Citizenship and Ancient Greek Drama

Citizenship and Ancient Greek Drama

Why is citizenship (the quality of being a citizen) a basic component of ancient Greek drama

A complex form of art hailing from the 5th century B.C., the ancient Greek drama (tragedy and comedy) raises crucial questions about the human condition and human societies. Notwithstanding that these plays were written over 2,500 years ago, these questions persist, evident in the fact that ancient Greek dramas are still popular and performed in contemporary theatres all around the world.

Among the various issues problematized in ancient Greek drama is citizenship, that is, the concept of individual responsibility vis-à-vis the collectivity of the polis. This issue is impossible to ignore, insofar as theatre theorists are compelled to comprehend the various ways in which the problematic of citizenship is inscribed in ancient Greek drama in order to draw parallels between ancient drama and contemporary reality. The individual stance of the dramatic hero or heroine invariably forms part of the social collective. In classical times, the individual is not conceived as an isolated entity tormented by violent inner conflicts in a social vacuum. Rather, the hero is conceptualized as a personality whose stance and position are shaped and defined in the wider moral, ideological, and political context of the polis. This contextualization is especially emphasized in ancient drama (tragedy and comedy), precisely because the society of classical Athens, which provides the setting for all surviving ancient Greek dramas, is a society operating on the basis of a direct, radical, and participatory democracy. Within this context, citizens argue for or against an issue that is open for public consultation and which is then decided upon through open voting. Classical Athenians legislate, pass judgment, decide on the interior and foreign affairs of the polis and participate en masse in spectacular celebrations which serve to enhance the sense of community. A case in point is the Great Dionysia: almost all the surviving Greek dramas (barring a few comedies) were first presented at that particular festival.

Evidently, the language of ancient Greek dramas conveys the thoughts, mentality, and behaviour of individuals whose main and substantial occupation is the lawmaking and administration of their polis. Significantly enough, this emphasis on social issues does not, in any way, diminish the hero’s personal will and responsibility for their decisions. On the contrary, it is of great interest to investigate how individuals, in defining their place in the world (this, often, being the tragedy’s main thematic concern) take into consideration all the variables regarding the collectivity of the polis. In effect, the tragic dilemma is often the dilemma of an individual torn between his identification with the community or his conflict with it. Sophocles’ Antigone is a prominent example of this dilemma. The tragedy is usually interpreted as the story of an obstinate young woman who defies political power and places familial interests above an unjust and blind political edict. What is really the issue here, though, is how it is possible to subvert an ostensibly “just,” or, at the very least, “predictable” political edict, such as the one issued by Creon – treason in ancient Greece was punishable by death, and burial of the culprit in Athenian grounds was strictly prohibited – without this subversion inciting further civil conflicts. Antigone’s persistence in burying her treasonous brother has two consequences: first, she effectively destroys her father’s lineage; secondly, she re-ignites the civil conflict that had just ceased in Thebes. In admiring Antigone’s indisputable heroic qualities, contemporary audiences often forget that they conceive the character in contemporary, idealistic terms rather than in terms of “social embarrassment” and “subversion,” as ancient theatre-goers probably would. In their shared obstinacy, both Creon and Antigone destroy the unity of the polis. In that sense, they are both a-polides, according to the modern Greek philosopher Cornelius Kastoriadis.

Citizenship as a theme for our times

Ancient Greek tragedies can be said to be a study in the crisis of citizenship. The latter often assumes the form of a civil conflict; this conflict is symbolically conveyed through the themes of disease and excessive personal pride (hubris) in Oedipus Rex and Antigone respectively. Perhaps more than ever before, we are called upon today to anatomize this crisis of citizenship. In periods of crisis such as ours, during which man-made, political systems are tested to their core, contemporary individuals seek to shed light to fundamental human questions, in quest of a personal identity. In the contemporary Western world, particularly here in Greece, the concept of collectivity appears to substitute and replenish a weak, decaying, or corrupt political system. Individuals redefine their place in the world, not on the basis of a rigidly fixed individualism, but on the principle of involvement, rehabilitation, and self-redefinition within a dynamic collective of solidarity.

Efimia Karakantza
Assistant Professor of Ancient Greek Literature
University of Patras
Jocasta Classical Reception Greece (