeschylus took part in the City Dionysia (a festival for the god Dionysus, involving a procession, a sacrifice of bulls with an accompanying feast, and dramatic competitions), probably for the first time in 499 B.C., and he won it for the first time fifteen years later. His masterpiece is the Oresteia trilogy, which was produced in 458 B.C. His plays are of lasting literary value because of their lyrical language, intricate plots, and universal themes. His language is marked by force, majesty, and emotional intensity as well as by metaphors and figurative speech. He wrote about ninety plays, of which seven have survived. Aeschylus died about 456 B.C. in Gela, Sicily.

Aristophanes (c. 450–385 B.C.)
Aristophanes was born about 450 B.C., possibly on the island Aegina in Greece. His plays are the only examples of Old Comedy (comedy that focuses...

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largely on political satire rather than human relations, the focus of New Comedy) that have survived in their complete form. Aristophanes’ themes and work generally reflected the social, literary, and philosophical life of Athens, and many of his plays were inspired by events of the Peloponnesian War. Eleven of his approximately forty plays survive. Among the most well-known areBirds and Frogs. His appeal lay in his witty dialogue, his satire, and the inventiveness of his comic scenes. Many of his plays are still produced on the modern stage. Aristophanes died about 385 B.C. in Athens, Greece.

Crates (fl. c. 470–450 B.C.)
Flourishing about 470 B.C. in Athens, Crates is considered to be the founder of Greek comedy. According to Aristotle, he abandoned traditional comedy—which centered on invective—and introduced more general stories that relied on welldeveloped plots.

Cratinus (?–c. 420 B.C.)
Cratinus was regarded in antiquity as one of the three great writers of the Old Comedy period. Only fragments of his twenty-seven known plays survive, but they are enough to show that his comedies, like those of Aristophanes, seem to have been a mixture of parodied mythology and reference to contemporary events. For example, Athenian leader Pericles was a frequent subject of Cratinus’s ridicule. He died about 420 B.C.

Epicharmus (c. 530–440 B.C.)
Epicharmus was born about 530 B.C. He is seen as the originator of Sicilian, or Doric, comedy. He is credited with more than fifty plays, but few lines survive. Many of his plays were mythological burlesques: he even satirized the gods. His lively style made his work more akin to New Comedy than the Old Comedy of his time. He died about 440 B.C.

Eupolis (fl. c. 445–411 B.C.)
Along with Cratinus and Aristophanes, Eupolis was regarded in antiquity as one of the three great writers of the Old Comedy period. His first play was produced in 429 B.C., but only fragments of his plays survive. He focused his satire on Athenian demagogues, wealthy citizens, but also concerned himself with serious subjects, such as how Athens could turn the tables on Sparta in the ongoing Peloponnesian War. Eupolis died about 411 B.C. while he was still a young man.

Euripides (c. 485–406 B.C.)
Euripides was born about 485 B.C. in Attica (the region of central Greece that has Athens as its capital). One of the great three tragedians, he won his first victory at the City Dionysia, in which he competed twenty-two times, in 441. Nineteen (including one play of disputed authorship) of his ninety-two plays survive. His most famous plays include Medea, produced in 431 B.C.; Hippolytus (428 B.C.); Electra (417 B.C.); Trojan Women (415 B.C.); Ion (circa 411 B.C.); Iphigenia at Aulis (405 B.C., posthumously); and Bacchae (405 B.C., posthumously).

Euripides differed from Aeschylus and Sophocles in his characterization: Euripides’ characters’ tragic fates stem almost entirely from their own flawed natures and uncontrolled passions. The gods look upon their suffering with apparent indifference. His plays also differed structurally from those of the other two playwrights: Euripides’ plays are usually introduced by prologues and often end with the providential appearance of a god, an action known as deus ex machina. The prologue usually is a monologue that explains the situation and the characters with which the action begins; the deus ex machina includes a god’s epilogue that reveals the future fortunes of the characters. Euripides died in 406 B.C. in Macedonia.

Menander (c. 342–292 B.C.)
Menander was born about 342 B.C. Today, he is considered to be the supreme writer of New Comedy (comedy that focuses on human relations), but, during his lifetime, he was less successful. Of the more than one hundred plays that he wrote, only eight won prizes at Athens’ dramatic festivals. He produced his first play in 321 B.C. The only one of his plays to survive intact is Dyscolus, which won a festival prize in 317. The Roman writers Plautus and Terence adapted many of Menander’s works; thus he influenced the development of European comedy from the Renaissance on. Menander died about 292 B.C.

Phrynichus (fl. c. 420 B.C.)
Phrynichus was an Athenian poet of the Old Comedy period and a contemporary of Aristophanes and Eupolis. He began producing plays in 430 B.C. and won two victories in the City Dionysia.

Sophocles (c. 496–406 B.C.)
Sophocles was born about 496 B.C. in Colonus, near Athens. He is one of classical Athens’ three great tragic playwrights. He first won the City Dionysia in 468 B.C., defeating Aeschylus. He went on to write a total of 123 tragedies for this annual festival, winning perhaps as many as twenty-four times and never receiving less than second prize. Of the seven of his plays that have survived, his most well-known drama is Oedipus the King, which was performed sometime between 430 B.C. and 426 B.C. Sophocles also made important dramatic innovations. He reduced the number of members of the chorus and added a third actor onstage. He is noted for his language, artistry, and vivid characterizations.

Sophocles also was a prominent citizen of Athens in that he served as a treasurer in the Delian League (the confederation of Greek states with Athens as the leader that formed in 478 B.C., soon after the defeat of the Persian invasion under Xerxes in order to ensure continued freedom), was elected as one of ten military and naval commanders, and served as one of ten members of the advisory committee that organized Athens’ financial and domestic recovery after its defeat during the Peloponnesian War at Syracuse in 413 B.C. Sophocles died in 406 B.C. in Athens.

Sophron (fl. c. 430 B.C.)
Sophron of Syracuse lived and wrote in the early to mid 400s B.C. He wrote rhythmical prose mimes that depicted scenes from daily life.

Thespis (fl. c. 534 B.C.)
Thespis came from the district of Icaria in Attica. He is the first recorded winner of the prize at the City Dionysia, which he won in about 534 B.C. Thespis is credited with the invention of the speaking actor (who “delivered prologues and conversed with the chorus-leader” and impersonated the heroes that his drama was about), thus becoming the world’s first actor. He is considered to be the “inventor of tragedy.”