The Structure of Greek Tragedy: An Overview
|May 20, 2020||Filled under Featured, Tutorial||
There are different terms for different parts of a Greek drama, some of which modern scholars took from Aristotle and other ancient drama critics.
The typical structure of an Ancient Greek tragedy is a series of alternating dialogue and choral lyric sections. (There are exceptions, and technical divisions naturally do not explain intellectual and emotional “soft power” aspects of a great Greek tragedy.)
The dialogue sections are in typically speechverse, usually iambic trimeters or, less often, trochaic tetrameters (more on these two meters below, in an overview of meter)—but sometimes there are other meters in dialogue sections, such as short subsections in meters associated with lyric poetry. The choral lyric sections are found in a variety of traditional meters, some of which bulk large in surviving Ancient Greek lyric poetry such as Pindar’s victory odes and the lyric poetry of Sappho and Alcaeus. (More on lyric meters in tragedy below in the overview of meter.)
The Prologue, or opening speech, introduces the situation and theme, typically a soliloquy or dialogue in iambic trimeters. It may be followed by a transitional section (in speechverse and/or lyric meter) which transitions into the first major choral song verse section in lyric meters, the Parodos. The Parodos (the Chorus’ “way on/way to”) is the name of this first song (or song sequence) of the Chorus which is delivered presumably sung or chanted as the Chorus makes its entrance into the “orchestra” (the pit in front of the proscenium, or stage from which the individual actors hold forth).
Exodos (“way out”—the Greek word from which we get the modern word “exodus”) is the matching term for exit of the chorus, all that is said, sung, or done by the Chorus and the characters left on stage after the Chorus’ last stasimon.
The intermediate choral sections are usually termed stasima (that is the neuter plural adjective inflected as a neuter adjective that functions as a noun, the singular is stasimon, τὸ στάσιμον “the stationary”)—to answer “stationary what?” we can understand an unspoken neuter noun like melos [μέλος, “song, strain”] for the meaning “song sung while the Chorus is stationary, in place”).
So the structure in many tragedies runs on the pattern:
- Parodos (an Ancient Greek term (ἡ πάροδος, from παρά [para], meaning—among other things— “by, beside, alongside,” and ὁδος, [hodos] “way”) which has general meanings in Greek, but also technical meanings (as set out in Liddell-Scott-Jones’ lexicon) including (a) the first entrance of the chorus in a drama and (b) the first choral section of a drama.)
- First Episode (Greek ἐπείσοδιον [epeisodion] another word with general meaning, but in discussing drama a technical meaning referring to a dialogue section in a drama between choral songs. An Episode may include several character entrances and exits (distinguish the modern drama concepts of Acts and Scenes.)
- First Stasimon
- Second Episode
- Second Stasimon
- Second Episode
- Third Stasimon
- Third Episode
- Fourth Stasimon
- Fourth Episode
Some tragedies, including two early surviving tragedies of Aeschylus (Persians of 472 BCE and Supplices—“Suppliants”—of 463 BCE), dispense with the Prologue, but the Prologue seems to be a permanent fixture of Greek tragedy by the 450’s.
This number of Episodes and Stasima (four each) is not obligatory. The content of the tragedy will naturally have shaped the form. A minority of surviving tragedies have only three Episodes and Stasima (including Stasima substitutes); at least Euripides’ Phoenissae and (in my view) Iphigenia at Aulis include a fifth Episode and fifth Stasimon (including Stasimon substitutes a heavy, emotionally charged lyric aria and duet, after the Chorus delivers five lines reflecting on what has happened and what was just reported by a second messenger, a lyric monody of Antigone and duet of Antigone and Oedipus that easily stands in for a fifth Stasimon). Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis also, in this writer’s view, has a fifth Episode and weighty monody of the main character, Iphigenia, substituting for a choral stasimon, before the Chorus’ Exodos. In these cases of late Euripidean lyrics voiced before a silent Chorus, one may hear a “sound of silence” from the Chorus.
