My contention with studying Greek plays

Greek plays are often the subject of study in literature classes all across America. They’re often wonderful examples of tragedy and dramatic irony. But really, is reading them most effective way tostudy them? I realize that these plays are worthy of study, but I must say that the way they are examined and taught is flawed in many instances.

The Oedipus plays, the Oresteia, and countless other Greek works are studied in literature class. They were plays. And as such, they were written to be performed, and not read. Unfortunately, the Greeks didn’t discover the screenplay format yet. As such, the plays are not all that readable.

Greek plays were also written for an audience who were far more informed as to the background of the play: many plays are set on the backdrop of some historically important event or based on the premise of culturally embedded knowledge. In fact, the audience often knows the end result before the story is even told. As such, modern readers are lost as to the context of the play in which context is incredibly important to the overall understanding of the play. If the reader does not have a firm understanding of the historical and cultural context in which these plays were written and performed, much is lost in this lack.It would be similar to a Chinese filmmaker releasing a film in China about the American Civil War, putting the audience right in the middle of the Battle of Fort Hinden. Most of the Chinese wouldn’t know anything about American history and watching a movie about it would be lost on them. It could be one of the most compelling films ever made, a Sundance worthy and Academy Award winning film that documents some tragic twist of fate between two brothers who were separated at birth and discovered each other as enemy soldiers fighting for either side. So as dramatic and tragic as it could be in its own right, the true meaning and depth of the film is lost on anyone who doesn’t know about the American Civil War. Similarly, it would be as if an American filmmaker made a movie about the Chinese Boxer Rebellion that plopped us into the middle of some massacre. Most of us probably have never even heard of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. And those of us who have heardofit probably don’t know all the particulars. So one should really be educated in the history of Ancient Greek as a prerequisite to studying Greek plays. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.So in addition to the inherent lack of context and cultural education of Ancient Greece, Greek plays are not written to be studied as literature. Greek plays were written very simply. They consist of dialogue and minimal stage directions. Because of this sparse writing, modern readers are not privvy to the many nuances of an actual performance. Missing are vocal tones and dramatic acting, as well as a tangible physical representation of characters.

In an ideal modern screenplay, characters would be introduced in the text. The reader would read a brief description of the character, perhaps a little bit of his background. This character would be introduced to the reader in a proper fashion. This aids in readability. Scenes are broken down and clearly identified. Ultimately, the screenplay is a very readable piece of writing. This is a stark contrast to the Greek play where scenes are not designated, and characters are often inserted into the story without a proper introduction.

The lack of cultural knowledge and context, in conjunction with an inherently inappropriate format, makes the study of Greek plays difficult enough as it is. To further hamper ones enjoyment and enrichment is the language in which it is written. It is difficult to understand upon the first reading the meanings of many of the lines. The reader must first process the sentence to comprehend just what is being said. Then the reader must proceed to
analyze the sentence for content. Finally, the reader must place that sentence in the context of the entire line.

Modern readers of Greek plays are at an enormous disadvantage. It would be absurd to assume that the average student would be able to read and accurately analyze these plays all on their own without any guidance. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t study Greek plays, but if one were to study them, I would highly recommend finding a proficient and patient professor, preferably one who is more historically inclined. In a more honest summary, I hate studying Greek plays.