Vol 9 (2019)
Articles

To what extent does the presentation of the gods in Greek tragedy reflect the real-life experience of the audience?

Alexander F. Garvie
University of Glasgow
Published November 19, 2020

Abstract

The idea that Greek tragedy is essentially didactic, that it aims to present in particular the simple, and comforting, moral idea that the gods always punish the wicked and reward the well-behaved, should be rejected, on the grounds that it is neither tragic nor true. We should not take it for granted that the behaviour of onstage gods or what is said about them by the human characters coincides with the beliefs and expectations of real-life people. What matters is the contribution that they make to the construction of a dramatic plot and to the manipulation of an audience’s reactions and sympathies. The tragedians may invite their audiences to consider such matters as the relationship between divine and human responsibility, and why it is that the gods so often allow good people to suffer, while bad people do not, but they rarely, if ever, provide a satisfactory solution. Why should we expect them to do the impossible? Such questions are deliberately left open at the end of a play.