Greek vs Roman Theatre

Historic playwrights such as Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Seneca were described as prolific philosophers and geniuses of their times. These men actively participated in the politics surrounding them, and were respected and revered in their society. Each had their own individual style and portrayed their personalities through each of their noted works. Nevertheless, as with a majority of playwrights throughout history, most fodder for their plays have been adaptations of previous plays written by their predecessors or based off mythological events.
Unfortunately, this had lead to many speculative accusations and criticisms, as is the case with Senecan tragedies versus their Greek counterparts. Senecan and Greek interpretations of the plays Oedipus, Agamemnon, and Medea bear similar themes, being the inescapability of fate and dike, and the lack of clarity between right and wrong. Nevertheless, they differ culturally, politically, and philosophically due to the differences in society as well as the eras in which the writing of these plays took place. Culturally, Greek and Roman theatre vary in a multitude of ways.
Firstly, a major difference is the role of actor within their cultures. The introduction of the actor sparked the creation of tragedy, because of the ability to have back-and-forth discussions. Within Greek culture, to be an actor was a most honourable position as they were considered as icons because “the good actor, who rises to the challenge of providing a good and consistent performance, can be a model for how to live” (Easterling 382). In contrast, within Roman culture, the actors’ conditions were mean and contemptible (Theatrehistory).

A secondary difference is the amount of actors used by Seneca and his Greek counterparts. Seneca stressed the importance of consistency of character stating, “It is a great thing to play the role of one man” (Easterling 382), suggesting that he seems to disapprove of those who play multiple parts. This is a reason as to why Seneca changed the number of speaking parts in plays to encompass four speaking roles. Agamemnon, for example, has four speaking parts during its final scene involving Aegisthus, Electra, Clytemnestra, and Cassandra (lines 981-1012).
Oedipus similarly requires four actors at once for the second act involving Oedipus, Creon, Tiresias, and Manto (lines 201- 402) (Boyle 83). Another cultural difference is in regards to the importance of the masks worn by either the Greeks or Romans during the theatrical performances. The Greek mask was important because it allowed actors to play multiple roles and with the help of the onkos or high headdress, it portrayed the characters, as they ought to be or as better than they are (Wiles 68).
The rule of the mask is never in question with Sophocles or Aeschylus as its function was to represent a neutral face. Hence, eliminating all the peculiarities that distinguish each character from another as author John Jones stated, “The audience could have had a few simple, conventional signs determining rank and age and sex” (Wiles 68). This neutral mask allowed the audience to judge Oedipus and Agamemnon by his actions and not solely on his appearance. It also forced the actor to externalize emotions by using his whole body (Wiles 69).
Nevertheless, the conventions of tragic masks do come under pressure by the tragedies of Euripides. Classics professor Froma Zeitlin states that Euripides’ “repertory of tragedy and epic provides, as it were, a closet of masks for the actors to raid at will, characters in search of identity, a part to play,” which is a main theme in Euripides’ Medea (Wiles 69). In contrast, the cultural context of Roman mask was very different from the Greeks, who believed masked performances were a great source of pride.
For a Roman, it was unthinkable that dancing in masks was a source of pride during public celebrations. The use of masks centered on the ideologies of the Roman culture and its concern with the after-life (Wiles 129). The Greek observer Polybius wrote that Roman religion, which was even bound up by death, was “theatricalised in order that the masses could be controlled by unseen terrors and suchlike tragoidia” (Wiles 129). Therefore, while the Greeks put on masks to create new forms of life, Romans put on masks to resurrect a dead being (Wiles 129).
Professional actors received training in life to imitate these dead beings, a reason as to why Seneca disliked the premise of an actor playing multiple roles because actors specialized in one character (Wiles 130). These masks veered away from neutrality to more stock characteristics, much like commedia dell’ arte, and remained as such for recorded history, and because there is records of Seneca performing his work, there is no proof that he used different masks. A final cultural difference is the importance of the chorus and its use in the plays Agamemnon, Oedipus, and Medea.
The chorus was not highly involved in the action of the plays. In general, the chorus’ main functions were to create a psychological and emotional background to the action through its odes. It introduces and questions new characters, as well as point out the importance of events as they occurred, to establish facts and avow the outlook of society. Finally, the chorus covers the passage of time, between events, and separates episodes (Calder 21). Within the play Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, the chorus represents the voice of wisdom of the city as well as its limitations (Novelguide).
