AD's English Literature : Three dramatic Genres in the Greek Classical Theatre: Tragedy, Comedy and Satyr

Three dramatic Genres in the Greek Classical Theatre: Tragedy, Comedy and Satyr




 " How dreadful the knowledge of truth can be 
When there's no help in truth."-
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex

Tragic drama: Tragic drama which Aristotle defined as an imitation of actions of illustrious men and women, and which aims at the purgation of pity and fear, was by far, the most esteemed of all the genres, and the first to be originated and accorded in the 6th century bc by Attic poet Thespis in City Dionysian. Read More Drama
Tragedy, As Aristotle said, it evolved from the Improvisations of the leaders of dithyramb. Why did the Greeks esteem tragedy over comedy and satyr? The answer is not far to seek. Tragedy was the only genre that provided the people an opportunity to watch their moral philosophy issue forth in actions. Read More Drama The classical Greek people were quite strong and boisterous in nature. They made a lot of conquest over nations and even over nature, and possessed the ability to meet almost any emergency, but they realized that in spite of the seemingly divine element in man, he has his position, very much lower than that of the gods. So, man should know himself. He should, no matter the strength of his wisdom and intelligence, seek to equate himself with gods; else he will rob himself of his life. Another Greek moral principle which tragedy helped to clarify was “nothing in excess”.

According to Bowra, the Greeks loved and admired intelligence whether practical or theoretical, and no doubt felt that they surpassed other people in their possession of it, but they had qualms about its uninhibited exercise and felt that it must be balanced by other qualities of character and self-control. If a man relied solely or chiefly on it, he was thought likely to frustrate even his own ends by being too clever and even fail to understand much that was obvious to the ordinary man (1975:43). Read More Drama This is the case with King Oedipus in Sophocles’ play Odipus Rex, written in 5th century B.C. In this play, Oedipus relied heavily on his wisdom and intelligence. He equated his wisdom with that of the gods and thought that he could solve any riddle of life by means of his wisdom. The second great Greek tragedian was Sophocles. The meticulous construction of his plots and the manner in which his themes and characters aroused both pity and fear led Aristotle as well as other Greek critics to consider him the greatest writer of tragedy. These qualities are especially conspicuous in Oedipus Rex.


Whatever actions Oedipus performed in the play, he did so out of arrogance, misconceived intellect and sagacity. He felt that he had the will power to do whatever he wanted to do. His belief in his willpower made him to be found wanting in contemplative life. As Knox opines, “in the play, Oedipus’ will to action never falters, and it forces Tiresias, Jocasta and the Shepherd, in spite of their reluctance, to play their part in the swift progress towards the discovery of the truth and his downfall” (1984:138). So tragedy was developed to teach the youth, the society’s conventional wisdom. In spite of their boisterous nature, “the Greeks were keenly aware of life’s uncertainty and imminence of death … the swift passing of all that is beautiful and joyous” (Hamilton, 1973:24). Read More Drama This is why the chorus at the end of the play, Oedipus Rex comments: People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus. He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance; he rose to power a man beyond all power. Who could behold his greatness without envy? Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him. Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.
Euripides, a younger contemporary of Sophocles, was the third great Greek playwright. He wrote about 92 plays, of which 18 tragedies (one of doubtful authorship) and one complete satyr play, The Cyclops, are extant. His works are considered more realistic than those of his predecessors, especially in the psychological insight of his characterizations. Because of this, some critics consider him the most modern of the Greek tragedy writers. Read More Drama His major works include Medea, about the revenge taken by the enchantress Medea on her husband, Jason; and Hippolytus, about Phaedra’s love for her stepson, Hippolytus, and his fate after rejecting her.
Comedy: The Greek Comedy developed much later than tragedy. It was not officially recognized as part of City Dionysia and as such was not granted chorus until 487 B.C. Read More Drama  Although from that time onward, comedy became fully part of City Dionysia, it was to find its true abode in Leneia – another form of Dionysiac festival devoted to merry making. The comedy was a sort of commentary on Greek society, its leadership, literature and above all, the Peloponnesian war. Aristophanes was the greatest of all the classical Greek comedians. A property –owning gentleman, he hated the damaging and protracted war between Athens and Sparta. According to Luis Vargas, “His ideal of Athenian manhood he found in the men who fought a hero’s fight at Marathon to repel the Persian invader and save their country and whose courage and devotion had laid the foundations of Athenian greatness, and had made her the first city state of Greek world”. Comedy in the 5th century B.C. was a mixture of political satire, buffoonery, wit, humour and unbridled fun. Every aspect of social, political, as well as philosophical aspect of life that was deemed bad elicited attention. Read More Drama Nothing was considered sacred, even gods whose activities were questionable were satirized in a bawdy fashion. In a nutshell, the classical Greek comedy exercised great deal of license of tongue. This enabled it to satirize persons, institution and even works of art that were considered sub-standard.
One of the greatest comic poets was Aristophanes, whose first comedy, Daitaleis, now lost, was produced in 427 bc. Using dramatic satire, he ridiculed Euripides in The Frogs and Socrates in The Clouds. These works represent the genre known as Old Comedy. Later Greek comedy is grouped into two divisions: Middle Comedy (400-336 bc) and New Comedy (336-250 bc). In Middle Comedy, exemplified by two later works of Aristophanes—Ecclesiazusae and Plutus, both written between 392 and 388 bc—personal and political satire is replaced by parody, ridicule of myths, and literary and philosophical criticism. The chief writers of Middle Comedy were Antiphanes of Athens and Alexis of Thurii, who were active in the 4th and early 3rd centuries bc; only fragments of their works are extant. In New Comedy, satire is almost entirely replaced by social comedy involving family types, plot and character development, and the themes of romantic love. Read More Drama The chief writer of New Comedy was Menander. His comedies had a strong influence upon the Latin dramatists of the 3rd and 2nd centuries bc, notably Plautus and Terence. One complete play by Menander, The Curmudgeon, is extant, and extensive portions of other plays survive as well.
Satyr: Information on satyr is very scanty. This is because apart from the Cyclops written by Euripides, no other play of satyr tradition is extant. Read More Drama From available sources, the satyr genre was named after the mythical, goatish and half-human companions of Dionysus. The satyr came between heavy tragic episodes in order to help reduce tension. It was a highly wild play filled with exaggerated dance.

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