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Master Class II: Tragedy and the Human Condition: Four Greek Plays

Professor Stanley Chodorow

We continue to read and explore the Greek tragedies because of their many complex meanings and their universal relevance to the human condition. Such profound ideas can be found in four of the greatest Greek tragedies: Agamemnon (Aeschylus), Oedipus the King and Antigone (Sophocles), and Hippolytus (Euripides). These plays deal with human stories that the playwrights and their audiences inherited from their ancestors. The stories conveyed grand truths about the human condition — the nature of society and the political community, and the relationships between men and women, between the individual and society, and between the human and the divine. After the introductory lecture, we will devote one session to each of the plays we read. Text: Greek Tragedies 1, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore; 3rd ed. Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most (University of Chicago Press, 2013) (ISBN: 978-0226035284).

October 11: Introduction

Today’s class will be devoted to the creation of drama, an introduction to the playwrights, the role of drama in Athenian society, the place of poets in society, the conflict between poetry and philosophy in fifth century B.C.E. Athens, and the ideologies of Greek culture.

October 25: Aeschylus, Agamemnon: The Dilemma of Greek Society

Aeschylus’s depiction of the story of Agamemnon shows the significance of the Trojan War in Greek culture. Aeschylus emphasizes conflict — between the gods, between husband and wife, between men and women in society. He also explores the relationship between heroic ideals and moral behavior, the idea of the independent woman, and the balance of guilt and innocence.

November 8: Sophocles, Oedipus the King: Knowledge, Character, and Social Order

Oedipus was the solver of the Sphynx’s riddle who had not solved the riddle of himself. His story reveals Greek views of the organic nature of society, of the value of knowledge, and of the predicament of a person in a world that is not fully comprehensible. The play links the tragedy of the individual with that of the family and society as a whole. It reveals the contradictions of personal and social life.

November 22: Sophocles, Antigone: Nature and Civilization

In his Antigone, Sophocles pits the laws of nature, governed by the gods, against the laws of the polis, governed by men. Can they be consistent? Is the law legitimate because it was established properly or because it is substantively just? What counts as just? Must the conflict between divine and human law always be settled in favor of divine law? The play also explores the relationship between life and death. The Greeks did not know about the biological relationship between living and dead, but they knew that life required death.

December 6: Euripides, Hippolytus: The Gods and Men

The action of Hippolytus is framed by the conflict between Artemis (goddess of wisdom and the hunt) and Aphrodite (goddess of love). The conflicts in the play are between reason and passion, honor and dishonor, silence and speech, and the divine and human realms. If rationality is superior to passion, is there a role for passion? If honor leads to injustice, is it honorable? If speech is action, is silence inaction? If the gods manage human affairs, do people have responsibility for anything?

Instructor: Stanley Chodorow is Professor Emeritus at UC San Diego. His field is medieval history, specializing in the history of western legal systems, constitutional ideas, and institutions and political thought. Chodorow was Provost of the University of Pennsylvania from 1994 to 1997 as well as a faculty member and administrator at UCSD, where he also served as Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Planning and Dean of Arts and Humanities. He received his BA and PhD from Cornell University.

Coordinators: Eileen Coblens

Course Number: OSHR-70056   Credit: 0 units


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