The importance of drama to fifth century BC Athenian society
Drama has played various significant roles in 5th century BC Athenian society. With its origins dating back to ancient Greece, drama had its humble beginnings as a state festival in Athens, honouring the god Dionysus, god of wine, agriculture, and fertility of nature. Although during the 5th century BC, Athenian theatre was still very much a religious festival, it adopted many other aspects of the Greek political, cultural, social and economical life and in turn relatively contributed to them.
At this time, ancient Greek theatre was thriving, and the political and military supremacy of the nation was at the heart of many of the plays being developed at the time. The three forms of drama to stem were tragedy, comedy and satyr. Despite this religion was a chief element within Greek drama. This is evident in many of the plays, which incorporate the gods into the story. This was not unusual as plays were commonly performed in honour of the gods, as mentioned above. Because of this association drama had with the gods, theatrical performances were extremely important to Athenian society and as a consequence, sourced thousands of people, from all parts of the land to celebrate in the holy festivities. Such honorary festivals were important to Athenian society as they were instilled in their religion and culture. It was believed that in participating in them the gods would perhaps fulfil their requests of good harvest, fertile flock or plentiful rain.
As the gods were seen as humanlike, they portrayed human-characteristics of jealousy, lust, hate, greed, vanity and wrath, and accordingly the protagonist as part of the ‘Greek tragic cycle’ would consequently be punished by the jealous gods for his/hers egocentric characteristics, this is known as the Nemesis. The Nemesis was imperative to Athenian civilization and culture as it reinforced the great power and mightiness of the gods. Another key component to the Greek tragedy is the impetuous decisions made by the protagonist resulted in the punishment. This decision may question the morals and ethics of the Athenian audience as they are placed in a hypothetical position of “what if?” An example of this is Plato’s “Euthyphro”, where Euthyphro, in a conversation with Socrates, uses the instance of Zeus killing his father Cronus as justice for his killing his father.
Drama was also used as a political tool. Festivals had been exported to several Athenian allies to promote a common identity from which bonds could be strengthened. Such relationships were vital for the future of the country, defensively and economically and thus essential to the Athenian society. As mentioned previously, drama developed additional purposes, rather than just its religious purpose, drama also served as a means of mocking major political issues and figures of the era. Drama gave playwrights the opportunity to ridicule high profile personalities in society and to voice out their opinions. Such opinions may not have been accepted or tolerated in real life. Through Greek theatre, an element of role-reversal also emerged. This allowed lower-class citizens to taunt and heckle the upper classes. It also gave women possession of power over men, which was non-existent in reality, to the extent of stopping a war as depicted in Aristophanes’ comedy “Lysistrata”.
Originally, admissions to the festivals were free, however a fee of two obols (approximately 25 cents in today’s currency) was later applied. The statesman, Pericles, then introduced a law which the state compensated this payment for citizens. This course of action shows how the statesmen used the festivals as a political stunt to gain popularity. This is important to Athenian society as it could influence the general public come election time.
Get access to
Guarantee No Hidden