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Slide One: The plays performed at the Festival of Dionysus represented a completely new performance genre: drama. Plays like Oedipus Rex, Medea, and Antigone laid the groundwork for the great plays to make up the western canon, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Slide Two: This era also saw the birth and development of a new literary genre: tragedy. In plays like Oedipus Rex, the basic tragic structure in which a character experiences a change from happiness to suffering was codified and refined. In the hands of writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, it became a vehicle for the exploration of some of humanity’s fundamental fears and questions about existence. You can see the same questions being explored in works by Shakespeare, for example, hundreds of years later.
Today, more than 2,000 years later, these plays are still studied by modern tragic playwrights. Slide Three: Finally, the Athenian tragedies were important because they put humans at the center of the story. In the Iliad, for example, the gods are closely involved in the action — they take sides, they intervene on behalf of their heroes, and so on. While gods do appear in these plays, it is the very human protagonists such as Oedipus or Medea who take center stage, and whose actions determine the plot. This change signaled a shift in focus from the supernatural to the human in literature, which would have a profound influence on the Western tradition, particularly after the Middle Ages.