Greek Wednesday: Structural Elements in Greek Tragedy, pt. 1

[My apologies for the belated Greek Wednesday. This guide is adapted from Donald J. Mastronarde, Euripides: Medea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 74-75. All links in citations point to Perseus.]

Note: This is part one in a series. Part two is here.

“The alternation of song and speech was basic to the genre of tragedy from its inception” (74). The contrast between sung lyric meters and spoken meters largely parallels the contrast between the chorus and the actors, though crossover sometimes does occur. For instance, though the chorus usually sings, members of the chorus may, at times, speak; likewise, though actors usually speak, they may, at times, sing.

The head of the chorus (the koryphaios) speaks in iambic trimeters, sometimes in short dialogue with an actor:

Χορός
ἐπείπερ ἡμῖν τόνδ’ ἐκοίνωσας λόγον,
σέ τ’ ὠφελεῖν θέλουσα καὶ νόμοις βροτῶν
ξυλλαμβάνουσα δρᾶν σ’ ἀπεννέπω τάδε.

Μήδεια
οὐκ ἔστιν ἄλλως· σοὶ δὲ συγγνώμη λέγειν
815 τάδ’ ἐστί, μὴ πάσχουσαν, ὡς ἐγώ, κακῶς.

Χορός
ἀλλὰ κτανεῖν σὸν σπέρμα τολμήσεις, γύναι;

Μήδεια
οὕτω γὰρ ἂν μάλιστα δηχθείη πόσις.

Χορός
σὺ δ’ ἂν γένοιό γ’ ἀθλιωτάτη γυνή.

(Euripides, Medea 811-819)

The koryphaios may also speak in iambic trimeters (especially in couplets) as a pause or an articulation after a long speech by an actor:

Χορός
520 δεινή τις ὀργὴ καὶ δυσίατος πέλει,
ὅταν φίλοι φίλοισι συμβάλωσ’ ἔριν.

(Euripides, Medea 520-521; follows a long speech [54 lines] by Medea)

On a few occasions, other members of the chorus can speak iambic lines, which indicates indecision:

Χορός
φίλαι, τί δρῶμεν; ἦ δοκεῖ περᾶν δόμους
λῦσαί τ’ ἄνασσαν ἐξ ἐπισπαστῶν βρόχων;
— τί δ’; οὐ πάρεισι πρόσπολοι νεανίαι;
785 τὸ πολλὰ πράσσειν οὐκ ἐν ἀσφαλεῖ βίου.

(Euripides, Hippolytus 782-785)

——————————

Actors sometimes sing short exclamations:

Μήδεια
ἰώ,
δύστανος ἐγὼ μελέα τε πόνων,
ἰώ μοί μοι, πῶς ἂν ὀλοίμαν;
. . .
αἰαῖ,
ἔπαθον τλάμων ἔπαθον μεγάλων
ἄξι’ ὀδυρμῶν. ὦ κατάρατοι
παῖδες ὄλοισθε στυγερᾶς ματρὸς
σὺν πατρί, καὶ πᾶς δόμος ἔρροι.

(Euripides, Medea 97-98, 111-114)

Actors can also sing extended arias:

