Who and when?
In this post I am going to be focussing on the 5th century BC, my favourite period of Greek history, and the period associated with the growth of tragedy. So the great tragedians were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (Aristophanes was the master of comedy).
From whence it came
Aristotle said tragedy grew out of the Dionysiac festivals once small elements of song and drama had been incorporated. The Dionysia were connected with wildness and abandon, but strangely tragedy is very structured. It could be argued that in the fifth century tragedy was the main medium for thinking about the world (philosophy took over for moral thinking in the 4th century).
Plays were written for one performance only, at either the Great Dionysia in spring (a time of rebirth and renewal), or the Lenaea in winter. Both were festivals of Dionysus. On each of three days there would be three tragedies by a playwright, then a satyr play and a comedy. The Great Dionysia was not just a religious festival, it was also civic and political. Plays were enormously popular: it is claimed that up to 14,000 people might have seen some of them, sat in an amphitheatre according to their deme.
Image from this useful article
The plays would have a number of individual characters, all played by a few professional male actors wearing masks, and a chorus made up of citizens which represented a group identity of some kind e.g. residents of the town where the story is set, or a group of women, or priests. In Aristophanes' comedies they could be much more fantastical, such as a group of wasps or even clouds. The chorus would dance, sing, and act as a commentator. The interactions between the chorus and main characters were often used to illustrate tensions between the individual heroic view of the world and the united city state view (which I’ll talk about later). Open air speaking requires more effort than performing in a modern acoustically-efficient theatre so actors in Greek plays did not move around much or turn their back on an audience - therefore it was a fairly static form of drama, with more emphasis on words than actions.
Some of the themes of tragedy
Greece (Hellas) was not so much a united country as a community of isolated city states (poleis - Sparta and Athens are the most well-known) with their own customs and laws. They regularly fought each other. However, when an external threat such as the Persians presented itself the Greeks could recognise their shared culture and unite.
This was a period when the Athenians were concerned with how decisions should be made, how democracy should work, legal issues of responsibility, guilt and intention. For example Aeschylus' Oresteia looks at the conflict between different types of justice (dike), and the tensions and paradoxes as traditional ideas of personal justice struggled against notions of societal justice. Examples include:
- the law of talio, ‘the doer suffers’;
- blood revenge driven by the Furies/Eumenides vs. legal punishment via the Areopagus (e.g. Aeschylus' The Eumenides);
- the conflicting pressures from social ties and blood ties: e.g. in Aeschylus' Oresteia we see that Agamemnon rates social ties (politics/state/army) over blood ties (his daughter’s life), whereas his wife Clytemnestra’s values are reversed.
In the plays the main characters make decisions without precedents and answers emerge painfully, as they did for the polis. It should be noted that many of the plays contain anachronisms because of this theme e.g. Aeschylus' The Suppliants (and also Prometheus Bound) explores issues of power - should rule be the realm of one man or the people? Should it be by persuasion or force? These ideas are really crucial to 5th century Athens, rather than the mythic past. Another example is from Aeschylus Eumenides, which tries to justify the establishment of the Areopagus (the oldest Athenian court) - performed at a time when democrats were trying to downgrade it and weaken its power since it was seen as an aristocratic institution. It is no accident that in the play a speech addresses the ‘men of Greece’ using the term Attikos, which could also mean ‘citizens of Attica/Athens’; it would be understood that it was the contemporary audience being addressed as well as characters in the play. So drama used the mythic past to question the present.
The mythic past was the historical past to many Greeks, full of significance and symbolism. Most plays were built on myths, and some were more prevalent than others. However the myths weren’t fixed. The audience would know the main elements of the story but the presentation and twists could surprise them, or their knowledge could be subverted or used for dramatic irony (as in Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos, in which Oedipus makes many references about sight and parentage, which the audience will have heard with horror). Despite the focus on myth the plays don’t generally focus on gods because tragedy is about the human condition, and protagonists have a general character to apply to all people - despite their heroic temperaments, discussed below. When gods do appear in classical literature they are used mainly as explanations for inexplicable events, or for when a character is in two minds about something - one option is represented by a hidden god (e.g. in The Iliad Athena tells Achilles not to kill Agamemnon, but really she is a metaphor for his conscience.)
