Why must I suffer? Why is human life so filled with unfairness and misery? Does the cause of suffering lie within us or outside of ourselves, in the hands of Gods, or is the world simply filled with terrible people who continue to inflict suffering onto one another? If such questions pop into your head in the middle of the night filling you with existential dread, then congratulations, you are not alone!
The Greeks have long been struggling with such questions which they expressed through their captivating stories that often involved lots of murders, dramatic choruses, and very complicated family relations.
Greek Tragedy was a form of theatre popular in ancient Greece around the 5th century BCE, and it continues to remain one of the most compelling pieces of literature to this day.
The Greek tragedians dared to look at human misery in the eyes and grappled with universal themes of pain, suffering, mourning, death, and loss and delivered the most unflinching tragic tales that continue to haunt and amaze us even today.
A tragedy is a sympathetic morally complex account of how good people can end up in disastrous situations. In Poetics — Aristotle's earliest surviving work of dramatic theory, he explained the structure of a Greek tragedy.
Greek tragedies followed a relatively good person in a position of power, prosperity, or high status who later suffers a downfall due to his own fatal flaw called hamartia that results in a reversal of fortune or peripeteia. In the end, in the moment of self-realization or anagnorisis, the hero realizes that he is the one who caused his own misfortune and suffering for others around him, but at that point, he can do nothing about it. After the conclusion, the audience experiences catharsis or feels some kind of fulfillment with the way the play ended.
In the play, Medea written by Euripides, Medea starts as a princess who loves her husband and children a lot. But when her husband Jason abandons her for another woman, and she is sent into exile, Medea is filled with rage and ends up killing her husband's new wife and her two children in order to isolate her husband. Medea knows what she is doing is wrong, but her fatal flaw, her obsessive love for Jason overpowers her. In order to exact revenge on her husband, she performs the unthinkable act of slaughtering her children.
Many do not consider Medea to be a tragic hero because she kills her children, but in my opinion, she fits the mold of a tragic Greek hero. She started her life as a strong, powerful woman who was later struck by Cupid's arrow and had no choice but to fall in love with Jason. And in the end, she realizes that she lost control of her life because of her obsessive love for Jason.
There is not much room for surprise in the Greek Tragedies because the audience is generally aware of the tragic element present in the play, even before the character. For instance, in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is looking for the man who murdered the previous king of his kingdom. But the audience already knows that Oedipus is the man who killed Laius, who was not just the king but also his father and unknowingly ended up marrying his mother, Jocasta. Even after knowing the supposed plot twist, the audience stuck around anticipating to see character reactions upon learning the tragic truth.
According to Aristotle, the plot is more important than the character in Greek tragedies. It does not mean that stories shouldn't have complex stories, but in Greek tragedy, ultimately the focus was more on the plot than the characters. For instance, The Orestia wouldn't be a tragedy if in the name of justice, Orestes wasn't ordered by Apollo, to avenge his father by murdering his mother. The circumstance that Orestes finds himself in what makes his story a tragedy. Such a cruel external situation also leads to an inner dilemma for Orestes that makes the audience more invested in a play.
A tragic character should also be pitiable. When an evil character suffers a downfall the audience always feels relieved or satisfied. A powerful tragedy makes the audience feel either pity or fear. Pity for the tragic hero by understanding how easy it is to make mistakes. Anyone can make mistakes that can alter the course of their lives, so the audience also finds themselves fearing experiencing something similar to the hero.
There is a lot that writers can learn from the ancient Greek tragedy, but perhaps the most important thing to remember is that a tragic story is not compelling simply because it is sad. Tragic stories are gripping when they are a deviation from the norm. A good tragedy often leaves people with terrifying questions and realizations about the nature of life and human beings. Most importantly, a well-written tragedy takes into account that misfortune can fall upon anyone, and human beings suffer due to their own fault.
is a young writer from India who is currently pursuing Mass Media. Apart from reading and writing, she spends most of her time daydreaming and listening to music. You can find her on Instagram at @aastha.1703