Ἱππόλυτος
αἰαῖ αἰαῖ·
δύστηνος ἐγώ, πατρὸς ὡς ἀδίκου
χρησμοῖς ἀδίκοις διελυμάνθην.
1350 ἀπόλωλα τάλας, οἴμοι μοι.
διά μου κεφαλῆς ᾄσσουσ’ ὀδύναι,
κατὰ δ’ ἐγκέφαλον πηδᾷ σφάκελος.
σχές, ἀπειρηκὸς σῶμ’ ἀναπαύσω.
ἒ ἔ·
1355 ὦ στυγνὸν ὄχημ’ ἵππειον, ἐμῆς
βόσκημα χερός,
διά μ’ ἔφθειρας, κατὰ δ’ ἔκτεινας.
φεῦ φεῦ· πρὸς θεῶν, ἀτρέμα, δμῶες,
χροὸς ἑλκώδους ἅπτεσθε χεροῖν.
1360 τίς ἐφέστηκεν δεξιὰ πλευροῖς;
πρόσφορά μ’ αἴρετε, σύντονα δ’ ἕλκετε
τὸν κακοδαίμονα καὶ κατάρατον
πατρὸς ἀμπλακίαις. Ζεῦ Ζεῦ, τάδ’ ὁρᾷς;
ὅδ’ ὁ σεμνὸς ἐγὼ καὶ θεοσέπτωρ,
1365 ὅδ’ ὁ σωφροσύνῃ πάντας ὑπερσχών,
προῦπτον ἐς Ἅιδην στείχω, κατ’ ἄκρας
ὀλέσας βίοτον, μόχθους δ’ ἄλλως
τῆς εὐσεβίας
εἰς ἀνθρώπους ἐπόνησα.

(Euripides, Hippolytus 1347-1369)

——————————

Two actors, or the actor(s) and the chorus, may take part in a sung exchange (especially in a kommos, a quasi-ritual lament):

Ξέρξης
βόα νυν ἀντίδουπά μοι.

Χορός
οἰοῖ οἰοῖ.

Ξέρξης
αἰακτὸς ἐς δόμους κίε.

Χορός
1070 ἰὼ ἰώ, Περσὶς αἶα δύσβατος.

Ξέρξης
ἰωὰ δὴ κατ’ ἄστυ.

Χορός
ἰωὰ δῆτα, ναὶ ναί.

Ξέρξης
γοᾶσθ’ ἁβροβάται.

Χορός
ἰὼ ἰώ, Περσὶς αἶα δύσβατος.

Ξέρξης
ἰὴ ἰὴ τρισκάλμοισιν,
1075 ἰὴ ἰή, βάρισιν ὀλόμενοι.

Χορός
πέμψω τοί σε δυσθρόοις γόοις.

(Aeschylus, Persians 1060-1076)

Or, in contrast, one voice may sing, indicating high emotion, while the other voice speaks in iambic trimeter, providing a calmer counterpoint:

Ἰφιγένεια
ὦ φίλτατ’, οὐδὲν ἄλλο, φίλτατος γὰρ εἶ,
ἔχω σ’, Ὀρέστα, τηλύγετον χθονὸς ἀπὸ πατρίδος
830 Ἀργόθεν, ὦ φίλος.

Ὀρέστης
κἀγώ σε τὴν θανοῦσαν, ὡς δοξάζεται.
κατὰ δὲ δάκρυ, κατὰ δὲ γόος ἅμα χαρᾷ
τὸ σὸν νοτίζει βλέφαρον, ὡσαύτως δ’ ἐμόν.

Ἰφιγένεια
τόδ’ ἔτι βρέφος
835 ἔλιπον ἀγκάλαισι νεαρὸν τροφοῦ
νεαρὸν ἐν δόμοις.
ὦ κρεῖσσον ἢ λόγοισιν εὐτυχοῦσά μου
839 ψυχά, τί φῶ; θαυμάτων
840 πέρα καὶ λόγου πρόσω τάδ’ ἐπέβα.

Ὀρέστης
τὸ λοιπὸν εὐτυχοῖμεν ἀλλήλων μέτα.

(Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris 827-841)

Sometimes, the relative emotional level between two voices my vary within a scene, such as in Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1072-1177, where Cassandra’s emotions spread to the chorus, and in Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1406-1576, where Clytemnestra first speaks in trimeter, then joins in the singing. (These citations are too long to include here.)

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Greek Wednesday: Structural Elements in Greek Tragedy, pt. 1

  1. Shep Shepherd

    I love these Greek Wednesday articles, Cory. They are really interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Pingback: Greek Wednesday: Structural Elements in Greek Tragedy, pt. 2 | Ex Libris

  3. Pingback: Greek Wednesday: Structural Elements in Greek Tragedy, pt. 3 | Ex Libris

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