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Supporting Materials for Lectures

Lecture 6: The Basic Plot Types

The plots of Greek plays seem in general to fall into four categories, (i) sacrifice-plots, (ii) suppliant plots, (iii) homecoming-plots, and (iv) quest-plots. Consider each of these four types. Discuss the kinds of plot types that do not exist, such as love-stories like Romeo and Juliet, Dido and Aeneas, and Twelfth Night or stories of spiritual salvation, such as passion plays, Faust or Parsifal.


  • S. Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk Literature (Bloomington 1932-6).
  • V. Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (Bloomington 1958).
  • R. Lattimore, Story Patterns in Greek Tragedy (Ann Arbor 1965), esp. 46-9.
  • A. J. Greimas, "Les actants, les acteurs, et le figures," Semiotique narrative et textuelle, ed. C. Chabroi (Paris 1973).
  • A. P. Burnett, Catastrophe Survived: Euripides' Plays of Mixed Reversal (Oxford 1971) passim.
  • D. Hensius, On Plot in Tragedy, trans. P. Sellin and J. McManmon (Northridge, Ca. 1971).
  • O. Taplin, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus (Oxford 1977) 124, 192.
  • B. Berke, Tragic Thought and the Grammar of Tragic Myth (Bloomington, Ind. 1982).


  1. Sacrifice Plots
    Consider the number of individuals who are sacrificed in Greek tragedy: Alcestis (Eur. Alc. passim), Iphigeneia (Aesch. Agam. 100ff, Eur. IA), Makaria (Eur. Heracleidae 50ff), Polyxena (Eur. Hecuba 518-83), Menoeceus (Soph. Ant. 1302, Eur. Phoen. 913), cf. Protesilaus in Iliad 2.699-702 and less relevantly Palinurus in Vergil, Aeneid 5. Compare the story of Japhtha's daughter (Judges 11). Note that literal blood-sacrifice never takes place during any extant play except for the sacrifice of the wine-skin in Ar. Thesm.; sometimes awkward interventions are necessary to avoid having it take place (e.g. Ar. Peace 1017, Birds 848, Acharnians 241). Sacrifice is sometimes for the good of the state (Polyxena, Menoeceus, Iphigeneia) and sometimes for that of the family (Antigone, Alcestis). Old men are never the victims, young men seldom so, virgins almost always. The sacrificial victim is almost always a volunteer and in a religious context would be a martyr.


    • J. Schmitt, "Freiwilliger Opfertod bei Euripides," Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Borarbeiten 17 (1921) 1-103.
    • P. Roussel, "Le thème du sacrifice volontaire dans la tragédie d'Euripide," Revue Belge de philologie et d'histoire (1922) 225-40.
    • K. Meuli, "Griechische Opferbrauche," in O. Gigon, ed. Phyllobolia = Festschrift P. von der Mühll (Basel 1946) 195-288.
    • C. Fontenoy, "Le sacrifice nuptial de Polyxena," Antiquité Classique 19 (1950) 383-96.
    • H. M. Schreiber, Iphigenies Opfertod (Frankfurt 1963).
    • F. Zeitlin, "The Motif of the Corrupted Sacrifice in Aeschylus' Oresteia," Transactions of the American Philological Association 96 (1965) 463-508.
    • F. Zeitlin, "Postscript to Sacrificial Imagery in the Oresteia," Transactions of the American Philological Association 97 (1966) 645-53.
    • W. Burkert, "Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual," Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 7 (1966) 87-121.
    • R. Rebuffat, "Le sacrifice du fils de Creon dans les Phéniciennes d'Euripide," Revue des études anciennes 74 (1972f) 14-31.
    • D. Sansone, "The Sacrifice-Motif in Euripides' IT," Transactions of the American Philological Association 105 (1975) 283-96.
    • R. Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore 1977).
    • A. Henrichs, "Human Sacrifice in Greek Religion: Three Case Studies," 221-33 in Le sacrifice dans l'antiquité (Geneva 1981).
    • R. Somsen, "The Sacrifice of Agamemnon's Daughter in Hesiod's Ehoeae," American Journal of Philology 102 (1981) 353ff.
    • (A. M. Eckstein, "Human Sacrifice and Fear of Military Disaster in Republican Rome," American Journal of Ancient History 7 [1982] 75-81.)
    • H. P. Foley, Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides (Ithaca, NY 1985).
    • J. Bremmer, "Scapegoat Rituals in Ancient Greece," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 87 (1983) 299-320.
    • N. Loraux (A. Forster trans.), Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman (Cambridge, Mass. 1987).
    • E. A. M. E. O-Connor-Visser, Aspects of Human Sacrifice in the Tragedies of Euripides (Amsterdam 1987).


