Origins of Tragedy

Origins of Tragedy

'Tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself ... with incidents arousing pity and terror, with which to accomplish its purgation of these emotions.' Aristotle, Poetics, 6.

Between 600 and 400 BC, poetry and drama flourished in Greece. The chief playwrights of this era were: Aeschylus (525-456 BC), Sophocles (496-406 BC), Aristophanes (c.448-c.380 BC) and Euripides (484-406 BC).

The origins of drama lie in the songs and dances of ancient rites and religious festivals connected to the seasons. Tragedy was born in ancient Athens and has its roots in choral poetry. Dionysius was the nature god who died and was reborn every year. A chorus 50-strong would perform a hymn in his honour, called a dithyramb. According to Aristotle, tragedy grew out of the dithyramb when a solo actor - Thespis - stepped forward and began a dialogue with the dithyramb. The word tragedy means literally "goat - song". Quite what this means is uncertain, but the goat was perhaps the prize for a song.

The playwright Aeschylus was the first to develop tragedy into a great art form and is regarded as the real founder of European drama. His dramas concerned general moral judgements, man's relationship with the gods and his place in the universe. He is thought to have written 90 plays, of which 79 titles are known but only 7 are extant, the most famous being Prometheus Bound and the trilogy known as the Oresteia. Aeschylus introduced a second actor to the drama and reduced the size of the chorus.

Sophocles is said to have written over 100 plays, of which seven survive, including: Ajax (c.450 BC), Antigone (c. 442 BC), Oedipus Rex (?c. 425 BC) and Electra (409 BC). According to the Oxford Companion to the Theatre (ed. Phyllis Hartnoll, OUP 1967), Aeschylus represents the heroic period of Athenian democracy and Sophocles its triumphant maturity. "Through his tragedies, Sophocles brings to his audience the dual experience of weeping over man's downfall yet at the same time rejoicing over the renewal of his spirit." (Ronald Harwood, All The World's A Stage, 1984)

The youngest of the three tragic poets of Greek theatre, Euripides, had an extraordinary ability to represent ordinary human beings (and in particular, women), with impassioned sympathy. Euripides wrote both tragedies and plays that have been variously called tragic-comedies, romantic drama, melodrama and high comedy. His best known plays include Medea, Bacchae, The Trojan Women, Hecuba, Ion, Iphigenia in Tauris, The Phoenician Women, Andromache and two powerful studies in morbidity and insanity: Electra and Orestes.

For the most part, Roman tragedy means works written by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4 BC - AD 65), whose plays were dramas of blood and horror intended to be read rather than performed for they contain seemingly unstageable elements, such as the piecing together of Hippolytus' dismembered body by his father and Medea killing her son and flinging down his corpse from the palace roof to his father below.

Seneca was a Roman Stoic, playwright, philosopher, satirist, tragic poet, rhetorician and statesman. He was exiled by the emperor Claudius in AD 41, allegedly for adultery with the emperor's niece. He went on to tutor the young Nero and became an advisor to him when Nero was made emperor. For a while he is said to have held the emperor's excessive behaviour in check, but later found his position untenable and retired from court in AD 62. Later Nero accused him of involvement in a plot to assassinate him and ordered Seneca to commit suicide.

Seneca's plays aimed to teach stoicism, a system of thought which originated in Athens during the 3rd century BC and flourished in Rome (c. 100 BC - c. AD 200). Stoicism greatly influenced Christian thinking. Seneca's plays were often re-workings of the Greek dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and include:
The Trojan Women
The Phoenician Women

All nine of Seneca's plays were translated into English between the years 1559 and 1581 and Shakespeare would no doubt have been familiar with his work. For an account of Seneca's influence, see T.S. Eliot's essays Seneca in Elizabethan Translation and Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca (both published in 1927).

Seneca's tragedies were divided into 5 acts
Seneca's tragic heroes develop courage and dignity as they face death
Typically in a Senecan tragedy, a Cloud of Evil is followed by the defeat of Reason by Evil which in turn gives way to the Triumph of Evil (as in The Trojan Women).
The stage is often corpse-strewn at the end

Seneca's plays have greatly influenced the development of drama in the modern era, in particular the work of Renaissance playwrights such as Thomas Kyd (The Spanish Tragedy) and Christopher Marlowe (The Jew of Malta).


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