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Greek Tragedy: Formal Elements
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

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Modern English translations of Greek tragedy are generally composed in fairly uniform blank verse or in prose, and thus tend to obscure many of the formal elements that would have helped to articulate the structure of the original drama and guide the audience's response to particular passages.

The original texts are composed in verse throughout, but the nature of that verse varies considerably from scene to scene, and even within scenes. Most lines assigned to individual actors, for example, are delivered in a speaking voice, but many are recited or chanted to the accompaniment of the *aulos (double flute), while some (the so-called "lyric" passages) are sung.   [Image of aulos-player (Perseus): bottom center of image]   By contrast, most lines assigned to the "chorus" are sung or chanted by the chorus as a communal entity (or so it is generally assumed), but some are simply spoken and would have been delivered by the *coryphaeus (chorus leader) alone, acting as spokesperson for the entire group. Lines designed to be sung or chanted often employ a much more lofty and artificial style of diction, a looser syntax, and even a distinct, more artificial dialect in contrast to spoken verse. On the other hand, even the spoken lines were most likely delivered in a declamatory style markedly different from that employed in day-to-day conversation.

[Greek tragedy was composed and delivered in an elevated style that seems to reflect a general notion of the decorum proper to the genre. Thus one does not find the use of speech to characterize individuals to nearly the same extent as in comedy — there are, for example, few indications of ethnicity or class in the characters' diction or the quality of their Greek, all of which is composed in a lofty poetic koine — and metrical restrictions are observed much more stringently, yielding an overall impression of stately regularity, sublimity, and order. This tendency can be undermined to achieve a particular effect in individual scenes, as happens with increasing frequency in plays of the later fifth century, but it remains a marked feature of the genre.]

All of these elements would have helped the original audience determine how to respond to a particular passage. For example, one would not necessarily expect detailed insights into a character's rational motivations in an intensely emotional lyric passage; by contrast, a lengthy formal speech may seem (to the modern audience, at least) to privilege reasoned argument rather excessively, at times in ways that are difficult to reconcile with modern notions of dramatic (that is, realistic) characterization. You will often find the dramatists dealing with the same material in two different registers, once in lyrics and again in spoken verse, in order to elicit both the emotional and the pragmatic/intellectual components of a particular situation. Note, for example, the use of such contrasting scenes in Aeschylus' Agamemnon 1072-1330 (Cassandra) and Euripides' Hippolytus 198-524 (Phaedra).

While such distinctions are often not noted in a modern translation, it is important to have a general sense of the basic "modes" of the Greek tragic stage.

Spoken verse in Greek tragedy is generally composed in *iambic trimeter, which, like the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare, recalls day-to-day speech in its rhythms if not necessarily in its diction or delivery.

Basic metrical form:     ̌ ̄ ̌ ̄   |   ̌ ̄ ̌ ̄   |   ̌ ̄ ̌ ̄

More lively or emotional scenes are composed in *trochaic tetrameter, which is accompanied by the aulos and appears to have been chanted or intoned in a way that was somewhat more artificial than the delivery employed with iambic trimeters.

Basic metrical form:     ̄ ̌ ̄ ̄   |   ̄ ̌ ̄ ̄   |   ̄ ̌ ̄ ̄   |   ̄ ̌ ̄
        cf. "My Darling Clementine"

Another type of verse that is associated with more lively or emotional scenes is the *anapaestic dimeter. This could be either chanted (recitative or marching anapaests) or sung (melic anapaests), the two being distinguished in our manuscripts by differences in dialect and certain metrical peculiarities. These too would be accompanied by the aulos. In early tragedy, in particular, the chorus will at times enter the orchestra employing marching anapaests before taking up its position and commencing its first choral song.

Basic metrical form:     ̌ ̌ ̄   ̌ ̌ ̄   |   ̌ ̌ ̄   ̌ ̌ ̄
        cf. "The William Tell Overture"

Scenes of high emotion are at times presented in *dochmiacs, the one metrical form peculiar to tragedy, but one that is employed relatively infrequently. These too would be accompanied by the aulos.

Basic metrical form:     ̌ ̄ ̄ ̌ ̄     or:     ̄ ̌ ̌ ̄ ̌ ̄

*Lyric meters (sung either by the chorus or by individual actors) are too complex to describe here. (See below, however, on the structure of lyric songs.) These too would be accompanied by the aulos.

Each of these "modes" is associated with certain moods and with particular types of discourse. The shift from one to another, in the course of a play, not only added variety and texture to the original performance but provided constant indications to the audience about the terms in which individual passages might be assessed.

Typical Structural Features and Scene Types

Another feature that would have helped to shape the audience's expectations and their critical response can be found in the typical structures and scene types associated with tragic productions.

The Divisions of the Plays

As Aristotle notes in his Poetics, tragedy presents a general pattern of individual acts (comprised of one or more scenes) that are separated from one another by choral odes.

