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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Reviews

Greek Tragedy is rated 4.9 out of 5 by 61.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Each lecture was a gem! Like many of us, I was first exposed to ancient Greek plays -- tragedies, in particular -- way back in high school. I found them fascinating then mainly because their plots were rooted in mythology, including the intriguing and interesting multiple gods, and because I found much in their stories that was genuinely horrifying. Many decades have gone by since then, allowing me to learn first-hand of what we mortals -- including myself -- are capable of. While their tales may be mythological in origin, now I deeply understand how firmly they are rooted in human behavior, especially our hubris and fallibility. Professor Vandiver does a superb job of exploring the relatively few tragedies that have survived the 25 centuries since their heyday in 5th century Athens, and gives us fascinating details about the major playwrights, what we are able to know about their stagecraft (limited use of scenery, all roles played by a small number of male actors, the use of masks to depict specific humans and gods, and the "special effects" wonders of the time: the platform that could be extended, perhaps by wheeling it out, of the skene tent or building that was used to represent a house, temple, or palace and thus allowing the audience to view what was allegedly going on in the interior of the building, and the crane mechanism that was used to depict someone "flying" or miraculously appearing on top of the skene building, as in "deus ex machina." Her discussion of these -- from our point of view -- extremely limited special effects reminded me of how conventions of "believability" change over time. For example, as a boy in the '40s I remember avidly listening to the afternoon radio programs of the day aimed at a youthful audience: The Lone Ranger, the Shadow, etc. In these there were no pictures and all of the images I conjured up were the result of skillful voices and some fairly primitive sound effects. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed those programs and still remember them fondly. I suspect the ancient Greeks felt wonder enough with the drama being performed before them, complicit with the actors and playwright in making the appropriate assumptions. Ii also deeply appreciated Dr. Vandiver's explanation of two stock phrases that are both inadequately understood by too many: First, that what we have long been told was a "tragic flaw" in character of a Greek protagonist should more accurately be understood to mean "tragic error in judgment," that is, rather than a fixed weakness -- which members of a Greek audience could feel would have little meaning for them, for they "weren't like that" -- the error in judgment -- assuming that "of course I know who my parents are," when the character actually does not for he is holding a, unknown to him, false belief -- is the kind of thing that every member of an audience could understand to be the kind of mistake a reasonable person could make and, therefore, had relevance to each of them. And the second is the phrase attributed to Aristotle: that every man (i.e., to be truly a man) was a political animal should be more accurately understood to mean that a man (a free male person/citizen in ancient Greece) could only be and function as a man when they lived in a polis, the city-state. I find this to be a much richer understanding of the phrase. Professor Vandiver also adds some fascinating information about 5th century Athens' culture, including the relative roles of men and women and the ideals that supposedly were gender-based, for example, courage and reasoning being male possessions even as cleverness, guile, and feared disloyalty were the attributes applied to women. Further, even though women were not citizens and men held all of the official "cards" of authority -- it is even unclear whether or not women were able to attend the plays -- the professor shows how many of the plays would have been profoundly disturbing to males, either because they depicted women acting in the vile manner that men suspected or, equally upsetting, that they -- and not the men in the play -- who were the characters who exhibited "manly" courage, admirable loyalty to family or polis, and reasoning abilities. Fascinating! I highly recommend this course to lovers of tragedy in general, or of Greek tragedy in particular, as well as to those who are more generally interested in discovering still more about how "the ancients" were not all that different from us at all! A truly great course!
Date published: 2019-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great In-depth Look at Tragedy and Society First of all, the professor is animated and through without being difficult to understand. And the deep look at the extant tragedies is both interesting and compelling. I was particularly taken with the discussions of stagecraft and acting which helped me understand some of the more puzzling aspects of the plays. I guess the best I can say is that, if it were possible, I'd sign up for Professor Vandiver's class tomorrow!
Date published: 2019-04-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful overview Professor Vandiver conveys her knowledge and enthusiasm of Greek Tragedy well. It was a pleasure listening to this course, and very illuminating as well. The tragedies contain many characters and themes which later thought builds upon. The course is made all the more interesting by the utterly compelling nature of the tragedies themselves. A few small reservations hardly detract from the overall quality of the course: I found that the professor spends more time than necessary on the staging of the plays (perhaps because recent research inquires into such things). Similarly, I found the final lecture to be an anti-climax, focussing on direct revivals of Greek tragedy (e.g. one particular episode of Star Trek) rather than the crucial mythological, literary and ethical content which have been of such enormous influence on subsequent literature and philosophy. Still, a course well worth taking.
