I love Shakespeare just as much as the next person, and I’ve read Tennessee Williams. I enjoy reading plays for many reasons—there’s plenty of drama, they take only about an hour and a half to read (unless it’s King Lear), there’s lots of fun characters. But while I take great pleasure in reading “modern” plays—such as Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It—my heart ultimately belongs to classical literature. Greek and Roman, that’s where it’s at, and mostly Greek, if you’re talking about plays.
The three most famous Greek playwrights are Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. These three men wrote mostly tragedies that often occurred as trilogies. Back in Greece many, many years ago, these plays were performed at festivals, the best play winning a prestigious award. These plays featured stories from mythology and Greece’s history (or supposed history, but really mythology as well). Not all of the plays survived, but if you’re interested in trying some Greek tragedies, I recommend the collections translated by Richmond Lattimore and David Grene. And if you don’t know where to start, here are three of my favorite Greek tragedies (in no particular order):
The Trojan Women by Euripides
This play takes place at the end of the Trojan War, after the Greeks have won. It centers around the Trojan women who have been taken captive after the city fell, including Hecuba, Andromache, Polyxena, Cassandra, and a chorus of other women. While there is no climatic action in this play, but there is plenty of drama and pathos. The audience learns the fate of each of these captive women; some to be slaves of the Greek leaders and others to die. Hecuba, the queen of Troy, is the primary character, weeping and bemoaning her suffering in many excellently written lines.
- Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides
This play takes place at the beginning of the Trojan War, before the Greeks have set sail for Troy. The army is grounded at Aulis as the goddess Artemis holds back the winds after Agamemnon killed a deer in her sacred grove. In order to sail to Troy, Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess. He sends for her under the pretense that she is to marry Achilles, Greece’s best warrior. Iphigenia arrives with her mother Clytemnestra, only to discover her father’s real plans for her.
This play, like The Trojan Women, is also loaded with pathos. Agamemnon wavers between his love for his daughter and his inability to protect her from the insidious plans of the Greek army, led by Odysseus. Clytemnestra and Iphigenia both eloquently plead with Agamemnon, but there is nothing he can do, and in the end Iphigenia goes nobly to her death. This play highlights the inner turmoil and conflicts in Agamemnon, but it also represents the turning point for Clytemnestra’s character as she changes from a dutiful wife to a devious murderer.
- Medea by Euripides
This play has nothing to do with the Trojan War. Rather, it is about Medea, the wife of Jason (of the Argonauts) after he found the Golden Fleece, which he only obtained with Medea’s help. Jason and Medea are married with children, but Medea learns that Jason is planning to take a new bride, and she goes to drastic measure to seek revenge.
You’ll notice several trends in all of my choices: drama/pathos, complex characters, strong yet slightly sadistic women, character-driven plots. These are elements that I think make Greek tragedies great plays. It certainly keeps them from being boring.
If you’re looking for action, you’ll have to read Homer’s Iliad, where scores of people die on each page (though there is plenty of killing in the plays). But if you’re someone who likes complex characters with intense inner struggles, then the Greek tragedies are for you. I really like Lattimore and Grene’s translations. The lines capture the essence of the Greek while maintaining its flow and poeticism. And if you ever have a chance to see a live production of one of these plays, do it. It is a totally different experience than watching Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams.