Make your own free website on

Greek Tragedies


Greek Tragedies

33 of the plays by the Greek tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, are extant. They are listed here in approximately chronological order. The 11 surviving comedies of Aristophanes, some of which provide detailed comments on the tragedies and their authors, are also listed. Links are given to all the texts.

Introduction to the Tragedies

Extant Greek tragedy represents the output of a very short period of history, from about 480 BC, when Aeschylus's early plays were performed, to the last plays of Sophocles and Euripides at the end of the fifth century. The two later tragedians wrote their early plays in the fifty years from 480, the end of the war with Persia, to 430, the start of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta which was to destroy Athens as an independent city-state. This fifty years (pentekontaetia) was the age of Pericles, when Athens was at its peak. It is worth noting that the mature plays of Sophocles and Euripides were written against a background of constant war.


The origins of tragedy are not known with any certainty. The development of tragic dialogue may have been influenced by dramatic recitations of epic and other poems by travelling rhapsodes (bards, literally 'song-stitchers'), but its choral origins are less well known. Aristotle (Poetics 1449a - late 4th century) gives a double origin, stating first that tragedy developed from the dithyramb, a choral dance connected with the worship of Dionysus, and believed to have been sung by a circular choir (kuklios choros) of fifty singers; and secondly that tragedy was a development of 'the satyric'. The dithyramb is associated with the 7th century Corinthian musician Arion, who is mentioned by the 5th century historian Herodotus (1.23) as having perfected the form. He seems to have transformed it from a moving revel or komos, to a stationary performance (though the members of the chorus danced). This origin may be reflected in the Greek word for a tragic ode, stasimon ('stationary song').

Aristotle's 'satyric' may refer to the saturoi or attendants of Dionysus who were also called tragoi because they wore goats' ears (according to the Suidas, a 10th century AD Greek lexicon), and it is possible that the tragic chorus developed from a chorus of singers dressed as satyrs. This would explain the word tragoidia (tragedy), which appears to mean 'goat song'.

Commentators other than Aristotle generally attributed the origin of tragedy to Thespis, a sixth century poet who introduced speeches by an actor into choral performances. There was a tradition that he travelled about Attica performing plays on a plaustrum or wagon, according to the 1st century poet Horace (Ars Poetica 275-7). The name may be fictional, derived from the Homeric description of bardic song as 'god-spoken' (as at Odyssey 1.328). The term 'thespian' has been used in English to describe an actor since the early 19th century. The 1st century AD biographer Plutarch (Solon 29) writes that the Athenian poet and statesman Solon criticised the performances of Thespis as lies and paidia (sport). At the end of Wasps (1475ff), Aristophanes satirises tragic dancing in a burlesque 'scene from Thespis'.

The Social Context

In the fifth century, Greek tragedy was performed only at the wine festivals: the country Dionysia and Lenaia (both in December) and the Great Dionysia (in March), which was also a major political event, as the tribute from client city states was exhibited and war orphans were paraded before the performances.

The scale of the theatre compares with modern sporting arenas: the Athenian Theatre of Dionysus could hold perhaps 18,000 people, though Plato (Symposium 175e) estimates 30,000 spectators. It is still disputed whether women and children were present, though the current view is that they were.

The productions were organised as competitions, and precise dates are known only when the play is recorded as having won a prize. Poets submitted tetralogies of three tragedies and one satyr play. The chief official of the city, the archon, selected three, and appointed a choregos to finance and organise the chorus for each. This choregia counted as a civic duty, comparable to paying for a troop of soldiers or equipping a trireme. The chorus was composed of ephebes, youths who had reached the age of 18. The poets produced the productions themselves, and may also have acted in them: Athenaeus (The Sophists at Dinner I.21.e - about 200AD) states that Aeschylus acted in his own plays, and describes Sophocles' proficiency in music and dancing.

