Ektos sumphorās: Tragic Athens

in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought
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It is orthodox to state that tragedy encourages its audience to meditate on questions related to living in the polis with the resulting claim that it should promote self-examination among its citizen-spectators. The evidence that tragedy is political in some sense is incontrovertible. And yet, given what is sometimes seen on stage, it is worth exploring this orthodoxy a little and asking if there are limitations to it. In particular, what happens when the city of Athens itself is brought into close contact with tragic suffering? It seems that there were limits to what the Athenians were willing to see of suffering that directly involved their city. This paper suggests that by its nature, tragedy must always contain the possibility of not challenging, but rather reaffirming, the audience’s beliefs about their own city and thus themselves. Modern scholars may possibly over-estimate the Athenians’ ability for self-critique.



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