Departmental Papers (Classical Studies)

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Journal Article

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Illinois Classical Studies



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Classical Athenian tragedy is often thought of as a genre of poetry about death. Its plots center on the deaths—violent, untimely, self-inflicted, or brought about by unwitting philoi—of certain individuals who dominate the plays in which they appear: Agamemnon, Ajax, Oedipus, Antigone, Pentheus, Hippolytus, Heracles. Drawing its audience into the experience of those characters, tragedy forces that audience to look death in the face, to learn what it might be like to see death coming or to be overtaken by it suddenly, to choose and welcome death or to fight it unsuccessfully. But no more than any other genre can tragedy actually represent the experience of death. However skillfully the poet may build a link of identification between spectator and character, that link is severed with the character's life and the spectator is given a vicarious experience: the opportunity to make sense of someone else's death. This might be viewed as a limitation of the genre—although it is a limitation shared with the human imagination itself, which can never really envision what it is like to die—or, alternatively, as its proper business, for tragedy is arguably as much about the experience of surviving others' deaths as it is about dying.

Copyright/Permission Statement

Published as “The Survivors’ Song: The Drama of Mourning in Euripides’ Alcestis,” Illinois Classical Studies 24-25 (1999-2000) 107-116. Available at (c) 1999-2000 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

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Date Posted: 27 July 2016