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Unit 3: Greek Tragedy
Unit 3: Greek Tragedy
Unit Overview
Unit 3 of the Classical Civilisation course (CIV3) is worth 25% of the A level. It
involves a course of study assessed by one written examination, lasting 1 hour and
30 minutes. During this examination you will not be permitted to use the texts
prescribed for study.
You will undertake a critical study of four Greek tragic plays in their religious, cultural
and social context.
The topic requires study in the areas of:
 literature
 society and values
 philosophy, science and religion.
The synoptic assessment will draw together knowledge, understanding and skills in
these three areas.
You will be expected to link understanding of Athenian society, religion and values to
a comparative analysis and evaluation of the four plays.
You will be required to demonstrate knowledge, understanding and the ability to
make a reasoned evaluation of the following texts:
Sophocles, Oedipus the King and Antigone
Euripides, Hippolytus and Medea
With particular reference to:
• the structure of the plots
• characterisation
• the conventions and production of tragedies in fifth-century Athens
• the use of the chorus
• dramatic techniques and effects
• themes
• the religious, cultural and social context and the place of tragedy in Athenian life,
including, for example:
–– beliefs in fate and the gods and the nature of human choice and responsibility
–– the roles of, and relationships between, men and women, fathers and sons,
mortals and immortals
–– the concept of honour
–– attitudes towards the family and city, friends and enemies
–– the nature of political leadership
–– the use of mythology to explore issues of contemporary relevance
–– the values and cultural assumptions implicit in the prescribed tragedies.
Introduction to Greek Tragedy
The word ‗tragedy‘ refers primarily to tragic drama: a literary composition written to
be performed by actors in which a central character suffers a serious misfortune that
is not accidental and therefore meaningless, but is significant in that it is logically
connected with the hero's actions. Tragedy stresses the vulnerability of human
beings whose suffering is brought on by a combination of human and divine actions,
but is generally undeserved with regard to its harshness. This genre, however, is not
totally pessimistic in its outlook. Although many tragedies end in misery for the
characters, there are also tragedies in which a satisfactory solution of the tragic
situation is attained.
Reading Tragedy
Tragedy was a public genre from its earliest beginnings at Athens; that is, it was
intended to be presented in a theatre before an audience. Epic originally was also a
public genre. The ancient poet Homer chanted his epics the Iliad and Odyssey to the
accompaniment of a stringed instrument called a kithara before an audience. Epic
continued to be recited by rhapsodes at festivals like the Panathenaia, but it
gradually became more of a private genre to be read from a manuscript at one's
This happened in part also to tragedy. In the fourth century Aristotle in his Poetics
points out that it is possible to experience the effect of tragedy without public
performance (that is, by private reading). Tragedy was still being written and
produced in the Athenian theatre in Aristotle's day, but the plays of the three great
tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides) and no doubt those of other
playwrights were also being read privately.
Reading, of course, is our primary means of access to ancient tragedy except for
occasional modern productions, which help us to a certain degree to appreciate its
theatricality, but for the most part provide quite a different theatrical experience from
that offered by the ancient productions. Private reading of tragedy deprives us of the
visual and aural effects, which were important elements of this genre. Our word
theatre is derived from the Greek word theatron, which contains the stem of the verb
theasthai 'to view as spectators'. Drama is a Greek word meaning 'action', related to
the verb dran 'to do'.
The author of a tragedy was not just the writer of a script. When his work was
approved for presentation at the state religious festival in honour of the god Dionysus
(the City Dionysia), the state assigned him actors and a chorus. The author then had
to perform the additional tasks of training the actors and chorus and of composing
the music for the various songs of the actors and chorus and providing choreography
for the chorus. Because we usually read tragedies rather than seeing theatrical
productions of them and also because our reading is usually in translation, we miss
the following elements which are additional aids to interpretation beyond the script of
the play: scenery, inflection of actors' voices, actors' gestures and postures,
costumes and masks, singing, dancing, sounds of the original language and its
various poetic rhythms.
These handicaps, however, are no reason to neglect tragedy. We still have the most
essential element of drama, the words, the playwright's most important medium of
communication. According to Aristotle, "the plot is the soul of tragedy" and the plot is
communicated to the audience primarily by means of words. You should, however,
keep in mind that words are not all there is to tragedy. Use your imagination as much
as possible in order to compensate for those theatrical elements lost in reading
Tragic Festival
The Athenian theatre was not a business enterprise like our theatre but was financed
by the Athenian state as an integral part of an Athenian religious festival: the City
Dionysia. Three tragic poets were chosen to present their plays by a magistrate
called an archon who had charge of the City Dionysia. Each one of the tragedians
presented a tetralogy (a group of four plays), three tragedies and a satyr play, on one
morning of the festival. In the first half of the fifth century the three tragedies often
formed a connected trilogy, which told a continuous story.
One connected trilogy survives, the Oresteia of Aeschylus, consisting of three plays:
Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and Eumenides. This trilogy traces the story of the
House of Atreus from Agamemnon's murder by his wife after his return from Troy to
the acquittal of his son, Orestes, who killed his mother in revenge. Three other
surviving plays of Aeschylus belong to trilogies of which two plays have been lost. All
the extant tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides do not belong to connected trilogies,
but are self-contained dramas. Although there is evidence that Sophocles wrote one
connected trilogy, the normal practice of the second half of the fifth century was to
write three unconnected tragedies.
The tragic poets competed with one another and their efforts were ranked by a panel
of judges. Aeschylus won thirteen first place victories, Sophocles, twenty four, and
Euripides, five. Euripides's relatively small number of victories is due more to his
unpopularity among the Athenians because of certain radical themes in his plays
than any lack of ability as a tragedian.
The theatre of Dionysus was, like all ancient Greek theatres, an open-air auditorium
and, due to the lack of adequate artificial lighting, performances took place during the
day. Scenes set at night had to be identified as such by the actors or the chorus; the
audience, upon receiving these verbal cues, had to use its imagination. In general,
the action of tragedy was well served by presentation in an open-air theatre since
interior scenes, which are common in our typically indoor theatres, are all but nonexistent in tragedy. The action of a tragedy normally takes place in front of palaces,
temples and other outdoor settings. This seemed natural to the ancient audience
because Greek public affairs, whether civic or religious, were conducted out of doors
as was much of Greek private life due to the relatively mild climate of the Aegean
The theatre of Dionysus in the earliest days of tragedy (late sixth-early fifth century)
must have consisted of only the most basic elements. All that was required was a
circular dancing area for the chorus (orchestra) at the base of a gently sloping hill, on
which spectators could sit and watch the performance. On the other side of the
orchestra facing the spectators there probably stood a tent in which the actors could
change their costumes (one actor would play more than one part). This is suggested
by the word skene which means 'tent', and was used to refer to a wooden wall having
doors and painted to represent a palace, temple or whatever setting was required.
