Greek Tragedy

Course No. 217
Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D.
Whitman College
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Course No. 217
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Course Overview

Two-and-a-half thousand years after they were written, ancient Greek Dramas such as Eumenides, Oedipus the King, and Trojan Women retain a compelling, almost incantatory power. These plays have attracted focus and reflection from Aristotle, Freud, Nietzsche, and others who Professor Vandiver observes early in the course:

"It is a notable paradox that Greek tragedy, a dramatic form that flourished for less than a full century, a dramatic form that began in a particular religious festival of a particular god some 2,500 years ago, remains vibrant, alive, and productive today.

"It seems that there is something about tragedy that lifts it out of its particular circumstances and beyond its particular gods, social issues, and political concerns to give a kind of universality that is, in the last analysis, very surprising."

The great tragedies shed light on the extraordinary time, place, and people that produced them.

And they may help us—as perhaps they helped their original audiences—to grasp a fuller sense of both the terror and wonder that life presents.

A Rounded View of a Grand Art Form

Professor Vandiver has designed these lectures to give you a full overview of Greek tragedy, both in its original setting and as a lasting contribution to the artistic exploration of the human condition. There are three main points to the course:

First: The Plays in Their Context. You learn to see Greek tragedy as a genre in its cultural context. Why did this powerful art form flower in the Athens of Pericles and the Peloponnesian War? What is tragedy's deeper historical background? Did it grow out of rituals honoring the god Dionysus, as is so often said? What role did it play in Athenian civic and religious life? How was it related to earlier performance traditions such as bardic recitation? How did Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides each make unique contributions to tragedy's expressive power?

Second: The Plays on the Stage. Too often, the surviving tragedies are seen purely as texts to be read, rather than as scripts to be played. Hence the second aim of Dr. Vandiver's course is to teach what scholarship can reveal about the performance of tragedy, including its physical and ritual settings, actors and acting methods, conventions of staging and stagecraft, and even how productions were financed.

Third: The Plays in Rich Detail. Third, you explore with Professor Vandiver a broad group of tragedies in close detail. In particular, you will ask how individual tragedies use traditional myths (often tales from the Trojan War), and what Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides intended to accomplish by changing or adding to the basic story. You examine what certain tragedies imply about the world of 5th-century Athens, and the importance, in turn, of the cultural background for explaining those tragedies.

Surveying Key Scholars and Critics

While Professor Vandiver frequently refers to modern critical approaches and theories to help illuminate the tragedies, she has chosen not to adopt any one theory as a framework for the lectures. Accordingly, you will find that she carefully and fairly discusses a number of views of tragedy, including those of Aristotle, Nietzsche, Freud, the Cambridge Ritualists, and even Aristophanes, who included the tragic stage in his wide-ranging satires of Athenian institutions, mores, and personalities.

Three for the Ages

Perhaps one of the most intriguing opportunities this course offers, even if you are a seasoned lover of literature and the classics, is the chance to compare and contrast the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Aeschylus (525–455 B.C.)

Lectures 5 through 9 focus on Aeschylus, the eldest of the three. The plays and themes discussed include The Oresteia (a trilogy about the accursed House of Atreus in the aftermath of the Trojan War, it includes Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides), as well as the earlier plays Persians, Suppliant Maidens, and Seven Against Thebes.

Sophocles (496–406 B.C.)

Lectures 11 through 14 and 22 are devoted to Sophocles. He is well known for creating heroes such as Oedipus, Ajax, and Philoctetes, who are characterized by intense isolation. In his Poetics, Aristotle credits Sophocles with introducing the third actor (not counting the chorus) and the use of scenery.

Euripides (484–406 B.C.)

Lectures 15 through 21 concentrate on Euripides. The most overtly political and least traditional of the three, he wrote plays featuring an especially vivid array of strong, disturbing female characters, including Medea and Phaedra. Two other plays with female protagonists, Hecuba and Trojan Women, paint harrowing portraits of the horrors of war and were written while Athens was locked in a deadly struggle with Sparta and her allies.

