Greek tragedy was a form of theater popular in ancient Greece. These plays presented tragic tales of heroes who strove for greatness but were brought low by a combination of fate and their own human flaws. The three most influential Greek tragedians were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

What is Greek Tragedy?

Greek tragedy was a form of theater popular in Greece around the 5th century BC. These plays presented tragic tales of heroes who strove for greatness but were brought low by a combination of fate and their own human flaws. Greek tragedy formed the basis for many conventions of modern theater as well as elements of modern literary tragedy.

In ancient Greece, tragedies were performed at important ceremonies, most likely of religious significance. Historians believe these ceremonies were held in honor of Dionysus, god of the harvest and fertility, and that goat sacrifices played a part in them, since the word “tragedy” derives from the Greek word for “goat”. Given the serious ritual of which they were a part, Greek tragedies addressed weighty subjects of life and death, fate and freedom. They also made use of lofty language and an elevated tone, which distinguished tragic drama from the “lower” literary form of comedy.

Greek tragedies worked according to strict artistic and ethical guidelines, although these changed slightly depending on the dominant playwright of the time. In general, Greek tragedies feature a high-born character of ordinary moral virtue. This means that the character, though not villainous, exhibits a realistic, but fatal flaw, known as hamartia. The focus of a tragedy is on the protagonist’s psychological and ethical attributes, rather than their physical or sociological ones. As the action progresses, the character’s own failings propel them toward their downfall. Although the character’s choices are important, the tragic plot is considered more dominant than the character. This reflects the imperative of fate. The plot, like destiny, moves towards its inevitable tragic climax despite the character’s best efforts to avoid it. This dire outcome was intended to incite pity and fear in the audience, not for the sake of suffering alone, but for the knowledge that suffering brought. Most Greek tragedies included a chorus, a group of masked performers who commented on the action and helped the audience process its significance. Such understanding was part of the Greek concept of catharsis, the idea that experiencing intense emotions in a safe environment induced a healthy form of emotional cleansing that refreshed the spirit.

The three most influential playwrights of ancient Greece were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Although together these tragedians wrote hundreds of plays, just over two dozen remain. Among their most enduring tragedies are Agamemnon, Antigone, and Oedipus the King. These classics are still widely read today and their influence can be found in modern literary and film tragedies.

Examples of Greek Tragedy

  • Seven Against Thebes
  • Oedipus the King
  • Antigone
  • Agamemnon
  • The Eumenides
  • Ajax
  • Medea
  • Prometheus Bound
  • Herakles' Children
  • Herakles

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