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Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: The Introduction

The modern dictionary definition of tragedy as a theatrical term is: “a drama in verse or prose and of serious and dignified character that typically describes the development of a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (destiny, circumstance, or society) and reaches a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary [1961; 1993 revision]), while it referred to a specific type of dramatic performance in ancient Athens. Even though tragedies can be seen as categorized by the sadness of their plots, they are actually categorized by their structure, time and place of performance.

Ancient Greek Tragedy 101 is divided into Six Chapters:

  1. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: The Introduction

  2. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Aristotle’s Views on Tragedy

  3. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: AESCHYLUS

  4. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: EURIPIDES

  5. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: SOPHOCLES

  6. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Tragedy & Shakespearian Tragedy

Figure 1: The mosaic symbolizing the masks being used in tragedies.

The Origin

Tragedy’s origin lies in sixth century B.C.; however, the questions surrounding this connection of play style to the god Dionysus and his rituals have yet to be fully answered. As is depicted from sculptures, artworks and literature, these plays were being performed at annual festivals in honour of the god Dionysus. In Greek Mythology, the god Dionysus, the son of Semele and Zeus, is known as the god of the grape harvest, symbolizing fertility and nature. The reason why the theatrical competitions, called Dionysia, were being held for the honour of the god Dionysus at the annual festivals is that "the most compelling symbols of Dionysus is the mask. . . [the function of the mask of Dionysus is] the ecstatic experience reveals God within man and the ecstasy of being passed by god" (Versényi, 87).

Any tragedians who wished to compete in the festival submitted a request. The chosen three tragedians would compete against one another for the first, second, or third prize. Along with each tragedians’ play, there was a fourth satyr play that was often connected thematically to the tragedies of the current competition.

The festival, which was celebrated with songs and dance, greatly impacted the elements of tragedy plays, causing the Chorus to emerge. The Chorus consisted of around twelve masked male members who were ordinary citizens. It is theorized that as time went on the number of members of the Chorus had increased to fifteen, and they often represented a specific group such as men, women or slaves. Even though the Chorus had no direct part in the play, it made comments about the action. In Cassandra’s Prophecy episode in Agamemnon, between 1149-1391 lines, The Chorus makes comments such as “Prosperity is always delicate. . . Hush, hapless maid, speak no ill-omened words.” It is supposed that the members were singing their lines, which was the combination of the lyric with the dramatic element, while simultaneously dancing. The Chorus is one of the key elements of Ancient Greek Tragedy.

Figure 2: An example of The Chorus in Greek Tragedies.

Hence, the cast of a Greek tragedy was formed by actors and a Chorus. The actor stood apart from the Chorus and interpreted the Chorus' lines about the ongoing scene. It is considered that there was only one actor in tragedies at first; however, Aeschylus, who is one of the notorious tragedians, is credited with adding the second actor while Sophocles, who is also one of the notorious tragedians, supposedly added the third actor. All actors were male. One actor was able to perform two or three roles in a play while also acting like a woman by using a mask when necessary.

The Prominent Tragedians

There are several tragedians; yet, three are considered the most well known. All the tragedies that can be read today were written by these three tragedians below:

  • Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.) Only seven of his plays have survived: the trilogy known as The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides), Seven Against Thebes, The Persians, and The Suppliants.

  • Sophocles (496–406) The titles of 118 plays are known, yet only seven have survived: The Oedipal Trilogy (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone), Philoctetes, Electra, Ajax, and Trachiniae.

  • Euripides (480–406) Only eighteen plays of his have survived. The most known ones are The Trojan Women, Medea, Alcestis, The Bacchae, and Hippolytus.

The Five Characteristics of Tragedy

The subject of the tragedy was drawn solely from traditional myth. Traditional myths had been providing the tragedies' basic plots. Though tragedies were prone to focus on the conflict in a family leading to its destruction, there was also the sole hero facing his own inevitable destiny. The conflict of the plot involved wider themes such as justice, destiny, political power, and the relationship between genders. Overall, there are four characteristics of Ancient Greek Tragedy. Oedipus the King by Sophocles can be used as an example to explain these terms:

Figure 3: Louis Bouwmeester as Oedipus in a Dutch production of Oedipus the King

  1. Tragic Hero: The hero facing his destiny with dignity. His virtuous character forms a bond with the audience, while his tragic flaw results in the audience’s fear for him, and his terrible punishment reveals a sense of pity.