The wall, which eventually became a full-fledged stage building, probably acquired
this name because it replaced the original tent. The construction of the wooden
skene (cf. our theatrical terms "scene" and "scenery") and of a formal seating area
consisting of wooden benches on the slope, which had been hollowed out, probably
took place sometime toward the middle of the fifth century.
This was no doubt the form of the theatre in which the plays of Sophocles and
Euripides were presented. The actors positioned themselves either in the orchestra
with the chorus or on the steps leading to the doors of the skene. The theatre of
Dionysus as it survives today with the remains of an elaborate stone skene, paved
orchestra and marble seats was built in the last third of the fourth century BC. This
stone theatre had a capacity of approximately fifteen thousand spectators.
Two mechanical devices which were an important part of the ancient Greek theatre
are worth mentioning. One device is the ekkyklema (a 'wheeled-out thing'), a
platform on wheels rolled out through one of the doors of the skene, on which a
tableau was displayed representing the outcome of an action indoors (usually an
‗obscene‘ action, such as a murder or a suicide) and therefore was unseen by the
audience. The other device is the mechane (a 'theatrical machine'), a crane to which
a cable with a harness for an actor was attached. This device allowed an actor
portraying a god or goddess to arrive on scene in the most striking manner possible,
from the sky. The mechane deposited the actor on top of the skene so that he as a
deity could address the human characters from an appropriately higher level. This
device was not exclusively limited to use by divine characters, but was employed
whenever the plot required any character to fly.
On the other hand, not every god arrived on scene by means of this machine. The
Latin phrase deus ex machina (‗the god from the machine‘) is often used to refer to
the appearance of gods by means of the mechane in tragedy. This phrase is also
employed in a pejorative sense in modern literary criticism to refer to an improbable
character or event introduced by an author to resolve a difficult situation. This
secondary meaning of deus ex machina developed from the practice of inferior
ancient dramatists who introduced a god at the end of a play in order to untangle a
badly snarled plot.
The actors in tragedy were hired and paid by the state and assigned to the tragic
poets probably by lot. By the middle of the fifth century three actors were required for
the performance of a tragedy. In descending order of importance of the roles they
assumed they were called the protagonist 'first actor', (a term also applied in modern
literary criticism to the central character of a play), deuteragonist 'second actor' and
tritagonist 'third actor'. The protagonist took the role of the most important character
in the play while the other two actors played the lesser roles. Since most plays have
more than two or three characters (although never more than three speaking actors
in the same scene), all three actors played multiple roles.
Since women were not allowed to take part in dramatic productions, male actors had
to play female roles. The playing of multiple roles, both male and female, was made
possible by the use of masks, which prevented the audience from identifying the face
of any actor with one specific character in the play and helped eliminate the physical
incongruity of men impersonating women. The masks with subtle variations also
helped the audience identify the sex, age, and social rank of the characters. The fact
that the chorus remained in the orchestra throughout the play and sang and danced
choral songs between the episodes allowed the actors to exit after an episode in
order to change mask and costume and assume a new role in the next episode
without any illusion-destroying interruption in the play.
The main duty of an actor was to speak the dialogue assigned to his characters.
This, however, was not the only responsibility of the actor. He occasionally had to
sing songs solo or with the chorus or with other actors (for example, a song of lament
called a kommos). The combination of acting and singing ability must have been as
rare in the ancient world as it is today.
For the modern reader the chorus is one of the more foreign elements of tragedy.
The chorus is not one of the conventions of modern tragedy. We associate the
chorus with such musical forms as opera, musical comedy and oratorio. But tragedy
was not just straight drama. It was interspersed with songs sung both by actors and
chorus and also with dancing by the chorus. The modern parallel for tragedy is
actually opera (along with its descendant, musical comedy), which is a dramatic form
containing song and dance.
The chorus, unlike the actors, were non-professionals who had a talent for singing
and dancing and were trained by the poet in preparation for the performance. The
standard number of members of a chorus was originally twelve, but was raised to
fifteen by Sophocles. The chorus, like the actors, wore costumes and masks.
The first function of a tragic chorus was to chant an entrance song called a parados
as they marched into the orchestra. The entrance song took its name from the two
ramps (parodoi) on either side of the orchestra which the chorus used as it made its
way into the orchestra. Once the chorus had taken its position in the orchestra, its
duties were twofold. It engaged in dialogue with characters through its leader, the
Coryphaeus, who alone spoke the lines of dialogue assigned to the chorus. The
tragic chorus's most important function was to sing and dance choral songs called
stasima (singular = stasimon). The modern reader of Greek tragedy, whether in
English or even the original Greek, will find it very difficult to appreciate the effect of
these choral songs without the music and dance that were central to their original
Tragedy has a characteristic structure in which scenes of dialogue alternate with
choral songs. This arrangement allows the chorus to comment in its song in a
general way on what has been said and/or done in the preceding scene. Most
tragedies begin with an opening scene of expository dialogue or monologue called a
After the prologue the chorus marches into the orchestra chanting the parodos. Then
follows a scene of dialogue called an episode, which in turn is followed by the first
stasimon. The alternation of episode and stasimon continues until the last stasimon,
after which there is a final scene of dialogue called an exodos 'exit' scene'. The
exodos is in general a scene of dialogue, but, as in the case of episodes, sometimes
songs are included, especially in the form of a kommos.
Here is the structure of a typical tragedy (some tragedies have one more or one less
episode and stasimon):
First Episode
First Stasimon
Second Episode
Second Stasimon
Third Episode
Third Stasimon
Fourth Episode
Fourth Stasimon
Greek Tragedy in its Historical Context
Sophocles and Euripides lived and worked in times of great cultural significance, not
only in the history of Athens but also in the greater sense of Western democratic
culture. Wars with Persia and Sparta, the development of democratic culture, public
architectural projects, and theatrical entertainments, as well as the rise of a
distinctively rhetorical culture (a culture based on the strength of language and
writing) are important features of the Athens during Sophocles‘ life, known as the
Golden Age of Athens.
