When we think of the term “literature” in modern times immediately novels, short stories, epic and lyric poetry and heavy tomes such as the Norton Anthology come to mind, but in our modern mental compartmentalization we often forget that drama, theater, tragedy and comedy have always been an organic part of literature since times immemorial, a fortiori, in the times before the existence of the printed word or even the invention of writing itself. The even more modern invention of cinematic film also suffers from this artificial separation of performed narrative from written narrative genres and forces us to remind ourselves that it too constitutes an integral part of our modern “literature” and World Literature, the means by which we collectively represent, share and interpret our world and our lives.

Classical Greek Theater

Classical Greek Theater


It is probable that drama in the widest sense—-narrative performances, rites and rituals of primitive religions, tribal ceremonies involving recitation, impersonation, music and dance and campfire enactments of fictional storytelling and divination have been with us from primordial times antedating Neolithic hunter-gatherer societies from the advent of human language. Drama as we know it as an institution of literature, however, may be traced to the birth of tragedy and comedy in Ancient Greece, paralleled by other traditions such a Sanskrit Theater in India and Noh Drama in Japan.

Drama is the specific mode of fiction represented in performance.  The word comes from the Greek word meaning “action,” (δρᾶμα, drama) or “to do.” Unlike written fiction, drama presupposes enactment of a narrative within a theater, performed by actors on a stage before an audience, and is thus by its nature a collaborative means of literary production with a collective form of reception. The development of the dramatic tradition is long and continuous, from such classics as Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” (c. 429 BC) to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (1601) to modern works such as Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956). Indeed, the tradition has been not only continuous over millennia, but highly regenerative, with plays such as Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “A Comedy of Errors” “borrowing” key plots and elements such as the mistaken identity of identical twins, prologues to the audience, and the type of the comic courtesan from the Roman dramatist Plautus’ in his “Menaechmi” and “Amphitryon,” works which in turn owe much to borrowings from the earlier Greek “New Comedy” masters such as Menander of the Periclean era.

Masks of Comedy and Tragedy

Masks of Comedy and Tragedy

Greek drama generally developed through the twin genres of Comedy and Tragedy, typically represented by the disparate “laughing mask” of Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, and the “weeping face” of Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy.  Drama is often combined with its sister arts of music, song and dance, epitomized in modern Opera, and such was the case in Greek comedy and tragedy, as well as sister traditions such as Peking Opera and the Japanese Noh theater. This organic connection of the verse of drama its music was emphasized by Nietzsche in his seminal work “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music” (Die Gebürt der Tragȍdie aus dem Geist der Musik” in which he formulated the famous aesthetic categories of the Apollonian and Dionysian.

Actor Performing Oedipus Tyrannus in the Mask & Costume of Classical Greek Tragedy

Actor Performing Oedipus Tyrannus in the Mask & Costume of Classical Greek Tragedy


Tragedy is a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes in its audience an accompanying catharsis, or pleasure and emotional release in the viewing. While many culture have shared this seemingly paradoxical experience, tragedy has become one of the hallmarks of the self-definition of Western Civilization, providing a powerful source of cultural identity and historical continuity from the Greeks through Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Racine, Schiller, through the naturalistic tragedy of Strindberg, the “Gesamtkunstwerk” of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the modernist meditations on death and human existence of Beckett and on to Müller’s postmodernist reworkings of the tragic canon. A long list of philosophers have analyzed and philosophized on the nature and implications of tragedy including Plato, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Voltaire, Hume, Diderot, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Benjamin, Camus, Lacan and Deleuze.

The deepest analysis of the nature of Tragedy comes for Aristotle’s “Poetics” in which he defines tragedy as an imitation ( μίμησις mimesis) of an action characterized by seriousness and dignity, often involving a great person who experiences a reversal of fortune (peripetia, περιπέτεια) from good to bad, which in turn invokes in the audience pity and fear through identification, leading to catharsis (κάθαρσις) , or emotional cleansing and healing through their vicarious experience of these emotions through the suffering of the protagonist.

