The Progenitors of Plays: 4 Greatest Dramatists From Classical Greece

“I often teach a graduate theater seminar on Greek tragedy in performance. I usually begin by saying that no matter what technological advances occur, the wisdom of these plays will never be obsolete.”

Neil Patrick Harris

The acclaimed How I Mate Your Mother actor’s words cannot be more true. It can be rightfully said that the ancient Greeks were people who were successful in truly understanding the human psyche. Their comprehensive psychological and scientific explorations led them to a plethora of discoveries. Like most things, it was the Greeks who first sowed the seeds of Western Literature. Their works were as original as they can be. That is quite natural as they did not have any predecessors from whom they could be inspired. Surprisingly, these early works, produced centuries ago, are still relevant today. In fact, there are authors and playwrights who continue to draw inspiration from the early Greek writings.

The vast scope of early Greek literature can be demarcated into three categories: Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic. The 4th and 5th centuries are considered to be the Classical Age of Greek Literature. This era saw the emergence of drama. The plays that we have now all started from the ones that took shape during this age. The Greeks not only considered dramas to be a medium of entertainment but also a means of education. Performed in the outdoors usually during religious ceremonies, these acts provided a spectacular spectacle for the spectators. When performed today, they still manage to bring about pity and fear, the primary goals of a Greek tragedy as per Aristotle, in us.

Let us look at some of the greatest dramatists of Classical Greece.


Time: 525 – 456 BCE

Herma of Aeschylus, Klas08

Photo credit: Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Aeschylus was born in Eleusis in a well-to-do family. He played a significant role in the Battle of Marathon against the Persians.

Aeschylus is known as the Father of Tragedy in most circles. Rightfully so, as he was the one who started the use of multiple characters in theatre. His characters interacted with each other instead of the chorus. Indeed, he was the first one to bring lifelike storylines on stage. Unfortunately, out of the 90 plays that he is believed to have authored only 7 are available today. Some of his best-known works are The Persians, the trilogy of The Oresteia, and Prometheus Bound. Most of his plays were based on Greek myths. The recurrent theme was the suffering of man and divine justice. Aeschylus was honored with awards for his works at the City Dionysia. Fun fact, he was a member of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a cult whose members were blessed with the knowledge of the afterlife.


Time: 496 – 406 BCE

Sophocles pushkin

Photo credit: user:shakko, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sophocles remains one of the most celebrated dramatists of all time. Even in Ancient Greece, he was renowned for his works and was the recipient of various accolades. During a long period of almost five decades, his works were applauded and appreciated throughout Greece. He won 24 out of 30 dramatic competitions that took place in Athens during the festivals of Dionysia and Lenaea. Although we only have 7 of his 120 plays remaining today, they have survived in their entirety. Being translated into over 130 languages, his plays have reached all the corners of the world. His Electra, Oedipus Rex, and Antigone are all works of excellence. In fact, it might very well be that Freud was inspired to come up with his famous psychological diagnoses of Electra Complex and Oedipus Complex after reading Sophocles’ plays.


Time: 484 – 407 BCE


Photo credit: NikonZ7II, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Euripides brought about a lot of innovations in his plays. Though he was not as successful in the competitions as Sophocles or Aeschylus, his influence in the modern theatre is undeniable. Defying conventions, he portrayed his mythical heroes to be common people facing uncommon circumstances. It was Euripides who popularized the trope of underdogs championing in the end. He drew female characters who were strong and slaves who were wise. Nevertheless, he remains the most tragic of the Ancient Greek poets. Out of his 90 plays, Hippolytus, Trojan Women, and Orestes are the most renowned.


Time: 450 – 386 BCE

Bust of Aristophanes

Photo credit: Alexander Mayatsky, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Instead of tragedies, Aristophanes authored comedies. The Athenian was an accomplished creator of the old comedy. In fact, Aristophanes is hailed as the Father of Comedy. Out of 40 of his plays, around 11 have survived in addition to 32 titles and fragments. Some of his well-known works are Knights, Lysistrata, Thesmophoriazusae, The Frogs, and The Clouds. It is believed that Aristophanes’ works were an apt reflection of contemporary Athens. His plays were satires of public personas and affairs. He did not shy away from making political criticisms as well. His plays were fraught with obscene jokes and characters wearing grotesque masks. His contemporaries dreaded becoming the subjects of his plays. In fact, his play, The Clouds, portrayed Socrates, the celebrated philosopher, as a corrupt teacher of rhetoric. Many believe that this slanderous play led to Socrates’ downfall and eventual execution. Despite all this, Aristophanes’ plays had a moral or social lesson.


When we think of Classical Greece, we conjure up an image of a stunning place where people engage in scintillating debates, bring about radical notions in science and philosophy, get excited for the original Olympics, and become the audience of well-performed dramas. In our minds, it is a time of enlightenment and humanism. This is all because of the writings of the writers of the time. Through their works, the authors have done an epic job of preserving their country’s history. At the same time, the Ancient Greek dramas, be they comedy or tragedy, have played an invaluable role in the development of modern theatre. If looked closely, you will still find elements of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, or Aristophanes’ works in today’s dramas. From Shakespeare to George Bernard Shaw, all have acknowledged the supremacy of Ancient Greek dramas. Hence, it is no surprise that these dramas from centuries past are still studied in detail today.

Do comment and let me know if you are intrigued by the Classical Greek plays. 

2 thoughts on “The Progenitors of Plays: 4 Greatest Dramatists From Classical Greece

  1. Greece is, indeed, the cradle of Western civilization. I found it especially interesting to know that it was Aeschylus who introduced multiple characters in a play. Amazing! I would like to know what’s happening in Greece’s cultural scene right now…I’ll have to look that up.


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