Greek tragedy remains one of the most revered and influential forms of drama, renowned for its exploration of timeless human themes.
Greek tragedy is a powerful and profound form of storytelling, which explores the complexities of the human condition through vivid language and striking narratives. These plays often depict the tragic downfall of their main characters, brought about by their own flaws and failings. Through this exploration of human nature, Greek tragedy invites audiences to confront and contemplate the many nuances of human existence, including the dangers of unchecked pride and ambition. Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, the most influential Greek tragedians, wrote during the 5th century BCE. Their works continue to captivate and move audiences today, offering a timeless examination of the human experience and the universal struggles we all face.
1. Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus
Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan, by Dirck van Baburen, 1623, via Rijks Museum, Amsterdam
Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound delves into the story of Prometheus, a Titan who rebels against the gods by stealing fire from them and gifting it to humankind, resulting in his eternal imprisonment. The play showcases Prometheus as a courageous hero, who stands up for his convictions and exhibits unwavering love for humanity. Throughout the play, he encounters a variety of characters, such as his fellow Titans, the ocean nymphs, and even Zeus himself, all trying to sway him into submission and ask for forgiveness. However, Prometheus remains unyielding in his defiance, refusing to bend to the will of the gods and maintaining his rebellious spirit until the end.
2. The Persians by Aeschylus
The Ghost of Darius Appearing to Atossa by George Romney, 1778-9, via Liverpool Museums
Aeschylus masterfully brings to life the historic Battle of Salamis in his dramatic work, The Persians. The play opens with a chorus of elderly Persians mourning the loss of their army and King Xerxes, who is yet to return from the battlefield. The audience is immediately drawn into the intense emotional turmoil of the Persian people as they try to come to terms with their crushing defeat. The Queen Mother, Atossa, demands news of the war from a messenger, who delivers a devastating account of the Persians’ loss and the destruction of their fleet. What follows is a poignant exploration of the psychological impact of the defeat on the Persian people and their leaders.
Aeschylus humanizes the Persians, typically viewed as villains in Greek literature, and presents them as tragic figures, victims of their own pride and destiny’s cruel whims. The ghost of King Darius, Xerxes’ father, also appears to offer words of comfort and wisdom to his family and people. The play ends with the return of Xerxes, devastated by the humiliation of his defeat and the loss of his army. Aeschylus’ ability to evoke such raw emotion and compassion for a people considered the enemy of the Greeks is a testament to his skill as a playwright and his ability to transcend cultural and national boundaries.
3. Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus
Scene from The Seven against Thebes: Capaneus scales the city walls to overthrow King Creon, Campanian red-figure neck-amphora, ca. 340 BCE, via Wikimedia Commons
Aeschylus weaves a powerful tale of brotherly conflict and its devastating consequences in Seven Against Thebes. The play centers on the struggle for control of Thebes, as Eteocles and Polyneices, two brothers with opposing ambitions, lead armies of six other leaders from neighboring cities.
The play is structured around the seven gates of Thebes, which represent the seven attackers, and each leader takes turns speaking to the chorus of Theban women. As the fighting escalates, Eteocles and Polyneices engage in fateful combat that fulfills the prophecy their father, King Oedipus, had received long before. The play ends with the chorus mourning the tragic fate of the brothers and the people of Thebes and with a somber warning about the perils of pride, ambition, and the devastating consequences of warfare.
4. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Oedipus and the Sphinx, by Gustave Moreau, 1864, via the Met Museum
Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex is a haunting tale tackling the concepts of fate and free will. Set in the city of Thebes, the play tells the story of King Oedipus, who is determined to uncover the truth behind a plague that has befallen his city. As he unravels the mystery, Oedipus discovers that he is the very source of the plague, having unknowingly killed his own father and married his mother. Faced with the truth of his actions, Oedipus blinds himself and is exiled from Thebes, while his wife and mother, Jocasta, takes her own life. Through Oedipus’ tragic downfall, Sophocles explores the consequences of pride and the limits of human knowledge. The play’s haunting conclusion reminds us of the power of fate and the fragility of human existence.
5. Antigone by Sophocles
Oedipus and Antigone by Franz Dietrich, 1872 via Crocker Art Museum
In the aftermath of the events in Oedipus Rex, Sophocles’ Antigone explores the disastrous consequences of a family divided by power and ambition. The play centers around the conflict between Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, and her uncle Creon, who has taken the throne following the deaths of her two brothers in a power struggle. When Creon decrees that only Eteocles should be buried, Antigone defies him and buries her brother Polynices, driven by her sense of duty to the gods and her family. Her act of rebellion sets off a tragic chain of events, resulting in the deaths of Antigone, her betrothed Haemon, and Creon’s wife, Eurydice.