According to Aristotle, the structure of the best tragedy should not be simple but complex, although limited by the  “unities” of time, place and action, i.e. an action occurring in a single place, within a single day and focused on a single protagonist’s downfall.  The reversal of fortune must be caused by the tragic hero’s “flaw of character or mistake” (hamartia, ἁμαρτία), implying that the protagonist should be neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil but of mixed or imperfect human character. The downfall or reversal should be the inevitable but unforeseeable result of the protagonist’s imperfection or lack of wisdom, and typically is realized too late by the protagonist himself in some moment of tragic recognition or revelation (anagnoresis, ἀναγνώρισις). Thus Aristotle gives the classic definition of Tragedy (τραγῳδία) as:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete (composed of an introduction, a middle part and an ending), and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.

This definition of tragedy in the “Poetics” has guided the understanding of the genre in Western Civilization for 2500 years, though some have diverged or disagreed with it. Berthold Brecht even defined his “Epic Theater” as a kind of “Anti-Aristotelian Tragedy,” purposely rejecting the identification of the audience with the tragic hero and its catharsis in favor on a non-identification which would instead stimulate revolutionary understanding and real social action.

The three greatest writers of classic Greek tragedy are traditionally recognized as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides:


Aeschylus--The Father of Greek Tragedy

Aeschylus–The Father of Greek Tragedy

Aeschylus (525– 455 BC) was the first of the three ancient Greek tragedians and is often described as the father of tragedy. According to Aristotle, he expanded the number of characters in plays to allow for conflict amongst them, whereas previously characters had interacted only with the chorus.  At least one of his works was influenced by the historical events of his day, “The Persians” which recounts the Persian invasion of Greece which took place during his lifetime. Very few of that kind were ever written. He is most remembered, however, for his great “Orestia Trilogy,” consisting of “Agamemnon,” “The Libation Bearers” and “The Eumenides” based on the Homeric saga of Agamemnon’s participation in the siege of Troy in the “Iliad” in which he had sacrificed his innocent daughter Iphigenia to the gods for the success of the war, and the tragic aftermath of his subsequent murder by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, bringing about the tragic dilemma of his son, Orestes, who must choose between his duty of avenging his father or sparing his own mother, his father’s murderer.




Sophocles’ (c. 497-406 BC) 123 plays were written later than those of Aeschylus and earlier than or contemporary with those of Euripides, but only seven have survived in a complete form:  Ajax, Antigone, The Women of Trachis, Oedipus the King (Oedipus Tyrannus), Electra, Philoctates and Oedipus at Colonnus. He competed in around 30 drama competitions at the religious festivals of Athens and won 24, never being judged lower than second place. Aeschylus won 14 competitions, and was sometimes defeated by Sophocles, while Euripides won only 4 competitions.

His most famous tragedies of Sophocles feature Oedipus and Antigone and are generally known as the Theban Plays. Sophocles influenced the development of the drama, most importantly by adding a third actor, thereby reducing the importance of the chorus in the presentation of the plot. He also developed his characters to a significantly greater extent than earlier playwrights such as Aeschylus.

“Oedipus Tyrannus” is his most famous play and the source for much later analysis, including Freud’s famous formulation of the theory of the “Oedipus Complex.” Oedipus is the kingly protagonist who wrestles with fate and only belatedly achieves self-recognition of his blindness to his own faults. Oedipus’ infanticide is planned by his parents, Laius and Jocasta, to avert him fulfilling a prophecy; in truth, the servant entrusted with the infanticide passes the infant on through a series of intermediaries to a childless couple, who adopt him not knowing his history. Oedipus eventually learns of the Delphic Oracle’s prophecy of him, that he would kill his father and marry his mother; Oedipus attempts to flee his fate without harming his parents (at this point, he does not know that he is adopted). Oedipus meets a man at a crossroads accompanied by servants; Oedipus and the man fought, and Oedipus killed the man. (This man was his father, Laius, not that anyone apart from the gods knew this at the time). He becomes the ruler of Thebes after solving the riddle of the sphinx and in the process, marries the widowed Queen, his mother Jocasta. Thus the stage is set for horror. When the truth comes out, following from another true but confusing prophecy from Delphi, Jocasta commits suicide, Oedipus blinds himself and leaves Thebes, and the children are left to sort out the consequences themselves–which provides the grounds for the later parts of the cycle of plays, “Oedipus at Colon’s” and “Antigone.”