The chorus’ limitations are clear when they fail to appreciate Clytemnestra, (lines 258-63), and their wisdom is seen when they are able to see no end to the problem of dike (Novelguide). In Seneca’s Agamemnon, the chorus of men is replaced for a chorus of Mycenaean women, which is seen through lines 310, 350-51, (Calder 331). They represent enlightenment by rendering individual cases intelligible by juxtaposing the moral crisis (Seneca 113). Similar differences of the chorus can be found within the play Oedipus.
In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, the chorus positions itself within the minds of the audience as the citizens of Thebes acting solely as petitioners with no great affect on the plot. Nevertheless, as the plot unfolds the importance of the chorus grows as they take active roles in the progression of the plot. This continues until the chorus outgrows Oedipus, weaning from his dependence, and becoming the backbone that Oedipus himself uses to confront his destiny, seen in lines 1550 on (Calder 113).
This development contrasts with Seneca’s chorus, in his adaptation of Oedipus, as the chorus remains on the same level yet becoming more philosophical in their understanding of fate and justice (Seneca 6). This is seen in lines 980 to 996 as the chorus explains their understanding of fate, stating, “We are driven by fate, and must yield to fate. No anxious fretting can alter the treads from that commanding spindle [… ] Many are hurt by fear itself, many have come upon their fate through fear of fate” (Seneca 107). This quote demonstrates that no matter what, one will always meet his fate.
Finally, differences between Senecan and Greek choruses are also seen within the play Medea as both choruses play crucial but different roles in the development to Medea’s character. In Euripides’ Medea, the chorus enters as a very sympathetic group to Medea’s plight, which is seen when they enter and state, “I heard the voice, uplifted loud, of our poor Colchian lady” (Euripides 156-7). She is a poor, unfortunate woman whose world is in shambles and the chorus echoes this (Associatedcontent). Whereas, Seneca’s chorus represents the average citizen, not pulling punches when it comes to the scandal that they are witnessing.
The chorus begins the play by celebrating the marriage of Jason and Creusa, and juxtaposed with Medea still on stage the chorus states that Creusa’s beauty “far surpasses all the brides of Athens” (Seneca Medea 75). This demonstrates that the chorus is by no means sympathetic and they do not patronize Medea like the Chorus of Euripides. Seneca’s Medea does not need the chorus as a crutch, which is provided to Euripides’ Medea (Associatedcontent). Therefore, through the differences in actors, costume, and use of chorus, the cultural aspects of Greek and Romans times play crucial roles in the adaptations of these myths.
A second way that Greek and Roman theatre vary from each other is through the political differences of their times. The fist difference is seen through the significant event that occurred during the writing or adaptation of these plays. Although, the main difference is seen through the importance of mythological figures within each play, how they are portrayed, and what they represent. Firstly, each play was written during or after seriously significant events that occurred during Greek times.
For example, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon was written and during the battle of Aegina and after the death of Pleistarchus king of Sparta in 480 B. C. Sophocles’ Oedipus was written after a horrible plague washed over Athens killing one third of the Athenian population (Bispham, Harrison, Sparkes 9). Each of these events affected the audience by tying connections to the events that were occurring around them. In contrast, Seneca’s adaptations were never performed and they were not written during significant events that affected the audience. On the other hand, a major difference came from the depiction of main characters within each play.
Within both Aeschylus’ and Seneca’s Agamemnon, Clytemnestra dominates the plot, as Agamemnon himself does not enter the play until line 810. Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra is portrayed as a dangerous temptress, who represents a challenge to patriarchy unparalleled in Greek tragedy as she demonstrates early feminism (RHUL). This is seen through her jealousy of Agamemnon’s status as a man when she tells Agamemnon that he should “yield” to her (Novelguide). In contrast, Seneca’s Clytemnestra is portrayed as an emotionally unstable and sympathetic woman, as well as representing the working of the passions.
This is demonstrated through her desire for a chaste marital relationship with Agamemnon, in lines 239-43 (Seneca 120). Another difference in major characters is seen in the play Oedipus, through the depictions of Oedipus. Sophocles depicts Oedipus initially as a benign ruler amidst his people, self-confident and determined (Seneca 5). This is demonstrated through his opening lines to the audience, “Deeming it unfit to hear reason from a messenger, I, Oedipus, on whom men rely, have come myself to hear you out” (Sophocles 33).
Oedipus represents two enduring themes of Greek myth and drama: the flawed nature of humanity and an individual’s powerlessness against the course of destiny in a harsh universe (Seneca 5). In contrast, Seneca’s Oedipus, at the beginning, is isolated and obsessed with anxiety and guilt, as demonstrated in the quote, “What I fear is unspeakable: that I may kill my father with my own hand” (Seneca 19). Oedipus’ unease is due to his possession of power and in Senecan drama, kingship is typically a source of unease for the ruler (Seneca 7).
