The Purpose of Comedy & Tragedy in Greek Drama

By Debra Rigas ; Updated September 15, 2017
Greek drama was usually performed outdoors in great amphitheaters.

Between 600 and 300 B. C. E., Greece offered the world the foundations for what we see everywhere today in film, theater and television. Some authors say early songs and rites to Dionysus evolved into the more elaborate staged works by playwrights whose plots focused on the tragedies met by kings and gods, or the risings of lower classes to better outcomes through comedies. Not all tragedy is tragic and not all comedy is necessarily funny. But the overall goals in all drama typically satisfied the still-to-come Aristotelian rules for unity: action, place and time.

Brief History

Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are the named writers of Greek works, after Thespis had long before supposedly set things in motion to capture the essence of life in Greece. Characters could be commoners or gods, heroes or village folk; and the ever-present Greek Chorus anchored all stories with the one-voice "singing" the through line, or expounding upon any given situation or element of plot. All important was the story, or the procession through events, that either took the protagonist up or down the scale of highs and lows that he would face to reckon with his "demons," be they internal or external. Ego, illusion, vanity, purification and loss were countered with clowning and festivity in the dramatic forms we know as comedy and drama. As the forms evolved, audiences and critics helped shape the success of any play. Many of the greatest works are still performed worldwide in modern day theaters, as well as Greek or Greek-style amphitheaters.

Tragedy

There are many "camps" and theories regarding purpose and roots of Greek tragedy, and if you were to read them all, you would likely glean several things: tragic roots in Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey"; the relationship of characters to their imagined place in the world; philosophies regarding life, death and the after-life; control issues and power struggles; how to avoid or resolve suffering by making wise choices. In three of Sophocles' works, title characters Antigone, Oedipus and Electra all suffer hugely at the ego level, or learn "a life lesson" too late. In Euripides' "Medea," the main character makes horrible decisions, founded on jealousy that is confused with love and rooted in fear. In "The Persians," Aeschylus shows the core of tyranny though it may have left Greeks filled with pride. Religious themes, theologies, dualism and the clash between man and man or man and ideology are woven through many of the tragic works. While playwrights may have had ulterior wisdom or mystery teachings as a subtle guise, entertainment and winning prizes seemed more obvious reasons for writing the perfect tragic play.

Comedy

Aristophanes wrote about 40 comedies, most of which dealt with political and social issues of the day in a somewhat crude and mocking manner. Memorable works include "The Frogs," "The Knights," "The Clouds," "The Wasps." In his "The Birds," fantasy flocks are encouraged to create a new celestial city. In "Lysistrata," women fed up with war cut off sexual escapades with their mates. Social, political or otherwise, the humor of the situations among gods and creatures, men and wives made light of what might otherwise be confusing or intolerable life situations. Later, Menander came along, writing over 100 comedies focused on Athenian daily life. To these various situations, the average Athenian could relate, thus easing his daily discomforts by enjoying a comedy.

Purpose

The various purposes of expression of these ancient playwrights vary by detail and degree. Some are more subtle, others quite obvious in the dialogue or choruses, the poetry and word choices. Using funny visual concepts matched with silly discourses served to lighten the hearts and minds of the audience. Having Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow, "drop into" a scene in "The Birds" gave us the deus ex machina ("God from the machine") example, a plot device used in a number of these plays in which a seemingly unresolvable problem is fixed or changed by someone or something unexpected.

The tragedies may have a higher purpose, indirect or not, as these stories are useful tools for instruction on appropriate behavior and the ramifications of what happens when one doesn't "do right" or makes an error in direct opposition to those more in line with common (or religious) approval. Beyond simple morality issues, the complex characters of high kings, gods and so forth also offer means for reflection, discernment and revision of perception.

Tragedy gives us something about which to ruminate; comedy, something more toward release and freedom, keeping things light. One could argue comedy is a secret weapon for enlightenment.

Poetics

Aristotle's great work "Poetics" was written in 350 B. C. E. and is still studied by scholars and students of the arts and philosophy. Thespis, Homer, Aristotle and all the great playwrights of Greece gave us more than simple song and poetry. They gave us story. Humankind needs story as a way to remember, as a way to keep alive some semblance of existence, as a way to relate and reflect, as a way to learn and as a way to feel a timeless part of the greater mystery of life. Life without story, in poems, plays, novels and films, would be quite dull. And the Greeks were among the first to recognize that, dedicated as they were to sharing the poetics of life.

About the Author

Debra J. Rigas, a professional writing coach, has been a writer and editor since 1975. She is the author of the nonfiction book "Everyone's A Guru" and has edited novels ("The Woman Pope") and worked in arts and sciences as a filmmaker, boat captain, landscaper, counselor, theater administrator and licensed midwife.