Irish Appropriation of Greek Tragedy

by Brian Arkins (Author)
©2009 Monographs X, 166 Pages


This book presents an analysis of more than 30 plays written by Irish dramatists and poets that are based on the tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. These plays proceed from the time of Yeats and Synge through MacNeice and the Longfords on to many of today’s leading writers. A special feature of the book is that, in order to cater for these who may know little about Greek tragedy, it begins with a chapter entitled ‘A Brief Reading of Greek Tragedy’, and then, in regard to each Greek play analysed, it presents a mini-essay on that play, before coming to the Irish version(s) of it. Three features of these Irish appropriations stand out. Firstly, there are three methods of using a Greek tragedy: straight translation, which requires us to interrogate the original play; version, which preserves the invariant core of the original, but which can add or subtract material; loose adaptation, which often moves the action into the modern world. Secondly, there is a considerable stress on Sophocles whose emphasis on the theme of recognition resonates in a postcolonial society that must define itself. Thirdly, there is a considerable stress on the experience of women – such as Antigone and Medea – that can relate to the position of women in Irish society after independence.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • 1 A Brief Reading of Greek Tragedy
  • 2 Irish Appropriations of Greek Tragedy: an Overview
  • 3 Sophocles’ Antigone
  • 4 Sophocles’ King Oedipus and Oedipus at Colonus
  • 5 Sophocles’ Philoctetes
  • 6 Sophocles’ Electra
  • 7 Euripides’ Medea
  • 8 Euripides’ Bacchae
  • 9 Euripides’ Trojan Women and Hecuba
  • 10 Euripides’ Hippolytus
  • 11 Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis
  • 12 Aeschylus’ Oresteia
  • 13 Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

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1 | A Brief Reading Of Greek Tragedy


Greek tragedy1 should properly be termed ‘Athenian tragedy’ because Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were all Athenian citizens, and their plays were staged in the fifth century BC in the city (polis) of Athens. So to locate these tragedies in history, it is essential to analyse briefly what kind of place fifth century Athens was. In an apparent paradox, Athens was a city-state that was governed by a form of radical democracy, and that also ruled a considerable Empire.2 Soon after Athens, in conjunction with other Greek states such as Sparta, defeated the forces of the Persian Empire in the period 490-79 BC, the city came to control the Aegean Sea with its numerous islands as an imperial power. The Athenian Empire embraced some 150 Greek communities, mainly in the Aegean, who paid annual tribute of money to Athens (a few states provided ships); the efficient silver mines at Laurion near Athens were also a major source of money. Some of this money went to finance artistic projects: while public money paid for the very expensive Parthenon, the private money of rich citizens paid for the staging of tragedies and comedies.

The acquisition of the Athenian Empire went hand in hand with a major political upheaval in Athens about the year 460 BC. The existing democracy that had been established by Cleisthenes in the late sixth century now became much more radical. All adult males who were citizens at birth were members of the Assembly (Ekklesia), and could attend its meetings; it is estimated that 6000 regularly did so. The Assembly exercised executive power over all political, financial, administrative, and legislative matters, as well as electing and dismissing magistrates such as the military strategoi and the civil archontes. The members of the Council of 500 (Boute), ←1 | 2→which prepared business for the Assembly, were elected by lot. Pay was introduced for magistrates, members of the Council, and jurymen serving in the law courts. This was a further radical move: ‘Pay allowed all citizens, even the poorest, to perform time-consuming public tasks which they would otherwise not have had the leisure to fulfil, and thereby gave them a share in executive power’.3 That these political developments in Athens, the movement from aristocracy to democracy, paved the way for tragedy to flourish is suggested by the fact that, of the 31 extant tragedies, all but three were staged after 460 BC.4

Other Greek states, notably Sparta and Corinth, viewed Athenian imperialism with suspicion: Thucydides (1.23) explains that ‘What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta’5 (more specifically, Sparta’s ally Corinth was uneasy at Athenian expansion). So Sparta went to war with Athens for much of the fifth century after 460 BC: the First Peloponnesian War lasted from 460 to 446 BC, and the Second Peloponnesian War lasted from 431 to 404 BC. The Second Peloponnesian War was a disaster for Athens: it lost the war to Sparta, and its control of the Aegean ended after three quarters of a century, with widespread revolts ensuing; Athens was never to regain the same prominence in Greek affairs. The sheer length of the Peloponnesian War ensured that many of the extant tragedies were composed during it, and that a significant number of them – such as Euripides’ The Trojan Women (415 BC) – deal with the theme of war.


