Typical Structure of a Greek Play

Bruce MacLennan

It is worth keeping in mind that ancient Greek drama is less like modern plays and more like opera (which was intended, in fact, as a revival of Greek drama). Hence music and dance were an essential part of Greek drama (although, unfortunately, only the words have survived). There are two or three singer-actors (who may take several roles each) and a chorus of twelve to fifteen, generally arranged in a rectangle. In addition there is a musician playing the double reed-pipe (aulos) and possibly supernumeraries ("spear-carriers"). (Greek drama evolved; these remarks apply primarily to the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and to the "old comedy" of Aristophanes. Furthermore, there will always be exceptions when the following analyses are applied to actual plays; see the structural analysis of Oedipus the King for an example.)

Typical Structure of a Tragedy

  1. Prologue: A monologue or dialogue preceding the entry of the chorus, which presents the tragedy's topic.

  2. Parode (Entrance Ode): The entry chant of the chorus, often in an anapestic (short-short-long) marching rhythm (four feet per line). Generally, they remain on stage throughout the remainder of the play. Although they wear masks, their dancing is expressive, as conveyed by the hands, arms and body.

    Typically the parode and other choral odes involve the following parts, repeated in order several times:

    1. Strophê (Turn): A stanza in which the chorus moves in one direction (toward the altar).
    2. Antistrophê (Counter-Turn): The following stanza, in which it moves in the opposite direction. The antistrophe is in the same meter as the strophe.
    3. Epode (After-Song): The epode is in a different, but related, meter to the strophe and antistrophe, and is chanted by the chorus standing still. The epode is often omitted, so there may be a series of strophe-antistrophe pairs without intervening epodes.

  3. Episode: There are several episodes (typically 3-5) in which one or two actors interact with the chorus. They are, at least in part, sung or chanted. Speeches and dialogue are typically iambic hexameter: six iambs (short-long) per line, but rhythmic anapests are also common. In lyric passages the meters are treated flexibly. Each episode is terminated by a stasimon:

  4. Stasimon (Stationary Song): A choral ode in which the chorus may comment on or react to the preceding episode.

  5. Exode (Exit Ode): The exit song of the chorus after the last episode.

Typical Structure of a Comedy

Aristophanic comedies have a more elaborate structure than the typical tragedy. The chorus is also larger: 24 (as opposed to 12-15).

  1. Prologue: As in tragedies.

  2. Parode (Entrance Ode): As in tragedies, but the chorus takes up a position either for or against the hero.

  3. Agôn (Contest): Two speakers debate the issue (typically with eight feet per line), and the first speaker loses. Choral songs may occur towards the end.

  4. Parabasis (Coming Forward): After the other characters have left the stage, the chorus members remove their masks and step out of character to address the audience.

    First the chorus leader chants in anapests (eight per line) about some important, topical issue, typically ending with a breathless tongue twister.

    Next the chorus sings, and there are typically four parts to the choral performance:

    1. Ode: Sung by one half of the chorus and addressed to a god.
    2. Epirrhema (Afterword): A satyric or advisory chant (eight trochees [long-short] per line) on contemporary issues by the leader of that half-chorus.
    3. Antode (Answering Ode): An answering song by the other half of the chorus in the same meter as the ode.
    4. Antepirrhema (Answering Afterword) An answering chant by the leader of the second half-chorus, which leads back to the comedy.

  5. Episode: As in tragedies, but primarily elaborating on the outcome of the agon.

  6. Exode (Exit Song): As in tragedy, but with a mood of celebration and possibly with a riotous revel (cômos), joyous marriage, or both.


  1. Feder, L., Crowell's Handbook of Classical Literature (Crowell 1964), s.vv. comedy; tragedy.
  2. Hornblower, S., & Spawforth, A. (eds.), Oxford Classical Dict. (3rd ed., Oxford 1996), s.vv.
  3. Howatson, M. C. (ed.), Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (2nd ed., Oxford 1989), s.vv. comedy; metre; strophê; tragedy; triad.
  4. Preminger, A., & Brogan, T. V. F. (eds.), New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton 1993), s.vv. antistrophe; epode; parabasis; stasimon; strophe.
  5. Taplin, O., Greek Tragedy in Action (California 1978), pp. 12-13, 19-20, 184n11.

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Last updated: Tue Sep 14 14:32:07 EDT 1999