Euripides---Greek Tragedian

Euripides—Greek Tragedian

Euripides is identified with theatrical innovations that have profoundly influenced drama down to modern times, especially in the representation of traditional, mythical heroes as ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. This new approach led him to pioneer developments that later writers adapted to comedy, some of which are characteristic of romance. Yet he also became “the most tragic of poets,” focusing on the inner lives and motives of his characters in a way previously unknown. He was, as one critic put it, “the creator of…that cage which is the theatre of Shakespeare’s Othello, Racine’s Phèdre, of Ibsen and Strindberg in which “…imprisoned men and women destroy each other by the intensity of their loves and hates”, and yet he was also the literary ancestor of comic dramatists as diverse as Menander and George Bernard Shaw.

He was also unique among the writers of ancient Athens for the sympathy he demonstrated towards all victims of society, including women. His conservative male audiences were frequently shocked by the ‘heresies’ he put into the mouths of characters, such as these words of his heroine Medea:

Sooner would I stand

Three times to face their battles, shield in hand,

Than bear one child!

His contemporaries associated him with Socrates as a leader of a decadent intellectualism, both of them being frequently lampooned by comic poets such as Aristophanes.

When Euripides’s plays are sequenced in time, they reveal that his outlook underwent profound change and disillusionment towards a harsher, harder maturity, providing a “spiritual biography” along these lines:

  • an early period of high tragedy (Medea, Hippolytus)
  • a patriotic period at the outset of the Peloponnesian War (Children of      Hercules, Suppliants)
  • a middle period of disillusionment at the senselessness of war (Hecuba, Women      of Troy)
  • an escapist period with a focus on romantic intrigue (Ion, Iphigenia      in Tauris, Helen)
  • a final period of tragic despair (Orestes, Phoenician Women, Bacchae)


Greek Comedy Performance of Aristophanes' "The Birds"

Greek Comedy Performance of Aristophanes’ “The Birds”


Aristophanes---The Father of Greek Comedy

Aristophanes—The Father of Greek Comedy

The Greek word for ‘comedy’ (κωμῳδία, kōmōidía) derives from the words for ‘revel’ and ‘song’ (kōmos and ōdē) and according to Aristotle comic drama actually developed from song. The first, official comedy at the City Dionysia was not staged until 487 BCE by which time tragedy had already been long established there. The first comedy at the Lenaia Festival was staged later still, only about 20 years before the performance there of The Acharnians, the first of Aristophanes’ surviving plays. According to Aristotle, comedy was slow to gain official acceptance because nobody took it seriously, yet, only sixty years after comedy first appeared, Aristophanes observed that producing comedies was the most difficult work of all. Competition at the Dionysian festivals needed dramatic conventions for plays to be judged, but it also fuelled innovations. Developments were quite rapid and Aristotle was able to distinguish between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Comedy by 330 BCE. The trend from Old Comedy to New Comedy saw a move away from highly topical concerns often satirizing and lampooning real individuals or local issues towards generalized or universalized situations and stock characters. This was partly due to the internationalization of cultural perspectives during and after the Peloponnesian War. For later ancient commentators such as Plutarch,New Comedy was a more sophisticated form of drama than Old Comedy. However Old Comedy was in fact a complex and sophisticated dramatic form incorporating many approaches to humor and entertainment.

