The lyric chorus narrated legend: at some time in the 6th century BC, a poet—it may have been the Athenian, Thespis, about 534—took the crucial step of introducing a hypokrites, an ‘answerer’ or ‘interpreter’, who could deliver speeches or converse with the leader of the chorus. Here was the first actor, bringing alive before the audience a character previously only described in narrative, adding a new dimension to that vivid presentation of individuals, which pervades all Greek literature. With his advent, drama (‘doing’ the story, not merely telling it) was born; the name tragodia, “goat song’, is linked in some way with the importance of the goat in the worship of the fertility god Dionysus, in whose honour drama came to be performed.

How plays became an official part of the Great Dionysia, why three tragedies were performed together, why the satyr-play was added, are questions to which there is no certain answer. The development of these beginnings into drama in the full sense was largely the achievement of Aeschylus (525-456), whose introduction of a second actor made dialogue possible, independent of the chorus. From this point onwards, we have extant plays by the three acknowledged masters of Attic tragedy, all presented in the 5th century, though few can be given precise dates: seven by Aeschylus, including three that form a trilogy, the Oresteia, on a single theme; seven by Sophocles (496-406); seventeen by Euripides (485-406). To these must be added the Rhesus, attributed to Euripides, but probably a 4th-century product, a satyr play from Euripides and part of one from Sophocles.




Picture: Aeschylus ( c. 525/524 – c. 456/455 BC)

There is enough here to show that each of these three great poets had his own approach to drama, his own way of handling plot and character. Yet, thanks to tradition and the nature of occasion and the place of the performance of their plays, they have much in common. They drew their themes occasionally from recent history, but normally from the rich storehouse of myth and legend already available in epic poetry—a custom which persisted even when newly invented plots had been tried: what the audience expected of tragedy was to see the heroic figures of epic and hear them speak. The handling of legend in the theatre, however, was necessarily different from its treatment in epic narrative. Most Greek tragedies presented only a climax—Agamemnon’s return and death, Oedipus’ discovery of the truth, Medea’s revenge and the playwright worked this climax into dramatic form by devising a series of episodes within this one phase of the story. Reference was made to earlier and later events, but they were not portrayed or even narrated until Euripides adopted the practice of opening the play with an explanatory prologue and finishing it, in many cases, with a prophetic speech from a ‘god out of the machine’.



Picture: Euripides (c 480-406 BC) Is thought to have written 95 plays; only 18 or 19 of which survive intact.


A play on this pattern leaves little room for development of character and even elaboration in character-drawing is rare in Greek tragedy. Vigour in argument and intensity of emotion are the playwright’s aim, not the psychological subtleties expected in the modern theatre. But there was great freedom and variety in depicting the figures of legend: the most familiar, Odysseus or Clytemnestra or Heracles, could be very different in different plays, even where the author was the same; and many of the lowly characters without a name—messengers, nurses, watchmen—are as distinct and memorable as their Shakespearian equivalents, although they use the same metre and practically the same language as the great.



Picture: Tragedy, according to Aristotle’s famous definition, aroused ‘pity and terror’, an effect symbolized in the bronze mask of tragedy (above)


The use of traditional material did not prevent almost equal diversity of plot. Unrestricted by religious dogma, Greek legend admitted endless variation and the poet could select a well-known or little-known version as he chose and make his own alterations and additions. The essentials of the most familiar stories were fixed: Orestes must kill Clytemnestra, not be reconciled with her. But within these bare outlines there was always scope for originality of invention and without wearying the audience many dramatists could ring the changes on a single theme. Their treatment of it was not limited by any narrow conception of ‘tragedy’, such as we derive from Aristotle: the examples that we possess include a number which have a happy ending and their mood ranges from the horror of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King to the romantic comedy of Euripides’ Helen. The audience found plenty to surprise it in each poet’s new handling of a traditional tale.



Three of the extant plays provide an opportunity of studying a particular example of this variety and different approaches of three tragedians: their treatment of the revenge of Orestes dramatized by Aeschylus in the Libation-Bearers, second play of the Oresteia trilogy, in 458 BC and forty or more years later by Sophocles and Euripides in two plays, both entitled Electra. The story of the murder of Agamemnon on his return from Troy by Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus and of the penalty which Orestes later exacted from them, was one of the most familiar of heroic legends. It is related briefly in the Odyssey, where Orestes’ vengeance is represented as a righteous act of retribution against Aegisthus: the manner of Clytemnestra’s death is not told. It reappeared in the “Epic Cycle’ and was the subject of a long lyric poem by Stesichorus: in his version Orestes seems to have killed both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in obedience to Apollo, who protected him with his bow, when the Furies persecuted him for the matricide. The same theme, again variously handled, is to be found in 5th-century art.



