Greek Tragedy: Definition, Characteristics & Plays

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  • 0:00 Definition of a Greek Tragedy
  • 1:11 Innovations of Aeschylus
  • 1:48 Sophocles
  • 2:42 Euripides
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about Greek tragedy, an art form that reached its peak during the Greek Golden Age of the fifth century and influences literature up to the present day. Following this analysis, you can then test your knowledge with a quiz!

Definition of a Greek Tragedy

No one is quite sure where the concept of a dramatic tragedy first came from, but it probably had something to do with Ancient Greek celebrations in honor of Dionysius and goats, hence why it's usually known as Greek tragedy. Bear with me here. The idea of bringing the myths and legends to life would've engaged the people a lot more than static ceremonies. I know I'd rather see a biography of Moses or Mohammed than go through a long ritual in honor of them.

The Greek tragedies mostly began with a prologue, where a character or characters would set the stage for the play. The play itself would have at least three scenes. Between them, there would be a choral interlude that was used to explain or comment on the play. The chorus was normally made up of random citizens. According to Aristotle and Plutarch, Thespis was the first playwright and performed at the first competition in 534 B.C.E. He did the acting, too, and it's his name from whom the word thespian comes from! The first plays involved one actor and a chorus.

Innovations of Aeschylus

Aeschylus (525/524-456/455) was the first real master of the tragedy, adding a second actor, which allowed for on stage conflicts. He also began writing trilogies; an Aeschylus production normally ran from sun-up to sundown. More importantly, though, Aeschylus was probably responsible for standardizing how a tragedy was to be written. Aeschylus also represented the old ways in that he was moral and very religious in his plays. Aeschylus wrote between 70 and 90 plays, which included the trilogy of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and Eumenides. These are probably the most well known plays he wrote.


Sophocles (497/496-406/405) was another playwright who built on the format Aeschylus had developed and added his own details. The first thing he did was to break the tradition of trilogies, which probably made it easier for his audiences to keep their interest. He also added a third character. With two actors, there was either conflict or there wasn't, but with a third there could be alliances, misunderstandings, and greater drama in general.

It wasn't just the plays he changed, either. He expanded the chorus to fifteen people, but it became less important because he had his characters explaining themselves more. The use of aesthetics in plays was altogether a new concept, but Sophocles broke new ground and also added scenery to his plays. Sophocles wrote 123 plays, but his most famous were Antigone and Oedipus the King.


Euripides (480-406) was a playwright from the era whose great addition to tragedy was his use of female leads. Whereas the male leads in Athenian tragedies had been strong and certain of themselves, with women he could portray them as more fragile. Their complexity allowed him to explore the emotions of his characters and make even more believable people in his productions. Euripides also had his actors sing monodies in which they would talk about the troubles of other characters. That took away from the importance of the chorus.

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