Greek tragedy characteristics structure and representatives

Greek tragedy

The Greek tragedy was a form of popular drama that was performed in the theaters of ancient Greece from the late 6th century BC Existing plays represent a very short period of history. The first works of Aeschylus were performed around 480 BC. C., and the last of Sophocles and Euripides, at the end of the 5th century. In this article we will provide you the characteristics of Greek tragedy.

Both Sophocles and Euripides wrote their first works in the fifty years from 480, the end of the war with Persia, to 430, the beginning of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. These fifty years were the time of Pericles when Athens was at its peak.

In addition to Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, there were dozens of other playwrights who achieved notoriety throughout classical antiquity. The triumphs of these in the festivals of the city of Dionysia appear in the records of the time and in other historical sources.

In the end, it is unclear why the works of only these three tragic playwrights have endured to the present. The truth is that these three, in particular, are considered by later generations to be of a higher class than their peers.

Origin and development of the Greek tragedy


The exact origins of the Greek tragedy are still a subject of debate among its scholars. Some have linked it to an earlier art form, the dramatic recitations of epic poems. Others suggest that its origin has to do with the rituals performed in the cult of Dionysus (Greek mythological god of ecstasy).

In this sense, Dionysus is one of several deities whose popular cult was practiced throughout Greece. Spatially it is associated with Athens and Thebes.

Among the rituals in his honor there was a ritual song called trag-ōdia and the use of masks was also customary. In fact, Dionysus came to be known as the god of the theater.

On the other hand, another of the rituals indicated as the origin of the Greek tragedy were the drinking rites. In them, the devotees drank until they lost total control of their emotions and became other people, just like the actors when they performed.

For his part, the philosopher Aristotle affirmed that the Greek tragedy developed from the dithyramb, a choral dance connected with the adoration of Dionysus. It is believed that it was sung by a circular choir (koros) of fifty singers.

Finally, other scholars different from Aristotle attributed the origin of the tragedy to Thespis. This was a 6th century poet who introduced the speeches of an actor into choral performances.


In the 5th century, the Greek tragedy was represented only at the wine festivals: Dionysia and Lenae (both in December), and the Great Dionysia (in March). Performances were held in open-air circular theaters similar to sports arenas.

The first tragedies had a single actor who appeared in disguise and wore a mask, which allowed him to make representations of gods. Later, the actor used to speak with the leader of the choir, a group of up to 15 actors who sang and danced but did not speak.

Subsequently, the actor changed costumes during the performance (using a small tent behind the scenes). In this way, they could divide the play into separate episodes.

Although the stage was for the exclusive use of male actors, a modification was introduced to represent women and the elderly. It consisted of dividing the chorus into different groups to represent even other male secondary characters.

Later, three actors were allowed onto the stage. This number was increasing until having works with many interpreters in scene (with the condition that they did not participate in the dialogues). This last change allowed for greater financial support for the works, which resulted in better costumes for the performances.


Below are the characteristics of Greek tragedy.

Choral arrangements

Because Greek drama evolved from choral performance, both tragedy and comedy had choruses as an important element of the performances. Choirs were something that were not always included in other dramatic genres.

Masks and costumes

The actors were so far from the audience that without the help of exaggerated costumes and masks, understanding of the play was difficult.

The masks were made of linen or cork. There were two types, the tragic masks wore sad or painful expressions, while the comic masks smiled or looked lewd.


By modern standards, the number of actors was rather small. Usually there were two in the first half and three in the later tragedy. All the actors were men.

Also, there were extras (called “silent masks”) who played the roles of assistants to the play, soldiers and spectators, among others. The specialists assure that in the tragedies, at least, the own playwrights sometimes also acted.


Originally, the choir consisted of a dozen people, all men or boys. But later Sophocles increased it to fifteen, and from then on all the works respected that number.

The choir members were amateurs, except for the leader who was a professional. Each member was chosen to represent their local area at the festival.

Language and music

All works of Greek tragedy were written in verse . This was partly conventional. Since the time of Homer, verse had been used for what could be defined as ” imaginative literature ,” and prose had been reserved for what could be called “non-fiction”: speeches, public records, philosophical and historical writing.


In Greek tragedy competitions, each playwright was required to present four plays. Usually some of them, like Aeschylus, did his four connected works completely.

In that way, the first three acted like three acts of a great drama. In relation to the fourth (the game of satyrs), it was a lighter epilogue.


