By Sophocles (497-405 BC)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Mythology Background
Role of the Chorus
Sophoclean Tragedy
Plot Summary
Glossary of Greek Drama
Greek Theater
Biography of Sophocles
Complete Text at MIT
Index of Study Guides

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 1999
Revised and Enlarged in 2011.©
Type of Work

.......Electra is a stage tragedy written by Sophocles in about 410 BC. 

.......The action takes place in the ancient Greek city of Mycenae several years after the Trojan War. 

Mythology Background
.......Electra was the daughter of Agamemnon, a Greek king who became general of the Greek armies when Greece declared war on Troy. When Agamemnon's fleet gathered at the Greek port city of Aulis to debark for Troy, the Olympian goddess Artemis—offended that Agamemnon had killed an animal sacred to her—stilled the winds, making it impossible for Agamemnon and his armies to sail to Greece. The only way Agamemnon could gain favorable winds, Artemis decreed, was for him to sacrifice his young daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon did so and even gagged his daughter so that, with her last breath, she could not curse him for this deed. Her death enraged Agamemnon's wife, Queen Clytemnestra. 
.......After Artemis quickened the winds and Agamemnon sailed off to Troy, Clytemnestra never forgot what Agamemnon did. While he was fighting the Trojans, she took a lover, Aegisthus. Together, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus plotted Agamemnon's murder while he was fighting at Troy. When the Greeks at long last defeated the Trojans and Agamemnon returned home as a conquering hero, Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon. Electra, grieving over her father's death, thirsted for revenge against her mother. Meanwhile, to save her young brother—Agamemnon's heir—from the wrath of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, she sent him away. Years later, he returned to Mycenae with one thought on his mind: to avenge his father's death. 


Electra: Daughter of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and general of the Greek armies during the Trojan War. He was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, after he returned from the Trojan War. (See Mythology Background, above.) Electra seeks to avenge her father's death. She is the protagonist.
Clytemnestra: Murderer of her husband, Agamemnon. 
Orestes: Brother of Electra. Like Electra, he seeks to avenge the death of Agamemnon. 
Chrysothemis: Electra's sister. Unlike Electra, she has no burning desire for vengeance against Clytemnestra. She would rather forget the past and accommodate herself to her mother and Aegisthus as rulers of Mycenae. 
Aegisthus: Lover of Clytemnestra. 
Paedogogus (Teacher): Old man who is the attendant and teacher of Orestes.
Chorus of Women of Mycenae
Pylades: Son of the king of Crisa.
Handmaiden of Clytemnestra

Role of the Chorus

.......Among the roles of the chorus in Electra are the following:

  • To explain and interpret the action.
  • To serve as an actor in the play.
  • To sing and/or dance.
  • To present the author's views and/or to support or criticize characters.
Characteristics of Sophoclean Tragedy

.......A tragedy of Sophocles, as well as other Greek playwrights, is a verse drama written in elevated language in which a noble protagonist falls to ruin during a struggle caused by a flaw (hamartia) in his or her character, such as pride (hubris), or an error in his or her rulings or judgments. A Greek tragedy has the following characteristics:

