Of the plays that survived the Hellenistic Era of Greece, few survive out of the thousands that were written in celebration of the Festival Of Dionysus. This festival was in honor of the great god of wine, a relatively new Olympian borne of Zeus and a mortal woman, Semele (Rachel Gross, Dale Grote, 1997). He was celebrated as not only the god of wine but also of nature, fertility and later, the stage.
The Bacchae by Euripides is the most famous account of the Dionysian cult, and through its disturbing tale of destruction and horrific method of worship it paints a picture of extremism unlike other tales.
It is possible that Euripides, during his stay in the court of the king of Macedon, saw a sect of the cult whose ritual practices were extremist or it could be that Euripides was attempting to make a statement about the danger of cultist thinking.
Dionysus was the only Olympian to have been born twice, once when Zeus killed his mother with a thunderbolt then rescued the unborn child, inserted him into his own thigh for the rest of his gestation, and gave birth to him.
One theme that runs through the Dionysian cult is rejection; the Dionysus stories repeatedly tell of Dionysus entering a city, being rejected as a god and bringing destruction to his opponents.
It does appear that the authors of the classical plays in the Hellenistic Era either wished to encourage worshippers to remain loyal to their gods or they wished to instill fear in the public regarding the vengeful nature of the gods if they are not obeyed.
An example of this is Euripides’ tale of Dionysus’ revenge on Pentheus, king of Thebes. As patient and devious as only a god could be, Dionysus lets himself be captured after driving local women (including Pentheus’ mother) into divine madness. Dionysus, disguised, is believed to be behind the women suddenly running into the forest from the city. Dionysus cannot be restrained, as he amply shows his captor Pentheus. Eventually Dionysis leads Pentheus (dressed as a woman) to his death by the hands of his own mother, who does not recognize him in her state of madness.
The choir sings the praises of Dionysus, who is later able to show himself to Thebes for who he really is.
A recurrent theme in The Bacchae is justice, disguise, revenge, and the balance of power, all centered on a god and his followers opposing a mortal and the non-believers.
Along the same lines and also reflecting the religion of the time as well as portraying the continual battles that were waged between city-states that vied for dominion, were plays written by Sophocles, Aeschylus, and later Aristophanes.
Politics were mixed in with religious rites and rituals, as is written in all of the plays examined. Similarity exists in stories of son against father, brother against sister, and a god dictating the actions of all the major players with the oracles being the messengers delivering prophecies and directions to the mere mortals. A marvelous intertwining of emotions, decisions, protocols, ethics and treachery are exhibited by both mortals and gods in these works, but the gods tend to influence the mortals to turn on each other rather than directly intervene.
In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus exposes the revenge of gods upon a god, as opposed to Dionysus’ revenge on Thebes for rejecting him. Still, the theme of suffering is woven and fear is stricken into the audience as a great god who had created the mortals done so much for them is ruthlessly punished by Zeus.
Prometheus Bound is the second play of a trilogy, and uses no stage. In that, it is unique; the entire play takes place in the balconies (ed. Alfred Bates, 1906, p.73). This adds to the feeling that a battle is being waged in the heavens, a common theme reflected in the mythology of the Greek pantheon.
Prometheus brought fire to mankind out of sympathy for their ignorance and darkness. At first Zeus was angry, but when he smelled the aroma of the rich sacrifices cooking over the fires he decided to bide his time to see what would happen next. As in The Bacchae, Zeus is alternately portrayed as a benevolent yet very vengeful god.
Prometheus Bound illustrates the suffering of torture for a god who cannot die because he is immortal; this would give pause to any Hellenistic person who might wish to become a god. At least humans can be freed from the pains of mortality through death, even if brought about by an angry god.
One passage in particular reflects how rejection is a theme that repeats itself in Hellenistic plays, wrenching emotion from the audience and expressed in such a way as to be all too common in tragedy; Prometheus, chained to the mountainside where a bird of prey arrives daily to eat his liver, cries out,
“The foe of Zeus, and held
In hatred by all gods
Who tread the courts of Zeus;
And this for my great love,
Too great, for mortal man” (Bates, p. 76).
Along comes Hermes, in a powerful scene, bids Prometheus to reveal the marriage that will produce the undoing of Zeus’ position. Prometheus adamantly refuses to reveal such a thing unless he is unbound.
Interestingly enough, Zeus had already had a warning regarding a child who would overthrow him; after his liaison with the Titan Metis, Zeus was told that the unborn child would bring about his undoing. He turned Metis into a fly and swallowed her; the child gestated inside of Zeus’ head and later emerged as the goddess Athena. Once again we find Zeus hatching a child within his own body, as Dionysus was.
Even in his suffering, Prometheus is adamant about justice. He had created mortals under Zeus’ orders, he had taught them everything. When Zeus saw the mortals becoming too powerful, able to reason and think for themselves, he saw his own position threatened. This theme is also reflected in different ways and with different scenarios in the plays of the period.