  2. Suppliant Story-Pattern
    See Aesch. Suppl., Eur. Suppl., Heracleidae. The suppliant or supplicant was the ancient world's equivalent of the refugee. Those most often in need of refuge are women and children, and they sought sanctuary by means of touch, either of chin (genus), knee (gonu) or altar.


    • W. Headlam, "The Last Scene in the Eumenides," Journal of Hellenic Studies 26 (1906) 266-77.
    • J. Kopperschmidt, Die Hikesie als dramatische Form (dissertation Tübingen 1967).
    • J. Pitt-Rivers, "Women and Sanctuary in the Mediterranean," in J. Pouillon and P. Maranda edd., Mélanges Lévi-Strauss (The Hague 1970) vol. 2 pp. 862-75.
    • J. Gould, "Hiketeia," Journal of Hellenic Studies 93 (1973) 74-103.
    • P. Burian, "Suppliant and Savior: Oedipus at Colonus," Phoenix 28 (1974) 408-29 = H. Bloom ed., Sophocles (New York 1990) 77-96.
    • V. Pedrick, "Supplication in the Iliad and the Odyssey," Transactions of the American Philological Association 112 (1982) 125-40.
    • E. Csapo, "Hikesia in the Telephus of Aeschylus," Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica 63 (1990) 41-52.
    • J. P. Wilson, The Hero and the City (Ann Arbor 1997) 29-62.


  3. Homecoming-Story-Pattern
    The revenge-tragedy that is so familiar to students of Elizabethan theatre, e.g. Shakespeare, Hamlet, is found in the classical drama (see A. P. Burnett, "Medea and the Tragedy of Revenge," Classical Philology 68 [1973] 1-24, and R. Meridor, "Hecuba's Revenge," American Journal of Philology 99 [1978] 28-35), but usually as a component of the homecoming (nostos, origin of the English word, "nostalgia") story-pattern. The homecoming is often linked to (i) revenge: e.g. Odyssey, Aesch. Sept., Ag. Lib. Bearers, Soph. El., OT, Eur. El., Bacchae, (ii) when the person returning kills those at home, as when Theseus forgot to change the colour of his sails or with the hero who cannot leave his work at the office, e.g. Soph. Aj., Eur. Heracles, W. B. Yeats, "Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea" and J. Shay, Achilles in Vietnam (New York 1994), (iii) when the person returning is killed by those at home like Agamemnon or finds his home in ruins like Theseus in Eur. Hipp., or (iv) sacrifice like Jephthah's daughter (Judges 11.29-40, Beauty and the Beast). Note that we all get together to throw things at victors: the tickertape parade and its ancient forerunner, the phyllobolia or "throwing of leaves" where the leaves are a harmless substitute for more lethal weapons such as stones (See W. Burkert, Homo Necans [Berkeley 1983] 5). Is the person who returns the same as the one who went away (cf. Le retour de Martin Guerre, Summersby)? Note the relation of homecoming to choice (with disguise and recognition) and error (with subsequent recognition).


    • U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Homerische Untersuchungen (Berlin 1884) 114 and 162 note (on "the return of the hero at the new moon").
    • H. J. Treston, Poine : a Study in Ancient Greek Blood-Vengeance (London 1923) 276-422.
    • M. L. Lord, "Withdrawal and Return: An Epic Story Pattern in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the Homeric Poems," Classical Journal 62 (1966-7) 241-8.
    • D. Frame, The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic (New Haven 1978).
    • K. Crotty, Song and Action (Baltimore and London 1982) 104-38.
    • C. A. Sowa, Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns (Chicago 1984) 95-120.
    • W. J. Slater, "Nemean One: The Victor's Return in Poetry and Politics," 241-64 in D. E. Gerber ed., Greek Poetry and Philosophy = Festschrift L. E. Woodbury (Chico, Ca 1984).


  4. Quest Story-Pattern
    This story-pattern is typical of comedy. The eiron is on a quest to ride the alazon out of town, as in a western. Sometimes instead he goes to bring somebody back to the community, e.g. Ar. Peace in which Trygaeus flies to heaven on a dung-beetle to seek Zeus's help in ending the Peloponnesian war, and Frogs in which Dionysus goes to Hell to bring back the recently dead Euripides.


    • W. Burkert, "Goes: zum griechische Schamanismus," Rheinische Museum 105 (1962) 36-55.
    • H. Lloyd-Jones, "Heracles at Eleusis," Maia 19 (1967) 206-29 = Greek Epic, Lyric and Tragedy (Oxford 1990) 167-87.
    • W. Burkert, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London 1972) 78-98.
    • M. Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (New York 1964).

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