  • It is based on events that already took place. The audience is familiar with these events. 
  • The protagonist (main character) is a person of noble birth and stature. (Electra is the daughter of a king.)
  • The protagonist has a weakness and, because of it, becomes isolated and suffers a downfall. 
  • Because the protagonist's fall is not entirely his or her own fault, the audience may end up pitying him or her. 
  • The fallen protagonist gains self-knowledge. He or she has a deeper insight into himself and understands his weakness. This characteristic may not apply to the protagonist Electra.
  • The audience undergoes catharsis, a purging of emotions, after experiencing pity, fear, shock and other strong feelings. The people go away feeling better. 
  • The drama usually unfolds in one place in a short period of time, generally about one day. 
Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings..© 1999, 2011
.......Early one morning, Orestes returns to his native land, Mycenae, from Crisa. He is the son of the late king of Mycenae, Agamemnon. His mother, Clytemnestra, had murdered Agamemnon years before with the help of her lover, Aegisthus. To see that no harm came to Orestes, Agamemnon's heir, Electra—one of Orestes' sisters—had sent him to Crisa to be reared by his uncle, King Strophius. 
.......Now back in Mycenae as a young adult, only one thought occupies Orestes' mind: to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, as revenge for her murder of Agamemnon, his father. Accompanying Orestes are his faithful old attendant, a paedagogus (teacher), along with his boyhood friend from Crisa—Pylades, the son of King Strophius.To better plan his revenge, Orestes disguises himself as a Phocian (a Greek who resided in Phocis, north of the Gulf or Corinth). He tells his old attendant to carry word to the palace that he was killed in a spectacular chariot race and that men will arrive soon with an urn bearing the ashes of Orestes. Then he goes to the grave of his father to make an offering. 
.......Meanwhile, Electra continues to lament the death of her father, even after so many years. Her only friends are gloom and melancholy—and an unquenchable thirst for justice and revenge. While Orestes is at the grave site, Electra comes out of the palace and says, 
O house of Hades and Persephone, 
O Hermes of the abyss, and thou, dread Curse, 
And ye Erinyes, daughters of the gods, 
Ye dreaded ones, who look 
On all who perish, slain unrighteously, 
On all whose bed is stealthily defiled, 
Come ye, and help avenge my father's death; 
Send me my brother here.
.......A chorus of virgins from the palace commiserates with her as she bemoans her endless sorrow and yearns for the return of Orestes to avenge their father's death.
Her younger sister, Chrysothemis, comes out of the palace and urges Electra to forget the past and accept the status quo, noting that "our rulers must be obeyed in all things." Electra replies, "Strange indeed, that thou, the daughter of such a sire as thine, shouldst forget him, and think only of thy mother! All thy admonitions to me have been taught by her; no word is thine own."
.......The leader of the chorus urges them to be at peace with each other. Chrysothemis then says her advice to her sister was intended to preserve her for harm, explaining that Aegisthus and Clytemnestra plan to confine her in a dungeon far away—never again to see sunlight—unless she ceases her lamentations for her father. Electra, however, says she will not yield to the will of her mother and Aegisthus.
.......Chrysothemis then tells Electra that Clytemnestra has had a bad dream.
'Tis said that she beheld our sire [Agamemnon], restored to the sunlight, at her side once more; then he took the sceptre,—once his own, but now borne by Aegisthus,—and planted it at the hearth; and thence a fruitful bough sprang upward, wherewith the whole land of Mycenae was overshadowed. Such was the tale that I heard told by one who was present when she declared her dream to the Sun-god. 
In fear, Clytemnestra told Chrysothemis to take an offering the grave of Agamemnon to appease his spirit. Electra tells her to ignore their mother's instructions and instead to go to the grave and pray for the return of Orestes.
.......Later, Electra feuds with her mother, whom she loathes more than any other human being. Clytemnestra attempts to justify the murder of her husband, saying she killed Agamemnon because he killed their daughter, Iphigenia. Was it not right for a mother to exact justice for the murder of her innocent daughter? Was not Agamemnon guilty beyond redemption for sacrificing Iphigenia, his own flesh and blood? There is a measure of truth in Clytemnestra’s words, and Electra well knows it. Nevertheless, after Electra’s desire for justice yields to her desire for revenge after years of agonized rumination, she rejects her mother’s defense and indicts her as a ruthless killer and a traitor to her husband’s bed. 
.......When Electra receives news of the death of Orestes, she breaks down, saying,
Ah, memorial of him whom I loved best on earth! Ah, Orestes, whose life hath no relic left save this,- how far from the hopes with which I sent thee forth is the manner in which I receive thee back! Now I carry thy poor dust in my hands; but thou wert radiant, my child, when I sped thee forth from home! Would that I had yielded up my breath, ere, with these hands, I stole thee away, and sent thee to a strange land, and rescued thee from death; that so thou mightest have been stricken down on that self-same day, and had thy portion in the tomb of thy sire! 
Life seems only to deal Electra tragedy upon tragedy; first her father, struck down ruthlessly by her mother and her lover; now Orestes, killed in a chariot accident. 
She was counting on Orestes to kill hated Clytemnestra and her lover and partner in murder, Aegisthus, who dared to ascend Agamemnon’s throne. Orestes, still in disguise, questions her about her treatment in the palace. 
ORESTES...Who is it that subjects thee to this constraint? 
ELECTRA...A mother-in name, but no mother in her deeds. 
ORESTES...How doth she oppress thee? With violence or with hardship? 
ELECTRA...With violence, and hardships, and all manner of ill. 
.......Then—seeing how distraught Electra is—Orestes decides to reveal himself to her, showing her the signet ring of Agamemnon. It is proof that he is Orestes. Electra, overcome with joy, says, "O blissful day!"
.......Then they plot and carry out double murder. When Orestes stabs Clytemnestra, Electra urges him on even as her mother begs for pity. “Stab her doubly, if you can!” she tells Orestes as he wields his knife. Moments later, after Aegisthus returns to the palace from business elsewhere, Orestes parades him to the very spot where Agamemnon was killed and—although the play does not explicitly describe what happens—kills him. The chorus then proclaims that the children of Agamemnon have achieved freedom. Justice has been done.