The circumstances in which Athenian tragedies were performed were different in virtually every respect from those of contemporary theatre.6 In the modern world, tragedies, like every other form of play, are staged either in the commercial theatre, or in art-house venues, or in amateur productions, and are put on for a run during which they are performed each night (or at matinées). But in fifth century Athens, tragedies were staged only during brief festivals of the god Dionysus, and will have taken place from early morning until about midday. The festivals in Athens were the Great Dionysia in March-April (the time when the god died and rose again), and the Lenaia (feast of the wine-vats) in January-February; the rural Dionysia took place in December in the 140 or so localities in Attica. The tragedies in Athens were staged in the theatre of Dionysus or ←2 | 3→the southern slopes of the Acropolis, which was a tiered semicircular construction with excellent acoustics.

Tragedies were therefore part of a religious festival that also had distinct political aspects:7 the ten generals (strategoi) made libations to Dionysus; the tribute of Athenian allies was brought into the theatre; the names of the benefactors of Athens were read out; and the children of those who died in war were paraded in full military uniform. A further aspect of state involvement in Athenian tragedy is that the three playwrights who wrote tragedies for the Great Dionysia were chosen in mid-summer of the previous year by a magistrate, the Eponymous Archon (a role performed for the Lenaia by the King Archon); again, the elaborate costumes of the chorus were paid for by rich citizens. When a playwright was chosen by the Archon, he had to write four plays, three tragedies which might or might not be connected in theme, and a satyr-play, which had a Chorus consisting of satyrs, the wild attendants of Dionysus, and which explores ‘human culture through a fun-house mirror’.8 The three playwrights were in competition with each other, as befitted a society that was intensely agonistic, and there were first, second, and third prizes. Aeschylus won thirteen first prizes, Sophocles twenty-four, and Euripides four. The production of a fifth century tragedy was a unique event, and it was not until 387 BC that an old play was restaged.

The number of actors in Athenian tragedy was much more circumscribed than in the modern theatre. Aeschylus introduced a second actor and Sophocles a third, that being the maximum allowed. All the actors, who were citizens, were male, so that female parts were played by men. The leading actor (who was paid and competed for a prize) needed to be a skilled solo singer, and will have played a major part in plays: so in Sophocles’ King Oedipus, the first actor played Oedipus, and the other two played seven parts between them. Actors wore masks (Dionysus was the god of the mask), which meant that changes of facial expression were impossible and that the voice became paramount; Yeats held that Greek acting ‘did all but everything with the voice’.9 Actors also wore a head-dress, a long robe, and boots (kothornoi), so that they appeared to be remote impressive figures, an example of Brecht’s ‘alienation effect’.

The Chorus, which consisted of twelve (later fifteen members), was an essential part of fifth century tragedy. The fact that they danced and sang ensured that they were both linked to cultic ←3 | 4→practice, and were able to provide great entertainment. While the Chorus may not always have revealed their position, their major function was to provide a collective response to what happened in the play, but they express very often ‘the experience of the excluded, the oppressed, and the vulnerable’.10 Yeats held that the Chorus alleviated the monotony of a Greek play’s concentration on a single idea, served to check the rapidity of the dialogue, and provided the emotion of multitude by calling up famous sorrows.11 Indeed Yeats uses a type of Chorus in The Shadowy Waters (sailors) and in Deirdre (musicians). As time went on, the importance of the Chorus lessened: in Aeschylus, the Chorus takes up about half the play, in Euripides about a quarter.