Date published: 2019-01-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Tedious I purchased this course in order to get an introduction and overview of certain aspects of Greek life. The professor is certainly factual and has a wealth of knowledge. I have struggled through more than half of the course and am somewhat disappointed. 1, I have taken just about all of professor Greenburg's music courses and have great admiration for his presentation style which includes many examples as well as wit. In this course the professor rarely strays further than 3 feet from the podium, never seems to pause, and is murch too tedious for my taste. She tosses out Greek mythology but never gives me a satisfactory overview of the players. 2, The course attempts to cram too many plays into the course. 3, Dialog is mentioned but there is no attempt to move me into the play itself by providing examples of the dialog. I recognize that these plays are not frequently performed but without hearing the actors and chorus interract it is hard for me to glean the intensity of these works and understand the stories portrayed. I would rather see fewer plays with more discussion on plots and impacts. 4, There should be a stronger introduction into Greek life and structure and overall mythology preceding analysis of the plays and playwrites before diving into the plays themselves. 5, In all fairness I must explain that I am a retired engineer schooled during the Eisenhower admininstration when the country was in short supply of the engineers needed for his plan for infrasturcture growth. I got my degree with a total course structure based on the technologies of the time. There was no liberal arts content. Now that I am retired I wish to round out my life education by studying the classics. In short I would only carefully recommend this course as currently structured.
Date published: 2019-01-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course I completed survey courses in Greek Tragedy and Greek Comedy almost 50 years ago. Ms Vandiver’s lectures are a great refresher and contain contextual information which I had either forgotten or was not revealed in those ‘ancient’ courses. Well done. I have enjoyed every minute
Date published: 2019-01-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well worth the time I thoroughly enjoy this professor's style, I really hope that she does more courses. The information was presented well - enough to understand the discussion but whet the appetite to go & read the full plays. Do go with her recommended translations (University of Chicargo Press editions) - they are a lot better than others I have read.
Date published: 2018-04-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Introduction Professor Vandiver is one of my TC favorites. She is clear and informative and knows how to keep one’s interest and when to address key questions and issues. This course rates more than five stars, if that were possible. I have read several fifth century BC Greek tragedies over the years, but without understanding the context within which they were written and performed. I have also appreciated the quite dramatic treatments of individual plays by TC’s Rufus Fears in his courses ‘Life Lessons from the Great Books’ and ‘Books the Have Made History’ (still high in my estimation even after Professor Vandiver’s scholarly treatments). This course added significantly to my knowledge and appreciation of Greek tragedy. Professor Vandiver does more than summarize plays, she traces developments in tragedies and how they were performed. Starting right off, we learn that the word tragedy itself is not to be taken in its modern sense of something necessarily sad. For instance, Euripides’ ‘Ion’ is something of a “romantic comedy” (lecture 21 audio), and in Greek "tragedy" was derived from a word meaning “goat song”. In fact, much of what we know about Greek tragedy is based on the survival of likely only 3% of the total produced (in all, 32 plays). Professor Vandiver reminds of this repeatedly as she references scholarly debate on the tragedies and their performance, noting that the small sample we have does not warrant some of the sweeping generalizations advanced. What I particularly liked about this course is that Professor Vandiver not only deals with individual plays, but also gives us a sense of how contemporary Greeks might have understood and/or reacted to them, which quite often is distinctly different than that of a modern audience. She also does a good job in explaining how ancient Greeks viewed the gods as personifications of elemental forces that they experience around them, and that their existence and role were “fiercely” (lecture 21 audio) debated in fifth century BC Greece (along with the corrupting influence of Sophism), as reflected in the plays of the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Most of all, however, I am thankful for Professor Vandiver’s detailed treatment of these three tragedians. She brought each into focus for me, so that I could distinguish their differences as well as contributions. She also rounds this out for me with her treatments of Aristotle’s and Freud’s influential theories, ably pointing out where they fall short. If you are going to read the plays, Professor Vandiver recommends the ten volumes published by the University of Chicago as containing translations that are “…uniformly excellent, clear, and readable” (Course Guidebook, page 168). I can attest to that. The paperback edition is inexpensive and contains fine introductions. The 179-page course guidebook for this 2000 TC course has fine lecture summaries, timeline, glossary, biographical notes, and extensive annotated bibliography.
Date published: 2018-03-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gets right to the point. I've listened to, or watched, all of Professor Vandiver's courses. She is one of the "greats" in the Teaching Company roster. This is both an excellent introduction to greek tragedy, and informative and stimulating for those knowledgeable on the subject.
Date published: 2018-03-04
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