The buildings of the theater were known by the name of theatron . These were large open-air structures built on the slopes of the hills. They had three main elements: orchestra, skené, and audience.

First, the orchestra was a large circular or rectangular area in the center of the theater. From there, the work, dance and religious rites were developed. Behind it was a large rectangular building that is used as a frame, the skené. At this site the actors could change their costumes and masks.

Previously the skené was a tent or hut, later it was turned into a permanent stone structure. These structures were sometimes painted to serve as backdrops.

Finally, there was the area corresponding to the public (spectators), which was located in a raised position above the circle of the orchestra. The theaters were originally built on a large scale to accommodate large numbers of spectators.

Ancient Greek actors had to make grand gestures so that the entire audience could see and hear the story. However, Greek theaters were cleverly constructed to convey even the smallest sound to any of the seats.

After reading the characteristics of Greek tragedy, now read the structure of it.


Typically, the Greek tragedy begins with a prologue. It is a monologue or dialogue that presents the theme of the tragedy and that precedes the entrance of the choir. Then, the parades follows: entrance song of the choir.

In general, its members remain on stage for the rest of the play. Although they wear masks, their dance is expressive as they convey messages with their hands, arms, and body.

Then come the episodes (typically three to five) in which one or two actors interact with the chorus. They are, at least in part, sung or recited.

Each episode ends with a stasis: choral ode in which the chorus can comment on or react to the previous episode. After the last episode, comes the exodus, which is the choir’s exit song.

Representatives and works

Aeschylus (525/524 BC – 456/455 BC)

Aeschylus was a Greek playwright. He is considered by scholars as the father of Greek tragedy. He was the predecessor of other successful Greek playwrights such as Sophocles and Euripides.

He was also a regular participant in the theater competitions known as the Great Dionysians of which he won thirteen times in total.

Of the roughly seventy to ninety tragedies written by Aeschylus, only seven have survived intact to the present.

Works like Agamemnon , The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. Likewise, The Persians , The Supplicants, Seven against Thebes and Prometheus in chains are part of his dramatic theatrical repertoire.

Sophocles (496 BC – 406 BC)

Sophocles was a Greek tragic poet. Among many of the innovations introduced in his works of Greek tragedy, is the inclusion of a third actor. This gave Sophocles the opportunity to create and develop his characters in greater depth.

According to his historians, he wrote about 120 works. According to El Suda (ancient Byzantine encyclopedia from the 10th century), only 7 of his complete works persist today: Oedipus the King , Oedipus in Colonus and Antigone  Ajax , Las Traquinias , Electra and Filoctetes .

In the opinion of specialists, his works always won the first or second prize in the theater competitions in which he participated.

In his staging, he was inspired by human nature and its well-being. Its artistic race began in the year 468 a. C., winning an award for his work and defeating Aeschylus in the competition.

Euripides (484/480 BC – 406 BC)

Euripides was a Greek tragic poet. He is considered by specialists (along with Aeschylus and Sophocles) one of the three fathers of Greek tragedy. In fact, Euripides was the last and perhaps the most influential of the group.

Like all the leading playwrights of his time, Euripides competed in the annual drama festivals of Athens held in honor of the god Dionysus. He first entered the festival in 455, and won the first of his four victories in 441.

Throughout his career as a poet and playwright, he wrote approximately 90 plays. However, only 19 of them have survived to current generations through manuscripts.

Some of Euripides’ most famous tragedies are Medea , The Bacchantes , Hippolytus, and Alcestis . Likewise, the Trojans , Electra , Andrómaca , Helena , Orestes , Iphigenia among the Taurus and the Phoenicians are well remembered .

Agathon of Athens (448 BC – 400 BC)

Agathon was an Athenian tragic poet. He is credited with adding musical interludes disconnected from the story of the play. In addition, another of the innovations introduced by Agathon was that the characters in his works, instead of being derived from Greek mythology, were of his own invention.

On the other hand, only one play is attributed to Agathon . The title of that work is believed to have been La Flor. Only about 40 lines of his writing have survived for subsequent generations.

Cherilus (546 BC – 460 BC)

Quérilo was one of the oldest Athenian tragic poets on record. It is said that he produced his first work around 523 BC. C. and that he competed against the tragic Esquilo around the year 498 a. C.

Some sources attribute to him 13 victories in the contests of the Great Dionysia festival and certain innovations made in tragic masks and costumes. Of his artistic work, only one title survived until these days: Alope .

We hope that you have noted the the characteristics of Greek tragedy.

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