Essentially this is a political attitude, which seems to be misplaced among all-powerful and perfect gods, but as humans had godlike qualities, the gods also had very human qualities. Such was the relationship between the Greek Olympians and the Greek people, a mutual relationship of favors granted, sacrifices made and honors given or withdrawn. What we know of this relationship is mostly from writers such as Homer and Plato as well as the playwrights.
The Prometheus trilogy elaborated on the creation of man, the wrath of Zeus, intervention by Prometheus, the advancement of mankind and the gift of Prometheus (the return of fire). This was followed by the punishment of Prometheus and the ill will of the Olympians toward him. Loyalty to Zeus and the recognition that the gods were only as powerful as their mortal worshippers are reflective of politicians and celebrities of today; a stat is only as stellar as the public allows it to be.
Finally Prometheus is freed and is reconciled amongst the Olympians, but for all he did for mortals, it appears that he was not worshipped, nor was he a patron god of any polis or temple. Apparently his fallibility made him unworthy of mortal worship. Unlike Dionysus, however, Prometheus did not exact revenge on those who did not recognize him.
Turning to more complicated matters, we shall now look at the Oedipus plays by Sophocles. This series reveals the role of fate and the irrevocable will of the gods, this time involving Apollo.
Running along common Greek themes of deplorable situations (such as Zeus killing Dionysus’ mother and realizing with horror that she carried his unborn child, Prometheus being horribly tortured for loving his creations so much that he defied Zeus, and the horror of bedding one’s own mother and bearing children by her), Oedipus the King by Sophocles brings about the role played by fate and the unquestionable role of destiny that mortals cannot escape even if forewarned and taking all precautions.
Oracles and prophets relayed messages from the gods to mortals, and those whom had a shadow cast over their lives had no choice play out their lives in the manner decreed by the gods.
Oedipus was one of those people, sent away by his mother to be murdered since it was predicted that he would kill his father; a kindly Shepard took Oedipus to be raised in the court of the king and queen of Corinth. Oedipus was not aware of his true parentage.
As a young prince, Oedipus overhears a conversation announcing that he was not the true son of the king and queen, so he sought the advice of the Oracle of Delphi. This is where he learned of his destiny, which had been revealed to his mother years before. Another common theme of the Hellenistic Era is the accuracy of the Oracle of Delphi, who can see into the plans of the gods and will advise mortals as she sees fit.
Oedipus was horrified to hear his fate and, still believing that he was the son of the king and queen of Corinth, he sought to escape the horrible prophecy by leaving the palace. This is another case in point where it was believed that a mortal could not escape what the gods had decreed for their future, and it wasn’t until philosophy took a strong stance in Greek society that the gods were questioned as omniscient beings that controlled the destiny of every person. In the case of Oedipus, had he kept his head and stayed in the palace at Corinth, the story would have been much different but even the reader of the plays will doubt that he could have changed his fate.
Oedipus traveled to Thebes, fell in love with and married Jocasta, Queen of Thebes. Jocasta was the widow of Kind Laius, who had been killed in a skirmish with a band of thieves just prior to Oedipus’ arrival.
Oedipus and Jocasta had four children; two daughters (Antigone and Ismeme) and two sons (Polynices and Eteocles). While the offspring of Oedipus and Jocasta do not appear significantly in Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex), their existence is significant for the act that Antigone will later commit in a state of unbending intent, without regard for any punishment from gods or humans.
Eventually a plague strikes Thebes and the citizenry asks Oedipus for help. Oedipus replies that he has already sent the Queen’s brother (Creon) to the Oracle at Delphi for advise. Once again, great faith in the gods and the Oracle is demonstrated, and the Oracle is consulted in order to consult with the gods themselves; such incidents as natural disasters and plagues were undoubtedly initiated by one of the gods whom has been displeased, and only the Oracle had the authority to dispense with the remedy for the situation. Also, Thebes reasserts itself as a city of major importance, politically, being the very city that rejected Dionysus.
Chreon returns to report that the Oracle at Delphi says that when the murderer of Laius is captured and expelled, the plague will end.
Oedipus sets out immediately to discover who murdered the King of Thebes, and imagine his horror when he finds out from a local prophet that it was he who had slain the king at the crossroads where the attack had occurred. The only survivor of the attack, a Shepard, is then interrogated; Oedipus still wants to deny that he himself was King Laius’ murderer and Jocasta supports him by ridiculing prophecy and such fanciful thought.
The climax of the play occurs when the Shepard reveals that long ago he had taken a baby from the King and Queen of Thebes and passed it on to a Shepard of Corinth; the baby’s mother had wanted it murdered because of a prophecy that it would kill its parents. The coin drops for Oedipus:
“Ah me! ah me! all brought to pass, all true! O light, may I behold thee nevermore! I stand a wretch, in birth, in wedlock cursed, A parricide, incestuously, triply cursed!” (trans. F. Storr, 1912).
Oedipus later finds Jocasta inside the palace, dead from hanging herself. Oedipus immediately blinds himself and begs to be exiled. Once again we have Thebes expelling a man of prominence, but this time by the man’s request. Where Dionysus had been twice born, Oedipus had been twice expelled from Thebes.
