DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M042-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

1. Greek tragedy to Plato

Greek tragedy sprang from dithyrambs (choral songs to Dionysus); when dialogue was included in these, tragedy developed as a distinct genre. In about 534 bc the poet Thespis is said to have introduced dialogue between the chorus (or its representative) and a choral leader, and in about 500 bc Aeschylus introduced a second actor, thereby making dialogue independent of the chorus. Either could be seen as the originator of tragedy. Tragedy was considered to be a kind of poetry; poets, and hence tragedians, were regarded as teachers of morality and religion, and tragedies were performed at annual festivals rich with civic and religious significance. The classic tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, all written in the fifth century bc, dramatize well-known myths involving important and powerful families, sometimes in altered forms. There were no female tragedians and all roles were performed by men, including those of female characters. Tragedy arose out of ritual, and the exclusively male participation in ritual reinforced a gender-linked social hierarchy.

Gorgias of Leontini, Sicily, held that tragedy (and other poetry) produced pleasure through deception. He also recognized the two main emotions generally associated with tragedy – pity and fear – though it remains unclear why precisely these two were singled out as characteristic of the genre. Plato argued that poetry was imitation, not necessarily deception. Nevertheless, he argued that writing, performing and witnessing performances of poetry could have undesirable, damaging effects on our ability to reason. In his early dialogue Ion, he argued that one writes good poetry and performs (recites) it well by ‘divine inspiration’, not rational understanding. He also argued that our emotional responses to poetry are not rational.

Plato refused to allow imitative or mimetic poetry (as opposed to narrative poetry) into the Republic, his ideal state. One reason was that poetry often portrays things that are not true and describes gods doing things that are not good models for behaviour (Republic 387b et passim). Another was that most people enjoy giving vent to emotions; we do not enjoy representations of intelligent and temperate dispositions (Republic 604e), but what we do enjoy vicariously tends to become part of ourselves (Republic 606b). The audience’s vicarious pleasure in experiencing appetites (for example, sex) and pains and pleasures ‘of the soul’ (anger) strengthens those appetites when they ought to be weakened and brought under the control of reason (Republic 606d).

Citing this article:
Feagin, Susan L.. Greek tragedy to Plato. Tragedy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M042-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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