Tragedy, comedy and the unities


An unhappy ending

A tragedy, according to Aristotle, is a serious and dignified drama in which an individual suffers some great fall or setback. Often this central character or protagonist is a king or some other noble personage – that makes the reversal in his or her fortunes seem still more shocking.

Drama was hugely popular in ancient Greece: theatre was not the ‘elite' form Dionysusit is today. The whole city would turn out to see the great dramatic festivals which were held up to seven times a year. Drama was sacred to Dionysus, who was not only the god of fertility but of dirty jokes, of drunkenness and raucous fun. In Athens, noisy bands would lead the people out from the city to an outdoor theatre cut into a hillside: its enormous auditorium held some 17,000.

A varied programme

There they were entertained with what, to modern tastes, seems a very long and extremely oddly assorted programme: there would be up to three tragedies, their authors all vying for a special tragedians' prize, and in between there would be music and dance acts, as well as other, more comic plays. Some were satires, poking (often vicious) fun at important officials and politicians; others were farces of the most earthy and rumbustious kind.

More on the word ‘tragedy': The Greek tragaodia was originally two words: traigos ‘goat' and aodia, 'song' – a ‘goat song' was performed as a goat was ritually sacrificed to Dionysus at the start of the dramatic contest. It became associated with the whole idea of tragedy.

Actors and chorus

All the parts in Greek theatre were played by men; the actors wore large masks so that they could clearly be seen at the back of the vast open-air theatre; a megaphone-shaped speaking tube inside each mask allowed their voices to be projected. Their speeches were extremely formal: they were written to impress and to move, rather than to resemble the language of everyday conversation, as might be the case in a modern drama.

Along with the three or so main characters, there would be a ‘chorus' – a group which spoke together, offering a commentary upon the unfolding action.

More on the great tragedians: Of the three great dramatists whose tragedies have survived from this time, only Euripides (c. 480–06 BCE) shows anything like the kind of interest a modern playwright might have done in what we would call ‘psychology': his women characters are especially striking in this respect. Sophocles (c. 496–06 BCE) and – still more – Aeschylus (c. 525–455 BCE) seem more concerned with the grandeur of their poetry, with dramatic atmosphere and with the shock of their protagonists' fateful fall.

Tragic terms

For a sense of how the Greeks saw tragedy, we have either to study the plays themselves or to read the comments Aristotle made in his Poetics. It was in keeping with Aristotle's approach to things that he did not like to lay down laws for what tragedy should be; rather, he described what he thought were the common principles he could see at work in the tragedies he knew. Much of Greek tragedy has been lost in the centuries since, and we have no idea which particular plays Aristotle had seen, but modern critics have still found value in some of the main features he identified.

  • Fundamental to tragedy was the peripateia or ‘reversal' – basically, the sudden change in circumstances that brought a man or woman from happiness and prosperity to wretchedness.
  • The thing that triggers this change, hamartia, is often misleadingly translated as ‘tragic flaw', implying some moral fault for which the protagonist is punished. In some dramas this might be so: one particularly grave sin in Greek eyes was that of hubris – an excessive self-confidence or pride (often of course to be found among the mightiest in society). Frequently, though, the cause of a character's downfall is no more than a terrible misfortune.
  • Whatever its cause, said Aristotle, its result should be to create ‘pity and terror' in the audience – something the greatest Greek tragedies certainly succeed in doing.
  • The sheer shock of a tragedy, in Aristotle's view, left the viewer's feelings purified – a process to which he gave the name of catharsis or ‘cleansing'.

More on Aristotle's Poetics: Put together by Aristotle's students at some time around 335 BCE, the Poetics considered not just tragic drama but lyric poems and other forms. It was here, for instance, that Aristotle identified the principle of mimesis – ‘imitation' – the idea that art persuaded us by its imitation of real life.


Two sides of the same coin

The Greeks loved a laugh as much as anyone, but they would have thought it strange to watch a funny show in isolation: they saw comedy and tragedy as two sides of the same coin. The programme for the Festival of Dionysus included both, the one form complementing another.

Especially popular were the comedies of Aristophanes. They made fun of all the things that tragedy took so seriously – life, death and family honour; they mocked important institutions like the law and the government. That did not mean that the Greeks did not hold those things in high regard. Rather, the fun and humour of classical comedy balanced the seriousness of tragedy. As ever in Greek culture, what mattered was striking the Golden Mean.

A striking thing about Aristophanes' plays is how slick and sophisticated their construction is: the action moves quickly and seamlessly from scene to scene. The Greeks saw writing as a craft – hence the way the different playwrights were expected to compete with one another in a manner that seems odd to us today.

The form and function of drama

Appropriate imitation

Aristotle observed and set down the main principles of play-writing:

  • He saw the main aim of the dramatist as mimesis – the imitation (the root of our word ‘mimicking') of life
  • In view of this, it was important that characters in a drama acted appropriately: the Latin word ‘decorum' (or ‘fittingness') came to be used for this. Nowadays, ‘decorum' means little more than ‘being on your best behaviour' in formal situations, but in classical times it meant ‘appropriate' in a more general way. It was not appropriate, for example, that a slave-girl should talk like a queen or that a hero should speak in a loose or informal style.

Dramatic unities

Aristotle noted the need for a drama to be a ‘unity': the entire action should hang together as a whole. This was the origin of the idea that a play should observe what came to be called the dramatic unities:

  • Unity of time - everything should take place in single sweep of time, so attempting to span a lifetime in an hour was felt to be absurd
  • Unity of place - the action should unfold in a single place, so it was considered crazy to transfer proceedings from one setting to another perhaps hundreds of miles away
  • Unity of action - there should be a clear and coherent action, with one event following from another in a logical progression.

Relevance today

Anyone who has ever enjoyed a play or film knows that drama which does not obey the unities can still be enjoyed: we can take flashbacks and switches of settings in our stride. The great Greek dramatists knew it too; in fact they cheerfully transferred the scene of their story from Greece to Troy, for example, or showed events which took place many years apart.

The people who held up the idea of ‘Aristotle's Unities' and used them as a rule for assessing the success or failure of any given play made the mistake of seeing Aristotle's observations of how things tended to be done, as rules for how they should be. Aristotle was actually among the least prescriptive of philosophers: he was just trying to identify what it was that had ‘worked' in the plays which he had seen.

Related topics

Impact of classical literature: Aristotle

Other cultural references

Shakespeare's Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet

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