Soon after Cleisthenes established democracy in Athens in 507 BC, Athens was
threatened by outside enemies. At the beginning of the fifth century BC, the
Persians, led by Darius, crossed the Aegean to conquer Athens. After its triumph
over Miletos in 494, the Persian army began to be defeated, with Athens winning the
decisive victory at Marathon in 490. The battles of Salamis, Platea, and Mycale in
480-79 were also won by Athens, and the Persian forces (led by Xerxes I) finally lost
the war. The Athenians prided themselves on their victory over Xerxes; roughly
fifteen years after Sophocles‘ birth, Athens had become an Empire in its own right,
forming the Delian League in 478-77. From 492-60 the city-state was led by
Pericles, a populist leader who is famous today for his military skill, his rhetorical
prowess, and his public building projects — including the Parthenon. Sophocles
himself took part in some of Pericles‘s projects and in the city‘s military life, aiding
Pericles in the Samian war (441-39), becoming an ambassador some years later,
and joining the ruling council in 413.
Although the Persian threat had subsided, a new threat arose: the Peloponnesian
War with Sparta and other states under their leadership began in 432. Thucydides,
an Athenian general and historian noted for his impartiality and accuracy, tells the
story of this war in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Athens, defeated in Sicily
in 413, surrendered to Sparta (which was being supported by Persia) in 404, the year
after Sophocles died.
In the midst of all this war, Athenian democracy flourished during Sophocles‘ lifetime,
its commercial enterprises along the eastern Mediterranean coastline were
successful and its cultural life enjoyed immense nourishment and development.
Greek religious life centred on shrines frequented by worshippers of Apollo at Delphi,
Apollo and Artemis at Delos, and Zeus at Olympia. Festivals were often held at
shrines and athletic competitions, dance, song, and theatrical performances also took
place. Intellectually, Athens was thriving — its mathematicians and scientists, after
the work of Pythagoras and Xenophanes during the previous century, began to make
new discoveries in arithmetic and geology; Pericles, who studied sophistry with Zeno,
brought the skill of oratory to new, unprecedented heights, and his support of the
plastic and literary arts allowed Athenians to enjoy the lasting achievements of their
contemporaries. While public building was interrupted by the Persian war, it resumed
with vigour in the latter half of the fifth century, with the Temple of Zeus at Olympia
and, in Athens, the Temple of Athena Nike, as well as the Parthenon, Propylaea, and
the Erechtheum. Pericles saw to it that elaborate public building projects motivated
artists of his time to achieve greatness for their city.
Greek drama also flourished. Pericles provided entertainments and pageantry,
granting allowances for public festivals so that all men could attend them. Aeschylus,
Sophocles, and Euripides were the three great dramatists of the age; Sophocles
competed successfully with both his teacher Aeschylus and with his contemporary,
Euripides, in the annual tragic competitions of the Great Dionysia. Some of the
drama of this period concerned specific political issues, for example Euripides‘
Medea with its debate on the definition of citizen and foreigner; other plays, such as
Sophocles‘ Oedipus the King, address broader questions about mythological leaders
and their relationships to the gods, fate, and their native Greek cultural heritage.
While critics have argued that readers are not meant to draw any parallels between
the plague-ridden Thebes in which Oedipus the King takes place and the plague in
Athens in 430-29 BC, it is not difficult to surmise that an audience for whom the
experience of such devastation was familiar would have felt particular connections
with their own situation.
Aristotle and Tragedy
Aristotle (384 BC–322 BC) was a Greek
philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato
and teacher of Alexander the Great. His work
covers many subjects, including physics,
metaphysics, poetry, theatre, music, logic,
rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics,
biology, and zoology. Together with Plato and
Socrates, Aristotle is one of the most important
founding figures in Western philosophy.
In his book Poetics Aristotle produced a critical
interpretation of tragedy that has remained the
most influential description of the genre to date.
He defines tragedy as ―an imitation of an action
that is serious, complete, and of a certain
magnitude; in language embellished with each
kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being
found in separate parts of the play; in the form
of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to
accomplish its catharsis of such emotions‖. He goes on to say, ―Every tragedy,
therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality—namely, plot,
character, diction, thought, spectacle, melody.‖
He then prioritises these parts in the following way:
Plot. Aristotle defines plot as ―the arrangement of the incidents‖: not the story itself
but the way the incidents are presented to the audience. Tragedies where the
outcome depends on a tightly constructed cause-and-effect chain of actions are
superior to those that depend primarily on the character of the protagonist.
The plot must be ―a whole,‖ with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning must
start the cause-and-effect chain but not be dependent on anything outside the
compass of the play. The middle must be caused by earlier incidents and itself
cause the incidents that follow it. The end must be caused by the preceding events
but not lead to other incidents outside the compass of the play; the end should
therefore solve or resolve the problem created at the play‘s start. Aristotle calls the
cause-and-effect chain leading from the beginning to the middle the ―tying up‖ (desis)
and the more rapid cause-and-effect chain from the middle to the end the
―unravelling‖ (lusis).
The plot may be either simple or complex, although complex is better. Simple plots
have only a ―change of fortune‖ (catastrophe). Complex plots have both ―reversal of
intention‖ (peripeteia) and ―recognition‖ (anagnorisis) connected with the catastrophe.
Both peripeteia and anagnorisis turn upon surprise. Aristotle explains that a
peripeteia occurs when a character produces an effect opposite to that which he
intended to produce, while an anagnorisis ―is a change from ignorance to knowledge,
producing love or hate between the persons destined for good or bad fortune.‖ The
best plots combine these two as part of their cause-and-effect chain (the peripeteia
leads directly to the anagnorisis); this in turns creates the catastrophe, leading to the
final ―scene of suffering‖.
Character. In a perfect tragedy, character supports plot, that is, personal motives
are intricately connected parts of the cause-and-effect chain of actions producing pity
and fear in the audience. The protagonist should be renowned and prosperous, so
his change of fortune can be from good to bad. This change ―should come about as
the result, not of vice, but of some great error or frailty in a character.‖ Such a plot is
most likely to generate pity and fear in the audience, for ―pity is aroused by unmerited
misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves.‖ The term Aristotle uses
here, hamartia, often translated ―tragic flaw,‖ has been the subject of much debate.
The meaning of the Greek word is closer to ―mistake‖ than to ―flaw,‖ and it is best
interpreted in the context of what Aristotle has to say about plot and ―the law or
probability or necessity.‖ In the ideal tragedy the protagonist will mistakenly bring
about his own downfall—not because he is sinful or morally weak, but because he
does not know enough. The role of the hamartia in tragedy comes not from its moral
status but from the inevitability of its consequences. Hence the peripeteia is really
one or more self-destructive actions taken in blindness, leading to results
diametrically opposed to those that were intended (often termed tragic irony), and
the anagnorisis is the gaining of the essential knowledge that was previously lacking.
