The Attic Tragedy – Blog Tour
Long before Shakespeare littered the stage of the Globe with stabbed and poisoned corpses, and filled the hearts of his audience with a rampant black despair, the Ancient Greeks were performing tragedies of such bleakness and power they move us still, over two-and-a-half thousand years later. These dramas evoke stories of extremes, of death and passion, murder and obsession, of pain and cruelty and revenge, of love twisted into terrible forms. They pull no punches with the horrors they depict, the agonies they impose upon their poor, tortured characters.
While The Attic Tragedy is a modern story (and is almost certainly not a ‘tragedy’ in the Classical sense), I was neck deep in an obsession with these Ancient Greek plays at the time I was writing it. Some of that tone of extremes, that obsession with pain and release from pain, doubtless seeped into its pages.
So what are the best, the most brutal and horrific? I’ve ranked my top seven ‘Attic’ tragedies in order of bloodiness and anguish.
7. Antigone (Sophocles)
Thebes is torn by civil war. Antigone grieves over the corpse of her brother, refused burial by the embittered king, Creon. Though Creon has sworn to execute anyone who disobeys him, Antigone performs the funeral rites for her brother and signs her own death warrant. Did I mention the king is also her future father-in-law? Before the play is over, Antigone will be hung, her fiancé will stab himself to death, and his mother, the king’s wife, will thrust a sword into her heart. The king is left to despair at his poor life choices.
6. Agamemnon (Aeschylus)
Clytemnstra waits for a sign that the war in Troy is over and the Greeks victorious. When the signal fire is lit, revealing that her husband, King Agamemnon, is on his way home, Clytemnestra makes ready her plan of murder and betrayal. The king returns with a concubine, the beautiful but blighted Cassandra, cursed to utter true prophecies but never to be believed. Everyone ignores Cassandra’s warnings of the gruesome fate awaiting her and the king: bloody murder in the bathtub.
5. Hecuba (Euripides)
Hecuba, the captured Trojan Queen, rages at the deaths of her children: daughter Polyxena, whose throat was slit as a blood sacrifice to Achilles; and son Polydorus, murdered and betrayed by the treacherous Polymestor. She pleads with the Greek king Agamemnon to let her avenge her son’s death. When Polymestor returns, Hecuba tricks him with promises of Troy’s hidden loot, lures him into an unguarded tent. There, she murders Polymestor’s sons and stabs out his eyes.
4. Women of Trachis (Sophocles)
Miffed at husband Heracles’s infidelities, Deianeira attempts to woo him back to her side with a love potion made from centaur blood. She dyes a robe with the potion and sends it to Heracles. Only then does she notice, on a scrap of remaining cloth, the ‘potion’ exposed to sunlight burns like acid – turns out the love potion was a long-range revenge plot by the centaur, Nessus, killed decades ago by Heracles. His agonies on putting on the cloak are so great, the once mighty warrior begs for death, and finds release only in being burned alive.
3. The Bacchae (Euripides)
Perhaps my favourite of all the tragedies, though not quite the bleakest or the most bloodthirsty, The Bacchae is one of the few plays to feature Dionysos as a character. The god has come to Thebes, driven mad the women of the city (including the king’s mother) and led them into the mountains to observe his ritual festivities. Pentheus, the king, believes Dionysos not a god but a man, a huckster and cultist who he intends to have stoned to death. The king’s persecution of the god does not go well for him. By the end he will be torn apart by the mad women and his head carried back into Thebes on a spike – by his mother.
2. Oedipus Rex (Sophocles)
Almost certainly the most well-known Greek tragedy, popularised in modern times by Sigmund Freud’s famous complex. The magic and horror in this play is not so much in the story – which is mostly in the past when the play begins – but in the suspense Sophocles creates, the dramatic reveals as Oedipus comes to understand the horror of his fortune. Why is the city of Thebes ravaged by a plague? No doubt it is caused by the unresolved murder of the previous king, Laius. Oedipus vows to find and punish the murderer, little knowing he is searching for himself. The revelation of the murder, and of his incestuous marriage to his mother, so overwhelms Oedipus, he stabs out his own eyes.
1. Medea (Euripides)
If you think you’ve seen horrors enough in the preceding plays, have you got a surprise in store! Those tragedies got nothing on Medea. The heroine of this play is the princess and witch who helped Jason escape Colchis with the golden fleece. Years later, Medea is now Jason’s wife and mother of his two sons. As a foreigner, she has never been accepted among the Greeks, nor even truly cherished by her husband – she is more concubine than wife. When Medea learns that Jason intends to marry the young Glauce, daughter of the king, she swears a monstrous revenge. Not only does she murder Glauce and the king, she then stabs her own children to death, stripping Jason of both the family he was running to and the one he was leaving. Far from being punished for her actions, Medea is rescued by the gods, fleeing Greece with the bodies of her sons in the chariot of the sun god Helios.
(This post first appeared at Char’s Horror Corner. You can follow her on Twitter at @Charrlygirl.)