Seneca’s depiction of Oedipus keeps in turn with his dramas and their concern with mental states. The final contrast of characters and their depictions are found in the play Medea. Euripides’ Medea is seen as lone and forlorn who is portrayed as a pawn of the gods and willing to be such (Associatedcontent). She commits her crime and awaits ramifications from the gods, demonstrated by the line, “But you’ll never have me in your grasp, not in this chariot, a gift to me from my grandfather Helios, to protect me from all hostile hands” (Euripides).
Seneca, on the other hand, characterizes Medea as not “just a woman”, but as a vibrant and vengeful spirit who is more god-like, being in control of her destiny (Associatedcontent). When dealing with her connection with the gods, Seneca’s characterization is the polar opposite of Euripides’ as she is not as respectful and reverent of the gods. She often condemns them for their actions or lack of actions seen in the lines, “Hecate, I call so many times for your arrows for just one reason, always the same” (Seneca Medea 95).
With these political differences, mainly the depiction of historic and mythological figures, it is clear to see that these differences have significant effects on characters as well as plot. Finally, the philosophies of each playwright’s era highly affect the adaptations of the each play because of the differences in philosophical language, seen through the writer’s dialogue. Each playwright’s manner of utilizing dialogue is specifically unique to each individual. Seneca’s dialogues were not platonic exchanges between characters but were treatises (ancienthistory).
Seneca’s elaborate rhetoric, argumentation, and complex verbal exchanges were quite unlike the dialogue of Greek tragedy. Furthermore, the ambience of gloom, disease, insanity, and physical horror that permeates his plays is adverse to the spirit of Greek drama (Bispham 296). Aeschylus pioneered drama tension through the addition of the second actor, increasing the possibilities for dramatic dialogue. His language in dialogue is discernible with force, majesty, and emotional intensity (Britannica).
Aeschylus boldly uses compound epithets, metaphors, and figurative turns of speech, demonstrated in the quote, “Winged hounds, eagles of Zeus, slew a poor cowering creature, her unborn young slaughtered with her. She loathes the feast the eagles made. Sorrow sing, sorrow, but good shall prevail with power” (Aeschylus). This description the slaughtering of an animal demonstrates Aeschylus’ rich language binding together the dramatic actions, rather than used as simple decorations (Britannica). It was also common of Aeschylus to sustain a common image or group of images throughout a play, such as the snare in Agamemnon.
Sophocles’ major innovation was his introduction of a third actor, which enabled the playwright to both increase the number of his characters and widen the variety of their interactions. The extent of the conflict was extended, plots could be more fluid, and situations could be more complex (Britannica). Sophocles’ language varies depending on the dramatic needs of the current moment within the play. It can be slow and weighty or swift moving, emotionally intense or easygoing, highly decorative or perfectly plain and simple (Britannica)..
This can be demonstrated through the quote from Oedipus, “One man may surpass another in wisdom, yet until I see the prophet’s words proved true never will I agree when Oedipus is blamed; for once the winged maiden came against him and he showed himself wise be the test and good to the state” (Sophocles) . His mastery of form and diction was highly respected by his contemporaries (Britannica). Euripides’ style of dialogue and language is best described as chatter, alluding to both its comparatively light burden and to the talkativeness of his characters of all classes.
In spite of this, Euripides’ dialogues have considerable charm and sweetness. This chatter is best described in the quote from Medea, during the scene when she is killing her sons, “ Help me… help… Did you hear that? Did you hear the children cry? That wretched, evil woman! What do I do? How can I escape my mother’s hands? I don’t know, dear brother. It’s over for us” (Euripides). Although this quote does not demonstrate Euripides’ charm and sweetness, in later works, his lyrics underwent a change, becoming more emotional and luxuriant, and this demonstrates the chatter (Britannica).
With such contrasting styles and use of dialogue and language, the philosophical differences between Seneca and the Greek playwrights are evident. The differences found within the Greek and Senecan interpretations of the plays Oedipus, Agamemnon, and Medea demonstrate the significant shift of societies and era in which the plays were written and/or adapted. This demonstrates itself through many differences such as the cultural diversity dealing with the actors and their performance, the costumes in respect to the importance of masks, and the movement dealing with the changes in chorus.
Political changes demonstrate the differences through the significant events during the staging of the production, whether or not it affected them in any way, and the depiction of historic figures in regards to their portrayal within the play. Finally, philosophical ideologies demonstrate the difference between Greek and Senecan tragedies through the expression of the playwrights through the characters, with the philosophical language of the unique dialogue in which each playwright perfected. Nevertheless, interpreters put their own personalities within the plays and this is what shined through, no matter the criticism.

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