Reading The Classical Dramatists In The Best Order

oxford companion

What order should one read the great dramas of antiquity? One could make the case that one should read them chronologically according to when they were written.  However, I’ve decided to go another way…

Below, I have listed the plays to read in the chronological order of their SUBJECT-MATTER.

I’ve also jotted down the main situation or characters for some of the plays.

The first time I list a playwright, I give his best-guess birthdate  [a question mark (?) means there’s more than usual doubt as to the true authorship of a particular play].

I have not myself yet read all the plays, so I can’t critique them, too– but I did find this site, ancient-literature.com, which looks pretty cool.

Personally, I am awed by the number of interesting and powerful female characters in the plays, so I note some of these, as well.

Oh, I also list [in brackets] a few works written much later in history but based on the same stories.  I just jotted these down as they popped into my head, and would love to hear of other high-caliber works which deserve bracketed mention in this list.

—   —   —

SECTION I: THE GODS

Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus (?) (b. 525 bc; Greek): Prometheus punished for helping mankind; a good read and culturally important

[Prometheus Unbound by Percy Shelley (English): Prometheus gets a happier ending; I seem to recall long boring passages]

Bacchae by Euripides (b. 485 bc; Greek): Dionysus, Penthius; Agave; women in a cult tear a man to pieces in their religious frenzy; one of the more referenced of E’s plays.

.

SECTION II: HERACLES

Alcestis by Euripides; starring Heracles

Heracles aka Madness Of Heracles by Euripides; crazed Heracles mistakenly kills his own children

Hercules Furens by Seneca; same story as above

Trachiniae by Sophocles (b. 496 bc; Greek); Heracles’ wife Deaineira is jealous of his new girl Iola; she asks Nessus the centaur for help; this one seems to be anthologized fairly often

Hercules Oetaeus by Seneca (?); same story as above

Children Of Heracles by Euripides; Hercules’ children are being attacked; haven’t read it, and it doesn’t sound great

.

SECTION III: MEDEA and PHAEDRA STORIES

Medea by Euripides; Medea is crazy-angry at husband Jason who is putting her aside for daughter of Creon (I call this Creon, “Creon I”; there’s another Creon in other plays that is the father-in-law of Oedipus); important female character to know

Medea by Seneca; same story as above; not sure which version is the modernly favored one

Hippolytus by Euripides; Phaedra (sister of Ariadne) falls in love with Hippolytus who, unfortunately, is her husband Theseus’s son from another marriage; Phaedra is an important female character to know

Phaedra by Seneca; same story as above

[Phedra by Racine]

.

SECTION IV: OEDIPUS STORIES

Oedipus Tyrannus by Sophocles; Oedipus discovers he has mistakenly married his mother Jocasta; Teiresias, Creon (“Creon II,” brother of Jocasta); perhaps the greatest classical drama

Oedipus by Seneca; same story as above

Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus; Oedipus’s sons fight, both die, but son Polyneices is forbidden burial; his sister (O’s daughter) Antigone says she will bury him anyway

Oedipus Coloneus by Sophocles; blind Oedipus; Antigone, Theseus; “Creon II”

Phoenissae by Seneca; same basic subject matter as Oedipus Coloneus

Phoenician Women by Euripedes; Antigone’s brothers kill each other; she and her blind pops, Oedipus, go on their way

Antigone by Sophocles; “Creon II” has forbidden burial of Polyneices; Antigone goes against Creon’s wishes; Teiresias; Eurydice (Creon’s wife); important female character to know

Suppliants, The  by Euripides; Theseus makes sure the Seven Against Thebes get a decent burial

.