Sophocles’ Antigone raises powerful questions about the nature of justice, family loyalty, and the limits of state power, ultimately offering a sobering lesson on the destructive consequences of unchecked pride and authority.
6. Electra by Sophocles
The Return of Orestes by John Downman, 1782, via National Trust Collections
Electra is a powerful tragedy that delves into the complexities of family, grief, and revenge. The play centers on the aftermath of Agamemnon’s murder by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Electra, the daughter of Agamemnon, is consumed by grief and consumed with thoughts of revenge against her mother. When her brother Orestes returns from exile, he and his friend Pylades devise a plan to avenge their father’s death, but Electra initially hesitates, fearing the consequences of their actions. Eventually, she agrees to help her brother, and together they carry out the murders in a dramatic and climactic scene. However, the consequences of their actions haunt Orestes, and he is relentlessly pursued by the Furies, the avenging spirits of the slain.
7. Medea by Euripides
The Love Potion by Evelyn de Morgan, 1903, via the De Morgan Collection
The play begins with Medea, a woman scorned and exiled by her husband Jason, consumed by grief and anger. As she contemplates her loss of status and position in society, Medea resolves to take revenge on Jason, aided by Aegeus, the king of Athens, who offers her refuge. Medea pretends to reconcile with Jason and sends a poisoned gift to his new bride and Creon, causing their gruesome death. With her vengeance incomplete, Medea then turns to her children, killing them in a fit of rage, justifying her actions as necessary to punish Jason. Jason, devastated by the loss of his children, confronts Medea, but she remains unrepentant. The play concludes with Medea escaping the scene in a chariot sent by her grandfather, the sun god Helios, leaving Jason broken and alone. The audience is left to judge the morality of Medea’s actions and the tragic consequences of her pursuit of revenge.
8. The Bacchae by Euripides
Bacchante by Lord Frederic Leighton, 19th century, via Christie’s
The play opens with Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, arriving in Thebes with the intention of spreading his worship among the people. However, the king of Thebes, Pentheus, adamantly refuses to acknowledge Dionysus’ divinity and opposes his teachings. In response, Dionysus enacts his revenge by driving the women of Thebes, including Pentheus’ mother, Agave, into a state of frenzy and madness. These women abandon the city and engage in wild and dangerous rituals in the mountains to follow the god’s teachings.
Pentheus, desperate to maintain control and order, goes so far as to disguise himself as a woman and sneak into the group of Bacchae in the mountains to spy on their activities. However, the women soon recognize him and mistake him for an animal in their frenzy. They attack and kill him, led by Pentheus’ mother, Agave, who remains unaware of what she has done until it is too late.
The play concludes with the horror of the characters realizing what has transpired, as Agave comes to understand that she has killed her own son. Dionysus appears to the devastated characters and proclaims his victory over those who refused to recognize his divine power.
9. Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides
Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Corrado Giaquinto, 1759-60, via Museo del Prado
In Euripides’ play, Agamemnon is torn between his duty as a king and a father, struggling to decide whether or not to sacrifice his daughter to appease goddess Artemis and ensure the success of his mission.
Iphigenia arrives at Aulis, having been lured there under false pretences by her father, who tells her that she is to be married to the warrior Achilles. When she discovers the truth of her situation, she is horrified and begs her father for mercy. Despite his reservations, Agamemnon ultimately decides to proceed with the sacrifice, believing it to be his duty as a king and servant of the gods. However, just as Iphigenia is about to be killed, Goddess Artemis intervenes and takes her away, substituting a deer in her place. The play ends with Agamemnon’s realization of the horror he has committed and his grief at the loss of his daughter. The Greek army is finally able to set sail for Troy, but the audience is left to grapple with the ethical and moral implications of the sacrifice and choices that Agamemnon has made.
10. The Trojan Women by Euripides
Hecuba’s Grief by Leonaert Bramer, 1630, via Museo Nacional Del Prado
The play takes place during the downfall of Troy, as the Greek army ravages the city, slaughtering most of its male population, including King Priam and his sons. The women of Troy, among them Queen Hecuba, her daughter Cassandra, and Andromache, the wife of the Trojan hero Hector, are taken captive by the Greeks and forced to await their fate.
In this tragic tale, Euripides delves into the devastating consequences of war on the women of Troy, who are stripped of their homes, families, and identities and are subjected to all sorts of different forms of abuse. These women grieve their losses and grapple with finding purpose and hope amidst their immense suffering. Hecuba emerges as a powerful symbol of the Trojan women’s resilience and fortitude as she confronts the Greeks and demands justice and dignity for herself and her people.