Greek Drama Lecture Notes

Greek Drama


  • —   Began as a form of religious ritual to Dionysus
  • —   Continued to keep its religious character after becoming entertainment
  • —   Began with existence of a chorus, with a leader, singing about a great hero
  • —   Eventually leader began impersonating hero
  • —   Added spoken dialogue and a second actor
    • Opportunity for conflicting points-of-view
  • —   Third actor – silent or off-stage
  • —   May have been largely sung
  • —   First prize for tragedy went to Thespis in 534
    • Thus the word thespian – actor

Drama as Religious Ritual

Explaining relations

  • —   human to the divine
  • —   human to material world

Explaining violence and its origins

Attempting to control irrational and material worlds


  • Usually followed a known myth
  • Not necessarily “tragic”
  • Prologue (one or two actors)
  • Chorus sings first song
  • Several “acts” follow separated by choral odes

Differences between Tragedy and Comedy

Aristotelian tradition

  • —   Renaissance

Rhetorical tradition

  • —   Plato and antiquity
  • —   Middle Ages

Aristotelian Tradition


  • —   Characters are better than average people
    • kings, gods, heros
  • —   Suffer a transition from good to bad fortune
    • tragic flaw – hamartia – element of the character that causes his downfall
  • —   Elevated language
  • —   Purging the soul of fear and pity – catharsis

Visual Aids for Audience

  1. Larger-than-life characters
  2. long, colorful robes
  3. high head dresses
  4. cothurnoi (shoes)
  5. masks with large mouth holes to facilitate ease of speech

Stage Effects

Elaborate devices were used for special effects

—   Mechane – large cranes used to whisk actors on and off stage (dues ex machina)

—   Skene – building at back of stage on which to paint scenery

—   Ekkyklema – contraption for rolling scenery on and off stage


One of the central features of Greek drama

  • —A group of similarly costumed men on the dancing floor (“orchestra”) beneath the stage for the duration of the performance, observing and commenting on the action of the two or three actors, whose dialogue consists of long, formal speeches in verse
    • choragus– choral leader

Aristotle’s Vocabulary

Agon – The term agon means contest, whether musical or gymnastic. The actors in a play are agon-ists.

Anagnorisis is the moment of recognition. The protagonist of a tragedy recognizes that his trouble is his own fault.

Anapest is a meter associated with marching.

The antagonist was the character against whom the protagonist struggled. Today the antagonist is usually the villain and the protagonist, the hero.

Deuteragonist is a term from ancient Greek drama meaning the second actor.  The first actor was the main actor whom we still refer to as protagonist. The third actor was the tritagonist. All actors played multiple roles.

A dithyramb was a choral hymn (hymn performed by a chorus), in ancient Greek tragedy, sung by 50 men or boys to honor Dionysus. By the fifth century B.C. there were dithyramb competitions.

Life of Oedipus

  • —   Abandoned at birth by royal parents
  • —   Fortuneteller predicted he would murder his father and marry his mother
  • —   Servant directed to take child to mountains and leave him to die
  • —   Given to a childless couple to raise
  • —   As an adult, he traveled to Thebes
  • —   Encountered Laos, his father, on the road and killed him in battle
  • —   Continued on to Thebes where he was a hero
  • —   Married the widowed queen, Iocaste, his mother
  • —   Fathered 4 children
    • Antigone, Ismene, Eteocles, Polyneices
  • —   Following a deadly plague, Oedipus discovers that Iocaste is his mother and that he killed his father.
  • —   Blinds himself, steps down as King of Thebes, hands kingdom to his sons
  • —   Antigone leads her father to exile
  • —   Sons battle for throne leading to a civil war in Thebes
    • both die
  • —   Creon buries Eteocles with military honors for his loyalty to him
  • —   Polyneices will not be buried because of his rebellion
    • Royal decree from Creon
  • —   Antigone wishes to bury her brother
    • Greek belief that the soul could not rest until body was buried

Pronunciation of Characters

Iocaste – EYE-oh-KAS-tee

Ismene – is MAY-nee

Polyneices – pol-IN-eeces

Eteocles – EYE-tee-AH-kleez

Laos- LAY-ohs

Antigone – an-TIG-ah-nee

Oedipus – ED-eh-pis