First-Year Studies: Amid the Tears and Laughter: The Political Art of Ancient Greek Tragedy and Comedy


Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greeks began a 200-year experiment in democratic government. Considerably less democratic than the modern United States, ancient Athens was also considerably more democratic. Like other political systems throughout the world and (until only very recently) throughout history, the Athenian democracy excluded women, slaves, and foreigners from political participation. At the same time, it embodied the ideals and consequences of direct democracy. Many issues confronted by Athenian society during the fifth-century BCE remain powerful questions in our own time: How do you safeguard democratic liberties against tyrannical violence and intimidation from within and from without? How do you balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the group? How do you promote individual achievement that benefits rather than harms the community as a whole? How do you reconcile the ethical demands of democracy with the political necessities of foreign policy? What is the function of “entertainment” in a democratic society? We will examine the crucial role of tragedy and comedy in transmitting, challenging, and shaping Athenian values throughout the fifth-century BCE. Above all, we will consider the implications and insights that these plays continue to offer 21st-century audiences. Students will read works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Aristotle in translation.