Greek Drama

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The Themes of Justice and Vengeance

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Greek tragedies all raise questions about humankind’s existence and its suffering. One of their most insistent concerns was the elusive nature of justice, particularly divine justice, and the intrinsically linked concept of the validity of revenge. The ancient Greeks believed that the gods begrudged human greatness and caused people who were too successful to make poor choices of action. Often, these actions revolved around excessive pride, or hubris. Thus the terrible undoings that befell these prideful people could be seen as just punishment. Each of the three great tragedians raised such issues, but as they held unique perceptions of the world and the way they wanted to portray it, they were also unique in the depiction of justice.

Aeschylus inherited a belief in a just Zeus and hereditary guilt. Both of these threads can be found in his surviving tragedies. His plays sought to justify the gods’ ways to the Greek people. Aeschylus’s Persians depicts how Xerxes and his invading Persians are punished for their own offenses. Xerxes has been driven by his desire for dominance to go beyond what the gods have fated for him— control of Persia, not of Greece as well. Thus he is punished for his attempts to disrupt the cosmic order, and his defeat transforms him from the godlike man seen at the play’s beginning to a mere mortal, dressed in tatters instead of royal finery, seen at the end of the play.

Prometheus Bound, one play in a trilogy, depicts divine justice specifically, as Zeus punishes Prometheus, who has saved humankind by sharing fire with them. He is chained to a craggy peak, sent to the underworld, and fed upon by a vulture every day. Aeschylus’s text demonstrates Prometheus’s heroic status as he submits to his prolonged, and seemingly unjust, punishment. The text glorifies Prometheus, who emerges as a martyr. That he eventually reconciles with Zeus (in the last play of the Promethiad trilogy, Prometheus Unbound, now lost) seems to prove that his extreme punishment was undeserved.

In other plays, Aeschylus uses more complex relationships and events to investigate the theme of justice. The ancient Greeks believed in the idea of hereditary guilt, and Aeschylus’s plays evince this theory. Often it is not the unjust who are punished, but their descendants. The Oresteia is an ideal play to study the themes of revenge and justice; in this trilogy, these themes are intrinsically linked together. The human desire for vengeance is what drives the need for a prevailing justice.

In the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon , Clytemnestra murders her husband upon his return from the Trojan War. She kills Agamemnon in revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter at the beginning of the expedition against Troy, as well as to punish him for taking a mistress. After the deed is done, she stands over the body and insists to the chorus that justice has been accomplished. However, Apollo orders Orestes, the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, to avenge his father’s death and murder his mother. After he does so, the chorus sings a song of thanksgiving, celebrating the victory of justice. However, the third play of the trilogy finds Orestes pursued by the Furies, underworld avenging powers whom Clytemnestra has cursed upon him. Eventually, Orestes is brought to trial at the court of Athens, attended by the goddess Athena, who, when the vote of the jury is evenly split, votes to acquit him and provides a sanctuary where the furies may rest. Only then is the cycle of bloodshed and vengeance in the house of Atreus brought to an end. So,...

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justice can now be found in the courts, aided by the intervention of Athena, rather than through the actions of family and tribal members seeking vengeance.

Sophocles was the next great tragedian. Charles Segal wrote of Sophocles in Ancient Writers, “While retaining Aeschylus’ mood of deep religious seriousness, Sophocles deals with the question of divine justice and the problem of suffering in a more naturalistic way.” Because his focus remains on the human world rather than the world of the gods, the issues of justice are more human-centered. Many critics and scholars believe that Sophocles most closely relates the truest state of human experience, thus the decisions made by Sophocles’ characters rest more upon their mortal shoulders, not upon the shoulders of the gods.

Electra condenses the plot of the Oresteia into one play, which focuses on the daughter’s desire for justice and vengeance for the death of Agamemnon. Isolated in the palace after her father’s murder, Electra remains the sole voice raised against allowing the crime to go unpunished and unnoticed. She lives for only one thing—the return of Orestes so he can avenge the murder. When she learns the (false) news of his death, she attempts to enlist the help of her sister in the murder of Clytemnestra, but when her sister refuses, she resolves to carry out the matricide by herself. Although Orestes shows up at the last moment and carries out the murder while Electra waits outside the house with the chorus, Electra’s single-minded purpose shows the consuming power of the desire for vengeance and a form—albeit a criminal one—of justice.

