“It’s all Greek to me…”
Background of Greek Tragedy
Tragedy is thought to have developed from the
ancient choral lyric which was sung by a male
chorus in honor of Dionysus, god of wine, at his
The word “tragedy” comes from the Greek word
“tragoidia” meaning “goat song.” At these
festivals the Greeks sacrificed a goat on the
altar to Dionysus while singing the choral lyrics.
The lyric expanded from myths about
Dionysus to stories from the whole
The father of drama was said by the
Greeks to have been Thespis. In 534 B.C.
Thespis put on the first tragedy at the
Festival of Dionysus in Athens.
Plot of a Greek Tragedy
The stories used in tragedy were taken
almost exclusively from mythology.
These ancient myths and heroic legends
were important to the Greeks, for they
recorded what was thought to be the
collective social, political, and religious
history of the people and included many
profound tales about the problems of
human life and the nature of the gods.
The custom requiring the use of these
mythological stories in tragedy satisfied
an essential requirement of the religious
function of drama, for it enabled the poets
to deal with subjects of great moral
dignity and emotional significance.
The audience then learned from tragedy
what personal motives and outside forces
had driven the characters to act as they
did. Because poets used plots familiar to
their audience, they would have
opportunities to use irony and subtle (or
not so subtle) allusions.
Who wrote Oedipus Rex?
Sophocles (496 B.C. – 406 B.C.)
His life spanned the rise and decline of the
Athenian Empire, in which he was a
playwright, government official, and warrior.
He preferred plays that dealt with the struggle
of a strong individual against fate, portraying
people as they should be.
The most memorable feature of Sophocles’
drama is his cast of vivid, dynamic
Performances were held in daylight in
enormous, open-air arenas. A typical
theatre was built on a hillside, giving the
seating area a natural rise so thousands
of spectators could clearly view the
the vast outdoor theatre, actors had to
make themselves appear larger than life.
Each actor wore a mask of linen, cork, or wood,
on which was painted an exaggerated
expression. For example, a sad face for a
troubled kind, or a woman’s face to distinguish
that the character was a woman since all actors
were male. Funnel-shaped mouth openings
helped actors project their voices.
Costumes were used to identify a specific type of
character. These came in different colors to
represent different characters. For example, to
represent royalty, Greek actors wore tunics with
sleeves and actors playing gods and goddesses
usually had an identifying symbol.
Structure of a Tragedy
Greek tragedies were performed without intermissions or
Prologue – the opening scene, in which the
background of the story is established, usually
by a single actor
Parados – the entrance of the chorus, usually
chanting a lyric which bears some relation to the
main theme of the play
Episode – the counterpart of the modern act or
scene, in which the plot is developed through
action and dialogue between the actors, with the
chorus sometimes playing a minor role.
Structure of a Tragedy, Cont.
Stasimon – the choral ode. A stasimon comes
at the end of each episode so that the tragedy
is a measured alternation between these two
Exodus – the final action after the last
stasimon, ended by the ceremonial exit of all
Strophe – stanza that chorus sings as they
move from right to left across the stage
Antistrophe – countermovement; stanza that
chorus sings as they move from left to right
across the stage
A tragedy is an imitation of an action
that is serious, has magnitude, and is
complete in itself. The incidents in the
plot arouse pity and fear on the part of
the audience so the end of the tragedy
brings about a catharsis, an outlet or
purging of emotions aroused in the
play. The audience then leaves the
theatre cleansed and uplifted.
Since the aim of a tragedy is to arouse pity and fear
through an alteration in the status of the central character,
the tragic hero must be:
A figure with whom the audience can identify so
his fate can trigger the emotions of pity and fear
on the part of the audience
True to life and consistent
Highly renowned and prosperous, but not pre-
eminently virtuous and just
Possesses a flaw in his character that inevitably
causes his downfall; this flaw is not a vice but a
weakness of character
The tragic hero possesses a tragic flaw so
he will not be a completely admirable man,
and thus a realistic character.
The tragic flaw is Hubris which means
overwhelming pride in oneself.
Because he is so proud of himself, the tragic
hero makes a mistake, which is called Ate.
This mistake leads to his downfall or
retribution or punishment, Nemesis.
The Legend and the Play
As with any Greek tragedy, Oedipus
Rex (the King), is based on a legend.
The task of the Greek playwright is to
give the “continuing story” of the
So listen closely and you will hear the
Legend of Oedipus. (Introduction p.