.......The main theme of Electra is revenge. Electra seeks revenge against Clytemnestra just as Clytemnestra sought revenge against Agamemnon. Electra's brother, Orestes, returns to Crisa with one thought on his mind: revenge. Sophocles establishes the theme of revenge in the opening lines of the play, when Orestes' elderly servant and teacher tells him, "I carried thee of yore [away] from the slaying of thy father, as thy kinswoman, thy sister, charged me; and saved thee, and reared thee up to manhood to be the avenger of thy murdered sire."
.......Electra's obsession with revenge is so excessive that it dominates all her thoughts and actions, turning her into a bloodthirsty madwoman. When Orestes comes for Aegisthus, Electra says, "Kill him as quickly as you can, and throw his corpse to the creatures with whom his kind should have burial, throw it far from our sight! For in my eyes this alone can bring us release from the misery of the past." Electra triumphs at the end, but her triumph has morally corrupted her. 

Flawed Justice

.......Besides desiring revenge, Electra wants justice—an eye for an eye. The leader of the chorus supports her and predicts, "If I am not an erring seer and one who fails in wisdom, justice . . . will come, triumphant in her righteous strength,—will come ere long, my child, to avenge." Before it comes in the person of Orestes, Clytemnestra tells Electra, 

Thy father . . .  was slain by me. Yes, by me—I know it well; it admits of no denial; for justice slew him, and not I alone,—justice,. . . This father of thine, whom thou art ever lamenting, was the one man of the Greeks who had the heart to sacrifice thy sister to the gods—he, the father, who had not shared the mother's pangs.
It is easy to see that Electra and Clytemnestra, as well as Orestes, can all claim justice as an ally. But when they themselves become the judges, juries, and executioners, there is no justice. Whether Sophocles intended to deliver this message in the play is arguable. But one can nevertheless conclude that the play calls attention to the need for an impartial system of justice in civilized society. 

Headstrong Action vs Caution and Compromise

.......Chrysothemis continually implores Electra to use caution and prudence and even to compromise and accept the new rulers. She tells Electra, 

Now whither canst thou have turned thine eyes, that thou art arming thyself with such rashness, and calling me to aid thee? Seest thou not, thou art a woman, not a man, and no match for thine adversaries in strength? And their fortune prospers day by day, while ours is ebbing and coming to nought. Who, then, plotting to vanquish a foe so strong, shall escape without suffering deadly scathe? See that we change not our evil plight to worse, if any one hears these words. It brings us no relief or benefit, if, after winning fair fame, we die an ignominious death; for mere death is not the bitterest, but rather when one who wants to die cannot obtain even that boon. 
But Electra is firm in her resolve to kill Aegisthus and Clytemnestra—the sooner, the better. 


.......The climax of the play occurs when Orestes, goaded by Electra, kills Clytemnestra.


.......It is supremely ironic that Electra ends up doing what her mother did—killing a family member ostensibly to avenge an earlier death. 


.......Stichomythia consists of brief, alternating lines of dialogue spoken in rapid-fire succession. It occurs frequently in Greek drama, especially when characters are arguing or expressing strong emotions. The passage occurs just after Chrysothemis warns Electra that Aegisthus and Clytemnestra plan to cast Electra into a dungeon if she does not cease lamenting the death of Agamemnon. 

