The Structure of Greek Tragedy

1. Lyric vs. dialogue

Basic to the genre tragedy from its inception was the alternation of song and speech, sung lyric meters vs. spoken iambic trimeter (or trochaic tetrameter), chorus vs. actor(s). The chorus vs. actor(s) dichotomy is a general one, and crossover does occur. The head-man of the chorus (koryphaios) speaks iambic trimeters (esp. in couplets), and sometimes other individual members of the chorus speak iambic lines to indicate indecision (as Aesch. Ag. 1346ff., Eur. Hipp. 782-785). Actors can sing either short exclamatory lyrics or an extended aria. A lyric exchange or lyric dialogue (amoibaion) can occur between two actors or between actor(s) and chorus. Both may be lyric voices (esp. in a kommos, a quasi-ritual lament: end of Persians), or one voice may be confined to iambic trimeter to provide a calmer counterpoint to the emotion expressed in the other voice's lyrics (as Soph. Ant. 1261-1346; Eur. Iphigenia in Tauris 827ff., Helen 625ff.). Sometimes the relative emotional levels of the two voices vary during the scene (as Aesch. Ag. 1072-1177 [Cassandra's emotion infects the chorus], 1406-1576 [Clytaemestra first responds in trimeters, then joins in the lyrics]; Eur. Hipp. 811-884 [Theseus and chorus]).

The main dialogue meter is the iambic trimeter, a spoken verse based on a twelve-syllable pattern: three iambic metra of the form x - v - (where x is a syllable either long or short metrically, - is heavy or metrically long, v is light or metrically short: Greek meters are quantitative, that is, based on syllable length or weight, not on stress or accent).

Trochaic tetrameters function as a byform of dialogue. Each line is based on a fifteen-syllable pattern: four trochaic metra of the form - v - x, but with the last shortened by omission of the final element. Trochaic tetrameters seem to have been used frequently in early tragedy, then were very little used in the mature period of tragedy, and were revived in many plays of Eur.'s last decade. In ethos the tetrameter is more dance-like and potentially less serious; it often accompanies more agitated action or emotion than is found in adjacent iambic scenes.

"Marching" anapaests function as an intermediary between full lyric and full dialogue. They seem to have been chanted. Anapaests consist of a seqence of metra of the form v v - v v - (or equivalents formed by substituting one long for two shorts or vice versa: e.g. - - v v - or - v v - - or - - - - ). Sometimes choral anapaests serve as a long prelude to the parodos-lyric (Aesch. Ag. 40-103) or as a short prelude or transitional form leading to choral song (Aesch. Ag. 355-366), or announcing an entrance at the end of a choral song (Aesch. Ag. 783-809).

Lyric portions of the plays are normally written in antistrophic composition. That is, stanzas are grouped in pairs (each pair being of unique form): the first stanza of a pair is called a strophe, the correspondinging stanza with the same metrical pattern is called the antistrophe. Usually the antistrophe follows immediately after its strophe, but occasionally a short stanza called a mesode appears in between, or responsion occurs over a distance (as with Hipp. 362-372 = 669-679), or some unusual order occurs (as in the kommos in Choephori). Each parodos or stasimon may have one or more pairs of strophes and antistrophes (the commonest patterns are two or three pairs). Sometimes a choral ode will end with an additional stanza not in corresponsion (not paired), called an epode.


2. Divisions of a play

The basic structure can be viewed as one of acts and act-dividing songs, the beginning of a new act being apparent normally from the entry of a new character after a song. (Cf. O. Taplin, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus and Greek Tragedy in Action). Nevertheless, one needs to be aware of the terminology that has become traditional in the description of Greek plays.


Prologue: the part of the play preceding the entry of the chorus, usually two scenes (sometimes three, rarely one). The first of these scenes may be a prologue-monologue, esp. common in Eur. and rare in Soph. The monologue-speaker may be a god, a minor character , or a (the) major character. Such a speaker normally addresses the audience more or less directly (though not quite so informally as in comedy), and full dramatic illusion does not take hold until the conclusion of the speech. In Sophocles, the opening is usually fully dramatic from the start. In a few plays there are no prologue-scenes and the exposition begins immediately with the entrance of the chorus (Aesch. Persians).


Parodos: entry of the chorus and the name of the song they sing (or of the chanted anapaests plus song sung) as they enter. The first entry of the chorus was perhaps traditionally onto an empty "stage," but in some plays an actor is present as the chorus enters (and may or may not be acknowledged in their song). In late fifth-century tragedy, as dialogue-scenes had become more important dramatically and the chorus correspondingly less important, an amoibaion sometimes takes the place of the parodos, reducing the chorus' autonomy in the drama.