Sometimes a Kommos is added to a Stasimon without intervening Episode; other times a Kommos (or Threnos—”lament”—or lyric Amoibaion—”exchange” other than Kommos—may stand in for a Stasimon. Other types of lyric sections may separate Episodes or separate the last Episode from the Exodos.
Usually the dividing line between dialogue and choral-song sections is clear, but sometimes the lines are blurred. A break between Episodes may be marked by a character’s monody or characters’ duet in choral lyrics, rather than by the Chorus’ expected Stasimon. A good example of this variation, essentially reversing the roles of Chorus and characters, is Iphigenia at Aulis 1276–1337, a logical place for a Stasimon, in which Clytemnestra and Iphigenia chant or sing lyric verses and the Chorus caps off the set piece with comment in two iambic trimeters.
This overview of the formal structural elements of Ancient Greek tragedy defers to commentaries and other intensive treatments of individual tragedies for less technically set structural aspects of Ancient Greek tragedy such as overall trajectories of plot, character, characterization, thematic development and emotional content. Aristotle addressed and attempted to classify these aspects in other chapters of the Poetics and, whatever their value as to appreciation of any given tragedy’s actual text, those concepts (such as plot devices anagnorisis—“recognition”—peripeteia—“reversal”) are useful for an understanding of what an Ancient Greek audience would have expected in a tragedy or trilogy of tragedies. The formal elements given by Aristotle in Chapter 12 of the Poetics help one understand those other most important features of specific Ancient Greek tragedies. Each drama should be read and appreciated as a “single and whole” piece, as Aristotle suggests, but it aids understanding of individual dramas to have an overview of these common structural features of most or virtually all Ancient Greek tragedies.
Meter is the rhythm of the speech and the song. The more you get into it, the more you feel how the meters are in touch with the feelings of the characters and their actions and their words. Here are a couple of examples.
Iambic trimeter is often used for spoken dialogue. The most basic pattern is u_u_ (short-long short-long, or da-DUM-da-DUM) repeated three times in the line, but there is some variation: for example the first short can be long instead (the first syllable of a Greek iamb being capable of being either long or short, is technically termed “anceps” (a Latin word meaning “facing two directions”, or undecided), and sometimes two shorts can take the place of a long. A beginning learner who attempts to scan each iambic trimeter (or other meter) encountered will soon get the feeling for the rhythm.
Note where word end is in the middle of an iambic metrum (“measure”), often after the first syllable of the second iamb of the trimeter. That’s felt as a caesura (Latin for “cut”), which is one device the poets use to break up the line’s potential for falling into a sing-song repetitive pattern. A vertical line ( | ) is the symbol for a caesura (in lyric meters vertical lines are used to mark the ends of cola (or lines)). So the shape of an ordinary iambic trimeter is:
X_u_ X | _u_ X_u_|
The last syllable can be what is called brevis in longo, “short in place of a long”. It too could be marked with a vertical line, but more often in analyses of iambic trimeters the last syllable of the line with the anceps sign (“X”), since the practical effect is virtually the same: X_u_ X|_u_ X_uX
The Greek iambic trimeter is an acatalectic verse, acatalectic meaning a verse that does not take away a syllable at the end of the line: all three trimeter metra are completely used in this acatalectic meter.
Catalectic: trochaic tetrameter
Another important speechverse is the catalectic (catalectic, meaning a syllable is left off at the end) trochaic tetrameter. A Greek trochaic metrum has the form _u_X (long-short-long-anceps, DUM-da-DUM-da, or sometimes DUM-da-DUM-DUM). The trochaic tetrameter is a close relative of the iambic trimeter.
