Τhe remarkable impact of classical Greek tragedy on world culture continues to resonate to the present day. From the earliest surviving trilogy The Oresteia by Aeschylus to Sophocles’ Theban plays and Euripides’ The Trojan Women and The Bacchae, these powerful dramas inspire artists and speak to readers and audiences in countless revivals every year across the globe. Here are the essential Greek tragedies.
The Oresteia by Aeschylus deals with the return of Agamemnon from the Trojan War and the reception he receives from his wife, Clytemnestra. The first play, Agamemnon, details the general’s return and his murder at the hands of his wife and her lover/cousin Aegisthus. The second play, The Libation Bearers, finds Clytemnestra attempting to make amends for the murder by sending libation bearers and Electra to perform rites at Agamemnon’s grave. Orestes returns to avenge his father’s murder and is then pursued by the Furies or The Eumenides who pursue him for the murder of his mother. Orestes seeks aid from the god Apollo but the intercession of the goddess Athena resolves the conflict after a jury trial in which Apollo pleads Orestes’ case and Athena casts the deciding vote to exonerate Orestes. The Eumenides is the first known courtroom drama, setting the standard for later films and television dramas including NBC’s long-running Law & Order.
The Theban plays of Sophocles are often grouped together as a trilogy since they tell the story of Oedipus and his decidedly dysfunctional family. The plays were not written as a trilogy however and the accepted chronology of the plays is Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus, and Oedipus at Colonus. The tragic tale of Oedipus is well known. A terrible prophecy at his birth foretold his eventual murder of his father. Attempting to avoid fate, the baby Oedipus is left to die exposed to the elements, but he was rescued, raised by the King and Queen of Corinth as their own and grew to adulthood to unknowingly fulfill the prophecy. The revelation of the truth leads Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife/mother, to commit suicide and Oedipus to blind himself. The blind king is exiled and makes his way to Colonus where he dies. In Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter’s duty to her brother Polyneices draws her to her own tragic end, sealed in a cave by her uncle for disobeying his orders. Freud’s Oedipus complex brought Oedipus into modern parlance though he himself did not suffer from the complex since he had no idea he married his own mother.
The Trojan Women by Euripides is a stunning anti-war play from the perspective of the losing side in the Trojan War. The suffering of the women taken captive after the siege and burning of Troy is epic in itself. The feelings of dislocation and loss are universal, inspiring numerous film and stage versions. Existentialist author and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1965 translation included anti-imperialist sentiment.
The Bacchae by Euripides recounts how the cult of Dionysus spread throughout Greece and most specifically to the confrontation between reason and the irrational represented by the characters of the young king Pentheus and the god Dionysus. The play, widely considered the greatest tragedy, incorporates the chorus into the action and presents the god Dionysus as a major character, not a lofty figure rushing in at the last moment to resolve the plot. Euripides’ early work was thought atheistic yet here in this late play, he offers the triumph of the god Dionysus in its horrific glory as a warning against impiety or perhaps for moderation in all things. In recent times, The Bacchae has been adapted for the stage and screen by such notable figures as Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, and Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.