Whether you love Greek history and culture or find it dull beyond words, there’s no denying that classical scholarship has had a big impact on just about every succeeding aspect of Western culture. College students pursuing degrees in fields like history, philosophy, theater, creative writing and art history (among others) will be especially well-served reading these works, as they inspired many other later artists, writers and thinkers and are referenced in numerous ways today– a testament to their enduring power.
While there is much to be learned from ancient philosophy and science, much more accessible avenues into ancient Greek thought are the great classical dramas and comedies. Reading these works will not only enable you to move through pretentious intellectual conversations with ease, you’ll also get insights into the foundations of dramatic structure and might just find a little entertainment to boot. Regardless of what you plan to do after college, familiarity with these classical plays is just as important to a well-rounded education today as it was hundreds of years ago.
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Perhaps one of the best-known of the classical dramas, Aristotle used Oedipus Rex as an example of perfectly orchestrated tragedy in his work Poetics (also a great read). First performed in 429 BCE, it was the second of Sophocles’ Theban plays to be produced, and follows a cursed family who tries in vain to escape their fate. The main character of the tale is, naturally, Oedipus, whose own father orders him executed, believing the young child will kill him. He is rescued after being left to die in a field and raised by another royal family as their own. Told by an oracle that he will murder his father and sleep with his mother, Oedipus flees home, only to end up encountering his true parents who abandoned him long ago. With disastrous results, of course! Acclaimed since it was first performed, the play is a must-read for any student and will put the Oedipus Complex’s true meaning in context.
The Oresteia by Aeschylus
Not a single play, but rather a trilogy (though it should have been four — one has been lost to history) of tragedies, The Oresteia follow another cursed family, the House of Atreus. This series is the only surviving example of a trilogy in Greek drama, and took first prize in the Dionysia festival when it was first performed in 458 BCE. The first, Agamemnon, follows the King of Argos as he returns home to an adulterous wife intent on murdering him for sacrificing their daughter. The second, The Libation Bearers, continues the story, with Agamemnon’s children Electra and Orestes uniting to avenge the death of their father by taking revenge on their mother. The final installation is called The Eumenides and concerns the legal backlash all of these killings have, with Orestes receiving punishment for his crimes. Filled with love-hate relationships, murder, intrigue and drama, the plays are just as engaging as any modern-day soap opera.
Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus
While it is unclear who wrote this play, it has traditionally been attributed to Aeschylus. Regardless of who is the true author, the drama is a great read for students who want to improve their knowledge of Greek texts. Another classic tragedy, the story is based in the myth of Prometheus, a Titan who was punished by Zeus for giving mankind fire. This involves being chained to a rock and having an eagle eat his liver every day, only to have it grow back and experience the entire ritual again, ad infinitum. The play follows not only his punishment, but the wrath of Zeus as well, and is an excellent introduction to Greek mythology in all its violent and sexually-charged glory.
Antigone by Sophocles
More than likely originally a part of a trilogy starting with Oedipus Rex, Antigone, the third installment of this tale, focuses on the eponymous daughter of the doomed Oedipus and his mother Jocasta. In the preceding play, Seven Against Thebes (also worth reading), two brothers fight each other for the throne, with one dying and the other demanding that he be left to rot and eaten by animals on the battlefield — the harshest punishment at the time. Antigone mourns for her fallen brother and sets out to bury him, facing the death penalty for her actions if she is caught. And, of course, she is. Death, violence and punishment by the gods follow, as is appropriate and expected for any Greek tragedy. Ultimately a morality tale against pride, the play is not only an essential read for wrapping up the Oedipus story, but its own merits as well.
Medea by Euripedes
Like many other Greek tragedies, this play focuses on betrayal and revenge. This time, the main characters are Medea and her husband Jason (who is perhaps known for the Argonauts mythology, his slaying of the monster Medusa and capture of the golden fleece). The play begins with Medea grieving and raging, as her husband has left her for another woman, though he has promised to keep her as a mistress (so noble). She gets her revenge, but the plot leaves you wondering who the bad guy in the tale is really. Held up by many as being an early feminist text, the play explores many different issues that are just as relevant today as when it was written, including love, passion, vengeance, justice, racism and misogyny.
Alcestis by Euripedes
Even the Greeks loved a good romantic tale, though this particular one might be a bit troubling for modern day audiences. The titular character Alcestis’ father has promised her to any man who can yoke a lion and a boar to a chariot. With the help of Apollo, Admetus manages to accomplish this feat and is allowed to marry her. But in his joy, the victor fails to pay appropriate homage to Artemis, and she fills his bed with snakes. Apollo intervenes, and Admetus is allowed to live if he can find someone to step in and take his place in Hades. None are willing to make the sacrifice, save his new wife. She dies in his place, with the wish that he not remarry or engage in any merrymaking after her death. Forced to entertain the visiting Hercules, Admetus must break one of these promises, but it may be for the best. Called the “problem play”, this work differs from the typical tragic formula, employing comedic elements as well.
The Persians by Aeschylus
Yet another ancient tragedy (the Greeks were quite fond of them, it seems), this play is notable for being the oldest surviving example of the medium in the history of theatre — and the only surviving tragedy to focus on contemporary events! As the name might suggest, the tale’s main focus is the Persian Empire, more specifically Xerxes’ response to news that the military defeat at the Battle of Salamis — a decisive battle in the Greco-Persian Wars. It is worth reading because it can be considered both sympathetic to the Persians and a celebration of Greek victory — depending on how you read it — and, of course, for its unique place in the history of drama.
Ajax by Sophocles
Written in the 5th century BCE, this tragic play chronicles the life of the warrior Ajax after the events in Homer’s Iliad, but before the Trojan War ended. At the outset of the play, the eponymous protagonist is enraged because the fallen Achilles’ armor has been awarded to Odysseus rather than him. Bitter, he decides to get revenge on the Greek leaders he believes shamed him. To add insult to injury, he is tricked by the goddess Athena and thinks he is now even more of a laughingstock. Despondent, he takes matters into his own hands in a tragic resolution.
The Frogs by Aristophanes
Perhaps one of the first works of literary criticism ever created, The Frogs pokes fun at the giants of Greek playwriting, Euripedes and Aeschylus. A comedy rather than the typical tragedy, the work pits the two writers against one another in an imagined battle to see who is the best tragic poet, with Dionysus serving as judge. It’s not all fluff of course, and some serious political commentary lurks behind this fictional battle of wits, with Aristophanes focusing on real solutions to current Athenian events occurring at the time the play was first produced. While it is a great read, students should peruse a quick summary of Peloponnesian Wars to get a better framework. Those who want a slightly more updated version of the tale should check out the musical of the same name produced by Steven Sondheim, which pits William Shakespeare against George Bernard Shaw.
Lysistrata by Aristophanes
Also focusing on the Peloponnesian War, this comedy is not only entertaining, but exposes some of the sexual politics in ancient Greece’s heavily patriarchal society. The story revolves around Lysistrata, a woman who calls for women across the empire to withhold sexual gratification from their husbands until they find a way to negotiate peace in the ongoing war. Her ploy, however silly it may sound, actually works. While today it is often held up as a feminist work, in reality Aristophanes stereotypes and belittles the women in the story, even if he lets Lysistrata triumph in the end.