In his famous Poetics, Aristotle defined Comedy as one of the original four genres of literature. The other three genres are tragedy, epic poetry, and lyric poetry. “Literature” in general is defined by Aristotle as a mimesis, or imitation of life. Comedy is the third form of literature, being the most divorced from a true mimesis. Tragedy is the truest mimesis, followed by epic poetry, comedy and lyric poetry. The Poetics itself focuses on tragedy, but it is believed that Aristotle either wrote or intended a parallel work to analyze the deeper workings of Comedy, but that it was either never written or has been lost.

The genre of comedy is defined by a certain pattern according to Aristotle’s definition. Comedies begin with low or base characters seeking insignificant aims, and end with some accomplishment of the aims which either lightens the initial baseness or reveals the insignificance of the aims. A modern application of this theory would be the story the “loser” who goes about things the wrong way, but in the end wins the “pretty” girl. Comedies usually also have elements of the supernatural, typically magic and, for the Ancient Greeks, the gods. Comedy thus includes the unrealistic in order to portray the realistic. For the Greeks, all comedies ended happily which is opposite of tragedy, which ends sadly. In a wider perspective, Comedy becomes an enactment of the renewal of life, whereby a conflict of “the old order or older generation” yields to and is reinvigorated by the challenge of “the younger generation and a new order,” generally typified in the “happy ending” which embodies not only the triumph of the young lovers over adversity but the eternal renewal of life itself.

Aristophanes’ (c. 446 – 386 BC) most famous play is “The Clouds” in which he satirizes Socrates, philosophers and the disreputable practice of a prostituted “rhetoric” modernly associated with “shyster lawyers.” It presents the story of a near-bankrupt father who wishes to send his son to “The Thoughtery,” a Socratic school reputed to produce rhetoricians capable of winning law cases against creditors through clever and slippery arguments. The father himself begins study at “The Thoughtery” and encounters Socrates in a balloon communing with the clouds and attempts to learn the secrets of rhetoric which might deliver him from his creditors. Socrates attempts to stimulate his imagination, but the old man fails miserably and is dismissed from the school. Thereupon he persuades his reluctant son to enter the school, which he does and becomes a star pupil. However the outcome is not happy for the father as the son uses his new corrupt cleverness to think up arguments as to why the father has no right to beat or punish the son, even that the son, being made wiser by education, now has an obligation to instruct, beat and punish his father and mother! The play ends with the father in outrage leading a mob to destroy “The Thoughtery.” Plato, however, recorded that the effect of “The Clouds” was not innocuous humor but actually had a deleterious effect in poisoning Socrates reputation in Athens, contributing in part to the events leading to his execution.

Aristoophanes and Menander: The Old Comedy & The New Comedy

Aristoophanes and Menander: The Old Comedy & The New Comedy


Menander---Father of the "New Comedy"

Menander—Father of the “New Comedy”

The trend from Old Comedy to New Comedy featuring a move away from highly topical concerns satirizing and lampooning real individuals and local issues towards generalized or universalized situations and archetypal stock characters was spearheaded by Menander (342– c. 290 BC).  An admirer and imitator of Euripides, Menander resembles him in his keen observation of practical life, his analysis of the emotions, and his fondness for moral maxims, many of which became proverbial: “The property of friends is common,” “Whom the gods love die young,” “Evil communications corrupt good manners.” These maxims were afterwards collected and edited into a kind of moral textbook for the use of schools.

New Comedy tends to shift the scene of comedic action from the public city life of the forum to the recurrent private household situations of domestic life, and from lampooning public figures to portraying recurrent fictional private conflicts, such as those between fathers and sons or the older generation and youth. It thus becomes less local and fixed in time and potentially more universal.

It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In this Menander exercises influence down to the present time through both works of direct imitation and of further imitation of imitators. Menander found many Roman imitators. Thus the Roman comic playwright Terence in his Eunuchus, Andria, Heauton Timorumenos and Adelphi were avowedly taken from Menander, though adapted and reconfigured into original works in new contexts. Thus in the Andria were combined Menander’s The Woman from Andros and The Woman from Perinthos, in the Eunuchus, Menander’s  The Eunuch and The Flatterer, while the Adelphi was compiled partly from Menander and partly from Diphilus. The Bacchides and Stichus of Plautus, “The Roman Shakespeare” were based upon Menander’s The Double Deceiver and Brotherly-Loving Men. In turn, Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “A Comedy of Errors” “borrowing” key plots and elements such as the mistaken identity of identical twins, prologues to the audience, and the type of the comic courtesan from the Roman dramatist Plautus’ in his “Menaechmi” and “Amphitryon,” works owing much to borrowings from the “New Comedy” motifs and comedic conventions pioneered by Menander.