The heroes Achilles and Aias playing a game. Black figure pottery.
The ancient hero
A hero is like us but greater than us: by nature extraordinary, larger than life, both in their deeds and their crimes. In the modern world a whole industry has sprung up around images of modern day heroes and stars, selling images and paraphernalia connected with them. This was very similar in the ancient world - heroes were stars, whose images sold merchandise, whose popularity waxed and waned. Herakles was one of the most enduring heroes/stars, appearing on countless plates, vases, statues etc. Ancient heroes were also individualistic, and this was often a form of tension during the rise of the city states.
We can see this development by looking at heroes in Homer's works. In Homer there is a heroic sense of the individual fighter, whose own military prowess, honour and fame are of importance. Battles are made up of a number of one-on-one combats: there is no formation fighting to link the hero to others, which encourages this individuality. Heroes are fairly independent - in The Iliad two combatants, Glaucus and Diomedes, realise they are vaguely connected so exchange presents and leave each other to go free - this is patently in opposition to any overall rule of all the warriors on one side being total enemies of all the warriors on the other side.
However, fifth century Athenian attitudes were different. The rise of the polis involving living and working together with other people, and the change to a hoplite style of fighting where each man depended on his neighbour, led to many changes in ideas. Notions of group involvement in society, as a necessary part of citizenship, became paramount. In Homer's world, city states are ruled by great warriors and aristocrats; in fifth century Athens they are ruled by equal citizens, who felt they were part of a larger unit. So, throughout tragedy, there is an interest in the importance of the city state, democracy, and legal issues. It is no surprise to find many aspects of tragic heroes are democratised in some way. Pelasgus was a monarch. Yet in Aeschylus' The Suppliants, Pelasgus frequently refers to anachronistic democratic procedures and the involvement of the people in his power. It seems like the king has been removed altogether from decision making, contrary to myth. This democratisation is one way of dealing with the tragic hero in terms of the city state - incorporation.
Another aspect of heroes is that they always take things to extremes, whether that is the excessive wrath of Achilles or the excessive distrust and compulsive lying of Odysseus. They are prone to extreme anger, an ultimate adoption of the ancient Greek ‘help your friends and harm your enemies’ ethic. Heroes often had excessive stubbornness, immovability from their chosen, possibly self-destructive course of action. Threats, violence, persuasion, or even death cannot dissuade them, as in Sophocles’ Antigone. It particularly applied to issues of being publicly treated with respect and honour since heroes were always concerned with how they were perceived (Greek culture has been characterised as a shame culture, rather than a guilt culture).
“To the ancient Greek mind there seems to have been something almost divine in passionate self-esteem, no matter how slightly justified and no matter what crimes it led to.”
(Knox, The Heroic Temper, page 57).
Perhaps their extreme nature is why heroes also always suffer, and often die before their time. We see this in many cases: Philoctetes suffers extreme pain beyond that of other men from the supernaturally poisoned snake bite; Oedipus wanders in poverty for years, in mental torment over his great crimes, his eyes destroyed by needles; Antigone is entombed alive and then hangs herself.
Why are heroes portrayed in this way? It’s worth considering the ancient Greek world view of our place in things. They saw man as holding a position somewhere between ‘beasts’ and gods. Mankind needs nourishment (unlike gods), but we cook food and cultivate crops (unlike other animals - this began when Prometheus stole fire for us and kickstarted civilisation). A hero is a man who breaks out of this structure. They’re not necessarily a god, but they are greater than other men, and closer to the gods (in Homer the heroes and gods often interact).
Since heroes are beyond normal men it is unsurprising then that in tragedy the predominant way of dealing with heroes is to see them as fierce individualists who won't accept the limitations of the state. Their superhuman greatness and inequality separates them from the polis. They become a danger, so are confronted by opposition from the city. Antigone will not obey the edicts concerning her brother, preferring to die in the conflict. The greatness of Oedipus' crimes brings plague to his city. This near-total incompatibility between admired but immovable heroes and the beloved city state is part of Greek tragedy - one must lose, but both are cherished, so regret is unavoidable.
