Weeks 1and 2: Weekly Key Terms and Topics


Agon or "struggle" is a classical Greek archetype.  It is the root of our oldest terms for dramatic characters, the "protagonist" and "antagonist," those first two characters in the oldest dramas.  Their existence is attested to by Aristotle but no examples have survived.  All surviving Greek dramas are cast with at least two characters on stage and a "chorus" which comments on their actions and words, and in some cases performs crucial dramatic roles (e.g., suggesting to Aegisthos that he need not bring his weapons to investigate what has happened to Clytemnestra).  How much of modern art and public performance takes the form of "pro vs. con" dialogues and third-person commentaries on those verbal struggles?  What other ways are there to organize public discourse?  (Hint: circles, chains, sermons and responses, etc.) 

ArÍte (excellence), Hubris or Hybris (excessive pride leading to violent shaming actions toward the weak), Acrasia (imbalance/excess) or Atë (destructive folly), Peripetia (reversal), Catastrophe (a destructive overturning)--these terms mark the Classical Greek tragic hero's path from greatness to disaster.  Each is an outward action or state connected to an inward personal state and leading inexorably to the next term/action/state.  Sometimes it becomes difficult to say whether the inner or outer state comes first.  Perhaps they exist in a sort of resonance with each other, like dancers on a stage.  Hubris was a crime in Classical Athens and one could be prosecuted for hubris against mortal humans or against the gods.  Have we got social conventions or laws that seek to prevent any of these states of being or actions?  For a longer list of important terms for this literature, many with illustrative examples, click here.

The conflict between: filial and marital loyalty; and between male vs. female claims to power, drive much of Aeschylus' plot.  How should human beings make decisions in family crises?  Should sons and daughters be loyal only/primarily to their parents, and if so, which parent wins when they dispute?  Should sons and daughters be loyal to each other when their parents misbehave or even commit crimes against them?  If so, is there any principle guiding which gender or age gets priority when siblings' interests conflict?

The gods have direct interest in agon/competition and in humans' proper performance of family duties.  The agon produces  arete/excellence, which honors the competitors and the gods who witness their struggle.  The audience is educated, or even cured of spiritual or psychological ailments by what they experience in dramatic competition.  Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) explained the tragic drama by claiming that audiences experience katharsis or simultaneous pity and terror as they identify with the protagonist's lofty aims and terrible fall.  Greek drama, in effect, aims to shock its audiences into health by making them aware of their human potentials for good or evil, and the inevitable limitations imposed on that potential by fate and mortality.  Modern "self-help" celebrities and popular psychological tracts often emphasize eliminating "negativity" and striving for one's best, which can easily be trace back to the faith in the agon's power to summon excellence, but what modern authorities teach moderation and knowing one's limits?


What were myths and hymns for classical audiences?  In early Greek, "mythoi" (plural of "mythos") were stories that could be told about the past.  No attempt was made to distinguish them from "facts."  That distinction begins to enter Greek around the time of  Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.) and Plato (429-347 B.C.E.).  How do the stories we believe about the past guide our current actions and future plans?  How often do we "fact check" stories we encounter by word-of-mouth or via the Internet?

Greek classical literature has its own specific concerns which must reflect what its audiences cared most about, and one of the joys of reading these works is coming to know radically different ways to define what it was to be human and to understand our existence.  Who were "the gods" and "the heroes" of the past, and what had they done?  What was it to be a god, or a hero, and what tasks did they perform in the world we see, and in unseen worlds known only to them?  What rules governed familial relations?  What makes a good or a bad father, or mother, sister or brother, child or family friend?  How should weddings and funerals be conducted?  How should we celebrate, especially by ceremonial consumption of wine and food in feasts?  As you read, try to add to this rudimentary list by discovering more functions or relationships or identities which the poets either put into play or try to fix or define.

What was Aeschylus' tragic dramatic trilogy to its Athenian audience?  We can tell that it builds its subject matter by combining and expanding upon narrative threads found in the previous era's mythoi.  We will see these pieces of narrative in Homeric epic, the Homeric hymns, and the lyric poets.  Think of the mythoi as a system something like an archaic Internet, a constantly changing mass of information, both true and false, whose "Web sites" and "apps" are specific poems or plays which capture ways of seeing the available stories of gods and heroes from among all those which archaic Greeks told each other and heard from their parents.  From simple beginnings as individual tales or short lyrics like the Homeic hymns, the mythoi grew and acquired new generic forms of expression, and artists emerged who were specially skilled to produce them.  Even in the days of the Homeric epics (ca. 800-600 B.C.E.?), the great halls of Odysseus and Alkinoos were given their own professional singers, Phemios and Demodokos, but they performed without a chorus or "backup singers" to echo or respond to their songs.  At some point, the chorus was added, but evidence of its earliest emergence has not survived.  Aeschylus is our earliest surviving author of dramas, and he already has gone beyond the individual singer (protagonist) and chorus chanting a story, and has begun to simulate actions and dialogue in fully developed plots that enact in first-person characters what singers previously would have told audiences in third person.    He is sometimes credited with introducing the second actor (antagonist) to the actor-chorus drama, but no historical records survive of that earlier period.  We do know he has changed the older tales' settings and, thereby, their significance for their audiences.  The oldest epic narratives occured in the Bronze-Age megaron/king/household, but by Aeschylus' era (525-456 B.C.E.), Greeks identified themselves as members of poloi (singular polis), city-states of kin-group clans who had begun to evolve legal codes to settle disputes, in place of the autocratic will of the megaron's lord or ladyThe Chorus often emphasizes the existence of a shared, socialized point-of-view that differs from that of the protagonist and antagonist.  Compare this evolution from singer to drama with the emergence of medieval or Renaissance English drama, or the development of the novel.  How do the authors respond to cultural changes while simultaneously helping to shape those changes? 

What are the civic functions of Classical Greek explanatory narratives, sacred song and ritual as seen in dramatic theatre?  In addition to drama's supernatural functions, which were assumed based on personal emotional experiences, theatrical competitions offered the wealthy an opportunity to demonstrate their social standing by offering to pay for the costs of the performance in one of the religious competitions (e.g., the greater and lesser Dionysiac festivals).  These "liturgies" were demanded of the rich by custom and by law, although one also could substitute payment for construction and manning of a trireme, the Mediterranean Sea's greatest ship of war.  Both acts, in some fundamental sense, serve and protect the city.  How does this change your sense of Greeks' cultural values?  How might such practices alter our national treatment of authors, actors, and the dramatic theater as an institution?