Greek Rules of Drama

In Greek drama, there are two types of plays: tragic and comic. In a tragedy, a well-known, respected, and influential figure suffers a tragic blow that destroys his social standing and financial well-being and often takes his life. In contrast, a comedy deals with a peasant’s advancement through the class system to a better social standing. Tragedy and comedy are polar opposites, with tragedy encompassing a fall from grace, and comedy allowing individuals to rise and prosper. The basic rules for dramas were laid out by Aristotle in his “Poetics.”

Action and Plot

Greek dramas, regardless of whether they are tragedies or comedies, follow a single plotline in a clear way that makes it easy for the audience to follow. Avoiding subplots was an essential rule for Greek dramas. The “unity of action” takes the audience from a single action to the ultimate consequence and conclusion of that action. A complete plot uses a fairly rigid form containing a beginning, middle, and end. The action and plot are the most important rules in a Greek drama and can be viewed as a single rule.


Character comes second to the rules of action and plot. The audience’s emotions should be directly affected by the main character. Fear, empathy, pity, resonance, and identification with the character must be intimately linked to the plot of the play. If the actions of the character do not directly affect the outcomes of the “unity of action,” then the play has failed to address the character. In a tragedy, the subject unwittingly brings about his own demise due to a lack of knowledge. Similarly, in a comedy, the subject succeeds for the same reason.

Diction and Thought

The third rule of a Greek drama deals with a concept called thought that reinforces the action through monologues. By understanding the character’s thoughts, we better understand the motivations and intentions of the subject. In turn, this allows us to feel pity for the character, an essential emotion in dramas. Diction constitutes the fourth most important rule in a tragedy. Diction can be seen as the theme of the drama and the manipulation of words to present and reinforce that theme. Whereas most of the drama’s content presents itself through actions, diction allows for reinforcement of those actions through words.

Song and Spectacle

The fifth rule involves the song or music portion of the drama and serves as an interlude between acts, but music also must reinforce the previous act or foreshadow events to come. The music portion consists of a chorus with rudimentary percussion instruments including bells and drums. Spectacle deals with theatrics that intends to reinforce the acting in the play with sound effects, lighting, and scene changes. By far, the sixth rule of spectacle is the least impressive and artistic of the rules since it relies upon mechanical means to invoke emotions.


Catharsis deals with the conclusion of the drama. Catharsis purges the audience of negative emotions and releases excessive rage, pity, and fear. In comedy, the goal is to invoke catharsis through laughter and hope. With tragedy, the audience deals with the hero’s loss and devastation, and, in turn, feels better about life. Catharsis lets the audience identify with the characters to feel better about their own plights.


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