While the performances were part of the cult of Dionysus, the extent to which they were religious events is disputed. What is clear is that the plots (with the exception of the Bacchae) generally involve mythic but not religious stories. Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics 1111a8-10) implies that the plays of Aeschylus reveal secrets from the Eleusinian or Orphic mysteries. There was a tradition, mentioned by Plutarch (Symposium 1.1, 615) and the Suidas, that the seriousness of tragedy led to a reaction from audiences that it had 'nothing to do with Dionysus', so that in the time of Aeschylus the custom of having tragic choruses dressed as satyrs was reintroduced, for the burlesque form of tragedy, the satyr play.

Satyr plays might be considered a subdivision of tragedy, as they were written by the tragedians and performed together with the tragedies. Only one has survived in its entirety: the Cyclops of Euripides. While being a dramatic re-working of a Homeric story (from Odyssey Book 9), it has thematic similarities with the same poet's Hecuba. A substantial part of Sophocles' Ichneutae ('Trackers') has also survived: it may be a parody of Ajax. Its theme (the theft of Apollo's cattle by the infant Hermes) was later recounted by Ovid (Metamorphoses 2.676-707). Tony Harrison's play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (1990) recounts its theme and textual history.

Comedy has even less certain origins. Aristotle (Poetics 1449a) believed it originated in phallic processions which were a feature of Dionysian ritual, and its name is reminiscent of the bands of revellers (komoi) noted above. The comic competitions were established around the time of Aeschylus. The poets competed separately from the tragedians. Their themes were highly topical: Aristophanes' plays satirize many aspects of the contemporary Athenian society, including the writing and performance of tragedy.

The dramatic and symbolic space

The theatres are preserved in their 4th century or Roman state, and 5th century conditions are less well known, but the general layout is clear. The theatron ('seeing place', rather than the Latin auditorium or 'hearing place') was in the form of a semicircular hollow (koilon) and, at its focus, the orchestra ('dancing place') with the altar of Dionysus at its centre. Behind it may have been a stage or proskenion (though perhaps not in the 5th century), and behind that the skene (covered building), with central doors through which the actors usually entered, and through which a wheeled trolley, the ekkuklema could be rolled, to present tableaux. In the 5th century the skene was probably wooden, though in later times it was a substantial stone building. On each side, there was a walkway, the parodos, along which the chorus (and sometimes the actors) entered.

Ancient commentators write of the spectacular theatricality of the productions, and particularly those of Aeschylus, who was noted for creating astonishment (ekplexis): ghosts appear as characters in Persai and the Eumenides, and one text (Life of Aeschylus) tells that children fainted and women had miscarriages at the sight of the Furies.

Aristotle (Poetics 1449a) attributes the introduction of scene-painting to Sophocles. There was a variety of stage equipment, especially flying gear, and also machinery for thunder and lightning. The crane or mechane was often used to effect a theophany: Plato (Cratylus 425 D) wrote that 'the tragic poets when in some dilemma have recourse to raising gods on machines', and the Latin phrase deus ex machina has become a metaphor for a contrived solution. The device appears to have been used by Sophocles in Philoctetes, by Euripides in Orestes, Medea, Electra, IT, Bacchae, and often features in the comedies of Aristophanes (most humorously in Peace 126-176).

The setting of many tragedies is liminal, at the threshold to the house. The dramatic boundary between the orchestra and the skene may therefore reflect that between polis, the city, and oikos, the household. The interior world remained private, being seen only as a tableau, usually of death, by means of the ekkuklema.

The stories

Aristotle (Poetics 1453a) noted that, while 'in the beginning the poets chose stories (muthoi) at random, now the best tragedies are constructed around a few houses', arguing that this was motivated by the requirements of plot. Another reason may have been literary tradition. Athenaeus (The Sophists at Dinner 8.347e) commented that Aeschylus described his tragedies as 'slices (temache) from the great banquets of Homer'. While not all the plots of extant tragedies are Homeric, most are derived from traditional stories. They do not, however, necessarily treat the stories from the same perspective, and the consequent redefinition of tradition is a notable feature of tragedy.

Rewriting might involve reworking the same story: it is known that Euripides wrote two versions of Hippolytus, and we are fortunate to have a version of the same Homeric story (from the Odyssey) by each of the three great tragedians: the Choephoroi of Aeschylus, and the Electra plays of Euripides and Sophocles.

