Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1406
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 Comedy. Comedies from this period made good-humored attacks on classes or character types rather than individuals. The playwright Menander introduced the New Comedy in about 320 B.C. Like Old Comedy, it satirized contemporary Athenian society, but the ridicule was far milder. New Comedy also differed from Old Comedy because it parodied average citizens—fictitious characters from ordinary life—rather than public figures, and it had no supernatural or heroic overtones. The plays of New Comedy often focused on thwarted lovers and concealed identities, and playwrights presented a host of stock characters, such as the cruel father, the clever slave, and the conceited cook.
Struggle and Rebellion
Greek tragedies all depicted struggles of some sort, most commonly between the state and individuals, between human law and natural law, or between human efforts and preordained fate. In many Greek tragedies, it is the person who rebels against the established order of things who becomes the hero or heroine. Sophocles’ Antigone depicts some of these struggles. Antigone defies her uncle Creon, the king of Thebes, when she performs burial rites for her brother. In doing so, Antigone elevates the need to follow the laws of the gods, who decree that her brother must be buried, above the laws of Creon, who declared such burial illegal in the case of Antigone’s brother, because he brought an army against his home city. As punishment for her disobedience, her uncle sentences her to death. At the end of the play, Creon, who has placed his decree above the command of the gods, is himself punished through the suicides of his wife and son. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King demonstrates the human effort to escape preordained fate. Oedipus’s parents—Laius and Jocasta—attempt to thwart the oracles that tell them their son will murder his father and marry his mother. As the myth and the play bears out, despite their efforts to change fate, Oedipus fulfills this prophecy.
The Common Man
Both tragedies and comedies dignify the common man. Members of Greek royalty and upper classes create a world filled with adultery, incest, madness, and murder, and it is the shepherds, craftspeople, yeomen farmers, and nurses who provide a stable environment amidst this debauchery. Sophocles and Euripides endowed these secondary characters with common sense and sensitivity. In Sophocles’ Antigone, for example, the men serving in Creon’s guard offer their king advice and even disagree with him. Comedy utilized the common man in a different way than tragedy did. Comic writers introduced regular characters, such as the orphan, the young lover, and the master of the house as protagonists instead of relying solely on imperial characters; their stories, too, were as worthy of being told. Menander’s plays particularly emphasized a civilized world in which the rules of humanity prevail.
Mythology and the Gods
Early Greek drama, both tragedy and comedy, drew from the stories of mythology and legend. These myths illuminated universal problems, ones that could pertain to situations plaguing fifthcentury Greece as well as to past events. The ancient Greeks believed that tragedy should deal with illustrious figures and significant events, thus the pantheon of gods is ever-present and, often, omniscient. Aeschylus’ plays, for instance, often centered on the justification of the gods’ ways in relation to humankind or the comprehension of the form of justice meted out by the gods. The gods might punish the characters, as Zeus punished Prometheus in Prometheus Bound, or they might settle the seemingly insurmountable conflicts the characters faced, as when Athena decreed that the Furies must give up their torment of Orestes in the Oresteia. The tragedians took the basic premise of their stories from mythology but transformed them for dramatic intent, infusing the heroes and heroines with human qualities and relating their themes to the present day. Mythology also lent the tragedians’ plays a more universal quality, allowing them to comment on topical events without limiting their scope to contemporary events and figures.
Gods also played a prominent role in Old Comedy. Cratinus’s Dionysalexandrus is a play of mythological burlesque. It retells the story of the judgment of Paris (Alexander), with variations. Aristophanes’ work parodies tragedy; thus the Greek gods and goddesses take a central role in the lives of its characters. However, mythology in drama was on the wane. Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War contributed to the sense of disillusionment that the ancient Greeks felt with their legendary heroes and gods, and with the rise of the New Comedy, writers wer moving away from mythological subjects toward common subjects that centered on love and family life.
Love as a dramatic theme was first introduced in the comedic plays. The New Comedy placed its major plot emphasis on romantic intrigue, such as a young man’s efforts to win the bride of his choice. Plays of the New Comedy often end in marriage. Menander’s plays might introduce perverse complications. In The Arbitrators, the problems arise when a newly married woman bears a child shortly after the wedding. The husband accuses her of being unfaithful; however, unbeknownst to him, her husband previously raped her at a festival. The play ends happily, with the husband’s remorseful speech.
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