The plays depicted above are three great tragedies and hopefully it is clear that the myths and religious overtones occupying the minds and hearts of the Hellenistic Greeks have been demonstrated here to have a recurring theme.
We will now turn to a play of comedy that also has its own flavor yet displays the loyalty to the gods and abides by the principles of Greek society. As a departure from the woes of rejected gods and men, Arisophanes provides the audience with laughter as he resurrects Euripides and Aeschylus, thus acknowledging their greatness and praising Dionysus at the same time as the god of theater.
Binding together the power of Dionysus while poking fun at the god of wine and revelry, Aristophanes writes a slapstick style play in The Frogs. This play has it all; gods, arguments, parody and politics, plus it contains references to the mythological hero Heracles, Charon (the ferryman at the river Styx), and a few Olympians plus the Nine Muses.
Even today, this play is extremely funny for those who are familiar with Greek mythology and would be enjoyed even by those who are not, if acted well.
In The Frogs, Dionysus is tired of the absence of the absence of meaty dramas in theater and feels that this is a reflection on his honor. He decides to travel to Hades to fetch Euripides and bring him back to Earth. His servant Xanthias accompanies Dionysus.
In order to “blend in” in the underworld, Dionysus dresses as Heracles and consults Heracles for advice and directions before setting off. Once in the underworld, Dionysus is assaulted by the inhabitants seeking revenge for things Heracles had done during one of his journeys to Hades, and Dionysus begs Xanthias to change costumes. No sooner is this done, Persephone (daughter of Demeter and Queen of Hades) invites Heracles to a banquet. Dionysus insists on donning the lion skins again in order that he may attend the banquet, but as soon as he changes, angry people assault him once again. He is finally so afraid he reveals who he really is (reminiscent of revealing himself to Thebes in The Bacchae).
Once it is known throughout Hades that Dionysus is present there, an argument breaks out between Euripides and Aeschylus over who is the better playwright. Insults are traded as thus:
Don’t talk to me; I won’t give up the chair,
I say I am better in the art than he.
You hear him, Aeschylus: why don’t you speak?
He’ll do the grand at first, the juggling trick
He used to play in all his tragedies.
Come, my fine fellow, pray don’t talk to big.
I know the man, I’ve scanned him through and through,
A savage-creating stubborn-pulling fellow,
Uncurbed, unfettered, uncontrolled of speech,
Hah! sayest thou so, child of the garden quean
And this to me, thou chattery-babble-collector,
Thou pauper-creating rags-and-patches-stitcher?
Thou shalt abye it dearly!
Pray, be still;
Nor heat thy soul to fury, Aeschylus.
Not till I’ve made you see the sort of man
This cripple-maker is who crows so loudly.
Bring out a ewe, a black-fleeced ewe, my boys:
Here’s a typhoon about to burst upon us.
Thou picker-up of Cretan monodies,
Foisting thy tales of incest on the stage-
(Internet Classics Archives, 1994 – 2000).
In the end, a trial is conducted to see who the King Of Tragedy really is; it is decided to weigh the writings to see whose was heaviest. Aeschylus turned out to have the meatier scripts, so Dionysus took him to Earth instead of Euripides, even though in truth Euripides was regarded the better of the two at the time (Alice Fort, Herbert Kates, 1935).
In both comedy and tragedy, the ties to the gods and the themes of conflict, murder, revenge and long-suffering are present in Hellenistic plays. The ancient Greek society was rich in imagination and devout in its worship of the gods; eventually the Greek culture would spread throughout the Persian Empire and rule until the Roman conquest.
In conclusion and to display a part of the beauty of devotion to the gods, an excerpt from Callimachus’ Hymn to Artemis, which expresses the reverence typical of the Greek attitude toward their gods:
“Lady, may my true friends and I be among those, Queen, and may I always care about song. I will sing Leto’s wedlock, Apollo, and always Artemis: your labors, dogs, archery, and chariot that lifts you lightly-behold-on your way to Zeus’s heavenly abode” (Callimachus, Jean Alvares 1998).
- Aristophanes. “The Frogs.” The Internet Classics Archives, MIT. 1994 – 2000, 18 December 2005.
- Bates, Alfred (ed.). “PROMETHEUS BOUND: A summary and analysis of the play by Aeschylus.” The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 70-78.
- Callimachus. “Hymn III: To Aretemis.” Montclair State University, Jean Alvares. 1998 – 2003, 18 December 2005. http://www.chss.montclair.edu/classics/HYMNART.HTML
- Gross ,Rachel and Grote ,Dale. “Dionysus.” Encyclopedia Mythica. 1995 – 2004, 16 December 2002. http://www.pantheon.org/articles/d/dionysus.html
- Storr, F (trans.). “Oedipus the King.” Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and William Heinemann Ltd, London. 1912, 17 December 2005. http://www.online-literature.com/view.php/oedipus/1?term=king%20oedipus
Cite this essay
Ancient Plays. (2017, Apr 13). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/ancient-plays-essay