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Greek tragedy
Read the text and answer the questions:
Origin of tragedy
The word "tragedy" appears to have been used to describe different phenomena at different
times. It derives from (Classical Greek τραγῳδία), which comes from tragos = "goat" and
aeidein = "to sing". Scholars suspect this may be traced to a time when a goat was either the
prize in a competition of choral dancing or was that around which a chorus danced prior to
the animal's ritual sacrifice.
Writing in 335 BCE (long after the Golden Age of 5th-century Athenian tragedy), Aristotle
provides the earliest-surviving explanation for the origin of the dramatic art-form in his
Poetics, in which he argues that tragedy developed from the improvisations of the leader of
choral dithyrambs (hymns sung and danced in praise of Dionysos, the god of wine and
At any rate it originated in improvisation—both tragedy itself and comedy. The one tragedy
came from the prelude to the dithyramb and the other comedy from the prelude to the phallic
songs which still survive as institutions in many cities. Tragedy then gradually evolved as
men developed each element that came to light and after going through many changes, it
stopped when it had found its own natural form (IV, 1449a).
There is some dissent to the dithyrambic origins of tragedy mostly based in the differences
between the shapes of their choruses and styles of dancing. A common descent from preHellenic fertility and burial rites has been suggested. Nietzsche discussed the origins of
Greek tragedy in his early book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872).
Mask of Dionysus. Greek, Myrina, 2nd century BCE.
Greek literature boasts three great writers of tragedy whose works are extant: Aeschylus,
Sophocles, and Euripides. The largest festival for Greek tragedy was the Dionysia held for
five days in March, for which competition prominent tragedians usually submitted three
tragedies and one satyr play each.
Greek tragedies were performed in late March/early April at an annual state religious festival
in honour of Dionysus. The presentation took the form of a contest among three playwrights,
who presented their works on three successive days. Each playwright would prepare a trilogy
of tragedies, plus an unrelated concluding comic piece called a satyr play. Often, the three
plays featured linked stories, but later writers like Euripides may have presented three
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Greek tragedy
unrelated plays. Only one complete trilogy has survived, the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The
Greek theatre was in the open air, on the side of a hill, and performances of a trilogy and
satyr play probably lasted most of the day. Performances were apparently open to all
citizens, including women, but evidence is scanty. The theatre of Dionysus at Athens
probably held around 12,000 people
All of the choral parts were sung (to flute accompaniment) and some of the actors' answers
to the chorus were sung as well. The play as a whole was composed in various verse
meters. All actors were male and wore masks. A Greek chorus danced as well as sang,
though no one knows exactly what sorts of steps the chorus performed as it sang. Choral
songs in tragedy are often divided into three sections: strophe ("turning, circling"), antistrophe
("counter-turning, counter-circling") and epode ("after-song").
a. According to the etymology, what’s the meaning of the word tragedy?
b. When and where was tragedy born?
c. How did it begin?
d. What’s the dithyramb?
e. What philosopher was interested in Greek tragedy? Do you know any book by him
where we can see that interest?
f. Say the name of the ancient writers of tragedy in Greece.
g. In what festivities were the tragedies performed? How long did they last? (How
many days) What month?
h. What is a trilogy tragedy? And a satyr play? Which is the only trilogy that has
i. Where did the Greeks perform the tragedies? How many people could probably be
in a theatre?
j. Explain in your own words the last paragraph in the text.
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