Characters in tragedy should show the following qualities:
1. ―good or fine.‖ Aristotle relates this quality to moral purpose and says it is
relative to class: ―Even a woman may be good, and also a slave, though the
woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless.‖
2. ―fitness of character‖ (true to type); e.g. valour is appropriate for a warrior but
not for a woman
3. ―true to life‖ (realistic)
4. ―consistency‖ (true to themselves). Once a character's personality and
motivations are established, these should continue throughout the play
5. ―necessary or probable.‖ Characters must be logically constructed according
to ―the law of probability or necessity‖ that governs the actions of the play
6. ―true to life and yet more beautiful‖ (idealised, ennobled).
Thought. Most of what Aristotle has to say about thought concerns how speeches
should reveal character. However, this category would also include the themes of a
Diction. Here Aristotle discusses the stylistic elements of tragedy; he is particularly
interested in metaphors: ―But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for
Melody. The Chorus should be fully integrated into the play like an actor; choral
odes should not be ―mere interludes,‖ but should contribute to the unity of the plot.
Spectacle. While there is the emotional attraction of spectacle, superior poets rely
on the inner structure of the play rather than spectacle to arouse pity and fear; those
who rely heavily on spectacle ―create a sense, not of the terrible, but only of the
His Life
Sophocles was born in Colonus, a village
near Athens, in 495 BC, which makes
him thirty years younger than Aeschylus
and fifteen years older than Euripides.
His father, Sophilus, a wealthy man, gave
him the benefit of all the literary
accomplishment of the age. His powers
as a writer were developed and refined
by a careful instruction in the arts of
music and poetry, while he was also a
keen athlete who engaged in regular
exercises of the palæstra. Indeed, as a
young man he was considered to be so
handsome, athletic and musically skilful
that he was selected, at the age of
sixteen, to lead with dance and lyre the
chorus which celebrated his country's
triumph at Salamis.
In his youth he appears to have been fond of women and wine, which he himself
admits in one of his sayings recorded by Plato: "I thank old age for delivering me
from the tyranny of my appetites." Even in his later years, the charms of women
were at times too strong for him. Aristophanes accused him of avarice, though there
is nothing in what is known of Sophocles to substantiate the charge. The occasional
excesses mentioned here appear to have been the only blemishes on an otherwise
blameless and contented life.
His Plays
Only seven of the dramas of Sophocles have come down to us, but these were, with
one exception, composed in the full maturity of his powers. In Antigone heroism is
exhibited in a purely feminine character, while in Ajax, the manly sense of honour is
celebrated in all its strength. The Trachiniæ, or Women of Trachis, describes the
sufferings of Hercules and the levity of Dëianeira, atoned for by her death; Electra is
distinguished by energy and pathos, while Oedipus at Colonus displays a mildness
and gracefulness suggestive of the character of the author. While we cannot divide
the plays of Sophocles into distinct groups indicating certain periods in his dramatic
art, he himself recognised three epochs in his own style: first, the tumid grandeur
borrowed from Aeschylus; second, a harshness of expression due to his own
mannerism; third, the style that seemed to him best fitted for the portrayal of human
His Times
Sophocles did not devote himself altogether to drama and literature. At the age of
fifty-six he was appointed one of ten generals for the conduct of the war against
Samos, though he does not appear to have distinguished himself. Later he became
a priest, and in extreme old age he was elected one of a committee ordered, during
the revolution brought about by Pisander, to investigate the condition of affairs and
report thereon to the people. In the easy, good-natured way that was typical of him
he assented to the establishment of an oligarchy under the council of four hundred as
"a bad thing, but the least pernicious measure which circumstances allowed." In his
last years the reverses of the Peloponnesian war, with their attendant civil
dissensions, fell heavily on a man whose chief delight was in domestic tranquillity,
and who still remembered the part he had played in the glorious triumph of Salamis.
Yet he was spared the misery of witnessing the final overthrow of his country, dying a
few months before the defeat of Ægospotami brought the downfall of Athens.
Sophocles’ Oedipus the King
Some twelve years before the action of the play begins, Oedipus has been made
King of Thebes in gratitude for his freeing the people from the pestilence brought on
them by the presence of the riddling Sphinx. Since Laius, the former king, had
shortly before been killed, Oedipus has been further honoured by the hand of Queen
Now another deadly pestilence is raging and the people have come to ask Oedipus
to rescue them as he did before. The King has anticipated their need, however.
Creon, Jocasta's brother, returns at that moment from the oracle of Apollo with the
announcement that all will be well if Laius' murderer is found and cast from the city.
In an effort to discover the murderer, Oedipus sends for the blind seer, Tiresias.
Under protest the prophet names Oedipus himself as the criminal. Oedipus, outraged
at the accusation, denounces it as a plot of Creon to gain the throne. Jocasta
appears just in time to avoid a battle between the two men. Seers, she assures
Oedipus, are not infallible. In proof, she cites the old prophecy that her son should
kill his father and have children by his mother. She prevented its fulfilment, she
confesses, by abandoning their infant son in the mountains. As for Laius, he had
been killed by robbers years later at the junction of three roads on the route to
This information makes Oedipus uneasy. He recalls having killed a man answering
Laius' description at this very spot when he was fleeing from his home in Corinth to
avoid fulfilment of a similar prophecy. An aged messenger arrives from Corinth, at
this point, to announce the death of King Polybus, supposed father of Oedipus, and
the election of Oedipus as king in his stead. On account of the old prophecy Oedipus
refuses to return to Corinth until his mother, too, is dead. To calm his fears the
messenger assures him that he is not the blood son of Polybus and Merope, but a
foundling from the house of Laius deserted in the mountains. This statement is
confirmed by the old shepherd whom Jocasta had charged with the task of exposing
her baby. Thus the ancient prophecy has been fulfilled in each dreadful detail.
Jocasta in her horror hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his eyes. Then he
imposes on himself the penalty of exile which he had promised for the murderer of
Laius. At the close of the play, however, Oedipus is not sent into exile but rather
ushered within the palace by Creon, who refuses Oedipus any last words of affection
to his beloved daughters, Ismene and Antigone.
Examination Question: Section One
Oedipus the King
Read the passage below and answer the questions that follow.
Zeus and Apollo, they know, the great masters
of all the dark and depth of human life.
But whether a mere man can know the truth,
whether a seer can fathom more than I –
there is no test, no certain proof
though matching skill for skill
a man can outstrip a rival. No, not till I see
these charges proved will I side with his accusers.
Sophocles, Oedipus the King lines 561-568
1. Explain the situation to which the Chorus is responding in this passage. Give
five details.
(5 marks)
2. How far do you think the ideas expressed in this speech echo through the rest
of the play?
