Whitefield Academy Blog
Gazing into Greek Tragedy
“Oh gods, what is she plotting? What vast new agony? What huge horror lurks in the House? What evil plotting? The family cannot bear it, there is no cure, and help is so far away” (Agamemnon, 1100-4, translated by Peter Meineck). Thus utters the ill-fated prophetess Cassandra in Aeschylus’ famous tragedy Agamemnon. Following the end of the Trojan War, Cassandra, a Trojan princess, has been taken back to Argos by Agamemnon as his war-won concubine. Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, welcomes both warmly, yet in spite of this, Cassandra senses that death awaits Agamemnon as well as herself. And sure enough, within three hundred lines the corpses of both are rolled out on stage with an exuberant Clytemnestra above them. “I stand where I struck” (Agamemnon, 1379), she tells the audience, blood soaking her clothes and a crimson-stained bathtub at her side.
What is the point of Greek tragedy? Why have such grim dramas captivated audiences for 2500 years, and why does Whitefield annually stage a production of one of these (Sophocles’ Antigone)? What value could they possibly hold?
Let me start with a little background information. When we speak of ‘Greek tragedy’ usually we mean tragedy produced specifically in Athens during the 5th century BC. These tragedies were written for competition at festivals, primarily the City Dionysia, in which three playwrights entered four pieces each – a trilogy of three thematically-unified dramas followed by a lighter-hearted satyr play. Unfortunately, Aeschylus’ Oresteia – comprised of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and Eumenides – is the only trilogy to survive in full. Yet drama wasn’t the only thing on display at this festival. At some point those children who had been orphaned by war were paraded into the theater in full armor and were committed to the care of the city in loco parentis, and the tribute from Athens’ allies was also brought in for all to gaze upon. Thus these festivals provided (among other things) an occasion for exhibition and reflection. Athenians simultaneously cheered the great deeds of their polis and shuddered at the fortunes of the pitiable characters on stage.
And it was such emotions that Aristotle saw as the point of tragedy. In the Poetics, Aristotle asserts that tragedy’s purpose was to bring the audience pleasure through a purifying experience (katharsis) of fear and pity. We experience this pity and fear because, over the course of events, we witness ‘superior’ people – kings and heroes – suffer a drastic change in fortune through which the truth of the situation is made clear, often rather painfully. Now, it is certainly satisfying to watch a morally corrupt character fall from on high, but if fortune can swing one way, so can it the other. In this way tragedy warned Athenians to hold lightly their lot in life. It held up a mirror in which they saw reflected both the life of the polis and their own possible fates.
Okay, that was over two thousand years ago, and times are different. Why has it remained popular in such a very different world? Well, beyond the simple fact that everyone loves a good story and that horrific events are strangely appealing (just think of the natural curiosity aroused by a highway accident), tragedy’s themes have continued to resonate with modern audiences because people are people. It is characteristically human to enact laws and transgress them, to ascribe fault and desire justice, and to bemoan how little control we actually have over our lives. We as a modern society can still identify with the characters and situations of tragedy. Frustrated feminists cheer when Medea (in Euripides’ Medea) exclaims “I would rather stand three times in battle beside a shield than give birth once” (Medea, 250-1), and a secular audience naturally pities Hippolytus as he suffers malicious vengeance at the hand of Aphrodite, whose worship he has spurned (Euripides’ Hippolytus).
In general, though, most people likely still maintain a certain amount of distance from such characters and events. After all, we’re not that bad. Sure, we may make mistakes, but we’d never go so far in our revenge against a cheating husband as, say, to kill his new bride and then our own children (as does Medea). We can come away from tragedy feeling better about ourselves in comparison to the wretches on stage. They are ‘other.’ But this is precisely where the true value of these dramas lie; for the Christian knows that, in fact, we are the wretches on stage, and we are indeed that bad. And someone has to pay for the wrong that has been done. Thus tragedy holds up a mirror for us as well, and in it Christians see a two-fold truth: we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God, and we cannot save ourselves (Romans 3). Cassandra, aware of her impending death, could not stop it. The children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra (Orestes and Electra) likewise cannot end the cycle of violence, and in turn, kill their mother in The Libation Bearers. Even the gods fail in tragedy. But we know that we have a Savior in whom we can place all our trust, who being fully God and fully man lived a perfect life and gave Himself up on the cross for us at Calvary, breaking the cycle of sin and death, and who rose again on the third day in fulfillment of the Scriptures. We see that we can and must turn to Him, or we are no better off than Medea or Clytemnestra.
Greek tragedy therefore offers us a poignant display of truth – the truth, that is, at the most fundamental level. All Christians would profit from reflecting on the extent to which their own depravity mirrors that found in Greek tragedy, and as truth constitutes one of the three bedrocks of Classical Christian Education (truth, goodness, and beauty), we as the Whitefield community should especially embrace these dramas. If you haven’t read a tragedy lately – or ever – I’d encourage you to pick one up and have a go at it. And for the full experience, come see Whitefield’s eighth-grade class perform Antigone on Friday, November 15, 2019! It will not disappoint.
Anne, thanks you for a wonderfully thoughtful post.