Plautus---The Roman Shakespeare

Plautus—The Roman Shakespeare

Playwrights throughout history have looked to Plautus (254–184 BC) for character, plot, humor, and other elements of comedy. His influence ranges from similarities in idea to full literal translations woven into plays. The playwright’s apparent familiarity with the absurdity of humanity and both the comedy and tragedy that stem from this absurdity have inspired succeeding playwrights centuries after his death. The most famous of these successors is Shakespeare—Plautus had a major influence on the Bard’s early comedies. In addition, Plautus like Shakespeare, coming early in the development of Latin literature as a popular medium had a seminal influence on the development of Latin vernacular as a literary language. Like Shakespeare also, he was a prolific borrower from his Greek models and an agent for the transfer of Greek culture into Roman culture, just as Shakespeare in the mode of the Renaissance, translated many aspects of classical Greek and Roman culture into popular English consciousness beyond the confines of academic scholarship.

Shakespeare borrowed from Plautus as Plautus borrowed from his Greek models. Nevertheless, Shakespeare covers a much greater area in the structure of his plays than Plautus does. Shakespeare was writing for an audience whose minds weren’t restricted to house and home, but looked toward the greater world beyond and the role that they might play in that world. Another difference between the audiences of Shakespeare and Plautus is that Shakespeare’s audience was Christian. At the end of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, the world of the play is returned to normal when a Christian abbess interferes with the feuding.  Plautus’ Menaechmi, on the other hand, is almost completely lacking in a supernatural dimension. A character in Plautus’ play would never blame an inconvenient situation on witchcraft—something that is quite common in Shakespeare.

Shakespeare also uses the same kind of opening monologue so common in Plautus’s plays, even using a “villain” in The Comedy of Errors of the same type as the one in Menaechmi, switching the character from a doctor to a teacher but keeping the character a shrewd, educated man. Such elements appear in many of his works, such as Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and had a deep impact on Shakespeare’s writing. Another important echo of Plautus is the stock character of the parasite. Shakespeare’s best example of this is Falstaff, the portly and cowardly knight who shares many characteristics with Plautus’ parasite Artotrogus from Miles Gloriosus (The Boastful Soldier). Both characters seem fixated on food and where their next meal is coming from and rely on flattery in order to gain these gifts, willing to bury their patrons in empty praise.


Terence---From Roman Slave to Roman Playwright

Terence—From Roman Slave to Roman Playwright

The Roman comedic playwright Terence (185–159 BC) was a playwright of the Roman Republic of North African descent. A Roman senator, brought Terence to Rome as a slave, educated him and later on, impressed by his abilities freed him. He became quite popular for his comedies, often like Shakespeare, adapted into new forms from earlier models, in particular Menander. Thus in Terence’s Andria were combined Menander’s The Woman from Andros and The Woman from Perinthos, in the Eunuchus, Menander’s  The Eunuch and The Flatterer, while the Adelphi was compiled partly from Menander and partly from Diphilus

One famous quotation by Terence from his play Heuton Timorumenos reads: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” or “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me” a thought later echoed in the motto of Montaigne’s Essays: “Nihil humanum alienum est” or “nothing human is alien to me.”


The Death of Seneca

The Death of Seneca

Seneca’s plays were widely read in medieval and Renaissance European universities and strongly influenced tragic drama in that time, including Elizabethan England’s Shakespeare and Jonson, France’s Corneille and Racine, and the Netherlands’ Joost van den Vondel.  He is regarded as the source and inspiration for what is known as “Revenge Tragedy,” starting with Thomas Kyd’s ‘The Spanish Tragedy,’ Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and continuing well into the Jacobean Period.

