Home Page Home Page

Greek Drama

Lecture 4B -- Introduction to Greek Drama


Tragedy was a phenomenon of Athens, Greece, in the fifth century B.C.

At the Dionysian festival, Athens would have competition for best tragedies.. "In nearly every instance the centre of these festivals lay in extravagant sexual licentiousness, the waves of which overwhelmed all family life and its venerable traditions; the very wildest beasts of nature were let loose here, including that detestable mixture of lust and cruelty which has always seemed to me the genuine 'witches' draught'" (Nietzsche, Birth 30).

Dioynsus in Germany

According to an article from ABC News, 2010’s Oktoberfest in Munich set record numbers for “beer consumption and lost items.” The numbers come down to 7 million liters of beer consumed. Awesome. The previous record was 6.94 million in 2007. ABC News reports that the items lost included: “one hearing aid,…a leather whip, a live rabbit, a tuba, a ship in a bottle, 1,450 items of clothing, 770 identity cards, 420 wallets, 366 keys, 330 bags and 320 pairs of glasses, 90 cameras and 90 items of jewellery and watches. A total of 37 children were also lost.” Stop for a second, read that again. A live rabbit. A hearing aid. 37 children!

Tragedy grew out of songs sung @ Dionysian festival. Started having people act out the songs. Remained musical in form--Words sung rather than spoken.

The Dithyramb was the type of lyric used in Tragedy. 

"Gr. Antiq. A Greek choric hymn, originally in honour of Dionysus or Bacchus, vehement and wild in character; a Bacchanalian song" (Oxford English Dictionary).

 The dithyramb was sung with flutes. The chorus sang songs about Dionysus & other myths. True drama began when Thespis went out in front of the chorus to play the role of a character.

Rules of tragedy. (McCall 14-15)

  1. Length. 1,100-1,700 lines. Took less than 2 hours. Thus few characters, focus on one crisis.
  2. Chorus present.
    1. Sings about the action
    2. Plays some part in the play--a suitable general role. Not an impersonal group.
    3. Provides continuity. Present from beginning to end. Everything happens against the backdrop of the chorus.
  3. Characters not as personal is in Shakespeare (Hamlet vs Orestes). Aristotle--tragedy is universal. They want to show what can happen to anybody. Focus on human destiny. Mask emphasized this. Focus is an what characters do, not who they are, on destinies, not personalities. 

According to Friedrich Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, Apollo and Dionysus were the two deities of art in Greece. Apollo was the patron of plastic arts (sculpture, etc., and Dionysus of music. Apollo established the principium individuationis (the principle of individuation); Dionysus dissolved that principle in his ecstasies, resulting in a primordial unity. Apollo gave intuition (Anschauung) through dreams; Dionysus gave ecstasy (Entzückung) through drunkenness (Geburt 25-26, 28-29, 84, 103-104). Later tragedy, under the influence of Socrates and Euripides, replaced Apollonian intuition with thought and Dionysian ecstasy with passion (83-84). Tragedy combines the Dionysian music with the Apollonian visual. The Dionysian group with the Apollonian individual. The noble man does not sin, . . . through his action all law, all natural order, yes, the moral world may fall to the ground, but through this action a higher magic circle will be drawn from its effects, a new world founded from the Ruins of the overthrown old one (Nietzsche, Geburt 65).


Plastic arts (sculpture)

Principium individuationis (principle of individuation.

Man is the artist.

Intuition through dreams.

The music of Apollo was Doric architectonics in tones, but in merely suggested tones, such as those of the cithara. (Nietzsche, Birth 32)

Norman Rockwell



Dissolves individual through ecstasy. Primordial unity.

Man is the work of art.

Ecstasy through drunkenness.

The very element which forms the essence of Dionysian music . . . is . . . the thrilling power of the tone, the uniform stream of the melos, and the thoroughly incomparable world of harmony. Music that leads to ecstasy.

Elvis for us, Richard Wagner for Nietzsche


Dates: Born 525/524 B.C. Died 456/455 B.C.

Aeschyus fought at the Battle of Marathon when he was 35 years old & at Salamis in the Persian War (Podlecki 4). Aeschylus started writing circa 500 B.C. Won his first victory in 484 (Podlecki 5). Aeschylus died when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. His epithet said he was a soldier at Marathon, with nothing about his writing.


Date: 457/456 B.C. It was his last trilogy (Podlecki 110).

The Romantics felt drawn to the figures of Aeschylus' Prometheus and Milton's Satan, those defiers of divine will and purveyors of proscribed knowledge. By their willful exercise of power and distribution of knowledge, they establish their status as heroic criminals. Nor were they heroes in spite of their crimes; it was their crimes that made them heroes. The "innermost kernel of the Prometheus myth" (innersten Kern der Prometheussage) is "the necessity of crime impelling the titanically striving individual" (die dem titanisch strebenden Individuum gebotene Nothwendigkeit des Frevels) (Nietzsche, Geburd der Tragödie 70).

Prometheus is the mythic figure who best suits the uses of Romantic poetry, for no other traditional being has in him the full range of Romantic moral sensibility and the full Romantic capacity for creation and destruction. (Bloom 120)

Problem of play: Zeus has no redeeming traits (Podlecki 101).

Here Zeus is a tyrant. Kratos and Bia (Force and Might) are thugs, a δορυφόρος doruphoros (bodyguard to king).

Three aims of tyrant (Podlecki 121)

  1. Keep subjects humble.
  2. Make them distrust one another.
  3. Keep them powerless so they won't try to rebel.

Zeus has the traits of human tyrants identified by Aristotle & others (Podlecki 105).

  1. Unaccountable to others--no checks & balances.
  2. Ignores traditional laws. Is above the law.
  3. Mistrusts those closest to him.
  4. Violence, esp. against women. ϐία. Io was exiled by Zeus' command in this version (lines 667-668) (Podlecki 106).
  5. Zeus won't tolerate free speech, others fear to speak freely (line 180) (Podlecki 107).
  6. Has spies, like Hermes. Big Brother is watching (Podlecki 109).
  7. Lops off outstanding people who might cause opposition. Encourages mediocrity (Podlecki 110).
  8. Surrounds self with flatterers & courtiers. Oceanus is one. both cunning & naive. Thinks he has influence (Podlecki 109).

Herodotus 3. 80-82 discusses three types of government: monarchy, oligarchy, democracy. Aeschylus influences Herodotus, Plato, & Aristotle. Aristotle Politics 5. 8. Tyrant seeks own good only. Tyrant's pride (ὑϐρις, hubris) leads to subjects' wrath (οργη, orge) (Podlecki 118).

Home Page
Home Page