Greek Drama

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Critical Overview

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Greek drama has been very important for the ancient Greeks, later literary development, and modern audiences. Aeschylus, the earliest Greek tragedian, laid the foundation for an aesthetics of drama that would influence plays for well over two thousand years. As E. Christian Kopf stated in “Aeschylus” from The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 176: Ancient Greek Authors, “In the twentieth century Aeschylus’s plays, especially his trilogy known as the Oresteia (458 B.C.), are widely considered to be masterpieces containing some of the greatest poetry ever composed for the stage.”

The artistic effects of Greek tragedy—the earliest form of drama created—were felt almost immediately. Aristophanes’ Frogs, produced in 405 B.C., compares the work of Aeschylus and Euripides. Athenian philosophers began to analyze Greek drama as its period of greatness drew to an end. Plato initiated the history of criticism of tragedy with his speculation on the role of censorship in the Republic, written about 380 B.C. Fearing the power of tragedy’s language to excite emotions that might be harmful to social order, he recommended that tragedians submit their works to a philosopher ruler for approval. John J. Keaney summarizes Plato’s beliefs in Ancient Writers:

Particularly repugnant to his own religious views are such literary statements as those stating that the gods are responsible for human evils, that they appear to men in various disguises, that they are untruthful.

Aristotle was one of the earliest known critics of Greek drama. In his Poetics, written about 334 B.C., Aristotle defined a perfect tragedy as imitating actions that excite “pity and fear,” which ends in bringing about a cathartic effect. Aristotle also emphasized plot over character. “Most important of all,” he said, “is the structure of the incidents. For tragedy is an imitation not of men but of an ac- tion and of life.” In several chapters of his Poetics, Aristotle analyzed Greek tragedies, finding commonalties in structure, characterization, and plot devices. He also found Euripides to be the “most tragic of dramatists.”

The Roman poet Horace discussed in his Ars Poetics (Art of Poetry) the Greek tradition of having dramatic and forbidding events, such as Medea’s murder of her two children, take place offstage instead of being performed onstage. He transformed this tendency into a dictum on decorum. Horace believed that tragedy was a genre with its own style. For example, a theme for comedy may not be expressed in a tragedy. Such stylistic distinction lasted throughout the century, as noted in Italian writer Dante’s “De Vulgari Eloquentia” (“Of Eloquence in the Vulgar”), written between 1304 and 1305.

Margarete Bieber wrote in The History of the Greek and Roman Theater that Greek theater was “so rich and many-sided that each later period of European civilization has found some aspect of it to use as an inspiration or model for its own time.” Indeed, Greek plays enjoyed enormous popularity in the Roman Empire, and nearly all the plays performed there were imitations or loose translations Ruins of a Greek ampitheater near Cyrene, Libya of Greek dramas. In the second century B.C., Plautus and Terence, the most important writers of Roman comedy, were influenced by the Greek New Comedy. When European writers returned to drama, after the medieval period ended, they, in turn, were influenced by Plautus and Terence. Thus the stock characters that were originally created by the Greek comedians continued to thrive.

In addition to experiencing a reawakening of an interest in Roman comedies, Renaissance audiences also began to stage Greek tragedies. From the 1500s on, plays by the three great tragedians were translated and performed...

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in such countries as France, Italy, and Germany.

Contemporary drama is greatly influenced by Greek drama. Many playwrights, such as Eugene O’Neill, have reworked the ancient tragedies. Numerous tragedies as well as comedies continue to be presented on the modern stage. Jeffrey Henderson noted in The Dictionary of Literary Biography that audiences throughout the world enjoy Aristophanes’ “memorable poetry, style, and fantasy.” He also pointed out that these comedies “remain highly useful to historians of classical Athens for their power to illuminate the political vitality and intellectual richness of that extraordinary era.”

Tragedies remain successful for different reasons, namely their universal themes, which render them relevant to audiences. Charles R. Walker stated in his 1966 study Sophocles’Oedipus the King” and “Oedipus at Colonus” that “Oedipus and other Greek plays have begun to speak to the modern world with the authority of living theater.” Toward the end of the twentieth century, Karelisa V. Hartigan, writing in Greek Tragedy on the American Stage, upheld this view:

The theme or message of the plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides has consistently been deemed important, because the issues addressed by the writers of fifth-century B.C. Athens continue to be current, continue to have a relevance for twentieth- century America.


Essays and Criticism