Term Paper: Greek Drama Represented a Melding of Art

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Greek Drama represented a melding of art, religion, and philosophy, and the form of the drama evolved as the playwrights of the time expressed themselves in this medium. In examining drama, Aristotle considers the most successful dramas of his time and decides what it is that they have in common. It is this analysis that leads to his concept of the unities. He decides that the most effective dramas are those that show a unity of time, place, character, and plot, and this then becomes a general rule as to how to achieve successful drama by paying proper attention to the unities in producing a drama. Aristotle also offers prescriptions for various aspects of the drama. He notes, for instance, that there are four things the dramatist should aim at in the representation of character: 1) the characters should be morally good; 2) the characters should be suitable; 3) the characters should be life-like; and 4) the characters should be consistent. Again, these are qualities Aristotle has perceived in successful and effective dramas already in existence and so become prescriptions for future drama.

The analysis by Aristotle was shaped around the topics of Mythos (Plot), Ethos (character), Dianoia (Ideas, issues, themes), Rhesis (language), and Opsis (spectacle and staging). The unities cited by Aristotle were most pronounced in the earlier dramas by Aeschylus, who wrote when there were still only two characters on stage who speak at any given time. A third character would be added later by the time of Sophocles. Unity of character is more clearly maintained when there are fewer characters speaking, while the unity of time and place was also adhered to more closely than might be true later. Unity of time meant that the action of the play would take place over a time of not more than one day. Unity of place meant that the action would be confined to one locale. Unity of action meant that the plot would center on one central, issue or action and would eliminate extraneous material, meaning as well that sub-plots would not be pursued.

Such unities are evident in Prometheus Bound, a play which covers a period of a few hours; centering on the character of Prometheus on stage, with reference to Zeus who never appears; and which is set on a rocky area considered by the Greeks to be the end of the world. Any action beyond this time and place comes from the dialogue as Prometheus tells the story of his transgression and so why he is now being punished, bound to this rock. As noted, only two characters speak together at any one time. Might describes the scene as "the world's limit... The Scythian country, an untrodden desolation" (Greek Tragedies Volume I 65).

The plot is unified around the suffering of Prometheus. The characters other than Prometheus are gods or characteristics identified as characters, such as Might and Violence. These characters represent clearly identifiable and known quantities, creating a sort of allegory in which the characters represent traits as much as persons. The central figure of Prometheus is the most rounded and the most important character, adhering to the unity cited by Aristotle.

The Oresteia is the only intact dramatic trilogy from the Greek era. Prometheus Bound was also part of a trilogy originally, being the first of three plays on the same subject. The three plays of the Oresteia are related in theme and overall tell the story of the House of Agamemnon. The unites are maintained in each of the plays but not necessarily over the course of all three plays together.

In the Oresteia, Clytaemnestra and Electra, mother and daughter, have very different sexual natures, though both women are devoted to revenge, showing a link in terms of plot. Clytaemnestra takes revenge on her husband, Agamemnon, not simply because she has a lover but because Agamemnon had killed her first husband and her child. Her vengeance is thus bound with her sexuality and with the way Agamemnon had forced her to submit to him. Electra is non-sexual in her behavior -- though she has been married off by her mother, she does not consummate the marriage. Her entire being is shaped to revenge for the death of her father, and she torments her brother until he fulfills what she sees as his duty and kills Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra.

It is the Watchman who first speaks of Clytaemnestra and does so in a way that shows he believes all is right with her and her husband. At the same time, he sees her as somewhat tyrannical given that she has had him lying on the roof for a year waiting to see the beacon light. The Watchman would welcome Agamemnon home, for he believes the kingdom is not being ruled as it should be. The Chorus of elders also yearns for the return of the king and would have followed him into battle had they not been too old. They also express the idea that certain events are inevitable, and though they do not say so here, this applies to the inevitability of the revenge Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus bring to the house of Atreus. The story of this house is well-known, so the elders will not be surprised when the past does catch up to Agamemnon. At this point, however, they speak to Clytaemnestra as does the Watchman, as if she will be filled with joy that her husband is returning, and she in turn speaks in much the same way early in the play Agamemnon:

But now, how best to speed my preparation to receive my honored lord come home again -- what else is light more sweet for woman to behold than this, to spread the gates before her husband home from war and saved by God's hand? (Aeschylus 53)

Clytaemnestra here takes on the sexuality of the dutiful wife, a role she plays in public. She continues to play this role when Agamemnon arrives and she speaks to the assembled people:

Grave gentlemen of Argolis assembled here, take no shame to speak aloud before you all the love I bear my husband. In the lapse of time modesty fades; it is human. (Aeschylus 61)

The greeting she gives her husband is ironic in tone, as is much of what he says to her. She professes her love for Agamemnon, and he in turn speaks to her as if he believes her and is holding up his part of the marriage. At the same time, he has brought Cassandra with him and tells his wife to be kind to her. Clytaemnestra does not comment on the presence of Cassandra at all, and in fact she goes into the house leaving the strange girl outside in the chariot. The irony of the discourse between husband and wife is not lost on the Chorus, which here expresses the feeling that something is about to happen, referring to a "persistent fear" and a "strain unwanted." Clytaemnestra tells the Chorus a few minutes later that she has no time to waste on this girl, and it might see that the wife is merely jealous. However, her sexuality has become bound with Aegisthus during her husband's absence, and both have reason to hate Agamemnon and to seek revenge. Her sexual nature has thus become enmeshed with the very idea of revenge, leading her to help Aegisthus kill her husband. She refers to the death of her daughter, Iphigeneia, sacrificed by Agamemnon some years earlier, as one of the reasons she is seeking revenge. Her jealousy over Cassandra is another reason she gives, though she has in fact betrayed Agamemnon with Aegisthus in his absence and so has already transferred her love to another. She also sees herself as the instrument of revenge on the whole house… [END OF PREVIEW]

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