If you add a Cretic (_u_, long-short-long, DUM-da-DUM) before an iambic trimeter, you get a catalectic trochaic tetrameter: _u_X _|u_X _|u_X _u_| (or, in the anceps “brevis in longo” notation _u_X _|u_X _uX). (There may be more than one caesura in a line. The most common places for the main caesura in a trochaic tetrameter lines are not the same as where they would be in the part of the tetrameter that is shaped like an iambic trimeter according to the longs and shorts, but I have found learners who initially had trouble scanning tetrameters had no trouble with them when they checked their scansion against the cretic+iambic-trimeter test as a counter check.)
Parodos: anapests or spondees
Some scholars refer to the poetry and choral songs delivered by the chorus (or, as sometimes happens, the chorus in dialogue with individual characters in the drama delivering their lines in choral meters), the sections of a given drama, generally as cantica, from Latin, but parodos is the Ancient Greek term for the section of the drama delivered at the chorus’ first entrance.
The parodos is often delivered, at least for a stretch, in anapests, with basic metrum pattern uu_ (short-short-long, or da-da-DUM). Routinely dactyls (long-short-short, or DUM-da-da) or Spondees (long-long, or DUM-DUM) are substituted for anapests in the anapestic dimeter (line, or colon, of two anapests), the typical meter of the Chorus’ entrance (if not the whole parodos, the first part of the parodos).
Aeolic meters: choriambus, glyconic, pherecratean
Another important metrum is the choriambus _ u u _ (long-short-short-long, or DUM-da-da-DUM) which seems to me a wonderful rhythm to dance to. It is a major fixture in most of the Aeolic meters of Greek tragedy and Aeolic lyric poetry generally.
One might begin learning the Aeolic meters by studying a stasimon, like the second stasimon of Euripides, Herakles (vv. 637–72), that contains a number of Aeolic cola (choriambic dimeters, glyconics, paroemiacs, and pherecrateans).
Like some other Aeolic cola, glyconics and pherecrateans have the “Aeolic base” (two syllables, usually marked “x x”, either of which syllables can be long or short, but if one is long the other is usually short) on the left side of the choriambus and a different extension of the line to the right (in the case of the glyconic u_ (short-long, “da-DUM”), in the case of the pherecratean just a single long), so there you have two Aeolic cola frequently encountered separately and strung together in sequence:
Pherecratean: xx_uu_ _
In the referenced stasimon of Euripides, Herakles, we have a matching strophe and antistrophe, each of which end in a sequence of five glyconics capped off by a single pherecratean. The two longs at the end of the pherecratean make it a good strophe, antistrophe, or other stanza ending.
Further study and reading
There are several other basic systems of lyric meters with different metrical cola that, with practice, students can easily feel and understand common features and interrelationships as well as different rhythmic and emotional characters.
For further reading and study, I especially recommend:
A.M. Dale, The Lyric Metres of Greek Drama, Second Edition (Cambridge University Press 1968, first paperback printing 2010)
M.L. West, Greek Metre (Oxford at the Clarendon Press 1982, reprinted for Sandpiper Books Ltd 1996)
1 An online version is available at Perseus:
Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. revised and augmented throughout by. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. with the assistance of. Roderick McKenzie. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1940.
2 In this case as Donald J. Mastronarde persuasively argues in his 1994 Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries 29, p. 511,n.1.
3 This and the other relatively set parts of Attic tragedies are given in Aristotle, Poetics, chapter 12, Bekker p.1452b14ff. Aristotle names the basic parts as Prologos, Parodos, Epeisodion, Stasimon, and Exodos. Aristotle mentions another, optional, element—the Kommos, an antiphonal lament delivered by the chorus in the orchestra and actors on the stage.
4 Available online at Perseus:
5 The first verse of Pindar’s First Olympian Epinikion, a good memory verse, is composed of a glyconic plus a phercratean. Available online at Perseus:
plusgood: Nafplio, Greece, Ancient Epidaurus Theatre Site
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, via Wikimedia Commons
Image and texts accessed May 2020.
Jack Vaughan is a Texas attorney; he was educated in the US and Europe, and has been an active member of the Kosmos Society since the conclusion of HeroesX v2 (January 2014).