ELECTRA...Have they indeed resolved to treat me thus?
CHRYSOTHEMIS...Assuredly, whenever Aegisthus comes home.
ELECTRA...If that be all, then may he arrive with speed!
CHRYSOTHEMIS...Misguided one! what dire prayer is this?
ELECTRA...That he may come, if he hath any such intent.
CHRYSOTHEMIS...That thou mayst suffer- what? Where are thy wits?
ELECTRA...That I may fly as far as may be from you all.
CHRYSOTHEMIS...But hast thou no care for thy present life?
ELECTRA...Aye, my life is marvellously fair.
CHRYSOTHEMIS...It might be, couldst thou only learn prudence.
ELECTRA...Do not teach me to betray my friends.
CHRYSOTHEMIS...I do not,- but to bend before the strong.
ELECTRA...Thine be such flattery: those are not my ways.
CHRYSOTHEMIS...Tis well, however, not to fall by folly.
ELECTRA...I will fall, if need be, in the cause of my sire.
CHRYSOTHEMIS...But our father, I know, pardons me for this.
ELECTRA...It is for cowards to find peace in such maxims.
CHRYSOTHEMIS...So thou wilt not hearken, and take my counsel?
ELECTRA...No, verily; long may be it before I am so foolish.
Biography of Sophocles

......Although Sophocles died more than twenty-four centuries ago, he continues to live today in his plays as one of history's greatest writers. His themes–justice, pride, obstinacy, flawed humanity, and the struggle between destiny and free will–are as timely today as they were in his own time. Aristotle lauded Sophocles as the supreme dramatist, maintaining that Oedipus the King was a model for all playwrights to imitate.
......Sophocles was born a mile northwest of Athens in the deme (township) of Colonus between 497 and 495 B.C. Because his father, Sophillus, shared in the profits of a successful family weapons and armor manufactory, Sophocles was a child of advantage, enjoying the comforts of the privileged and receiving an education that undergirded his natural talents. He studied poetry, dance, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, law, athletics, and military tactics. He also studied music and became accomplished at playing the cithara, a stringed instrument resembling the lyre of the harp family.
......In spite of his aristocratic background and entitlements, Sophocles was a man of the people: kindly, generous, popular. Fellow Athenians esteemed him highly throughout his life. That he was quite handsome may have helped bolster his popularity. 
......Sophocles earned his entry into the Athenian literary world with a play entitled Triptolemus, which does not survive. He used it in 468 to defeat another outstanding dramatist, Aeschylus, in a writing competition. Competing plays were performed in a theater dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. Sophocles went on to win about two dozen more drama awards against Aeschylus and other extraordinary writers. It is said that he sometimes acted in plays. On one occasion, he reportedly presented a juggling act that dazzled the audience. 
Sophocles' Innovations
......Until Sophocles' time, dramatists wrote tragedies three at a time. The second play continued the action of the first, and the third play continued the action of the second. The entire three-play series of tragedies was called a trilogy. Sophocles broke with tradition by writing single plays that stood alone as dramatic units. Ajax is an example of a stand-alone Sophocles play. The Oedipus series of plays (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone) is not technically a trilogy (although sometimes referred to as one) because the plays were written years apart as single units. 
......Sophocles also emphasized people more than his predecessors, taking characters in well-known plots from mythology and dressing them up as real human beings with noble but complex personalities vulnerable to pride and flawed judgment. Audiences in ancient Athens did not go to a Sophocles play to be entertained by a plot with a surprise ending. They already knew the ending. They went to a Sophocles play to see how the characters reacted to the forces working for or against them—mostly against. Thus, Sophocles' plays required superb writing and characterization to hold the interest of the audience. 
......In portraying his characters, Sophocles raised irony to high art, making the characters unwitting victims of fate or their own shortcomings. The irony was both verbal (with characters speaking words laden with meaning unknown to them) and dramatic (with characters ensnaring themselves in predicaments charged with danger that they do not recognize but that the audience well knows will lead to disaster). The audience knew, for example, what Oedipus did not know (until the end of Oedipus the King): that the man he killed and the woman he married were his father and mother. This type of dramatic irony occurs often in Sophocles' plays, allowing the audience to become engrossed with a character's response to a situation rather than the eventual outcome of the situation. 
......Another of Sophocles' innovations was an increase in the number of actors in plays from two to three, presenting more opportunities to contrast characters and create foils. He also introduced painted scenery, enhanced costuming, and fixed the number of persons in the chorus at 15. The chorus also diminished in importance; it was the actors who mattered. 
......"The key to his work was provided by Matthew Arnold in the phrase to the effect that Sophocles possessed an 'even-balanced soul,' " drama critic John Gassner wrote in Masters of the Drama (New York: Random House, 1954, Page 42). "He comprehended both the joy and grief of living, its beauty and ugliness, its moments of peace and its basic uncertainty so concisely expressed by his line 'Human life, even in its utmost splendor and struggle, hangs on the edge of an abyss.' "
......Sophocles' handling of human tragedy was influenced, in part, by the tragedies of war. During his lifetime he had witnessed the devastating Persian and Peloponnesian wars and even participated in a war when he served as a general with Pericles to quell rebellion on Samos, an Aegean island.
......Besides military duty, Sophocles served as a city treasurer, helping to control the money of the Delian Confederacy of states. He also served as member of a governing council and as a priest in the service of Asclepius, the god of medicine, to whom he was especially devoted. Well into old age, he remained productive in civic activities and writing. He wrote Oedipus at Colonus, for example, when he was over 90. It was that play which saved him from a charge of mental incompetence brought by his sons. According to ancient accounts by Cicero and Plutarch, when Sophocles appeared in court, he read from Oedipus at Colonus, which he was working on at that time. So impressed were the members of the jury that they acquitted him, apparently realizing that only a man fully in charge of his faculties could write such beautiful words. Sophocles died about 405. He and his wife, Nicostrate, had a son, Iophon, who was also a tragedian. Sophocles and his mistress, Theoris of Sicyon, had a child named Agathon. Agathon was the father of Sophocles the Younger, also a writer.

