(Literary Movements for Students)

The first forms of Greek drama were tragedies. “The theme of all tragedy is the sadness of life and the universality of evil,” wrote noted scholar Paul Roche in The Orestes Plays of Aeschylus. “The inference the Greeks drew from this was not that life was not worth living, but that because it was worth living the obstacles to it were worth overcoming.” Through suffering, the tragic hero is able to learn and grow.

Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were the great Greek tragedians, and they brought distinctive themes and perspectives to their works. Aeschylus transformed tragic drama into great literature. His plays focused on the plights, decisions, and fates of individuals who were intrinsically intertwined with their community and their gods. In Aeschylus’ works, gods controlled the actions of mortal men and women. Self-pride caused humans to defy the will of the gods, which led to punishment. A Sophoclean tragedy generally revolved around characters whose “tragic”—or personal— flaws caused them to suffer. The tragedy climaxed as the main character recognized his or her errors and accepted responsibility and its accompanying punishment. Of the three tragedians, the characters of Sophocles are generally considered to best reflect the true state of human experience. Euripides differed from the earlier playwrights both in his belief that the world operates by chance rather than by the will of gods and in his treatment of his mythic characters as if they were people of his own time. These characters, subject to the same political and social pressures as fifth-century Athenians, were in charge of their own destinies. Their tragic fate arises from their own inability to deal with the difficulties that the gods placed upon them or from their own passions. The tragedies of Euripides often questioned traditional and widely accepted social values.

Comedy was the other major form of Greek drama. Greek comedies often made fun of people, particularly politicians, military leaders, and other prominent figures. Victor Ehrenberg noted in The People of Aristophanes that “In no other place or age were men of all classes attacked and ridiculed in public and by name with such freedom.” Greek comedies were varied productions, ranging from the intellectual to the bawdy. Some comedies were satirical, some slapstick. They included such devices as verbal play, parody, metaphor, and allegory. Aristophanes, the most noted comic playwright, used satire to make fun of the leaders and institutions of his day. He often placed them in absurd situations, such as the one in the Birds, in which the heroes try to build “Cuckoo City,” a peaceful community in the sky.

Greek comedy is divided into three periods. Old Comedy—the first phase of ancient Greek comedy—emerged during the fifth century B.C. Primarily known through the work of Aristophanes, it is sometimes referred to as Aristophanic comedy. The high-spirited satire of public figures and events characterize these plays. Though they are filled with songs, dances, and buffoonery, they also include blatant political criticism as well as commentary on literary and philosophical topics. The plays of Aristophanes parody tragedy. Middle Comedy, dating from the closing years of the fifth century B.C. to nearly the middle of the fourth century B.C., represents the transition from Old Comedy to New...

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