LITR 4370 Tragedy
lecture notes
Spring 2017


Inevitable challenges teaching

Teacher has been there, done that--confident everything's going somewhere, all the parts fit

Poor students mostly see a lot of this and that, wonder how it fits

Teachers get frustrated that students don't catch on faster

But listening to students helps teacher see things their way, what they're getting or missing


Inevitable challenges teaching Tragedy

greatest genre

 but not popular, less instant gratification than romance, comedy, satire

tragedy still greatest whether we like it or not

Not an individual decision but a social decision


never finish anyway, truth as constantly in creation




open with questions, comments?

Any discussion questions you'd like to address or ask about?


recall different experience of reading and seeing a play; esp. whether readers over-interpret--or do symbols and repeated patterns work on audience whether they know it or not?


1. Agamemnon starts and builds slowly, but what kinds of audience pleasures may grow with it? How does the play challenge you not only to take some kind of pleasure but also to learn? (literature entertains and informs)

Aeschylus: not subtle but grand, slow but powerful, simple straightforward but compelling shifts in story + some spectacle

+ one test of greatness--can it take you up high, and then take you higher?


ll. 100-260: important events, omens that prefigure past and future (symbol)

silence, dread builds, distracted by Ag climbing stairs

sacrifice lines 106, 111, 178, 711

narrative as ritual? ceremony?

sacrifice as part of narrative?


suffering > wisdom ll. 211-215 + 295 wisdom comes through suffering

899 it's the unholy act that breeds
more acts of the same kind. [tragedy as consequences]

905 soon or late,
when it's fated to be born,
new violence springs forth,


2. You may not know the story of the Trojan War, Helen of Troy, Agamemnon, and Cassandra, but the audience at Athens knew it. What difference in experience if you know the story or not beforehand? (When we go to a movie, how much do we already know the story beforehand?)

story > narrative genre

if hero's daughter is kidnapped, assume chases, crises, rescue (adventure romance)

if cute girl crosses with cute guy & first meeting results in confusion, they'll keep meeting till they see each other's true selves and reconcile (romantic comedy)

If hero vs. terrorist, audience knows 9/11



3. Everyone can agree that Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia is horrible, but in the spirit of tragedy, how is it that he's not just a villain or a bad guy as in romance?

227 troops grow weary, hungry

247 Which of my options is not evil?

253 So be it. All may be well." 

256 his intentions
became profane, unholy, unsanctified

261 So Agamemnon steeled his heart

273 raise her,
high above the altar, like a goat,


285 she'd often sung before her father's table x 276 gagged her lovely mouth


561 to boast too much of one's success is dangerous

976 we'll work together

993 a general assembly


1005 [Agamemnon moves to climb out of the chariot but is held up by Clytaemnestra's speech.]

1088 honor me as a man, not as a god.


1066 don't place upon the common ground the foot
which stamped out Troy.

1076 risk


3a. Contrast the different appeal of Cassandra's appearance—How does Cassandra appear more as a romance character, in this case the "innocent victim?" 

l. 1121 introduces Cassandra

silence, dread builds, distracted by Ag climbing stairs

Cassandra like Iphigenia

innocent girl, sings

innocent victim as character unmarked by difficult, compromising choices of adulthood


4. How may the initial appearance by the guard be potentially comical? (See comedy; wit & humor; comic theory)

l. 5  just like a dog.

l. 48 a great ox stands on my tongue


5. Uses or repression of spectacle?

1580-90 screams, etc

1621 palace doors open

Suppression of spectacle in Tragedy is a convention or norm, but not a rule

Example of spectacle in Agamemnon so far?



6. Aristotle's Poetics: parts I, IV: What is imitation or mimesis and what does it have to do with tragedy?

learn through imitation

critical thinking through judging of imitation



chorus as narration, later Clytaemnestra

Clytaemnestra ll. 337 ff: more narration


Agamemnon not what you might want, but see birth of theater in earliest stages

Use Poetics for Aeschylus bringing on 2nd actor

[4c] Aeschylus [author of Agamemnon, Oresteia] first introduced a second actor; he diminished the importance of the Chorus, and assigned the leading part to the dialogue. [This progression conforms to Nietzsche's observation that, historically, the chorus interacting with a single protagonist precedes the introduction of actors who interact with each other.]


Opening scene, watchman & chorus take turns providing background (like narrator)

300+ Clytaemnestra enters scene, talks to Chorus


598 Herald; p. 20 dialogue with Chorus


One actor interacting or speaking with Chorus was standard Greek drama until Aeschylus—you can see Aeschylus still using that style


1076 Clytaemnestra dialogues with Agamemnon (then Cassandra)

 your speech was, like my absence, far too long.






7. Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy: Distinguish the Apolline and Dionysiac in Nietzsche's language and your own.

put up guides, notes




Video presentation

Australian production of Agamamnon (1.04 Cassandra) line 1435

Introduction to Greek Theater




1031 Orestes mentioned + line 1516




does Artemis (l. 158) reappear besides in Hippolytus?

177-8 Artemis's demand for another sacrifice / one which violates all human law

ll 211, 295 wisdom through suffering [relate to Poetics]

relate to Aeschylus in Poetics part 4

ll. 730 ff: lies re fidelity


Chorus 903 ff. problem of old violent aggression > new troubles

942 Iphegenia's sacrifice redeemed?

999 root out infectious evil > Clytaemnestra enters

1031 Orestes mentioned

1061 what joy to escape necessity!



