How far should Greek Tragedy be regarded as a dangerous genre?

Essay, 2008

6 Pages, Grade: A



How far should Greek Tragedy be regarded as a dangerous genre? Refer to at least two texts we have studied.

When debating how dangerous the moral and social issues of a typical Ancient Greek play may be to an audience, it is imperative that the discussion includes comparisons between its effects on the original audience and on a contemporary audience. The focus of this debate is the issue of incest, which is a key component in typical Ancient Greek plays and a major topic regarding morality. The issue of related persons sharing sexual experiences has been debated since the BC age. When discussing this ethical issue it is necessary to observe that the moral implications of the plays inner meaning may affect its audiences through the ages in different degrees, depending on the social decorum of the time. A general example, Ellen Pollak (2003) has acknowledged incestuous relations within English novels that appeared between the late seventeenth and the early nineteenth century. A contemporary society finds this surprising due to this period of time’s identification as an era of sexual repression and the emphasis on strict protocol and etiquette.

I wish to uncover how far the two renowned Greek plays, Euripides’ Hippolytus and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, were treated as plays with delicate central subjects, what were the aims of the playwrights for writing about such moral matters and if the authorities of the time were worried about its effect on the masses. The portrayal of incest within a play also is debated because Greek plays did not show action on the stage but had a smaller role to describe to the Chorus, who acted as the voice of the spectators, what the off-stage action entailed. With this detached style of playwriting, how far can one presume that incest is a dangerous subject for an audience to watch?

In Oedipus Rex (1998) , the audience is exposed to many taboo subjects. For example, there are elements of death, suicide, murder, violence, starvation alongside a more physical set of taboo ingredients such as blood, fluids, poison, burning incense, pus and disease. Because of these components, the play is a gruesome account of a historical event. Sophocles adapted his play from an already existent and well-known story. With this in mind, the audience would already know the denouement of the story and would be spectators of the way the ending was procured. It is presumed that the authorities would have no reason to ban or censor any of the plays more shocking themes. This may confirm ideas that the society of the time was more relaxed. When the same play is performed today, it is treated differently. Drawing from my own experience, Oedipus Rex and its companions were studied at a higher education level, from the age of 16 and over. Firstly, the language is more accessible to an older teen audience but more importantly, censorship of the delicate matters exists until the reader is of an age when an informed understanding can ensue. The taboo subjects are paramount to the story of Oedipus Rex and in order to appreciate his downfall at his own hand, it is necessary for the reader to know about the surrounding background.

Linda C. McClain writes that today “girls and women are gatekeepers, responsible for the proper regulation of boys’ and men’s sexuality. In this vision, men and women differ not only in sexual desire, but also in their capacities, needs, and ambitions.” (McClain, 2006:257). Women are more liberated in their sexual wants and desires in our current society, they have the rights to be an equal partner, if not capable of being the dominant half, of a relationship. This was not possible for a woman in the period in which Sophocles was writing. The woman’s roles were to be chaste until marriage, to keep a home for her husband, bear children and to do her husband’s bidding. Women were not permitted to be witty or educated in an area not concerning her duties as mentioned above. Men sought men’s company for pleasure and business and this trend has prevailed throughout the ages. However, before Sophocles’ lifetime, Ancient Greece was not one entire state but of smaller populated areas, and people lived in small communities. Therefore, marriages outside the community were not common, if they existed at all. What is now considered a serious moral consideration (having sexual relations with a family member) was not taken into account. There was a constant threat of invasion from all sides: there is much evidence of the wars that took place during these times, for example there were constant feuds between Thebes, Sparta and Athens, and the Peloponnesian war took place during Sophocles’ lifetime. Incest was not a legal offence as necessity required women to be impregnated to strengthen familial lines.

However, when Sophocles produced his theatrical performance of Oedipus Rex and his downfall, he wrote the tragedy in accordance with Aristotle’s Poetics.

“Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” (Aristotle’s Poetics [adapted from the translation by S. H. Butcher]:1998)

In accordance with this, Sophocles uses Oedipus’ lines to voice revulsion and certainty of ultimate downfall from evil acts, one of which is having incestuous relations with his mother. The audience sees a noble ruler lose everything he once had at his own doing and from this experience catharsis, the purging of similar passionate feelings that Oedipus experienced. In this way, it is possible to argue that the tragedy of Oedipus Rex is not dangerous for an audience to see, as they observe the consequences of such evil actions without experiencing it first hand.

Euripides’ Hippolytus (2003) includes a strong emphasis in the faith that the Greek Gods had total control over the people’s actions and their fate. The play begins with Aphrodite plotting to punish Hippolytus because he neglects to worship her, over her chaste sister, Artemis. She uses Phaedra as the catalyst for her revenge. Not only do the audience see a possible theme of adultery, but also of incest as the two mortal protagonists are related. Spectators to both taboos cannot escape the feeling that there is one set of rules for the gods and another for the mortals. Aphrodite does not suffer for her troubles,

“To the Lady Phaedra I grant death that saves her honour, yet she must die. For I will not let the thought of her suffering rob me of the satisfaction of seeing my enemies punished.” (Euripides, 1996 (2003): 138)


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How far should Greek Tragedy be regarded as a dangerous genre?
Tragedy Seminar
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"This is a terrific essay - well written, clearly structured &amp, persuasively argued. To do even better next time aim to engage critically with other Scholars - &amp, remember to always give sources for historical data. You have a great authoritative voice here but it would be great to see you grappling with/evaluating other people's ideas too." 70/100 Miranda Lundskaer-Nielson
Greek, Tragedy, Seminar
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Felicity Sanford (Author), 2008, How far should Greek Tragedy be regarded as a dangerous genre?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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