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Ancient Greek Drama Study Guide: The Three Major Greek Playwrights

written by: Brian D. Taylor • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/4/2012

A study guide covering the three major Greek playwrights: Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. These men helped develop tragedy and were masters of the genre in their time.

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    Playwrights of Fifth Century (B.C.E.) Greece

    Most of what we know about Greek tragedy is taken from the plays of the three major playwrights of the time. All of the major Greek tragedies that are studied in high schools and colleges worldwide were written by either Sophocles, Aeschylus, or Euripides. While the works of these men is great, it should be noted that theirs are the only surviving plays from this century. Many playwrights made contributions during this era, but only the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides remain. This is most likely due to their popularity during their time and beyond. Thus, we can safely assume that their masterpieces were treasured not only by us, but also by their contemporaries.

    This study guide will focus heavily on the plays of these great dramatists. As with any playwright, a good way to understand the writer is to study his or her work. I encourage you to read any of these great plays as the plays themselves give the best understanding of the Greek tragedy.

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    Aeschylus (523-456 B.C.E.)

    The oldest Greek plays that remain today are by Aeschylus. He is often referred to as "the father of tragedy." Aeschylus is known to have written about eighty plays, but only seven remain. While most tragedies were written as trilogies, Aeschylus was the author of the only trilogy that remains in full, the Oresteia. Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides are the three plays that make up this trilogy.

    Aeschylus won the tragic contest at the Festival of Dionysus thirteen times. His most noteworthy contribution to the theatre is the addition of a second actor. Prior to Aeschylus, only one actor had been used to plays multiple roles. While the two actors still played multiple roles, Aeschylus' addition of the second actor allowed for dialogue between characters. He is also thought to be the first of the Greek dramatists to directly involve the chorus in the action of the play.

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    Sophocles (496-406 B.C.E.)

    Sophocles is considered the best of the three major tragedians. He won twenty-four contests at the Festival of Dionysus, so the people of his time seem to have agreed. Sophocles wrote more than 120 plays, but only seven have survived the test of time. Of these, is his Oedipus the King, which is considered by many to be the most perfect of all Greek tragedies.

    Sophocles made many contributions to the art. The most noteworthy of these are the addition of a third actor, limiting the chorus to fifteen members, and the first use of scene painting. More than anything else, he is known for his mastery of writing tragedy. If you read only one Greek tragedy in your lifetime, choose one of Sophocles' plays.

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    Euripides (480-406 B.C.E.)

    Euripides' work was not very popular during his lifetime. He only won the contests at the Festival of Dionysus four times. However, his work was highly appreciated in the years and centuries after his death. Due to his incredible popularity in later years, a remarkable number of his plays have survived, eighteen in total.

    Euripides was the most unique of the three great tragedians. He was the first tragedian to meld tragedy with comic elements to create tragicomedies. Euripides often focused on minor myths for the subjects of his plays. On the rare occasion that he used a major myth, he made drastic changes to it. This could explain his lack of popularity to the Greek crowds at the City Dionysia. He is also the author of the only satyr play to remain completely intact, Cyclops.

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    Aeschylus' Surviving Plays

    The Persians (472 B.C.E.) - The oldest surviving play, not only by Aeschylus, but in all of human history. It deals with the Persian loss to the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis.

    Seven Against Thebes (467) - The story of Polynices' rise against his brother, Eteocles, to take his inherited share of the Theban kingdom.

    Agamemnon (458) - The first of the Oresteia trilogy, it deals with Agamemnon's murder, by his wife and her lover.

    Libation Bearers (458) - The second in the Oresteia trilogy, the play follows Agamemnon's son, Orestes, and the murder of his mother, thus avenging his father's death.

    Eumenides (458) - The third of the Oresteia trilogy, where Orestes is threatened by the Furies, goddesses of wrath and revenge, after the murder of his mother.

    The Suppliants (unknown) - Recounts fifty maidens who were being aggressively courted by fifty men, forcing the maidens into hiding.

    Prometheus Bound (unknown) - The story of the Titan, Prometheus, who gave fire to mankind and was punished for it by Zeus, who chained him to a rock to be eaten by birds day after day.

