Explore The Tragic Structure

The tragedies of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles followed strict structure and form, which was designed to effectively communicate not only the story of the play, but also the underlying moral to the audience.

A typical ancient Greek tragedy consists of five essential sections, some of which are repeated as necessary to accommodate the plot. They are:

A monologue or dialogue presenting the tragedy's topic.
The entry of the chorus; using unison chant and dance, they explain what has happened leading up to this point.
This is the main section of the play, where most of the plot occurs. Actors speak dialogue about the plot (more so than taking action, much of which is offstage and later commented upon). The chorus often interacts with the actors.
The chorus comments upon the episode to the audience.
The final chorus chant where the moral of the tragedy is discussed.

An episode/stasimon grouping would be added depending on plot needs. For example, in the case of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, there are six episodes, allowing for significant plot development. In place of the fifth stasimon, Sophocles inserted a Kommos after episode five, which is a lyrical exchange between actors and the chorus to describe how Oedipus has blinded himself. The final episode in Oedipus Rex is followed by a brief exodus that concludes the play.

There are other important conventions in Greek tragedy:

  • The protagonist (hero) in a Greek tragedy was expected to experience a reversal of fortune and a downfall, usually due to his reach for a lofty goal being thwarted by his own hubris, or excessive pride. While this downfall could result in death, it could also be followed by a catharsis, an emotional cleansing meant to suggest redemption.
  • In Poetics, the philosopher Aristotle discusses characteristics of the tragic form. He states that tragedy focuses on a great person experiencing a reversal of fortune . This reversal can be from bad to good or from good to bad, but Aristotle felt the latter was preferable, as it better supports the serious tone that characterizes a tragic play.
  • Aristotle also contrasts the tragic form with epic poetry, which later scholars would develop into the three rules of unity. These three rules suggest that a tragedy have unity of place, time and action:
    1. Place. The setting of the play should be one location (Oedipus Rex takes place on the steps outside the palace).
    2. Time. The play should represent the passage of no more than one day (previous events leading up to the present situation, such as Oedipus outwitting the sphinx and killing his father, were recounted on stage).
    3. Action. All actions or scenes in the play should contribute directly in some way to the main plot.
  • The chorus plays a critical role, in such aspects as clarifying the exposition (background), admonishing, warning, or sympathizing with the dilemma of the protagonist, or interacting with and commenting on the plot to the audience. The latter can be used to either reinforce important developments or to reveal character motivations hidden by the dialogue.
  • While the chorus could be comprised of 12 to 15 performers, no more than three actors appeared in a play. The actors were able to perform multiple roles by using different masks, costumes and props.
  • Violence was never depicted onstage. Rather, actors and chorus would comment upon the act after it had occurred. Sometimes, an actor's body would be wheeled out onstage on an Ekkyklêma to show they had been killed.