CASSANDRA:  No . . . no . . . a house
that hates the gods . . . house full of death,
kinsmen butchered . . . heads chopped off . . .
a human slaughterhouse awash in blood . . .                                                  1290

CASSANDRA:     . . . I see evidence I trust—young children               1293
screaming as they're butchered—then their father
eating his own infants' roasted flesh . . . 

CASSANDRA: Look over there! Look now!
Keep the great bull from his mate.
She's caught him in her robes—                                                                1330
now she gores him with her black horn.
A trap! He's collapsing in the bath! . . .

[Instructor's note: Tragedy tends to repress spectacle. Here Cassandra describes Agamemnon's murder, but that murder is not shown on stage.]]

1345 Why have you brought me here,
so wretched, if not to die,
the second victim? Why else?

1363 CASSANDRA: Alas for that wedding . . . Paris and his bride . . .
how it destroyed his loved ones . . . 
Alas for the Scamander, river of my home!         
[my home = Troy]
By your banks I was raised so long ago,

Where does this end?
That's what I can't see.

CASSANDRA: Then my prophecy will veil itself no more,
like some new bride half-concealed from view.                                               1390
 . . .
I'll teach you no more in cryptic riddles.

Look there—see those creatures,
young ones, sitting by the house, dark shapes,
like something from a dream? They're like children
murdered by their loved ones . . . their hands are full,
clenching chunks of their own flesh as food,                                            1440

1463 Whether you credit what I say or not—
that doesn't really matter. Why should it?
What will come will come. And soon enough, 
as you stand here full of pity, you'll say
Cassandra's prophecies were all too true.

CHORUS LEADER: What man is going to commit such crimes?

CASSANDRA: What man? You've completely missed the point.                 1480
You've failed to understand my prophecies.

1514 But we'll not die without the gods' revenge.
Another man will come and will avenge us,
a son who'll kill his mother, then pay back    [son = Orestes; these lines predict the remaining action of the Oresteia]
his father's death, a wanderer in exile,

CASSANDRA: It's this house—
it stinks of murder, blood slaughter . . .                                                           1550

[A scream comes from inside the palace]

AGAMEMNON [from inside] : Help me!
I'm hit . . . a deadly blow . . .

CHORUS LEADER:    Silence!                                                                  1590

1621 [The palace doors open, revealing the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. Clytaemnestra stands over them. She is covered in blood]

[Instructor's note: Aristotle in Poetics 6g de-emphasizes spectacle as a part of tragedy. The display of Agamemnon's and Cassandra's corpses constitutes some degree of spectacle, but note that their actual murder took place offstage and, aside from Agamemnon's screams, was described only by Cassandra's prophecies above and by Clytaemnestra's report below.]

CLYTAEMNESTRA: So now                                                                     1670
you'd sentence me to banishment,
send me from the city a thing accursed?

Back then you made no accusation
against this man lying here. He sacrificed
his own child, that dear girl I bore in pain,                           [child, girl = Iphigenia]
to charm the winds from Thrace—and didn't care.
To him she was a beast for slaughter.

CLYTAEMNESTRA: Are you saying this work is mine? That's not so.
Don't think of me as Agamemnon's wife.                                                    1770
The form of this corpse's wife was taken on 
by the ancient savage spirit of revenge.
For that brutal meal prepared by Atreus,                [meal = the feast of Thyestes]





Bacchae prsn 2

preview Hippolytos; Bacchae only other play by Euripides

start with prologue to remind--remind of video part of presentation

Euripides as popular and modern

mixes comedy with tragedy




two groups of women

Asian women who've followed Dionysus to Thebes and hang around Thebes as chorus (contrast chorus as city elders)

Theban women who've run off to countryside


ambiguity or cross-currents of attitudes towards women (Clytaemnestra)

are the Maenads religious worshippers or drunken sex-maniacs?

106 purifying rites

women in Greek theater



144 As you wave your thyrsus,
revere the violence it contains.    
[revere = respect]

151 frenzied madness

183 ALL: The land flows with milk,
the land flows with wine,
the land flows with honey from the bees.


transformation theme

105 spirit merges

146 Whoever leads our dancing—
that one is Bromius!    
[merger of identities between mortal and divine, associated by Nietzsche with Dionysian + tragic actor as suffering God]

148 merger of identities

160 wild ecstatic dancing, mixed


252 [previews Pentheus's error of not respecting Dionysus]

273  [Pentheus disrespects gods and people]


215 enter Tiresias [comedy]

Cadmus and Tiresias warn to be respectful, then Pentheus enters disrespecting Dionysus

then acts disrespectful to old men


old men as stock figures in Greek comedy


271 disgusting things going on,
here in the city—women leaving home
to go to silly Bacchic rituals, 





Introduction to Greek Theater

Australian production of Agamamnon (1.04 Cassandra) line 1435

BBC podcast on Oresteia

scene: Clytaemnestra & bodies x chorus  (masks) (solves problem of speaking through masks)

Greek theater masks

masks in Oresteia

masks in Bacchai

Edith Hall      UHCL library p. 212

Noh masks

women in Greek theater