Above: Public domain image of Sophocles from Widimedia Commons

Glossary of Greek Drama

Agon: a debate between characters in a play. For example, in The Clouds, a comedy staged in 423 B.C. by Aristophanes, two teachers at a thinking shop operated by Socrates debate the validity of traditional values and logical reasoning (which Aristophanes supports) vs the new ideas and deceptive reasoning of philosophers known as sophists. 
Anagnorisis Startling discovery; moment of epiphany; time of revelation when a character discovers his true identity. Anagnorisis occurs in Oedipux Rex when Oedipus realizes who he is.
Antagonist Chief opponent of the protagonist in a Greek play. 
Attica Peninsula in southeastern Greece that included Athens. According to legend, the King of Athens, Theseus, unified 12 states in Attica into a single state dominated by Athenian leadership and the Athenian dialect of the Greek language. The adjective Attic has long been associated with the culture, language and art of Athens. The great period of Greek drama, between the Sixth and Fourth Centuries, B.C., is known as the Attic Period. Drama itself was invented by an Attic actor, Thespis, who introduced speaking parts to accompany choral odes.
Catastrophe Denouement (resolution) of a tragedy in the drama of ancient Greece.
Catharsis In literature and art, a purification of emotions. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) used the term to describe the effect on the audience of a tragedy acted out on a theater stage. This effect consists in cleansing the audience of disturbing emotions, such as fear and pity, thereby releasing tension. This purgation occurs as a result of either of the following reactions: (1) Audience members resolve to avoid conflicts of the main character–for example, Oedipus in Oedipus Rex and Creon in Antigone–that arouse fear or pity or (2) audience members transfer their own pity and fear to the main character, thereby emptying themselves of these disquieting emotions. In either case, the audience members leave the theater as better persons intellectually, morally, or socially. They have either been cleansed of fear of pity or have vowed to avoid situations that arouse fear and pity. In modern usage, catharsis may refer to any experience, real or imagined, that purges a person of negative emotions. 
Chorus Bystanders in a Greek play who present odes on the action. A parode (or parados) is a song sung by the chorus when it enters. A stasimon is a song sung during the play, between episodes of action. The chorus generally had the following roles in the plays of Sophocles and other Greek playwrights: (1) to explain the action, (2) to interpret the action in relation to the law of the state and the law of the Olympian gods, (3) to foreshadow the future, (4) to serve as an actor in the play,  (5) to sing and/or dance, and (6) to give the author's views. In some ways, the chorus is like the narrator of a modern film or like the background music accompanying the action of the film. In addition, it is like text on the film screen that provides background information or identifies the time and place of the action. On occasion, the chorus may address the audience, as in the revised version of The Clouds, by Aristophanes.
Chalmys Short, sleeveless outer garment, or cloak, worn by some actors in a play of ancient Greece.
Cothurni (singular, cothurnus): Boots worn by actors in ancient Greece to increase their height and, thus, visibility to theater audiences. Singular: cothurnus.
Denouement Outcome or conclusion of a literary work; the final part of a plot. The denouement occurs after the climax.
Dialogue Conversation between characters in a play. 
Drama: Literary work with dialogue written in verse and spoken by actors playing characters experiencing conflict and tension. In Greek drama, a play often derives its plot from stories from history or mythology. The English word drama comes from the Greek word "dran," meaning "to do."
Dramatic irony Failure of a character to see or understand what is obvious to the audience. Oedipus, for example, was unaware early on of what the audience knew: that he was married to his own mother, Jocasta. 
Dionysia See Dionysus
Dionysus Patron god of Greek drama; god of wine and vegetation. Dionysus, called Bacchus by the Romans, was the son of Zeus and one of the most important of the Greek gods. Dionysus died each winter and was reborn each spring, a cycle his Greek devotees identified with the death and rebirth of nature. He thus symbolized renewal and rejuvenation, and each spring the Greeks celebrated his resurrection with ceremonies that eventually included drama contests. The most prestigious of these festivals was the Greater Dionysia, held in Athens for five days and  participated in by playwrights such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Euripides. Festivals held in villages and small towns were called the Rural Dionysia. 
Dithyramb Choral hymn that praised Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, and sometimes told a story. In his great work Poetics, Aristotle wrote that dithyrambs inspired the development of Greek tragic plays, such as those of Sophocles. The first "play" supposedly took place in the 6th Century B.C. when Thespis, a member of a chorus, took the part of a character in a dithyramb. The action shifted back and forth between him and the chorus. See also thespian.