The course moves toward a finish by examining the revivals of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides put on in the Hellenistic theater, and then briefly discusses Roman adaptations and later "revivals" of Greek tragedy, from the Renaissance to modern times. It closes with Professor Vandiver's reflections on how the characteristic themes and tone of the Athenian tragic stage continue to inspire audiences and artists in a variety of media today.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Tragedy Defined
    What is tragedy? What are the issues to grapple with if we are to understand it? What was it like to live in 5th-century B.C. Athens, the time and place that saw tragedy's birth? How and why, precisely, did tragedy originate? x
  • 2
    Democracy, Culture, and Tragedy
    What cultural developments are reflected on the tragic stage? Is tragedy imaginable apart from Athenian democracy? What was the character of the festivals at which tragedy was performed? Can the handling of female characters in tragedy teach us anything about women's place in Athens? x
  • 3
    Roots of a Genre
    Dionysus is the god at whose festivals tragedies were performed. Did tragedy grow out of rituals in his honor, other types of rituals, or from some other source? Are there other reasons for the link between Dionysus and theater? x
  • 4
    Production and Stagecraft
    If you could go back to 5th-century Athens to attend a tragic performance, what would you see and hear? x
  • 5
    Aeschylus—Creator of an Art Form
    Aeschylus made huge contributions to the artistic development of tragedy. How have his seven surviving plays come down to us? How can we study his three earliest surviving plays to grasp not only his awesome gifts, but the staging and theatrical traditions he was building? x
  • 6
    The Oresteia—Mythic Background
    In this lecture, you examine the two stories that lie behind Aeschylus's trilogy. The tales of the Trojan War and the accursed House of Atreus were part of the cultural coin of 5th-century Athens, and are essential to understanding The Oresteia and other extant tragedies. x
  • 7
    The Oresteia—Agamemnon
    Can guilt be inherited? How does Aeschylus use the characters of Cassandra and Clytaemestra to set up images and themes that will recur throughout the trilogy? x
  • 8
    The Oresteia—Libation Bearers and Eumenides
    How does Aeschylus carry the major themes of justice, blood-guilt, vengeance, and conflicting moral duties through Libation Bearers, and how does he finally resolve them in Eumenides? What seems to be Aeschylus's final word on the gender issues raised by these plays? x
  • 9
    A Master of Spectacle
    Aeschylus's stagecraft in the Oresteia included the skene building, chariots, royal purple tapestries, a remarkable device known as an ekkyklema, and the actors playing the Furies to create theatrical effects that left his audiences powerfully moved. x
  • 10
    The Three Electras
    Each of the two younger tragedians wrote a play called Electra, and Aeschylus treated the same material in Libation Bearers. The way is open for a fascinating three-sided comparison. x
  • 11
    The Sophoclean Hero
    Sophocles is famous for creating isolated heroes. What is known of his life and contributions to stage art? What can we learn from a close examination of Ajax, perhaps his earliest surviving play? x
  • 12
    Antigone and Creon
    Why is Sophocles's Antigone, like so many other surviving Greek tragedies, set not in Athens but in Thebes? What does Sophocles reveal about conflicts between family and city, divine and human law, human greatness and human finitude? x
  • 13
    Oedipus the King, I
    How does Sophocles handle the well-known story of Oedipus, king of Thebes? How is the work patterned to enhance the sense of inevitability? Can we apply "realistic" standards of plausibility to the actions of Oedipus and Jocasta? x
  • 14
    Oedipus the King, II
    Oedipus the King has inspired influential and distinct readings by Aristotle, Freud, and others. Is this drama about fate versus free will? Is it about the human search for knowledge—a theme perhaps suggested to Sophocles by the Sophists? Here's a chance to weigh the several views. x
  • 15
    Two Tragedians, One Hero
    Both Women of Trachis by Sophocles and Heracles by Euripides take the greatest of all Greek heroes as a subject. How does each depart from the "usual" version of the Heraclean story? Is Heracles a "likely" candidate for tragic treatment? x
  • 16
    Greek Husband, Foreign Wife
    One of Euripides's most famous tragedies is Medea. Is it significant that Medea is not a Hellene? What does her story, in the hands of Euripides, imply about Athenian views of sexuality and reproduction? x
  • 17
    Phaedra, Hippolytus, and Aphrodite's Wrath
    In Hippolytus, why does Euripides invert the story of the household of Theseus? What does this say about Athenian attitudes toward sexuality, and about the role of the gods in human life? x
  • 18
    Euripides on War and Women
    In Hecuba and Trojan Women, Euripides paints harrowing portraits of war's awful toll. The Peloponnesian War was in full swing when these plays were performed. How does Euripides treat the conquered women of Troy? Why did he take the experience of the Trojans as his subject? x
  • 19
    Euripides the Anti-Tragedian
    Written late in both the Peloponnesian War and the life of their author, Iphigenia in Tauris and Orestes differ in tone, but resemble one another in their reversal of many standard aspects of tragedy. What should we make of these "anti-tragic" tragedies? x
  • 20
    The Last Plays of Euripides
    In the late Iphigenia at Aulis, how does Euripides modify his earlier treatments of the old Trojan War narrative? Bacchae, his final play, is the only Greek tragedy to feature Dionysus. It emphasizes the terrible price one man must pay for resisting the power of this latecomer among Hellenic gods. x
  • 21
    Euripides and the Gods
    This final lecture on Euripides turns to one of the most vexing critical questions about him: What was his attitude toward the traditional gods? x
  • 22
    The Last Plays of Sophocles
    In this lecture we return to Sophocles, who died a few months after Euripides. Philoctetes is especially remarkable for its portrayal of Odysseus and its "happy" ending. Oedipus at Colonus casts Oedipus in the role of tutelary hero and also paints a portrait of Athens in 406, the year Sophocles wrote the play. x
  • 23
    Other Tragedians and a Comedian
    Prometheus Bound is a famous tragedy often attributed to Aeschylus. Rhesus, far more obscure, is sometimes said to be by Euripides. Both are worth learning about, whoever wrote them. Also worthy of consideration as a source on tragedy are the comedies of Aristophanes. x
  • 24
    The Tragic Legacy
    The product of a very specific time and place, tragedy has had an extraordinary history. Highlights include the Roman plays of Seneca; tragedy's influence on Italian opera, Shakespeare, and Racine; and the amazing modern revival of classical Greek tragedy since the 19th century, which continues into our own day. x

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Your professor

Elizabeth Vandiver

About Your Professor

Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D.
Whitman College
Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver is Professor of Classics and Clement Biddle Penrose Professor of Latin at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She was formerly Director of the Honors Humanities program at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she also taught in the Department of Classics. She completed her undergraduate work at Shimer College and went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. from The University of Texas at...
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