Tragic Form and Conventions
terracotta muse and masks

Ancient Greek tragedies should be thought of as closer to opera/operetta than than to our spoken, prose dramas. Though deviations were possible, most tragedies had a typical structure, which derived from the role played by the chorus:

The following table shows how the Agamemnon illustrates this structure; line numbers refer to Richmond Lattimore's translation. Aeschylus uses various parts of the structure to highlight a different temporal focus.

PAST

Prologue (1-39): Watchman—incentive moment: beacon fire; tone of foreboding

Parodos (40-257): Chorus—lyric memory of the past; Trojan War and its curse. Ode emphasizes the omen of the eagles; hymn to Zeus; sacrifice of Iphigeneia

Episode 1 (258-354): Clytemnestra and Chorus—beacon signals fall of Troy; warning against excess

Stasimon 1 (355-474): Chorus—Trojan War, with picture of Paris, Helen, Menelaus; tragedy of war and disaffection of the people. Theme of hubris leading to disaster.

Episode 2 (475-680): Herald and Chorus—tragedy of war. Clytemnestra, Herald and Chorus—deception vs. truth

Stasimon 2 (681-781): Chorus—Trojan War, with image of Helen as death and picture of destructive lion-cub. Hubris breeds destruction.

PRESENT

Episode 3 (783-974): Agamemnon and Chorus—vengeance on Troy. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra—climactic duel of words, ending with Agamemnon walking on the tapestries. Hubris versus deceptive flattery

Stasimon 3 (975-1034): Chorus—lament and foreboding; danger of excess

Episode 4 (1035-1068): Chorus and Clytemnestra—Cassandra's captive state

Kommos (replacing stasimon 4—1069-1177): Cassandra and Chorus—song of death, as Cassandra “sees” with prophet's eyes the fatal events, though the chorus cannot understand

Episode 5 (1178-1447): Cassandra and Chorus—Cassandra paints a clearer picture of the banquet of Thyestes (past) and the murder of Agamemnon and herself (present) and the eventual murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (future). Strong animal imagery

Kommos (replacing stasimon 5—1448-1576): Chorus and Clytemnestra—revelation of the murder of Agamemnon and Cassandra; picture of the vindictive justice of the curse. Imagery of matriarchal fertility ritual

FUTURE

Episode 6 (1577-1673): Aegisthus, Clytemnestra, and Chorus—vindictive justice of curse; new tyranny; call for Orestes to avenge his father. NB: There is no exodos; the chorus simply leaves quietly as the scene ends.


September, 1999
Barbara F. McManus
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