Emmelia Type of dance accompanying some odes.
Episode Scene or section of a play with dialogue. An episode may be compared with acts or scenes in a Shakespeare play. Episodes come between the odes sung by the chorus. The dialogue in an episode usually involves one or two characters and the chorus.
Exodos, or Exode Final scene of a play after the last stasimon
Greater Dionysia See Dionysus.
Hamartia Character flaw or judgment error of the protagonist of a Greek tragedy. Hamartia is derived the Greek word hamartanein, meaning to err or to make a mistake. The first writer to use the term was Aristotle, in The Poetics.
.Hybris or Hubris Great pride. Hybris often is the character flaw (hamartia) of a protagonist in Greek drama. Pride was considered a grave sin because it placed too much emphasis on individual will, thereby downplaying the will of the state and endangering the community as a whole. Because pride makes people unwilling to accept wise counsel, they act rashly and make bad decisions. 
Machine Armlike device in an ancient Greek theater that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the "heavens." The Greek word for machine, mechane, later gave rise to a pejorative Latin term, deus ex machina (god from a machine), to describe a contrived event in a literary work or film. A contrived event is a plot weakness in which a writer makes up an incident—such as a detective stumbling upon an important clue or a hero arriving in the nick of time to save a damsel in distress—to further the action. The audience considers such events improbable, realizing that the writer has failed to develop the plot and the characters in such a way that their actions spring from their motivations. The term (pronounced DAY ihs ex MAHK in uh or DE ihs ex MAHK in uh) is usually used adverbially, as in The policeman arrived deus ex machina to overhear the murderer admit his guilt to his hostage. However, it can also refer to a character who becomes the "god from the machine."
Mask  Face covering with exaggerated features and a mouth device to project the voice. Greek actors wore masks to reveal emotion or personality; to depict the trade, social class or age of a character; and to provide visual and audio aids for audience members in the rear of the theater. 
Ode Poem sung in a play or a festival.
Old Comedy: a genre of plays in Greece of the Fifth Century, B.C. Old comedy displayed great imagination and used cutthroat satire, caricature, and sometimes vulgar dialogue to ridicule people, ideas, trends, and institutions. The Clouds, by Aristophanes, is an example of old comedy.
Onkos Headdress worn by some Greek actors to increase their height and, thus, visibility to theater audiences.
Orchestra See Theater, Greek.
Parabasis: an ode in which the chorus addresses the audience to express opinions of the author, including his views on politics, social trends, and other topics. In The Clouds, a comedy by Aristophanes, the chorus scolds the audience for its lukewarm reception of an earlier production of the play.
Paraskenia See Theater, Greek.
Parodos, or Parode See chorus
Periakti Prism having surfaces painted with pictures. When it revolved, it could change the scenery on a stage. 
Peripeteia In a tragedy, sudden reversal of fortune from good to bad.
Poetics Important work by Aristotle written about 335 B.C. It analyzes Greek theater and outlines its origin and development. One of its theses is that literature and other forms of art imitate the activity of humans. Tragedy is the higher form of the playwright's craft, Aristotle says, because it imitates the action of noble persons and depicts lofty events. Comedy, on the other hand, focuses on ordinary humans and events. 
Prologos: Prologue that begins the play with dialogue indicating the focus or theme of the play.
Proscenium See Theater, Greek.
Protagonist Main character in an ancient Greek play who usually interacts with the chorus. In a tragedy, the protagonist is traditionally a person of exalted status—such as a king, a queen, a political leader, or a military hero—who has a character flaw (inordinate pride, for example). This character flaw causes the protagonist to make an error of judgment. Additionally, the typical protagonist experiences a moment of truth in which he or she recognizes and acknowledges his or her mistakes, failures, or sins.
Skene See Theater, Greek.
Stasimon See chorus
Satire In Greek literature, a play or a passage in a play that pokes fun at public figures, institutions, ideas or the gods. An example of a satire is The Clouds, a comedy by Aristophanes.
Satyr play Play that pokes fun at a serious subject involving gods and myths; a parody of stories about gods or myths.  Fragments of Sophocles' satyr play Ichneutae (Trackers) survive along with his seven complete tragedies.
Tetralogy Four plays (three tragedies and one satyr play) staged by a playwright during the drama competition each spring in honor of Dionysus.
Theater, Greek Open-air structure in which plays were performed. The stage faced the afternoon sunlight to illuminate a performance while allowing the audience to view the action without squinting. A Greek theater consisted of the following: 