Picture (above) : Agamemnon, on his return from Troy, was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, together with the Trojan princess, Cassandra, whom he had brought back as his captive.


Aeschylus is said to have described his plays as ‘slices from the great banquets of Homer’, but his treatment of the legend in the Oresteia is not Homeric. Deeply concerned with its moral and religious aspect, he portrays it as a story of murder and counter-murder within the family, choosing for the three plays of his trilogy the death of Agamemnon, Orestes’ revenge and (perhaps his own invention) the end of the sequence through Orestes’ trial and acquittal before an Athenian court. Like Stesichorus, he makes Apollo responsible for Orestes’ act and to suit his interpretation his emphasis naturally falls on Clytemnestra rather than Aegisthus. She is the central figure of the first play, the Agamemnon. In the Libation-Bearers, after Orestes and his friend Pylades have revealed themselves to Electra and the chorus and joined them in lengthy ritual at Agamemnon’s tomb, the killing of Aegisthus within the palace is only a prelude to the dramatic and moral climax—the clash between Clytemnestra and her son and her pleas for mercy, rejected when Pylades, reminds Orestes of Apollo’s command:



Soon, Orestes drives her into the palace. But his revenge is quickly followed by the approach of the Furies and at the end of the play he is no righteous hero, but a hunted man. The rights and wrongs remain to be debated by Apollo and the Furies before Athena and her jurymen.

Sophocles also, as his Antigone shows, was far from blind to moral and religious issues. But the outstanding features of his Electra are his portrait of the heroine and, above all, that mastery of plot-construction in which Aristotle found him pre-eminent. His play stood by itself without prelude or sequel and for it he constructed a version of the story close to the Odyssey. The recognition between brother and sister is managed with much greater skill than in the Oresteia and the revenge involves a coup de théatre, such as Aeschylus never achieves. Orestes and Pylades gain entrance to the palace by posing as strangers bringing a report of Orestes’ death and bearing his ashes. There they kill Clytemnestra. Aegisthus, away when they arrived and returning in haste at their news, is confronted with the sight of the two ‘strangers’ standing beside a covered body—as he supposes, the corpse of Orestes. After a moment of pretended grief, he speaks to Electra, as he approaches to uncover the body:




Picture: Sophocles (496-406 BC) is recorded as having written 123 plays; only 7 survive. Some of the greatest are products of the last years of his life.

Not only the order of events has changed from Aeschylus’ version. The dramatic emphasis has reverted to Aegisthus and the evaluation of the story to the Homeric point of view. ‘This day’s work is well done’, sing the chorus, as they go off when Aegisthus has been taken into the palace. Of the Furies no mention is made. In Euripides’ Electra we are again far from Homer. Here, as in many of his plays, he stripped away the glamour from legend, criticized the alleged behaviour of the gods and set the heroic characters in a new and often sordid light—realistic trends which won him little popularity in his day, but made him the favourite dramatist of subsequent generations, the main link with both later tragedy and the comedy of manners. His Electra is living in poverty, married to a peasant, whose cottage forms the background to the action. The order of events is, as in Aeschylus: Aegisthus is the first victim, and the climax is the killing of Clytemnestra, for which the wavering Orestes is steeled not by any reminder of Apollo’s will, but by his sister’s ferocious determination. The sequel to the murder is not the onslaught of the Furies, but a song in which the two describe to the chorus the horror of what they have done—the kind of scene which prompted Aristotle to call Euripides ‘the most tragic of the poets’:


This play, like others of Euripides, is ended by intervention from heaven. Clytemnestra’s divine twin brothers, Castor and Pollux, appear ‘out of the machine’ and foretell the future, laying the blame for Orestes’ act squarely on the ‘unwise utterances’ of Apollo. Electra is to marry Pylades, Orestes to escape the Furies by standing trial at Athens. Here Euripides echoes Aeschylus; yet five years later, in the Orestes, he devised an entirely different conclusion—a lurid melodrama in which brother and sister, still in Argos, go from crime to crime in their desperate efforts to escape execution by the people. Freedom in remoulding and reinterpreting legend, which has given many different versions of the Orestes story to more modern literature, was the accepted practise and one of the main attractions for the audience in the theatre of Dionysus.

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  1. Adil Elias

    Such an insightful article @sandwichbill! The influence of Ancient Greece over modern literature is something that isn’t given credit that often.

    Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” (Tragedy – Struggle – Catharsis) for example originates from that, him being a great scholar of The Odyssey and all.

    It’s a really fascinating subject and I’m glad someone is tackling it here providing us with insightful articles. Thanks for taking the time to do this and share it with us.