Ancient Greeks believed in miasma, 'spiritual pollution' or 'blood guilt'. A crime would infect the criminal with miasma, cursing them to suffer, whether or not the crime was intentional. Only spiritually-purifying acts would alleviate the pollution. Although they practised animal sacrifice, in their minds this too caused miasma and had to be followed by purifying rituals. Easterling & Muir argued that the rituals before a sacrifice aimed at "making harmless the bloody and in itself uncanny business of deliberately killing a living creature" and reminded us that "much of sacrificial ritual makes sense only by assuming a deep-seated sense of anxiety over the taking of animal life" (From Greek Religion & Society, p18).
Revenge is a common crime in Greek drama, and leads to cycles of tragedy since even murdering in revenge then causes spiritual pollution, leading to further tragedy. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigineia; in turn his wife Clytemnestra killed him; then she is killed by her own son Orestes, and so on. Blood always claims more blood.
Perhaps it is for this reason that tragic scenes of death and horror usually occurred off-stage in drama, behind the scenes. Even seeing those things might be corrupting. Tragedy therefore looks at death, but from a safe place.
Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos would have been like an early horror film to ancient theatre goers as they watched the story of a man discovering that he had killed his father and married his mother, before blinding himself at the end once he realised what he had done. There is a lot we can learn as writers from this play where the peripeteia (reversal) and anagnorisis (moment of discovery) occur together for the hero, leading to a re-evaluation of everything that has gone before, and a reversal of so many aspects: blindness to insight (and back to blindness); inquirer to object of inquiry; hunter to prey; doctor to disease; investigator to the criminal; accuser to the defendant; finder to the thing found; curser to the thing cursed; ruler to subject; highest to lowest; king to outcast. Oedipus means ‘swollen foot’ (oidi - swollen, pous - foot), but oidi also means knowledge, and when knowledge comes it is not always a pleasant thing. Hence another possible meaning of Oidipus - ’Oi (Alas!) Dipous (two footed, i.e. man, mankind).
Paranoia about childrenKronos castrated and overthrew his father (and later ate his children); in turn Kronos was overthrown by his son Zeus, and Zeus ate his wife Metis to stop her giving birth (which failed, since Athene his daughter emerged from his head rather than her mother’s womb, giving Zeus a pounding headache). The example of the gods proved that children were a danger! Hence the cursed bloodlines running through some Greek plays. Even Oedipus (unknowingly) killed his father.
[As an aside, note that Metis is a metaphor - it means 'wisdom', and Zeus’ consuming of Metis explained why he was then so wise.]
Men and women
Many Greek men believed that Zeus sent women to be a punishment to mankind. After all, wasn't it Pandora who released all the evils into the world when she opened the jar? Women were secondary. In Aeschylus' The Eumenides there is a lot of legal debate, but in the end it is explicitly stated that Orestes is acquitted because Athene favours the male, not for any other reason. Society was absolutely patriarchal. In the same play we see a theme of men becoming superior to and overtaking their mothers, moving from a position of subservience to manhood. It is no accident that the action takes place at Delphi, the home of the Omphalos stone (navel stone), a connection to the earth as mother, and at that place Orestes grows to maturity. Yet women in tragedy are often powerful, portrayed as unpredictable and with powerful emotions. Characters like Clytemnestra and Antigone will not be ‘tamed’ by men. These were used as exceptions to the rule. Nonetheless, careful reading of the treatment of women in ancient Greek tragedy raises many questions, and would be a worthy topic for a blog post in itself.
I have not looked at comedy but it was an important aspect of dramatic festivals. Our surviving comedies from this period are all by Aristophanes. They are almost pornographic in parts, and full of creative euphemisms for body parts, but this is because the Greeks felt that obscenity could ward off evil, an apotropaic view that was common in the culture - just consider the widespread carving of Herma with their erect penises. The vulgarity is also because comedy came from fertility rituals - humans would do things 'to remind animals and plants what to do'. Ancient Greeks were more broadminded than modern culture in some ways, since there is no way nowadays that anyone would erect a statue with an erect penis in a shopping centre. Aristophanes adds a lot to many of the themes above e.g. Lysistrata with its plot about women withholding sex from their husbands until the men agree to stop the war is a triumph of form and theme working together (it’s no coincidence that the climax of the play is delayed). Aristophanes’ satires were aimed at change, at reducing the excesses of the satire’s target, not necessarily getting rid of the target entirely; a comedy reprimand that would have the ancient audience in stitches.