Sophocles’s masterpiece, Oedipus the King, shows a different way that justice can be attained— through self-punishment. In this play, Oedipus has unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. Oedipus—left to die as a baby by his real father, rescued by a shepherd from a nearby kingdom, and adopted into the royal family of that kingdom— committed these crimes against the laws of nature without realizing what he was doing. Despite his lack of moral culpability, when Oedipus discovers what he has done, he blinds himself. While the play ends on a note of despair, Oedipus’s action can be construed in a positive light, since he has administered punishment to himself and brought about justice for ill deeds. Instead of committing suicide, as his wife/mother does, Oedipus chooses a more extreme form of self-punishment, “For no one else of mortals except me can bear my sufferings.”

Euripides presents a very different picture of justice than his predecessors in the Greek tragic tradition. Justice is no longer a motivating theme but an ironic one. In Hippolytus, the goddess Aphrodite takes revenge on Hippolytus because he refuses to worship her. She is not acting out of a respect for justice but out of spite. In the Bacchae, Dionysus, scorned by Pentheus, causes a group of women, including Pentheus’s mother, to murder and dismember Pentheus, while they are in a state of frenzy. Unlike the gods in the plays or Aeschylus and Sophocles, the gods in Euripides’ plays cannot be appealed to for justice, nor will they help promote it, as Athena did in the Eumenides. Instead, in these two plays, Euripides shows their personal injustice, which has been seen earlier but never caused by such pettiness and self-indulgence.

In Euripides’ play Medea, justice and vengeance take a shocking form. To punish her husband for forsaking her, Medea raises the idea of murdering their children. Her passion for revenge is so strong that, despite a long monologue in which she questions this choice, Medea decides this is the right action to take. Medea’s inner conflict is what raises her to the status of tragic heroine. She closes her inner debate with these words: “Though I understand what sort of evil I am going / to do, still, heart is stronger than what I have / thought out, this heart that causes humankind’s / greatest evils.” Medea thus recognizes that the action she is taking is governed by the need for human vengeance, not by the desire to correct injustice. Also interesting is that, though the children suffer for the wrongdoings of their parents, it is not because of inherent guilt, so Medea reverses the idea of hereditary guilt that was such a crucial part of the Oresteia.

Euripides also has his own rendition of the Oresteia, the play Orestes. Orestes’ revenge is of a dual nature: it is sanctioned by Apollo, who commanded the murder of Clytemnestra, thus it represents divine vengeance; it is also vengeance of a personal and heroic nature, because he also kills Clytemnestra to recover his birthright. However, because Euripides places greater emphasis on the individual’s own choice of action than on his or her preordained fate laid out by the gods, Orestes’ actions are viewed more as revenge than as justice. As the play begins, it is Orestes who must face the demands of justice, the justice of the city. As Christian Wolff wrote in Ancient Writers, “It is as though the heroic and divinely sanctioned mode of revenge were being put on trial by the human community.”

In Greek Tragedy on the American Stage, Karelisa V. Hartigan noted that part of the appeal of the plays Medea and Electra is the theme of revenge. “The theme of Euripides’ text has not seemed to trouble either those onstage or those in the audience overly much,” she wrote. Indeed, modern audiences bring their own points of view to these plays, and looking through the eyes of feminism, some critics see Medea’s act of revenge as stemming from Jason’s “victimization” of her. A play such as Sophocles’ Philoctetes, according to Hartigan, is less attractive to modern audiences because the title character takes no personal revenge against those who cause his suffering. Greek tragedy continues to be relevant to modern audiences because the themes it presents are universal, crossing boundaries of time and place.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Greek Drama, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

The Greek Stage

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Plays are conditioned by their environment. Every age produces its handful of closet dramatists, who elect to write in dramatic form as a literary convenience, with no expectation of production; and there are always a few who write for some visionary theatre of the future, asking more than the state of the art can give. But practising playwrights work from a basis of practical stagecraft. They write for the kind of playhouse they know; for actors whose skills and training they are familiar with; and for an audience whose preconceptions are known, and whose responses are predictable. The design of the theatre building, the nature of the space available, the possibility of adapting and decorating this space; all these factors help to shape the play. We would have a very different Hamlet had it been written for a picture-frame stage rather than for an open platform. The same factors work upon the actor. The grammar of his art—the way in which he communicates with his audience—may be influenced by tradition or societal patterns, but is controlled in large part by the space in which he works. An actor in a large theatre works differently from an actor in a small one. Indoor and outdoor acting pose different problems, and invite different solutions.