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    Sophocles' Surviving Plays

    Ajax (450-440) - Deals with the events following the Trojan War involving the great warrior Ajax. Achilles' armor is given to Odysseus instead of Ajax. Ajax seeks revenge for this treachery.

    Antigone (c. 441) - Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus. Her brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, have both fallen in battle, but Antigone's uncle, Creon, who has taken her father's throne, insists that Polynices body be left unburied as he turned against Thebes. Antigone sets out to give her brother his proper burial.

    Oedipus the King (c. 430-425) - Oedipus is told by the Oracle of Delphi that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus seeks to avoid this terrible prophecy, but he does not know his true parents. In seeking them out, his prophecy is fulfilled.

    Electra (c.418-410) - Sophocles' take on the revenge of Orestes, with a focus on his sister, Electra.

    Trachiniae (c. 413) - A look at Deianira, the wife of Heracles, as she worries about his fate during his adventures.

    Philoctetes (409) - Tells the story of the retrieval of Philoctetes from the Greek isle of Lemnos. Due to illness resulting from a snake bite, he was left on the island by Odysseus. A prophet tells the Greeks that they cannot win the Trojan War until Philoctetes has been rescued. It is Odysseus who must go back and retrieve Philoctetes, now his sworn enemy.

    Oedipus at Colonus (406) - Written just before his death and performed posthumously, this play looks at the death of Oedipus, also prophesied by the Delphic Oracle.

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    Euripides' Surviving Plays

    Alcestis (438) - Admetus, the king of Pherae, marries Alcestis, but he offends Artemis who condemns him to death. Alcestis offers to take his place in death. Fortunately, both are saved by Heracles.

    Medea (431) - This play follows the murderous wife of Jason, Medea. She is distraught over Jason's decision to marry another woman and vows to kill herself and their children.

    Hippolytus (428) - The tragedy of Hippolytus depicts the man's struggles after having insulted Aphrodite.

    The Children of Heracles (417-415) - The children of Heracles must flee when his arch nemesis, Eurystheus, plans to kill them.

    Andromache (417-415) - Andromache is the wife of the great Trojan prince and warrior, Hector. The story follows the title character's struggles after the death of her husband.

    Hecuba (417-415) - She is the wife of Priam, the king of Troy. After the Trojan War, she is enslaved by the Greeks. Her daughter is about to be sacrificed, but Hecuba may be able to save her.

    Heracles (417-415) - Heracles' family is in trouble back home while he is in the Underworld searching for Cerberus.

    The Suppliants (417-415) - Polynices and Eteocles, the sons of Oedipus who fought for control of Thebes, are both dead, yet Creon has decreed that the traitor Polynices and his men, the Argives, are not to be buried.The mothers of the Argives seek to give them proper burial.

    Ion (417-415) - The story of the orphan Ion and how he discovers his parents.

    The Trojan Women (415) - The women of Troy were in a lot of trouble once the Greeks sacked the city. This play focuses on the plights of many notable women after the fall of Troy, including Hecuba, Andromache, and Helen.

    Electra (417-408) - Euripides' take on the story of the children of Agamemnon and their attempt to avenge their father's murder.

    Iphigenia in Tauris (417-408) - Tells the story of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, who, at the last moment before her sacrifice, was saved by Artemis and sent to Tauris.

    Helen (412) - This play tells Helen's side of the story of her infidelity. Her version has a strange twist, leaving her in Egypt while a fake Helen is kidnapped by Paris, prince of Troy.

    The Phoenician Women (c. 409) - Euripides' version of Polynices decision to attack his home of Thebes when his brother, Eteocles, refuses to share power.

    Orestes (408) - Euripidess take on the story of Orestes, who avenges the death of his father by killing the murderer, his mother.

    The Bacchae (unknown) - The story of Dionysus' return to Thebes to bring honor to his mother, Semele, and give the Thebans the freedom to worship him.

    Iphigenia in Aulis (unknown) - This play takes place just prior to the Trojan War as the Greeks prepare to sail for Troy. There is no wind for their journey and Agamemnon learns that he must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, if the wind is to return.

    Cyclops (unknown) - The only surviving satyr play focuses on Odysseus' defeat of the cyclops, Polyphemus.

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