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Greeks and Romans

Tragedy, Comedy and Thespis

Four famous Greek playwrights are:
A play belonging to a cycle is one of a
series of plays containing the same
characters or themes.
One example of a play cycle is the
Oedipus cycle.
This is the only remaining Greek play
cycle, written by Sophocles, and includes
three plays:
Oedipus Rex
Oedipus at Colonus
Harry Potter
Lord of the Rings

Modern Cycles
Greek plays were performed as contests
for the Greek gods Apollo (the god of the
sun, music and poetry) and Dionysus
(the god of revelry).
These contests were called agons which
is the root form from which we derive the
following words:
Protagonist: literally, the first contestant. The
main character or hero.
Antagonist: literally, the anti-contestant or
opponent. The villain or the character who gets
in the way or tries to stop the protagonist from
obtaining his or her goal.
The antagonist isnt always a person.

The Antagonist
Greek plays were performed in
amphitheaters which are similar to Red
The performing area was called the
In the back of the orchestra was a
building called the skene.
In the doorways of
the skene hung the
actors costumes and
masks which allowed
a small number of
players to perform
many different rolls.
In addition, the
importance of a
character was
marked by his height
which was
accomplished by the
actor wearing high-
heeled shoes or
Behind or to the side of the orchestra was
an apparatus used to fly characters
called the mechane.
Greek plays were performed by no more
than three actors who were assisted by
the chorus, a group who assumed minor
roles and commented on the action of the
The first actor was named Thespis.

From his name we derive the

official term for all actors:
Tragedy and comedy were defined by the Greek
philosopher, Aristotle.
Aristotle defined tragedy in his essay, The Poetics:
Tragedy is an imitation of action that is serious, complete,
and of a certain magnitude in language embellished with
artistic ornament with incidents arousing pity and fear.
Aristotle also said that at the end of a tragedy, the
audience should feel a release of emotion called
The second half of The Poetics defined comedy, but
has been lost.
When referring to tragedy or other elements of Greek
literature, we use the term classical to differentiate
between the Greek and the modern ideas of tragedy.
Classical tragedy involved six elements:
The protagonist(or tragic hero) is a person of high
status which usually consists of wealth and power. The
Greeks believed a poor person could not be tragic because
he or she had nothing to lose.
He or she has an inner fault or a tragic character flaw
such as greed or envy.
At some point the gods, demons or other supernatural
element appears in the play.
The hero has a fate or destiny and is given one chance
to avoid tragedy, called the turning point.
After the turning point, the hero begins the fall. During
the fall, the hero is slowly stripped of everything of
At the end of the play, the hero faces a cataclysm such
as exile or death. By Shakespeares time, exile was rare
and only death remained as the cataclysm for tragedy.
Eventually, the Greeks were conquered by
the Roman Empire who stole much of
the Greek culture including religion and
One of the few well-known Roman
playwrights was the poet Terrence.
By the end of Roman rule, theatre had
become so corrupt and grotesque that it
was banned by the Roman Catholic
Church and was not revived until the
Middle Ages.