There was a large attendance at tragedies in fifth century Athens, probably about 15,000, and poor people may have been given a grant to attend from the Theoric fund; the amount of money involved was small, but was a powerful symbol of Athenian commitment to democracy. The bulk of the attendance consisted of adult male citizens, but foreigners and resident aliens (metics) also attended. Whether women attended is a hotly contested issue; the answer is that we do not know.12 Certain men had special seats at the theatre: the priest of Dionysus, magistrates, members of the Council (Boule). This disparate audience in Athens contrasts with that of the modern theatre: ‘In the main, it consists of persons who are extraordinarily well educated, whose incomes are very high, who are predominantly in the professions, and who are in their late youth or early middle age’.13

All in all, the tragedies of fifth century Athens were an integral part of the life of the community, the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ not being found before the Hellenistic period (321-31 BC). But it is striking that, while those tragedies may affirm the status quo in their society, they also consistently problematize important issues like war, feminism, and religion; as Croally says, ‘tragedy questions ideology’.14 Hence the Athenians deconstructed their own society before anyone else did. Which may help to explain the perennial popularity of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, copies of whose plays were placed in the state depositary at Athens in the 330s BC.


Another way in which Athenian tragedy of the fifth century BC differed to a significant degree from modern theatre is in its subject-matter, myth. In structuralist terms, mythology functions as a ←4 | 5→system of signs that imposes order on human experience and especially on conflict; in symbolist theory, myth represents structures considered to be universal, to be archetypes. Either way, these stories of Greek mythology – called by Wallace Stevens ‘the greatest piece of fiction’15 – remain perennially fascinating.

There were cogent reasons, negative and positive, for Athenian tragedians to make use of myth. A negative argument in favour of myth was that contemporary subjects could be dangerous. After the city of Miletus in Asia Minor, which had close ties with Athens, was destroyed by the Persians in 494 BC, the Athenian playwright Phrynichus wrote a tragedy called The Fall of Miletus. This was too close to the bone for the audience, who were very distressed by the city’s destruction, and burst into tears, with the result that Phrynichus was fined 1,000 drachmas (Herodotus 6.21). It is also worth noting that, although Athenian comedy regularly dealt with contemporary matters, Aristophanes was apparently prosecuted in 426 BC because his play Babylonians attacked local politicians. (The only extant tragedy dealing with contemporary events is The Persians of Aeschylus.)

Myth enjoyed two very important advantages over contemporary material: it made use of a distancing technique, and it was inherently flexible. Because the stories of myth are set in a distant, remote past they can be enlisted to comment in an oblique way on what is going on in the present, without appearing to do so. So Euripides’ tragedy The Trojan Women appears to deal with the Trojan war, but, since it was put on in Athens in 415 BC during the Peloponesian War, it clearly comments on that event. Similarly, in the modern world many playwrights who appropriate Greek myth do so with the intent of commenting on contemporary events – as Tom Paulin’s The Riot Act, based on Antigone, deals with Northern Ireland.

An equally important advantage of Greek myth is its flexibility: since there is no such thing as a definitive version of any Greek story, the dramatist is free to innovate, provided he maintains the invariant core: Oedipus must kill his father, marry his mother. In Euripides’ Medea, it is almost certain that the Athenian dramatist invented the murder of her children by Medea, thus adding greatly to the pathos and horror of the story. Greek tragedy often involves one author using the conflicts of myths in an individual way.

Extant Greek tragedy focuses almost entirely on four cycles of myth: 16 plays deal with the Trojan cycle, 6 plays with the Theban ←5 | 6→cycle, 4 plays with Herakles, and 4 plays with the legendary history of Athens; that is, 30 out of 31 plays. As Aristotle says (Poetics 1454), ‘tragedies are concerned with a few families’. While this may seem a very narrow canvas, in practice it has given us a large number of plays that are central to the European theatrical corpus.


In seeking to isolate the main characteristics of Athenian tragedy, we inevitably begin with the account of Aristotle in the Poetics, a work written between 367 and 322 BC that is less a treatise on aesthetics than a handbook on how to write a tragedy.16 For Aristotle, the action of the tragedy is paramount, and character is secondary; what happens is what counts. Aristotle holds that tragedy provides an ‘imitation’ (mimesis) of that action, or what is now termed ‘representation’; as Brecht says, tragedy offers ‘live representations of reported or invented happenings between human beings’.17 Often the action of the tragedy involves horrific incidents – Aristotle’s ‘scene of suffering’ – such as the suicide of Jocasta or the self-blinding of Oedipus in Sophocles’ King Oedipus.

