Greek Tragic Heroes and Heroines, Popular Misunderstandings

Greek Tragic Heroes and Heroines, Popular Misunderstandings

Greek Tragic Heroes and Heroines, Popular Misunderstandings

What prooves the most, the power and the permanent influence of ancient Greek tragedy in our current civilization, is the corpus of the 'archetypes', we have inherited from these theatrical plays.

It is, beyond any possible doubt, a sheer undeniable fact to be honest, that, whenever we want to refer to any given 'rebellion' against state authority for higher moral reasons, we think of Antigone's fight against Creon's authority.

Whenever we read about the most common and universal psychological complexes, we immediatelly come with the name of Oedipus and the Freudian 'Oedipus complex'.

If it happens to read in the crime section of a newspaper that a mother killed her children in a state of 'frenzy', we, almost automatically, think of Euripides' Medea.


What are not so apparent and self-evident are the depth, the breadth and the complexities of these archetypes within the context of the authentic ancient Greek tragedies.

Today, a day devoted to theatre, is a fine and most welcomed chance to take a quick but revealing glance at some popular misunderstandings, we usually have regarding these ancient Greek tragic heroes and heroines.


We tend to understand Sophocles's Oedipus as a man who was devastated by a hideous crime of incest and the crime of patricide he commited unknowingly.

Indeed, this is true but only the half and thus it is quite close to a lie. Sophocles's Oedipus is a man that takes full responsibillity for his deeds even when his actions could be forgiven.

He did not know that he was killing his father or that he was married to his mother. In this level, we have 'ignorance versus responsibility'.

Instead then of viewing Oedipus as either a 'victim of circumstances' or as a 'criminal with some mitigating elements', we start seeing the whole picture that Sophocles wanted us to see.

Going to the next level, Oedipus personifies the eternal fight between 'ignorance' and 'innocence'.

Oedipus can be either free and responsible for his actions man or he can choose to declare 'innocent'.

Sophocles then, will always remind us the unbearable burden we need to carry if we aspire to call ourselves 'free' men.

In this way however, Oedipus is a positive hero and not a 'puppet' in the hands of fate.


Medea personifies in our eyes a horrible possibility.

A mother chooses to deny her motherhood for the shake of her feelings of erotic vengeance against her lover and husband.

Again, this is only the half true. Medea personifies the universal fight of women to stand for their rights. In a more general view, Medea personifies the demand of every 'minority' to have rights in the first place.

Medea saved Jason's life because of love.

She even denied her family, her country and her culture to be with the man she loved.

She realised however that for Jason she was only a 'tool', a medium for something else.

She wanted to make a stand against the contempt she felt from Jason and his fellowmen.

She knows that she commits one of the most horrible crimes but she wants to make Jason and his country to understand that we cannot scorn the existence of a human being without consequences.

In this way however, Euripides' Medea is transformed from an absolute example of egotism to an example of where we can find ourselves when we ignore other people's rights.


In Sophocles's Antigone we do have the fight between state law and moral law. Antigone however personifies something bigger and more valuable, the absolute power and the undeniable merit of pure love.

Antigone acts not as a rebel but as a sister that loves the most her brother, as a daughter who loves sincerely her parents and as a young woman who loves her fiance.

In this way, her paradigm is, par excellence, a bright example of love's power and not a 'moral rebellion'.

Antigone makes us understand that 'love conquers everything'.


What we wrote are nothing but a small fragment of the power of the ancient Greek tragedies.

We tend to stay in the surface of our lives. If, however, we will find the strength to approach these plays with pure heart and clear mind, we will be amazed by their creative genious and their psychological depth.

By doing so, we will definitely enrich our existences.


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Georgios Patios - Lecturer in Philosophy

Dr Georgios Patios, Lecturer in Philosophy

Professor- Writer of Ancient Greek Theatre - A Modern Approach