.....Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and sometimes an
.....entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became a background showing appropriate scenery.
.....Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.
.....Proscenium: Acting area, or stage, in front of the skene.
.....Orchestra: Ground-level area where the chorus performed. It was in front of the proscenium. 
.....Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra.
.....Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus.
.....Theatron: Tiered seating area built into a hillside in the shape of a horseshoe.
.....Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens.
Theatron Tiered seating area built into a hillside in the shape of a horseshoe.
Thespian Noun meaning actor or actress; adjective referring to any person or thing pertaining to Greek drama or drama in general. The word is derived from Thespis, the name of  a Greek of the 6th Century B.C. who was said to have been the first actor on the Greek stage. See also dithyramb.
Thymele See Theater, Greek.
Tragedy Verse drama written in elevated language in which a noble protagonist falls to ruin during a struggle caused by a flaw (hamartia) in his character or an error in his rulings or judgments. Following are the characteristics of a Sophocles tragedy: (1) It is based on events that already took place and with which the audience is familiar. (2) The protagonist is a person of noble stature. (3) The protagonist has a weakness and, because of it, becomes isolated and suffers a downfall. (4) Because the protagonist's fall is not entirely his or her own fault, the audience may end up pitying him or her. (5) The fallen protagonist gains self-knowledge. He has a deeper insight into himself and understands his weakness. (6) The audience undergoes catharsis, a purging of emotions, after experiencing pity, fear, shock and other strong feelings. The people go away feeling better. (7) The drama usually unfolds in one place in a short period of time, usually about a day.
Trilogy Group of three plays on a related subject or theme. 
Zeus King of the Olympian gods. 


Greek Theater

Definition and Background

.......The Greek theater was an open-air stone structure with tiered seating, a stage, and a ground-level orchestra. It was an outgrowth of festivals honoring the god Dionysus. In these festivals, called Dioniyia, the Greeks danced and sang hymns called dithyrambs that sometimes told stories. One day, Thespis, a choral director in Athens, used spoken words, or dialogue, to accompany the singing and dancing in imitation of poets who had done so before. Soon, the dialogues of Thespis became plays, and he began staging them in a theater. 
......."A contest of plays in 535 [BC] arose when Pisistratus, the ‘tyrant' whom the common people of Athens invested with power, brought a rustic festival into the city [Athens]," drama critic John Gassner writes in Masters of Drama. Such contests became regular features of the festivals, and the theaters in which they were held were specially built to accommodate them. 

Major Sections of the Theater
.....(1) A tiered, horshoe-shaped seating area called a theatron. The theatron faced the east to allow the audience to view playsusually staged later in the daywithout squinting. 
.....(2) A stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors. 
.....(3) An orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus.
Other Theater Sections

.....Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and sometimes an entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became a background showing appropriate scenery. 
.....Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene. 
.....Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra. 
.....Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus. 
.....Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens. 
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