  2. Tragic Flaw: The human limitations of the hero or an error in judgement leading to the downfall. He attempts to escape from his destiny; however, he unknowingly runs toward it. His attempt leads him to his “damnation”.

  3. Catastrophe: The horrible ending of the play: death, suicide, ruin etc. Upon the truth being revealed about Oedipus’ origin, Queen Jocasta commits suicide by hanging herself, Oedipus stabs his eyes with the pin on Jocasta’s dress and pleads to be exiled from the city.

  4. Central Belief of Destiny: The belief of the fact that the actions were preordained by the gods and the flaw was inevitable. Even though Oedipus attempts to flee from his preordained destiny, the belief in inevitable destiny becomes the reason for his destruction.

  5. The Chorus: Approximately twelve masked men, forming a specific group, make comments on the ongoing play by singing and dancing.

The Main Components of Tragedies

Ancient Greek Tragedies consisted of several main parts. The Prologue is a short introductory speech before the Chorus enters the stage. After the scene is set, the play begins with the Chorus’ entrance which is called the parodos. It presents the identity of the Chorus with background information. After the parodos, the play officially begins and the actions are developed through several episodes which are separated with choral songs. The final section of a tragedy is the exodos that includes one last short choral song and the Chorus leaves the stage. In addition to these components, crucially important events that happen offstage are narrated by a witness. This is called the messenger speech.

Related Terms

Ancient Greek terms to be reviewed before analyzing a play:

  • Anagnorisis: the point in the play where the hero begins to realize the truth or his destiny (from ignorance to knowledge).

  • Catharsis: the point in the play where the hero understands and accepts his damnation at the end of the play. It leaves an emotional effect on the audience.

  • Hamartia: the tragic flaw of the hero.

  • Hubris: the excessive pride of the hero, which results in Hamartia (tragic flaw).

Accordingly, Ancient Greek Tragedy, which emerged in sixth century B.C., was a festival competition for the honour of god of Dionysus. It was a form of theatre that consisted of male actors and a Chorus. The main characteristic of Greek Tragedies is that the tragic hero experiences a tragic flaw, because of his human limitations or an error in judgement, leading to his catastrophic end rooted in the belief in fate. With the contributions of the prominent tragedians, such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, Greek Tragedy has had a significant impact and nurtured itself up to a point where it has still being discussed in Literature, Art, Psychology, Sociology, Culture or History.


  • Aeschylus. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus. London: J. W. Parker, 1848.

  • Bieber, Margarete. "The Entrances and Exits of Actors and Chorus in Greek Plays," American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 58, No. 4. (Oct.,1954), pp. 277-284.

  • Gill, N.S. "Ancient Greek Tragedy." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020,

  • Golden, Leon, trans. Aristotle’s Poetics. With Commentary by O. B. Hardison, Jr. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Rpt. Florida UP, 1981.

  • Hopkins University Press, 1980, pp. 205–12,

  • Kitto, H. D. F. Greek Tragedy A Literary Study. the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003.

  • Segal, Charles. “Greek Tragedy: Writing, Truth, and the Representation of the Self.” Interpreting Greek Tragedy: Myth, Poetry, Text, Cornell University Press, 1986, pp. 75110.

  • Sophocles, Stephen Berg, and Diskin Clay. Oedipus the King. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

  • The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd ed. Simon Hornblower and Anthony Spawforth, eds. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

  • Vandiver, Elizabeth. The Great Courses: Western Literature. Greek Tragedy. The Teaching Company Limited Partnership, 2000.

  • Versényi, Laszlo. “Dionysus and Tragedy.” The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 16, no. 1, Philosophy Education Society Inc., 1962, pp. 82–97,

  • Weiner, Albert. “The Function of the Tragic Greek Chorus.” Theatre Journal, vol. 32, no. 2, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, pp. 205–12,''

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1 Comment

This layered understanding invites a deeper appreciation for ancient theatrical traditions and their enduring impact on modern storytelling. Moreover, the examination of tragedy's evolution from its Athenian roots to its contemporary interpretations underscores the timeless human fascination with narratives of struggle against overwhelming forces. For those intrigued by the complexity of human experiences and the artistic expression of the same, exploring more modern adaptations of tragic themes could be equally enriching. In this regard, I stumbled upon a fascinating resource that could offer an interesting juxtaposition to ancient tragedies - While seemingly unrelated, it presents a modern arena where fate and fortune play out in the digital age, echoing the age-old themes of chance, destiny, and human endeavor.

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Melis Güven

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