(10 marks)
3. How far is this speech typical of the Chorus‘s function in Oedipus the King as
a whole?
(20 marks)
Sophocles’ Antigone
In Antigone contempt of death enables a powerless woman to conquer a powerful
ruler, who, proud of his wisdom, ventures to pit his royal word against divine law and
human sentiment, and learns all too late, by the destruction of his house, that Fate in
due course brings fit punishment on outrage.
The play takes up the story of the Seven Against Thebes, by Aeschylus, but with
some changes in the situation. Two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, have fallen,
as will be remembered, at one of the gates of Thebes. King Creon allows Eteocles to
be buried at once, that he might receive due honour among the shades; but he
orders a herald to forbid any funeral rites or burial to the corpse of Polynices.
Antigone tells these gloomy tidings to her sister Ismene, and informs her that she has
resolved to defy Creon‘s order and to bury Polynices. Ismene tries to persuade
Antigone to change her mind, but Antigone not only refuses but she also rebukes
Ismene and disowns her for her cowardice.
The sisters exit, and the chorus of Theban elders enter. Creon enters, as ruler of the
State, to explain to the elders why he told the herald to call them to assemble. He
announces his decree concerning the dead brothers, and in particular his order
against the burial of Polynices. A guard approaches reluctantly and admits that he
and the others appointed to keep watch over the corpse of Polynices have failed to
prevent an unknown party from giving the body a ritual burial.
Creon is furious and orders that the unknown party be found and brought to justice.
Shortly afterwards, the guard returns, hauling after him an imprisoned Antigone,
whom he accuses of having buried the body. Antigone has broken the laws of the
king, while fulfilling the laws of the gods; for, according to the ideas of the Greeks, to
sprinkle dust over the body of the dead was equivalent to burial. Until this rite was
performed his spirit must wander through space, but now was entitled to the home
appointed for it in Hades.
After some contest of words with Creon, and the vain intercession of her sister,
Ismene, and her lover, Haemon, the son of Creon, interspersed with choral hymns, it
is ordered that Antigone be led to a remote cave, where she will be imprisoned and
left to die of starvation.
The seer Tiresias enters and warns Creon of an evil fate impending, because the
gods are angry with him. Creon answers Tiresias with mockery, and the seer retires.
Creon‘s certainties have been shaken, however, and when he asks the elders to
advise him what to do, they tell him to release Antigone and allow Polynices a proper
burial. Creon agrees, and goes out to complete these two actions.
Soon afterwards a messenger arrives and relays to Creon‘s wife Eurydice the terrible
news that Creon has acted too late: the king arrived at the cave where Antigone had
been imprisoned in time to find that Antigone has hanged herself and to witness his
son Haemon commit suicide across her dead body.
Creon enters with his son's body. He curses himself as the murderer of his child. A
servant comes in to announce his wife's death. The body lies close at hand, and the
king must lament the loss of both wife and son.
Examination Question: Section One
Read the passage below and answer the questions that follow.
Land of Thebes, city of all my fathers –
O you gods, the first gods of the race!
They drag me away, now, no more delay.
Look on me, you noble sons of Thebes –
the last of a great line of kings,
I alone, see what I suffer now
at the hands of what breed of men –
all for reverence, my reverence for the gods!
Sophocles, Antigone lines 1027-1034
1. Why does Antigone say that ‗they drag [her] away‘? Give five details.
(5 marks)
2. How far do you think this speech expresses the main themes of the play?
(10 marks)
3. Using the passage above as a starting point, consider how Sophocles
represents the character of Antigone in the play as a whole.
(20 marks)
His Life
Tradition claims that Euripides was
born in 480 BC, on the very day of
the naval battle of Salamis, fought
between the Greeks and the
Persians. As a young man he was
attracted to the study of philosophy
and poetry, but turned to writing
tragedies when he was about
eighteen years old. Despite this
comparatively early start, Euripides
did not win the first prize for a play
until he was about forty years old.
He wrote more than ninety plays, a
few of which were satirical dramas,
the others tragedies. Only five times
in all – four times during his lifetime
and once after his death – were his
plays victorious. In 431, when he
stood third among the competitors,
his four offerings included Medea. Like Sophocles‘ Oedipus the King, this play,
though accounted by later critics a masterpiece, failed to receive the first prize.
Euripides fell out of favour with his fellow citizens, probably on account of his alleged
scepticism concerning the gods. He retired to the court of Archelaus, king of
Macedon, by whom he was treated with consideration and affection. At his death he
was mourned by the king, who, refusing the request of the Athenians that his remains
be carried back to the Greek city, buried him with much splendour in his own domain.
His tomb was placed at the meeting place of two streams, near Arethusa in
Macedonia, and a cenotaph was built to his memory on the road from Athens
towards the Piraeus.
Euripides built up a famous library – one of the first to be collected by a private
individual. Although he lived most of his life in the midst of the cultured society of
Athens, and was in some respects a leader in it, he grew bitter and despondent over
the fierce rivalries and greedy ambitions which marked the life of the city. He loved
the seclusion of his house at Salamis, where it was said that he composed his
dramas in a cave.
His plays
Of the ninety or so plays of Euripides, eighteen have been preserved. The success
of several of his plays owed, in part perhaps, to the fact that they flattered the pride of
the Athenians. According to Plutarch, after the disaster of the Sicilian fleet many of
the captured Greeks obtained their freedom, and others who had already escaped
got food and shelter by repeating verses from Euripides, who was popular with the
Sicilians. He was among the first, if not the very first, to use the theme of romantic
love for a tragedy, as in his play Hippolytus.
His time
To gain an accurate understanding of Euripides‘ writing, we must consider the period
to which he belonged. Aeschylus is generally thought to have been the foremost
dramatist of the Athenian heroic age. Later, Sophocles reflected the cultured spirit of
the age of Pericles, writing on philosophical, moral and political questions. Euripides
is the dramatist of the Peloponnesian war and the Ochlocracy or mob-government.
In the course of this period an immense revolution transformed Greece in every
aspect and relation of life. It was at this time that the national character of Greece
took shape, in its focus at Athens and its determination to free itself from the old
traditions in matters of state, custom and religious feeling. Pericles had established a
successful democracy; he had invited the whole body of citizens to share his ideals
of liberty and intellectual culture. With his death, however, this system began to
founder. With the shift away from democracy, public life lost its former coherence
and turbulent change entered deeply into all aspects of Athenian social life.
