The Essence of Greek Tragedy

1. Kin Killing

Death and lamentation are recurring features of tragedy, often the results of the killing of close kin. This hardly features in the Homeric Epics, where people kill enemies from other households and kingdoms. In Athenian tragedy the murder of another member of the same oikos is very frequent (e.g Clytemnestra kills her husband. Orestes kills his mother, Oedipus kills his father. Medea kills her children, Agave kills her son, Creon sentences his niece Antigone to death). In his Poetics Aristotle says that good tragic plots are made,
"where the suffering involves people closely connected, for instance where brother kills brother, son father, mother son, or son mother" (ch. 14).

2. Dionysus and Dionysiac Illusion

Although only one surviving tragedy, Euripides' Bacchae, has Dionysus in a speaking role. tragedy almost ccrtainly grew out of hymns in honour of Dionysus, and was performed at festivals in his honour. As Dionysus was the god of wine, dancing, and illusion, the processes of dressing up as and pretending to be someone else (acting) and, for the audience, watching something that is not really happening (spectating), is closely tied up with the religious feeling aroused by this god. In Bacchae Pentheus dresses up as a maenad, just as the young mcn playing the chorus had before the play began, and his perception of reality is altered by Dionysus. This could be seen as theatre within theatre a commentary on the theatrical process.

Enter Pentheus dressed as a maenad, led by Dionysus
Pentheus:
Why now I seem to see two suns, a double Thebes; our city's wall with seven gates appears double. You are a bull I see leading me now; a pair of horns seems to have grown upon your head. Were you a beast before? You have become a bull.
Dionysus : God did not favour us before; he is with us now. . you see as you should see.
Pentheus: How do I look? Tell me, is not the way I stand like the way my aunt Ino stands, or my mother Agave? Dionysus: Looking at you, I think I see them both. Wait: a curl has slipped out of its proper place, not as I tucked it carefully below your snood.....
Pentheus: You dress me please; I have put myself in your hands now.
Dionysus: Your girdle has come loose; and now your dress does not hang, as it should, in pleats down to the ankle. Pentheus: That's true, I think at least by the right leg, on this side; but on the other the gown hangs well to the heel....

3. Impersonating Women

Tragedy required men to dress up as and impersonate women. Tragedy was seen as a 'feminine' genre, especially when contrasted with comedy or satyr drama. The Athenians had theories about how they wrote and played female parts: in Aristophanes' Poet and the Women the transvestite tragedian Agathon talks about writing women's roles:
I wear my clothes to suit my inspiration. A dramatist has to merge his whole personality into what he is describing. If he is describing a woman's actions, he has to participate in her experience, body and soul.... If he's writing about a man, he's got all the bits and pieces already, but what nature hasn't provided, art can imitate.
Plato objected to the femininity of tragedy. He says in his Republic that people turn into the individuals they imitate and so tragedy is morally corrupting to the actor.
So we shan't allow those who ought to be brave men, to imitate a woman, young or old, in the act of reviling her husband or boastfully competing with the gods ..or possessed by misfortune or mourning or lamentation. And as for illness, love, or childbirth god forbid!

4. Emotional Impact/Function

There are plenty of ancient anecdotes about the emotional impact tragedy could have: women are supposed to have miscarried spontaenously when they saw the Erinyes in Aeschylusí Eumenides, and the tragedian Phrynichus was fined for making the Athenians weep too much . A central function of tragedy, according to Aristotle, is to arouse the emotions of FEAR and PITY in the audience. Tragedy, he says,

"is an imitation of a high, complete action...effecting through pity and fear the catharsis of such emotions.... one should present an imitation of things that arouse fear and pity... [one should show] a man, who though not pre eminent in moral virtue, passes to bad fortune not through vice or wickedness, but through some piece of ignorance (hamartia), and is of high repute and great fortune, like Oedipus and Thyestes and the splendid men of such families".

5. Dramatis Personae: Mythical Heroes

Tragedy almost always sets itself in the mythical past, as Aristotle recommends, unlike the 'here and now of Aristophanic comedy. This was partly because the tragedians inherited myths from the old epics. But it must also be remembered that the Athenians actually worshipped many of these heroes (e g Oedipus. Heracles. and Ajx) in their own city state, and regarded them has having a continued existence of some kind even after death. The importance attached to burial in e.g. Antigone is connected with hero cult.

6 . Multivocal Form

Drama is unique amongst literary forms because it consists only of actors' voices, and takes away the authorial voice of the poet. Tragedy does this even more than comedy. This gives the characters, of all difterent kinds of status, the opponunity to put their perspectives on the action and voice their opinions without any moral comment frm the poet's voice whatsoever. This helps to account for the impact of e.g. Medea's great speech in Medea, where she speaks to the audience directly, without any introduction of her character type from the poet, and can thus enlist their sympathy the better. In Aristophanes' Frogs Euripides actually says that he made tragedy "democratic" by keeping

"the women talking, and the slaves just as freely, young girl and aged crone, alongside the master of the house".

7. Conflict

It was.the philosopher Hegel who first suggested that tragedy was not tragedy without conflict. He chose Sophocles' Antigone to demonstrate this: the conflict is between duty to the laws regulating the state and duty to those regulating the family. This notion is helpful to our understanding of most tragedies: often the conflict is argued out in detail in the debate scene (agon). Think about what constitues the conflict in the tragedies you know.

Peter Jones


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