The three tragedies which each poet presented at a competition were not necessarily on a related subject: only Aeschylus is known to have written trilogies on a single theme, like the Oresteia. The Theban plays of Sophocles, though sometimes performed now as a trilogy, were written for different competitions.

The spoken and choral arrangement of Greek tragedy

In the Poetics (1452b), Aristotle gives the most concise description of the formal structure of tragedy. There are usually five scenes or episodes separated by choral odes (stasima), the whole preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue or exodos. This form is the precursor of the five-act structure familiar in Shakespearean drama.

Greek tragedy is as much choral as dramatic. There were twelve singers in the Aeschylean chorus, and fifteen in the Sophoclean and Euripidean. Though Thespis probably performed as a solo actor with chorus, by the mid fifth century BC there were three hypokritai ('responders' or perhaps 'interpreters'). Aristotle (Poetics 1449a) credits Aeschylus with introducing a second actor and Sophocles with the third. Aeschylus adopted the Sophoclean practice in the Oresteia, which requires a specialist singer. Aeschylus was famous for the use of a non-speaking actor, a 'silent face' (kophon prosopon), who may speak at moments of maximum tension, as at Choephoroi 900-902. Aristophanes mocks the use of a silent actor in Frogs (911-920).

The language

The language is blank verse throughout, in comedy as well as tragedy. The language is quite varied: the messenger speeches, which reported the main action (which was normally not depicted), are self-consciously archaic and highly formal, while the dialogue can be remarkably colloquial. In tragedy, the episodes (the spoken sequences), are composed in iambic trimeter lines, which are similar to, but longer than, the Shakespearean line (by one iambic foot). Aristotle regarded the iambic as a natural conversational rhythm (Poetics 1449a). It is less formal than the Homeric dactylic hexameter, and was originally used in satirical lampoons (iamboi).

As well as speeches, the episodes usually include passages of stichomythia ('line-speech'), dialogic exchanges in which the actors speak in alternate lines. Such highly formal dialogue can highlight confrontation, as in the 'tapestry scene' in Agamemnon 931-943; a balanced argument, as at Eumenides 87-608; or simply be a dramatic way to tell a narrative, as at Ajax 38-51. Euripidean stichomythia is generally rather mannered, and uses many techniques of rhetorical debate. Some of the effects of stichomythia can be seen from the Shakespearean use of the form, as at Love's Labours Lost V.2, Richard III IV.4, and 3 Henry VI III.2.

The choral odes are written in a wide variety of metres, in mostly shorter lines. They were composed in a different dialect from the spoken passages: Doric rather than Attic Greek (perhaps for historical reasons, since the choral forms out of which tragedy developed may have been composed in it). Anapaestic lines were normally chanted during the first entry of the chorus, as a marching rhythm, and were also used at moments of high tension between episodes. During the odes, the chorus danced as well as singing. The musical accompaniment was provided by a flute-player (auletes).

The dramatic function of the chorus has been one of the most disputed topics in subsequent commentary on tragedy, and one of the most difficult aspects to realise in performance. The contrasting views of Schlegel and Nietzsche on its artistic function are noted in a discussion of the influence of tragedy elsewhere on this server.

The tragedians used sung and spoken verse in distinctive ways. Aeschylean odes may be very long: nearly half the Agamemnon is sung. They are noted for their powerful and unpolished imagery: Aristophanes (Frogs 823-4) depicts Aeschylus as 'hurling bolted words, tearing them away like boards'. Euripidean odes are often very short (mostly about 40 lines), and Aristotle criticised them (most commentators would say unjustifiably) as interludes, with little relation to the plot (Poetics 1456a). They are often very beautiful: Plutarch (Lysander 15.3) recounts that the Spartan army did not destroy Athens in 404 because they were moved to pity by the singing of the first chorus of the Electra (432-486). The third stasimon of the Bacchae (862-911) is another lovely song. A distinctive feature of Sophoclean tragedy is the frequent use of choral interchanges (kommoi) between the chorus and one of the actors, rather than purely choral odes, so the chorus is particularly highly integrated in the language of the drama.