The struggle against the Persians for freedom and fatherland had raised the Greeks
both politically and morally; on the other hand, the Peloponnesian war, waged by
Greek against Greek, little by little sapped the material and spiritual reserves of
Athens and finally led to its general dissolution. In the view of some contemporary
commentators, disenchanted Athenians were filled with a restless desire and a
continuous striving after novelty. As Athenian politics repeatedly failed to live up to
their conception of the greatness of sovereign demos, Athenians came to question
more and more the existing principles of public duty and morality, hitherto regarded
as fundamental. In this way they decisively broke away from the culture of the
preceding age: faith in the old gods vanished, and with it the moral significance of the
religious myths. Its place was taken in some minds by superstition, in others by a
heightened secular intellectualism.
Loss of faith in the gods involved a similar loss of faith in the divine in man; there
arose a culture of emphatic materialism, which supposed that the greatest happiness
comes from enjoyment and the greatest pain from self-denial. Family ties became
laxer; loose connections tolerated, though not approved by public opinion, eroded the
stability of marriage. Women in general fell under suspicion, and misogyny in a
variety of forms became widespread. The hetæræ, who had once been, as they
were called, "companions," had become mere mercenaries; and they bore much the
same relation to Aspasia of Miletus, whom Pericles had made his consort.
Euripides' Hippolytus
As Hippolytus opens, Aphrodite (the goddess of sexual love) tells the audience about
her intention to punish the virginal prince Hippolytus, son of Theseus, who refuses to
make tributes to her and pays sole tribute to Artemis (the goddess of the hunt).
Aphrodite explains that she has caused Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, to fall in love
with her stepson. Aphrodite further prophesies that Theseus will discover this love
then destroy his son by one of three fatal wishes which Poseidon has promised to
fulfil. This outcome will involve the ruin of Phaedra, too, as the goddess cares only for
her honour and herself.
Hippolytus enters; he prays to a statue of Artemis and makes a tribute of a garland.
A servant tells him he should make similar tributes to Aphrodite, whose statue also
stands at the entrance to the palace. Hippolytus ignores this advice and persists in
refusing the goddess tribute.
When he has left the stage the love-sick Phaedra enters with her nurse, to whom she
reluctantly confesses her love for Hippolytus. She goes on to tell the chorus that her
feelings of shame and longing are so great that she has decided to commit suicide.
The nurse tries to comfort Phaedra, and advises her to give in to her love rather than
let herself be consumed by secret grief. She promises to help Phaedra, but gives no
details of the plan. Phaedra begs the nurse not to tell Hippolytus the truth; but the
nurse evades giving a promise and hurries into the house where Hippolytus lives.
Phaedra stays behind, but soon learns from the noise that the nurse has betrayed
her secret and that Hippolytus has received it with horror and dismay. He comes out
with the nurse and voices a wild outburst on the female sex. Phaedra sees that the
misplaced efforts of the nurse have ruined her; she reproaches the nurse and again
resolves to die. She leaves the stage and immediately hangs herself.
The servants are still running to and fro in wild distraction when Theseus enters. He
sees the corpse of his wife, and in its hand a suicide note in which Phaedra claims
that Hippolytus has raped her and that she has killed herself to protect her dignity; at
once the grieving and furious Theseus voices the fatal wish for his son's death.
Hippolytus appears and sees what has happened. Theseus tells Hippolytus what he
has been accused of, and sends him into exile. Hippolytus realises that it is useless
to attempt to clear himself. Theseus mistakes his son's plain words for lies, and, with
a final appeal to Artemis, Hippolytus departs into exile.
A messenger arrives with the news that a disaster has overtaken Hippolytus: the
prince has been dashed to pieces by his own horses, frightened by the sea-monsters
which Poseidon sent against him as a result of Theseus‘ curse.
Examination Question: Section One
Read the passage below and answer the questions that follow.
PHAEDRA [sings]:
How wretched and ill-starred
the fate of women!
We are lost. What plan, what words are left us now
to undo the knot which words have tied?
I have met with justice. O earth and light!
Wherever can I shun my fortune?
How, my friends, shall I hide my misery?
What god could come to help me, what mortal
stand by me and assist me,
the victim of unjust deeds?
Euripides, Hippolytus lines 668-677
1. Explain the circumstances of Phaedra‘s lament in this passage. (5 marks)
2. How do the ideas presented in this speech resonate through the rest of
the play?
(10 marks)
3. How far is this speech typical of Phaedra‘s character in Hippolytus as a
(20 marks)
Euripides’ Medea
Medea opens in a state of conflict. Jason has abandoned his wife, Medea, along
with their two children. He hopes to advance his station by remarrying with Glauce,
the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth, the Greek city where the play is set. All the
events of play proceed out of this initial dilemma, and the involved parties become its
central characters.
Outside the royal palace, a nurse laments the events that have lead to the present
crisis. After a long series of trials and adventures, which ultimately forced Jason and
Medea to seek exile in Corinth, the pair had settled down and established their
family, achieving a degree of fame and respectability. Jason's recent abandonment
of that family has crushed Medea emotionally, to the degree that she curses her own
existence, as well as that of her two children.
Fearing a possible plot of revenge, Creon banishes Medea and her children from the
city. After pleading for mercy, Medea is granted one day before she must leave,
during which she plans to complete her quest for "justice" – at this stage in her
thinking, the murder of Creon, Glauce, and Jason. Jason accuses Medea of
overreacting. By voicing her grievances so publicly, she has endangered her life and
that of their children. He claims that his decision to remarry was in everyone's best
interest. Medea finds him spineless, and she refuses to accept his token offers of
Appearing by chance in Corinth, Aegeus, King of Athens, offers Medea sanctuary in
his home city in exchange for her knowledge of certain drugs that can cure his
sterility. Now guaranteed an eventual haven in Athens, Medea has cleared all
obstacles to completing her revenge, a plan which grows to include the murder of her
own children; the pain their loss will cause her does not outweigh the satisfaction she
will feel in making Jason suffer.
For the balance of the play, Medea engages in a ruse; she pretends to sympathize
with Jason (bringing him into her confidence) and offers his wife "gifts," a coronet and
dress. Ostensibly, the gifts are meant to convince Glauce to ask her father to allow
the children to stay in Corinth. The coronet and dress are actually poisoned,
however, and their delivery causes Glauce's death. Seeing his daughter ravaged by
the poison, Creon chooses to die by her side by dramatically embracing her and
absorbing the poison himself.
A messenger recounts the gruesome details of these deaths, which Medea absorbs
with cool attentiveness. Her earlier state of anxiety, which intensified as she
struggled with the decision to commit infanticide, has now given way to an assured
determination to fulfill her plans. Against the protests of the chorus, Medea murders
her children and flees the scene in a dragon-pulled chariot provided by her
grandfather, the Sun-God. Jason is left cursing his lot; his hope of advancing his
station by abandoning Medea and marrying Glauce, the conflict which opened the
play, has been annihilated, and everything he values has been lost through the
deaths that conclude the tragedy.