The first scene or scenes of the play (that is, everything that precedes the entrance of the chorus) is by convention called the *prologue. (Some early plays begin with the entrance of the chorus and therefore lack a prologue, in this formal sense, altogether.) Often this entails a "prologue" in the sense commonly employed today — i.e., a single actor who addresses the audience more or less directly and introduces the setting of the play and the basic background to the plot. (For example, Euripides frequently begins his plays with this type of prologue, followed by the entrance of a second character who engages in dialogue with the prologue figure. Sophocles, by contrast, prefers to supply the necessary background somewhat more realistically, by opening with two characters who engage in conversation. In the formal sense, both of these openings constitute "prologues" — that is, matter that precedes the initial entrance of the chorus.)

At the end of the prologue (in the formal sense) comes the initial entrance of the chorus, which typically marches into the orchestra via one or both of the two eisodoi. Generally speaking, the chorus sings while it enters; thus this initial song is known as the *parodos ("entrance song"). Once the chorus has entered the orchestra, it rarely exits prior to the conclusion of the play. (There are only some five counter-examples in extant tragedy.) Thus it provides a continuous presence, a virtual second audience to events on stage, that can help to foster dramatic unity and coherence but can also (particularly in the plays of Euripides) constitute something of an embarrassment.

Following the parodos are a series of *episodes (i.e., acts: Gk. epeisodion [pl. epeisodia] — "that which follows upon the choral ode"), each consisting of one or more scenes. These are typically dominated by interactions between the actors, and by spoken discourse, although (as we will see) the actors too can engage in sung or chanted verse.

Typically, each episode concludes with the exit of all of the actors and their attendants, leaving the chorus alone in the orchestra to sing a choral ode or *stasimon (pl. stasima).

The conclusion of the play (that is, all of the action that follows the last choral stasimon) is by tradition known as the *exodos ("the exit"), This typically consists of a number of scenes, which may include a final song sung by the chorus as it departs but often presents a more somber, muted conclusion to the play.

The series of epeisodia punctuated by choral stasima establishes an alternating rhythm, as the relatively static epeisodia (dominated by individual actors who for the most part speak their lines) are interrupted by the communal dancing and singing of the chorus, marked by movement and song.

Choral Odes

The songs of the parodos and stasima are stanzaic in nature and have a carefully structured form. Typically, the songs are divided into matching pairs of stanzas known as *strophes (sg. strophe) and *antistrophes (sg. antistrophe), with each strophe being metrically identical to the antistrophe that follows it. (It is generally assumed that this similarity in meter would have been matched by a similarity in music and choreography.) Occasionally, an unpaired stanza will be introduced following one of the antistrophes (often at the very conclusion of the song): this is known as an *epode. (Sometimes stanzas will intrude between strophes and antistrophes as well: these are known as mesodes.)

Since these terms are sometimes included in English translations of the plays to distinguish the various sections of the choral odes, it is important to know what they represent and to recognize that they are not being used to introduce hitherto unnoticed characters into the play. (That is, you do not want to be the student who discusses what the argumentative character "Antistrophe" says in response to his friend "Strophe.")

Songs Sung by Actors

The actors also can employ chanted or sung verse — a feature that becomes more and more common in the later fifth century, when the importance of the chorus is beginning to wane — although some have suggested that not all three of the actors available to the playwright were always professional singers. Generally speaking, it is assumed that the lead actor (*protagonist) would have assumed the most interesting and demanding roles and would by definition have had a singing voice. The second actor (*deuteragonist) would have assumed secondary but still quite prominent and demanding roles and no doubt commonly was aspiring to the status of protagonist. He would have been required to sing on occasion, but perhaps less frequently and/or less extensively. The third actor (*tritagonist) would generally have filled in with the smaller, bit parts and may not have been required to sing at all. (There is a risk of circularity on this point, since modern accounts of how the parts would have been assigned are often based on the assumption that the most difficult roles, involving lyric, should be assigned to the protagonist wherever possible.)

A lengthy song sung by an actor is known as a *monody (i.e., solo, aria). Monodies can be astrophic (i.e., stanza-free) or strophic (in which case they display the same structural features as the choral odes discussed above).

Actors can also engage in lyric "dialogue." In the *epirrhema (pl. epirrhemata) one actor (or the chorus) speaks or chants lines in response to another actor's lyrics; in the *amoibaion (more commonly employed in the pl.: amoibaia) two actors (or an actor and the chorus) engage in a lyric exchange where both parties are singing. A common form of amoibaion is the *kommos: an emotional lyric lament sung between actor and chorus.

Typical Scenes and Types of Verbal Exchange

There are also specific types of scenes and of verbal interaction found in the spoken sections of the plays. The most important for our purposes are listed below:

*Agon ("contest") — a formal extended debate; highly rhetorical and often rather artificial in nature

*Rhesis — a lengthy speech, often highly rhetorical in nature

*Messenger Speech — a lengthy report of some off-stage event, usually delivered by an anonymous character of low status who has no other role in the play

*Stichomythia ("line-speech") — a rapid, highly stylized dialogue between two characters, with each speaking one line in turn. Can be used to convey information (for example, to inform a new arrival of the dramatic situation) or for heated debate. Frequently artificial, in that one of the two parties often drives the dialogue while the other provides only empty "filler," or lines that lay the ground for particularly witty or pointed responses from their interlocutor. [A variation on this practice (distichomythia) assigns each party two lines each. In some cases, one finds similarly rapid exchanges that involve antilabe — a set of short exchanges wherein the first party begins each line of verse and the second party finishes it.]

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