Such incidents arise out of hamartia on the part of the protagonist, a word that denotes ‘a mistake’, an error; it cannot be too strongly stressed that hamartia does not mean ‘a fatal flaw’, a concept that has no place in Athenian tragedy.18 So in King Oedipus, Oedipus makes the mistake of marrying a woman old enough to be his mother (who was his mother), and of killing a man old enough to be his father (who was his father). (In Shakespearean tragedy, the tragic flaw is found by some critics: the ambition of Macbeth, the inaction of Hamlet, the jealousy of Othello; Father Butt (in reality Fr. Darlington) in Joyce’s Stephen Hero sees the moral of Othello as ‘an object lesson in the passion of jealousy’.19)

As the mistake(s) of the protagonist lead to horrific events, he may experience a realization of what his position actually is (anagnorisis), such knowledge underlining the highly cognitive nature of Athenian tragedy. That knowledge may also lead to an astonishing reversal of fortune for the tragic hero (peripeteia), which Aristotle holds should be from good fortune to bad. Hence in King Oedipus, when Oedipus realizes that he is the son of Laius and Jocasta, that he has committed parricide and incest, he changes from being a powerful king to being a blind nonentity.

In an early example of reception theory, Aristotle stated that the horrific incidents in Athenian tragedy arouse pity and fear in the ←6 | 7→spectator, and lead to the catharsis of these emotions. The spectator pities the suicide of Jocasta because she is subjectively innocent, and fears that he might be subjected to such a fate in the future. So for Aristotle, art is kinetic, as it was not for Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Portrait: though art, ‘The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing’.20 The meaning of catharsis when applied to tragedy is one of the most disputed issues in classical scholarship: it may denote ‘purgation’, or ‘purification’, or ‘intellectual clarification’. The meaning of ‘purification’ suggests the dross is removed from pity and fear. The meaning of ‘purgation’ suggests that aesthetic experience triumphs over emotions. But ‘intellectual clarification’21 has the great merit of fitting in with the stress on knowledge in Athenian tragedy.

Whatever the meaning of catharsis, it is clear that it involves for the spectator a form of pleasure; as Brecht says, catharsis ‘is a purification which is performed not only in a pleasurable way, but precisely for the purpose of pleasure’.22 The nature of this pleasure that the spectator takes in tragedy seems closely linked to Schadenfreude: he is pleased that horrific things are happening to someone else, and not to him; as Burke said, ‘I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others’.23 (Related to this is the fact that the spectator can readily bear in art what would be intolerable in real life.) A further Nietzschean form of Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the type of cosmic ruin that often ends tragedies, what Yeats memorably terms ‘God’s laughter at the shattering of the world’;24 here elements of sadism and the death-wish coalesce.


One further concept that Aristotle stresses – suffering – brings us close to the essence of tragedy, with Schopenhauer maintaining that ‘the presentation of a great misfortune is alone essential’ to tragedy.25 The essence of tragedy therefore chimes with the fact that suffering is pervasive in human life; as Adorno said, ‘The One and All that keeps rolling on to this day – with occasional breathing spells – would teleologically be the absolute of suffering’.26 Or as Hopkins puts it, when addressing a young child called Margaret, who is upset at the falling of leaves in the autumn: ‘It is the blight man was born for,/It is Margaret you mourn for’.27


X, 166
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (February)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. X, 166 pp

Biographical notes

Brian Arkins (Author)

Brian Arkins is Professor of Classics at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He was educated at Clongowes Wood College and at University College, Dublin, where he obtained an M.A. in Classics and a Ph.D. in Latin. He is the author of ten books of criticism, including three on Latin poetry, and several on Reception Studies: Builders of My Soul: Greek and Roman Themes in Yeats; Greek and Roman Themes in Joyce; Hellenising Ireland: Greek and Roman Themes in Modern Irish Literature.


Title: Irish Appropriation of Greek Tragedy
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177 pages