Examination Question: Section One
Read the passage below and answer the questions that follow.
Laughter from my enemies is not to be endured, my friends. Come what may
come! What do I have to gain by living? I have no fatherland, no house, no
refuge from calamity. It was then that I made my mistake – when I left my
father‘s house, persuaded by the words of a Greek man who with god‘s help
will pay me the penalty. He will never see his sons born of me alive again
and he will have no son by his newly wed bride, since that wretched creature
must die a wretched death from my drugs.
Euripides, Medea lines 797-805
1. Explain the circumstances that lead to this speech.
(5 marks)
2. Which of the ideas presented in this speech seem to you to be important
in the play as a whole?
(10 marks)
3. Using the passage above as a starting point, consider the extent to which
Medea deserves our sympathy.
(20 marks)
Examination Questions: Section Two
All questions are marked out of 40.
1. How important is the idea of self-sacrifice in Greek tragedy? Refer to all four
of the plays you have read.
‗A major theme of Greek tragedy is the disintegration of the family.‘
How far do you think this is true? Refer to all four of the plays you have read.
3. How important are ideas of sin and punishment in Greek tragedy? Refer to
all four of the plays you have read.
4. Discuss the presentation of themes of exile and homecoming in Greek
tragedy. Refer to all four of the plays you have read.
5. What is the significance of the chorus in Greek tragedy? Refer to all four of
the plays you have read.
6. ‗Greek tragedy is always a challenge to the expectations of its audience.‘
How far do you think this is true? Refer to all four of the plays you have read.
7. Consider the opposition between seen and unseen in Greek tragedy. Refer
to all four of the plays you have read.
8. How is kingship presented in Greek tragedy? Refer to all four of the plays
you have read.
9. Explore the treatment of sexual rivalry in Greek tragedy. Refer to all four of
the plays you have read.
10. Discuss the presentation of issues of authority in Greek tragedy. Refer to all
four of the plays you have read.
Greek Tragedy: Glossary of Key Terms
The glossary below is by no means a complete list of the terms associated with
Greek tragedy, but it contains the most important. In your responses for this
examination, you will need to show your knowledge of, and ability to use
relevantly and accurately, a range of the terms defined here.
Anagnorisis Startling discovery; moment of epiphany; time of revelation when a
character discovers his true identity. Anagnorisis occurs in Oedipus the King when
Oedipus realises who he is.
Antagonist Chief opponent of the protagonist of a Greek play.
Attica Peninsula in southeastern Greece that included Athens. According to legend,
the King of Athens, Theseus, unified 12 states in Attica into a single state dominated
by Athenian leadership and the Athenian dialect of the Greek language. The
adjective Attic has long been associated with the culture, language and art of Athens.
The great period of Greek drama, between the Sixth and Fourth Centuries, BC, is
known as the Attic Period. Drama itself was invented by an Attic actor Thespis, who
introduced speaking parts to accompany choral odes.
Catharsis In literature and art, a purification of emotions. The Greek philosopher
Aristotle (384-322 BC) used the term to describe the effect on the audience of a
tragedy acted out on a theatre stage. This effect consists in cleansing the audience
of disturbing emotions, such as fear and pity, thereby releasing tension. This
purgation occurs as a result of either of the following reactions:
(1) Audience members resolve to avoid conflicts of the main character – for example,
Oedipus in Oedipus the King and Creon in Antigone – that arouse fear or pity; or
(2) audience members transfer their own pity and fear to the main character, thereby
emptying themselves of these disquieting emotions. In either case, the audience
members leave the theatre as better persons intellectually, morally, or socially. They
have either been cleansed of fear of pity or have vowed to avoid situations that
arouse fear and pity.
In modern usage, catharsis may refer to any experience, real or imagined, that
purges a person of negative emotions.
Chorus Bystanders in a play who present odes on the action. A parode (or
parados) is a song sung by the chorus when it enters. A stasimon is a song sung
during the play, between episodes of action. The chorus generally had the following
roles in the plays of Sophocles:
(1) to explain the action;
(2) to interpret the action in relation to the law of the state and the law of the
Olympian gods; (3) to foreshadow the future;
(4) to serve as actor in the play;
(5) to sing and/or dance; and
(6) to give the author's views.
In some ways, the chorus is like the narrator of a modern film or like the background
music accompanying the action of the film. In addition, it is like text on the film
screen that provides background information or identifies the time and place of the
Dialogue Conversation between characters in a play.
Drama Literary work with dialogue written in verse and spoken by actors playing
characters experiencing conflict and tension. In Greek drama, a play derives its plot
from stories from history or mythology. The English word drama comes from the
Greek word "dran," meaning "to do."
Dramatic irony Failure of a character to see or understand what is obvious to the
audience. Oedipus, for example, was unaware early on of what the audience knew:
that he was married to his own mother, Jocasta.
Dionysus Patron god of Greek drama; god of wine and vegetation. Dionysus, called
Bacchus by the Romans, was the son of Zeus and one of the most important of the
Greek gods. Dionysus died each winter and was reborn each spring, a cycle his
Greek devotees identified with the death and rebirth of nature. He thus symbolised
renewal and rejuvenation, and each spring the Greeks celebrated his resurrection
with ceremonies that eventually included drama contests. The most prestigious of
these festivals was the Greater Dionysia, held in Athens for five days
and participated in by playwrights such as Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides.
Festivals held in villages and small towns were called the Rural Dionysia.
Dithyramb Choral hymn that praised Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, and
sometimes told a story. In Poetics Aristotle wrote that dithyrambs inspired the
development of Greek tragic plays, such as those of Sophocles. The first "play"
supposedly took place in the 6th Century BC when Thespis, a member of a chorus,
took the part of a character in a dithyramb. The action shifted back and forth
between him and the chorus.
Episode Scene or section of a play with dialogue. An episode may be compared
with acts or scenes in a modern play. Episodes come between the odes sung by the
Exode (Exodus) Final scene of a play after the last stasimon.
Hamartia Character flaw or judgment error of the protagonist of a Greek tragedy.
Hamartia is derived the Greek word hamartanein, meaning to err or to make a
mistake. The first writer to use the term was Aristotle, in Poetics.
Hubris or Hybris Great pride. Hubris often is the character flaw (hamartia) of a
protagonist in Greek drama. Pride was considered a grave sin because it placed too
much emphasis on individual will, thereby downplaying the will of the state and
endangering the community as a whole. Because pride makes people unwilling to
accept wise counsel, they act rashly and make bad decisions.