Episode: the scene(s) between the parodos and the first stasimon or between two stasimons. In fifth-century drama the length and the number of episodes vary. During the fourth century the structure of five dialogue-acts (merê, "parts") divided by four choral interludes became standard: it can be seen in Menander's comedies and in the Hellenistic literary theory reflected in Horace, Art of Poetry 189-190. An episode may contain lyric elements such as aria or amoibaion as well as dialogue-scenes.


Stasimon: any extended song of the chorus after the parodos; almost always in antistrophic form. The stasimons tend to get shorter as the play proceeds. In Aesch. a stasimon is sometimes preceded by anapaests. In late fifth-century tragedy, with the diminution of the dramatic weight of the chorus, the interval between stasimons is sometimes very long, and the number of true antistrophic stasimons may be small (e.g. Eur. Helen, Soph. Phil.).


Exodos: the scene(s) following the final stasimon. In many plays of Eur. (and in Soph. Phil.) there is a divine epiphany in the exodos. Frequently the crane was employed for the god's appearance through the air: hence theos apo mêchanês, deus ex machina, "god from the crane"), but the god could also appear on the roof of the scene-building (via a ladder or trap-door).


Epiparodos: in a few plays the chorus goes off in the middle of the play and then re-enters; scholars have given the name epiparodos ("additional parodos") to such a reappearance and to the song which accompanies it (Aesch. Eum. 244ff., Eur. Helen 515ff.[where, extraordinarily, the chorus had gone into the palace]; cf. Eur. Alcestis 861ff.).


3. Types of dialogue and dialogue-scenes


A. Rhesis

A rhesis is an extended speech in trimeters (or, rarely, tetrameters), often formally organized in its rhetoric. Some special forms include:

1. agôn logôn: the "contest of speechs" is a recognizable form in both Soph. and Eur. Generally, there are two speeches, each closed by a couplet from the koryphaios (which is sometimes negligible in content and effect). The two debaters may be performing in front of a third actor who serves more or less as "judge" (sometimes the "judge" closes the scene with his or her own rhesis). In many cases the rheseis of the debate are followed by argumentative short dialogue or stichomythia which sharpens the opposition and shows that nothing positive has been accomplished.

2. messenger-rhesis: critical news from offstage (inside the building or at a distant location) is usually conveyed in a scene of reporting to the chorus alone or to an appropriate character along with the chorus. The messenger-scene usually appears about 2/3 to 4/5 of the way through the play, but earlier messenger-scenes are found (Aesch. Persae, Ag.) and some plays have two messenger-scenes (Eur. IT, Bacchae). Typically, the messenger conveys the essential news and relieves the tension in a short dialogue and then is asked to give the whole story, which he does in a rhesis extending up to 80 or even 100 lines.

3. Other long speeches usually have important dramatic impact, e.g. Medeia's self-presentation to the Corinthian women (Eur. Med. 214ff.) or Hippolytus' tirade against women (Eur. Hipp. 616ff.) or the speeches in which Creon and Antigone declare their opposite views of the world and morality (Antigone 162ff. and 450ff.).


B. Irregular dialogue in short speeches


For short stretches the actors (or actor and koryphaios) may converse in speeches of varying lengths. The formality of the genre normally requires that each speech end at the end of a full trimeter. Antilabe, the breaking of a line between two speakers, is not found in Aesch. (there is a possible case in Prom.) and is used only for special effect in most of Soph. and Eur. (in some of late Soph. antilabe seems to produce only informality or "naturalness," not a shock effect).


C. Regular patterns of short dialogue


Stichomythia is line-for-line dialogue, sometimes lively and compressed, sometimes casual, gradual or roundabout. Syntactic ellipsis and suspension are frequent. An extended exchange between actors usually tends toward the regular pattern of stichomythia. An extended stichomythia often begins or ends (or has its transitions marked) with an irregularity such as a couplet. Stichomythia is also found in trochaic tetrameters.

Distichomythia is an extended sequence of two-line speeches in alternation.

Continuous antilabe presents a series of trimeters in which each is divided between the two speakers (A:B :: A:B :: A:B :: etc.). This usually occurs within or at the end of a stichomythia to quicken the pace and heighten the excitement. In some passages one can see a subtle artistic effect in the gradual shortening of speaker A's portion of the line (Soph. OT 1173-1176). Continuous antilabe is not usually carried on for long; but in late Euripides it is done in trochaic tetrameters, where it is somewhat easier to write, and can be extended (e.g. Orestes 774-798).