In purpose-built structures, performance style and theatre architecture are often mutually influential. An actor accepts certain constraints upon his art because of the nature of the space available, or the quality of the acoustics; conversely, new buildings may be designed to capitalize on certain skills, or allow the actors to explore new dimensions of their art. In earlier dramatic cultures, however, the space comes first, and imposes its own rules on the performance. The art of the theatre did not spring fully born into the world. In all the manifestations that we know, drama emerged as a by-product of some other activity, usually some magico-religious activity. The first actors were priests, shamans, or sacred dancers, and the emergent dramas were first performed in spaces that had been designed for other purposes. Only after some time does drama establish itself as a separate and independent activity, and only then are buildings constructed specifically for the performance of plays. Almost invariably, these purpose-built theatres are influenced by the temporary spaces available before, to which the performers have now become accustomed. Plays, in other words, come before theatres; and when the theatres begin to appear, they illustrate the factors that brought the drama to birth.

The small group of plays, survivors of a vastly larger number, that we know collectively and rather misleadingly as Greek drama, were written for theatres of a unique and distinctive shape whose like has never been seen again. This shape was dictated by the cultural patterns of Greek society and by the nature of the Greek terrain. Its general features are well known from ancient evidence and surviving examples, a number of them still in use. Scholars argue endlessly, and ultimately unprofitably, about the details. Many features of the theatres remain obscure to us for lack of information. We have no contemporary description of the structures that Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote for and acted in. Probably none was ever written. Why bother to describe something so familiar to everyone? The earliest written accounts date from centuries later, when much had changed and it was already too late. Surviving structures, still amply visible throughout Greece and the adjacent countries, are architectural palimpsests, obscured or obliterated by the successive rebuildings of subsequent generations. We know considerably less about them than we know about Shakespeare’s Globe, in spite of the fact that the stonework is still there for us to see.

The general principles, however, are reasonably clear. In the Greek theatre complex the central and characteristic feature was the orchestra or dancing floor, a circle of flattened earth (later paved with stone), on which the chorus performed. In the theatre of Athens the orchestra is large enough to give ample room for a large chorus and complex dance patterns. The Greeks themselves traced the origin of drama from local festivals of song and dance, and the design of the theatre seems to bear this out. It is tempting to think that the earliest orchestras were the stone threshing floors still to be seen throughout the Greek countryside. These floors—in most places the only flat open space available—would lend themselves naturally to the rustic performances. When, in the course of time, a special orchestra was built for larger ceremonies, it would retain the shape of these remembered associations.

Round most of the orchestra, tiers of seats were built into the convenient hillside, so that spectators could look down on the performance. Such a structure, like a vast bowl set into the land, was a logical answer to the constraints of the Greek terrain. In a country where flat land is at a premium, the theatre grew organically out of its environment, opening the performance to the maximum number of spectators. On the far side of the circle stood the actors’ place. This was the skene, literally hut or tent. In the early days of the theatre this was probably all it was: a rudimentary, temporary structure serving as a dressing room, a place from which the actors could make their entrances and, perhaps, a sounding board for their voices. An alternative theory suggests that the first skene, in Athens at least, was the façade of the Temple of Dionysus which abutted onto the orchestra. Even when, like the rest of the theatre, it became a structure of solid stone, the skene still retained its original name. On either side of the skene a processional entrance-way, the parodos, led into the orchestra.

This is all we can be sure of. Everything else is conjecture. Was there a raised stage for the actors, to give them prominence by elevating them above the chorus level? A case can be made for and against. We know that the fifth-century theatre had some machinery. Where exactly was it located, Ruins of a Greek theater in Taormina, Italy how did it work, and what was it supposed to do? We have tantalizingly brief descriptions, mostly late and sometimes contradictory.

On one aspect of the productions, however, there is fairly general agreement. Although the Greek skene gives us, by way of Latin, the English word ‘scenery’, the fifth-century theatre seems to have had nothing like scenery in our sense of the word: no backdrops, no realistic stage pictures, no scenic illusion. The only background was the façade of the skene building, decorated perhaps in architectural perspective but ubiquitous and unchanging. Our first evidence for movable panels to create different sets comes from a century later. The orchestra was a blank surface against which the audience could watch the choral evolutions. Sufficient setting was provided—as in Shakespeare’s theatre—by the audience’s imagination, prompted by the language of the playwright. Song, dance, and the spoken word provided an ambiance for the play as well as carrying forward the action.

If we have such difficulty in picturing the theatre, how can we hope to reconstruct the actor’s, necessarily transitory, performance? Once again, many details elude us. But, equally, certain dominant principles become dear, and we may assume certain imperatives from the nature of the space involved. The following chapters, by focusing on the nature of the Greek actors’ art, will endeavour to show how closely intertwined the actions of author, actor, and theatre were, and illuminate some characteristic features of Greek playwriting that seem alien to us only because our conception of stage space and the actor’s relationship to it has radically changed.

Source: Peter D. Arnott, “Introduction,” in Public and Performance in the Greek Theatre, Routledge, 1989, pp. 1–4.


Critical Overview