It may be possible to infer how the parts may have been allocated between the three actors. In Agamemnon, the first actor, the protagonist, would have played Clytemnestra, a deuteragonist could have played all the minor characters, the watchman, herald, Agamemnon, and Aesgisthus; and a singer would have played Cassandra. In Medea, the protagonist would have played Medea, who is on stage for almost the whole play. The deuteragonist could have played the nurse, Jason, and messenger, with the tritagonist playing the tutor, Creon, and Aegeus. An actor might be required to play a female and a male character in the same play, as Pentheus and Agave in the Bacchae, and the one part might be played by a succession of actors, as Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus.

The doubling of parts and the portrayal of women were possible because the actors wore masks. The earliest written information on masks is given by the 2nd century AD lexicographer Julius Pollux, who listed 26 types of masks used in tragedy, and more in comedy. The tragic prosopeion was a full-face mask. In Hellenistic theatre, the masks were large, with a raised forehead or onkos, and exaggeratedly distorted mouths, but pottery illustrations show that 5th century masks were more naturalistic. It is becoming clear that the theatrical realisation of the emotional power of tragedy requires the use of masks, both to integrate the chorus in the drama, and to affect the actor's vocal projection, by forming a resonating chamber, and modern mask-makers concentrate as much on the sound as the appearance. Directors particularly interested in mask work include Peter Stein at the Berlin Schaubühne, and Peter Hall, as in the 1981-2 production of the Oresteia at the National Theatre in London, and the 1996 production of Oedipus Tyrannus at the Greek theatre of Epidaurus.

The layout of Greek theatres is closer to 'theatre in the round' than to a frontal proscenium-arch configuration. It is possible that in the 5th century the actors moved among the chorus in the orchestra, rather than standing behind them on a raised stage (proskenion). Some productions now favour this approach, rather than presenting tragedy in tableau form, and aim for a more dynamic, choreographed, use of the chorus (as argued for by Michael Ewans, cited below). It seems likely that choral lyrics like the Furies' binding song would have been interpreted through the dance (Eumenides 372-5: 'For in truth leaping from on high, with heavy fall I bring down my foot; my legs trip the runner...'). It is, however, difficult to recreate movement patterns of which we know nothing.

Textual Transmission

As noted above, Greek tragedies were in the fifth century mostly performed as new works, with only the works of Aeschylus being permitted revivals. However, in the fourth century, revivals (especially of Euripides) became common, presumably from acting copies. In 330 BC, the Athenian orator Lycurgus established an official edition of the three tragedians. This was the basis for editions produced by the scholars of the Alexandrian Library in the third and second centuries BC (according to Galen, in his commentary on the Hippocratic On Epidemics Book 3, Ptolemy III borrowed the official Athenian copy, and never returned it). Seven plays each by Aeschylus and Sophocles and ten by Euripides were preserved in this way. Nine more Euripidean works were fortuitously preserved from part of a complete alphabetical edition (which is why those plays all have titles beginning with Eta, Iota, or Kappa in Greek: Helene, Elektra, Herakleidai, Herakles, Hiketides, Iphigeneia He En Aulisi, Iphigeneia He En Taurois, Ion, Kuklops).

The oldest surviving complete texts are mostly Byzantine (from the 9th century AD). The scholars concentrated on three plays of each tragedian: the 'Byzantine triad' (Aeschylus: Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus; Sophocles: Ajax, Electra, Oedipus the King; Euripides: Hecuba, Orestes, Phoenician Women). The oldest texts are papyri found at Oxyrhynchus in upper Egypt, some of which date from the 1st and 2nd century BC. Substantial fragments of the Euripidean tragedy Hypsipyle, the Sophoclean satyr play Ichneutai (Trackers), and Menander's comedy Discolus were discovered there (as well as work by Aristotle, Callimachus, Homer, and Pindar).

Greek tragedy as we know it represents the original literary canon: the extant plays are those which the Alexandrian scholars thought were the best, and listed as kanones ('rods' or 'rules'). The work of other tragedians (such as Ion of Chios, Critias, and Agathon) is discussed by Aristophanes, Aristotle, and other ancient commentators, and some fragments of their work survive.

To Greek Philosophy