SECTION V: CURSE OF HOUSE ATREUS; TROJAN WAR AND AFTERMATH

Thyestes by Seneca The Younger (b. 4 bc; Roman); Atreus (father of Agamemnon), Thyestes, Ghost Of Tantalus (Agamemnon’s great-grandfather)

Iphigeneia At Aulis  by Euripides; Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia so the Greeks can sail to Troy

Iphigeneia In Tauris  by Euripides; in this version of the story, Iphigeneia has actually survived the sacrifice-ritual and has her own adventure

Philoctetes  by Sophocles; Philoctetes has been marooned by the Greeks on their way to Troy; Odysseus and Ajax (I think it was him) return to get the Bow Of Heracles possessed by Philoctetes, who is, understandably, not disposed to help them

Rhesus  by Euripides (?); a dramatization of the tenth book of The Iliad; Odysseus and Diomedes on a night sortie; Rhesus is a king come to help the opposing Trojans

Ajax  by Sophocles; Ajax goes mad; some big names from The Iliad appear

Hecuba  by Euripides; ghost of Achilles demands that Hecuba sacrifice her daughter Polyxena; bad enough, but then the corpse of Hecuba’s son washes up

Helen  by Euripides; in this version, Helen never went to Troy, but to Egypt instead, where hubbie Menelaus later finds her for a happy ending

Trojan Women  by Euripides; the sad fate of the womenfolk of defeated Troy

Trojan Women  by Seneca; same basic story as above

Andromache  by Euripides; Hermione tries to kill the captured concubine, Andromache (widow of Hector), of husband Neoptolemus; Menelaus and Orestes make appearances

[Andromache  by Racine]

Cyclops  by Euripides; Odysseus, Polydorus the cyclops, Dionysus the god

Oresteia I: Agamemnon   by Aeschylus; Agamemnon returns from the Trojan war to be killed by wife Clytemnestra because he sacrificed their daughter Iphigeneia before he left; other cast: Cassandra, Aegisthus; not sure if Electra and Orestes have major roles in this one or not; important story and female character (Clytemenstra)

Agamemnon  by Seneca; also about the death of Agamemnon

Oresteia II: The Libation Bearers, aka The Choephoroe   by Aeschylus; Orestes returns to aid his sister Electra after their father has been murdered by their mother

Electra by Sophocles;  Orestes arrives to avenge pop’s death; Electra, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus; important female character

Electra  by Euripides; same basic story as above

Oresteia III: The Eumenides, aka The Furies, aka The Kindly Ones   by Aeschylus; Orestes pursued by The Furies to Athens for a trial presided over by Athena; doesn’t sound very intriguing to me

Orestes  by Euripides; after the patricide, Orestes goes mad; Electra, Menelaus, Helen, Hermione

.

SECTION VI: THE REST…

Persians, The   by Aeschylus

Octavia  by Seneca (?)

Ion  by Euripedes

Suppliants, The   by Aeschylus

—– —– —–

And if Comedy’s your thing…

Pumpkininfication of Claudius, The   by Seneca (?)

plays of Aristophanes (Greek); more political than the other comedians

plays of Menander (Greek); writes “New Comedy” (less heroic, more sitcom-y)

plays of Terence (Roman); often using Menander’s plays as a basis

plays of Plautus (Roman); often using Menander’s plays as a basis

[plays of Shakespeare (English); several of his comedies use classic plays as a basis]

—– —– ——

Some Personalities Helpful To Know Before Reading:

Prometheus

Dionysus

Penthius

Agave

Heracles

Deaineira

Nessus The Centaur

Medea

Jason

Creon I (King Of Corinth in the Medea & Jason story)

Phaedra

Hippolytus

Theseus

Oedipus

Jocasta

Teiresias (several blind seers)

Creon II (Regent of Thebes and brother of Jocasta)

Polyneices

Antigone

Eurydice

Tantalus

Atreus

Iphigeneia

Philoctetes

Odysseus

Ajax

Diomedes

Agamemnon

Menelaus

Helen

Andromache

Cassandra

Hecuba

Achilles

Polyxena

Hermione

Neoptolemus

Orestes

Clytemnestra

Aegisthus

Electra

Polydorus

—– —– —–

main source:

The Concise Oxford Companion To Classical Literature ed’d by M.C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers

 

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