Analysis of Structure of Euripides' Medea

Prologue 1-130
  (1) prologue-monologue of nurse 1-48
  (2) iambic dialogue of nurse and tutor 49-95
  (irregular, with short distichomythia 74-81)
  (3) anapaests of nurse and Medea (indoors) 96-130

Parodos 131-213
  (actors' anapaests interspersed with astrophic entry-stanza, one pair of corresponding stanzas and an astrophic stanza (epode) after nurse's departure)

First Episode 214-409
  (1) Medea and the chorus 214-270 (major rhesis 214-266)
  (2) dialogue-scene, Medea and Creon 271-356 (supplication stichomythia 324-339)
  (3) Medea and chorus 357-409
  choral anapaests 357-363
  rhesis of Medea 364-409

First Stasimon 410-445 (two pairs of stanzas)

Second Episode 446-626
  agôn logôn of Medea and Jason: rheseis 465-575, followed by irregular dialogue

Second Stasimon 627-662 (two pairs of stanzas)

Third Episode 663-823
  (1) Medea and Aegeus 663-763
  (stichomythia 667-707; choral anapaests 759-763)
  (2) Medea and chorus 764-823
  (major rhesis 764-810, followed by irregular dialogue)

Third Stasimon 824-865 (two pairs of stanzas)

Fourth Episode 866-975
  Medea and Jason (children brought out at 894)
  (major rhesis 869-905)

Fourth Stasimon 976-1001 (two pairs of stanzas)

Fifth Episode 1002-1080
  (1) tutor and Medea 1001-1020 (irregular dialogue)
  (2) Medea's great monologue (rhesis) 1018-1080

Anapaestic Interlude (in place of a stasimon) 1081-1115

Sixth Episode 1116-1250
  messenger-scene (messenger-rhesis 1136-1230)

Fifth Stasimon 1251-1292 (two pairs of stanzas with incorporated trimeters)

Exodos 1293-1419
  (1) Jason and chorus 1293-1316 (stichomythia 1308-1313)
  (2) iambic dialogue of Medea (ex machina) and Jason 1317-1388
  major rhesis of Jason 1323-1350, stichomythia 1361-1377
  (3) anapaestic dialogue of Medea and Jason 1389-1414
  (choral exit-tag (anapaests) 1415-1419)


Analysis of Structure of Euripides' Hippolytus

Prologue 1-120
  (1) prologue-monologue of Aphrodite 1-57
  (2) song and prayer of Hipp. and comrades 58-87
  (3) dialogue of Hipp. and servant 88-120 (stichomythia 90-107)

Parodos 121-169 (two pairs of stanzas and an epode)

First Episode 170-524
  (1) anapaestic amoibaion, Nurse and Phaedra 170-266 (entrance announcement 170-5)
  (2) dialogue-scene, Nurse, koryphaios and Phaedra 267-361
  (stichomythia 271-81, 315-51, dramatic antilabe 352)
  choral interlude 362-372 (one stanza in corresponsion with 669-79)
  (3) dialogue-scene, Nurse and Phaedra 373-524 (agôn logôn: rheseis 373-430, 433-81)

First Stasimon 525-564 (two pairs of stanzas)

Second Episode 565-731
  (1) eavesdropping scene, chorus and Phaedra 565-600
  (2) dialogue-scene, Hipp. and Nurse (silent Phaedra) 601-68
  (stich. 603-15; major rhesis 616-68)
  (3) lyric lament of Phaedra 669-79 (in corresponsion with 363-72)
  dialogue-scene, Phaedra and Nurse 680-731
  (note antilabe 724)

Second Stasimon 732-775 (two pairs of stanzas)

Third Episode 776-1101
  (1) shouts-within skênê 776-89
  (2) Theseus and chorus 790-898
  entrance and informing 790-810
  lamentation (kommos) 811-55
  (dochmiacs in 817-33 correspond to those in 836-51)
  letter and curse 856-98 (dochmiacs interspersed)
  (3) dialogue-scene, Theseus and Hipp. 899-1101
  (agôn logôn: rheseis 936-1037, largely distichomythic argument 1038ff.)

Third Stasimon 1102-1150 (two pairs of stanzas and epode)

Fourth Episode 1151-1267
  messenger-scene (messenger-rhesis 1173-1254)

Fourth Stasimon 1268-1282 (one pair of stanzas)

Exodos 1283-1466
  (1) epiphany of Artemis (deus ex machina)to Theseus 1283-1341 (anapaestic introduction 1283-95)
  (2) entry and lament of Hipp. 1342-88 (astrophic aria 1347-88)
  (3) dialogue-scene, Artemis, Hipp., and Theseus 1389-1461
  (stichomythia 1394-1414, 1446-56)
  choral exit-tag (anapaests) 1462-66