The Three Kings of Drama

PREREQUISITES: Read Antigone and “A Recipe for Tragedy, Aristotle and Oedipus Rex” in the NEXUS volume Antigone and the Greek World.


  • To learn to create plot maps with interior and exterior road blocks (obstacles) on the Yellow Brick Roads to your characters’ goals.

  • To apply rules from Aristotle’s Poetics to your drama.

MATERIALS: Online access to the NEXUS Macbeth supplements, a copy of Antigone, and a copy of the NEXUS book Antigone and the Greek World.

TASK: Read the NEXUS supplemental, Writing Your Own Drama and create a plot map for the main characters in a play.

VOCABULARY: Tragic flaw, law of necessity

Aeschylus, Sophocles and the Gods

Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the three great Athenian tragedians, all wrote during the fifth century B.C.,  but their plays are as different from each other as silent movies are from talkies, or 50’s westerns from 90’s action movies.

Aeschylus’ tragedies reflect the optimism of the early part of the century, following the defeat of Persia at Marathon, where Aeschylus fought as a foot soldier. In his plays, man succeeds in life after much suffering—if he heeds god’s laws. Man’s relationship with the gods is especially important in the plays.  Aeschylus wrote trilogies—three tragedies that tell a continuing story—so he could show how the will of god worked itself out through successive generations of heroes.  For example, in the first play of the Oresteia trilogy, Agamemnon, Agamemnon is murdered by his wife.  In the second play, The Libation Bearers, Orestes avenges his father’s death by killing his mother.  In the third play, The Eumenides, the old gods try to punish Orestes for slaying his mother, but the new gods, who represent new laws, stand up for him: he killed a killer. At the end of the play a compromise is arranged between the new gods and the old gods.

Aeschylus also supported the new type of government—democracy.  In The Eumenides, the chorus recommends that Athenians:

Refuse the life of anarchy;

refuse the life devoted to

one master.

The in-between has the power…

In other words, democracy is the best government.

Sophocles wrote all of his tragedies after democracy had become an established institution in Athens. Thus, his plays are concerned with man’s relationship with the state:  how one lives in a democratic society.  (See the chapters on Antigone and Oedipus Rex for more on how Sophocles’ plays reflect his era.)

Euripides plays are more pessimistic, reflecting the age in which he wrote:  the Peloponnesian War and the decline of Athenian power.  His tragedies often depict the horrors of war.

For one woman’s sake,

one act of love, these

hunted Helen down and threw

thousands of lives away.

*          *          *          *

Surely the wise man will forever  shrink from war.

              The Trojan Women

Euripides, the Psychologist

Unlike Aeschylus, Euripides was skeptical of the gods, even though he wrote plays for a religious festival.  After all, the gods hadn’t saved Athens from the plague of 430 or from defeat in Sicily. In his great anti-war tragedy, The Trojan Women, Euripides writes, “Aphrodite is nothing but human lust,” which suggests that mankind blames or credits the gods for things inside himself.

In the same play, Hecuba, the queen of Troy, cries out:

O God—Do I call to you?

You did not help.

But there is something that cries

out for God when trouble comes.

*                      *                      *

O power, who mount the world,

wheel where the world rides,

O mystery of man’s knowledge,

whosoever you be,

Zeus named, nature’s necessity

or mortal mind…

Here Euripides questions the nature of god and life.  In another play, he questions the value of oracles and prophets.

Only, now I am sure

how rotten this business of

prophets is, how full of lies.

*          *          *          *

The art was invented as a bait for

making money

…The best prophet is common sense.


Euripides was more interested in psychology than religion. In the next century, most Greeks seemed to share his views. His plays became more popular than the tragedies of Aeschylus or Sophocles. But in Euripides’ lifetime, many found his plays threatening.  He won only three first-place prizes at the Great Dionysia, compared to Sophocles’ 24 awards and Aeschylus’ 13. “Know thyself,” which was inscribed on the temple at Delphi, was a widely shared goal. But Euripides’ plays may have made people know themselves better than they cared to.

by Jesse Bryant Wilder, Editor © NEXUS, 1997.