Mechane Arm-like device in an ancient Greek theatre that could lower a "god" onto
the stage from the "heavens." The Greek word for machine, mechane, later gave
rise to a pejorative Latin term, deus ex machina (god from a machine), to describe a
contrived event in a literary work or film. A contrived event is a plot weakness in
which a writer makes up an incident--such as a detective stumbling upon an
important clue or a hero arriving in the nick of time to save a damsel in distress to
further the action. The audience considers such events improbable, realising that the
writer has failed to develop the plot and the characters in such a way that their
actions spring from their motivations. The term (pronounced DAY ihs ex MAHK in uh
or DE ihs ex MAHK in uh) is usually used adverbially, as in The policeman arrived
deus ex machina to overhear the murderer admit his guilt to his hostage. However, it
can also refer to a character who becomes the "god from the machine."
Mask Face-covering with exaggerated features and a mouth device to project the
voice. Greek actors wore masks to reveal emotion or personality; to depict the trade,
social class or age of a character; and to provide visual and audio aids for audience
members in the rear of the theatre.
Ode Poem sung in a play or a festival.
Peripeteia In tragedy, a sudden reversal of fortune from good to bad.
Poetics Important work by Aristotle written about 335 B.C. It analyses Greek theatre
and outlines its origin and development. One of its theses is that literature and other
forms of art imitate the activity of humans. Tragedy is the higher form of the
playwright's craft, Aristotle says, because it imitates the action of noble persons and
depicts lofty events. Comedy, on the other hand, focuses on ordinary humans and
Prologue (Prologos) Introduction of a play that provides background material.
Protagonist Main character in an ancient Greek play who usually interacts with the
chorus. In a tragedy, the protagonist is traditionally a person of exalted status – such
as a king, a queen, a political leader, or a military hero – who has a character flaw
(inordinate pride, for example). This character flaw causes the protagonist to make
an error of judgment. Additionally, the typical protagonist experiences a moment of
truth in which he or she recognises and acknowledges his or her mistakes, failures,
or sins.
Satire In Greek literature, a play or a passage in a play that pokes fun at public
figures or the gods.
Satyr play Play that pokes fun at a serious subject involving gods and myths; a
parody of stories about gods or myths. Fragments of Sophocles' satyr play
Ichneutae (Trackers) survive along with his seven complete tragedies.
Tetralogy Four plays (three tragedies and one satyr play) staged by a playwright
during the drama competition each spring in honour of Dionysus.
Theatre, Greek Open-air structure in which plays were performed. The stage faced
the afternoon sunlight to illuminate a performance while allowing the audience to
view the action without squinting. A Greek theatre consisted of the following:
Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and
sometimes an entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became a
background showing appropriate scenery.
Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.
Proscenium: Acting area, or stage, in front of the skene.
Orchestra: Ground-level area where the chorus performed. It was in front of the
Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra.
Thymele: Altar in the centre of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus.
Theatron: Tiered seating area built into a hillside in the shape of a horseshoe.
Machine: Arm-like device on the skene that could lower a "god" on to the stage from
the heavens.
Theatron Tiered seating area built into a hillside in the shape of a horseshoe.
Thespian Noun meaning actor or actress; adjective referring to any person
pertaining to Greek drama or drama in general. The word is derived from Thespis,
the name of a Greek of the 6th Century BC who was said to have been the first actor
on the Greek stage.
Tragedy Verse drama written in elevated language in which a noble protagonist falls
to ruin during a struggle caused by a flaw (hamartia) in his character or an error in his
rulings or judgements. Following are the characteristics of tragedy:
(1) It is based on events that already took place and with which the audience is
(2) The protagonist is a person of noble stature;
(3) The protagonist has a weakness and, because of it, becomes isolated, arrives at
a turning point (peripeteia) and suffers a downfall;
(4) Because the protagonist's fall is not entirely his or her own fault, the audience
may end up pitying him or her;
(5) The fallen protagonist experiences a moment of self-knowledge (anagnorisis). He
has a deeper insight into himself and understands his weakness;
(6) The audience undergoes catharsis, a purging of emotions, after experiencing pity,
fear, shock and other strong feelings. The people go away feeling better; and
(7) The drama usually unfolds in one place in a short period of time, usually about a
Trilogy Group of three plays on a related subject or theme.
Zeus King of the Olympian gods.
A Study of an Aspect of Classical Civilisation 1
Greek Tragedy
Time allowed: 1 hour 30 minutes
Sample Examination Paper
Section One
Choose either Option A or Option B.
Answer all questions from the option you have chosen.
Option A
Read the passage below and answer the questions which follow.
Let it burst! Whatever will, whatever must!
I must know my birth, no matter how common
it may be – I must see my origins face-to-face.
She perhaps, she with her woman‘s pride
may well be mortified by my birth,
but I, I count myself the son of Chance,
the great goddess, giver of all good things –
I‘ll never see myself disgraced. She is my mother!
And the moons have marked me out, my blood-brothers,
one moon on the wane, the next moon great with power.
That is my blood, my nature – I will never betray it,
never fail to search and learn my birth!
Sophocles, Oedipus the King lines 1183-1194
1. What has happened to lead to Oedipus‘ speech at this point in the
(5 marks)
2. How far is this speech representative of the character of Oedipus?
(10 marks)
3. To what extent do you agree that the main ideas of this speech echo
throughout the play Oedipus the King?
(20 marks)
Option B
Read the passage below and answer the questions which follow.
Zeus, do you hear how I am being driven away
and how I suffer as the victim
of this foul lioness, the killer of her children?
But I still lament my sorrow as much as my plight allows,
as much as I am able, calling on the gods
to witness how you have killed my children for me
and yet prevent me
from touching their bodies with my hands, or burying them.
I wish I had never begot them
to see them slaughtered by you.
Euripides, Medea lines 1406-1415
4. What series of events has led to Jason‘s lament in this speech?
(5 marks)
5. To what degree is an audience likely to sympathise with Jason at this
(10 marks)
6. How fairly do you feel Jason‘s speech here characterises Medea and
her actions?
(20 marks)
Turn over for the next question
Section Two
Choose either Option C or Option D and answer the question that follows.
Option C
7. ‗Greek tragedy is all but meaningless when removed from its original
religious context.‘
How far do you agree with this view? Answer with detailed reference to
all four of the plays you have studied.
(40 marks)
Option D
8. ‗Typically, a Greek tragic protagonist is faced with a no-win situation.‘
To what extent do you agree that this view is representative of Greek
tragedy? Answer with detailed reference to all four of the plays you have
(40 marks)
End of questions