Originally born in Cordoba, Spain he was tutor and later advisor to Emperor Nero and was later forced to commit suicide for alleged complicity in a conspiracy to assassinate him.  Even earlier he lived a dangerous existence at the Imperial court, allegedly incurring the wrath of the Emperor Caligula by having an affair with the emperor’s sister Julia, who was also suspected to have had incestuous relations with her brother. After Caligula’s death he was banished into exile by the next emperor, Claudius because of the same sexual relationship. Seneca was, however, a survivor with the ability to bounce back from adversity in the Imperial court, governed as it was by arguably history’s most dysfunctional family, the Julian-Claudian Dynasty in which sexual and homicidal psychopaths were “the new normal.” Emperor Claudius’s fourth wife, Agrippina, had him recalled from exile to be the principal tutor of her young son and the next Emperor Nero. When Nero first became emperor he leaned heavily on Seneca for advice and was considered a competent ruler for a young man. Later, as Nero in the family tradition degenerated into various degrees of psychopathology Seneca lost influence and then was perceived as an opponent to the Emperor’s whims, incurring suspicion and wrath.

In one of history’s ironies, in spite of his early philandering he obtained a reputation based on his Stoic philosophy in the face of “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” related in his Consolations and other works and his sang froid  in the face of death and forced suicide, that endeared him to later Christians and conservative scholars. Medieval writers without evidence believed Seneca had been converted to the Christian faith by Saint Paul and regarded his fatal bath in which he opened his veins in the Roman tradition as a kind of disguised baptism. Dante, however, placed Seneca in the First Circle of Hell, or Limbo.

His plays are mostly based on the Greek classical tradition, though with the Roman influence of Vergil and Ovid and include such works as Hercules Furens (The Madness of Hercules), Troades (The Trojan Women), Phaedra, Hercules Oetaeus (Hercules on Oeta) and Oedipus, which usually convey a stoical ethos of detachment from a disappointing world and irrational passions.


Kalidasa's Classic of Sanskrit Drama Shakuntala

Kalidasa’s Classic of Sanskrit Drama Shakuntala



Drama is regarded as the highest achievement of Sanskrit literature.  Like the standard repertoire of Greek New Comedy it utilized stock characters, such as the hero (nayaka), heroine (nayika), or clown (vidusaka). Actors may have specialized in a particular type. Kālidāsa in the 3rd-4th century AD, is generally regarded as ancient India’s greatest Sanskrit dramatist. The three most celebrated romantic plays written by Kālidāsa are the Mālavikāgnimitram (Mālavikā and Agnimitra), Vikramorvashiiyam (Pertaining to Vikrama and Urvashi), and Abhijñānaśākuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala). The last was inspired by a story in the Mahabharata and is the most famous. It was the first to be translated into English and German. Śakuntalā ( Shakuntala) influenced Goethe’s Faust, and he was so taken by it that he wrote:

Goethe: The Father of World Literature and a Fan of Kalidasa's Shakuntala

Goethe: The Father of World Literature and a Fan of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala

“Wouldst thou the young year’s blossoms and the fruits of its decline

And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed,

Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine?

I name thee, O Shakuntala! and all at once is said. “


The next greatest Indian dramatist was Bhavabhuti (c. 7th century AD). He is said to have written the following three plays: Malati-Madhava, Mahaviracharita and Uttar Ramacharita. Among these three, the last two cover between them the entire epic of Ramayana. The powerful Indian emperor Harsha (606–648) is credited with having written three plays: the comedy Ratnavali, Priyadarsika, and the Buddhist drama Nagananda. Other famous Sanskrit dramatists include Śhudraka, Bhasa, and Asvaghosa. Though numerous plays written by these playwrights still survive, little is known about the authors themselves.

Drama itself had a checkered history in Indian culture. The ancient Vedas (hymns from between 1500 to 1000 BC that are among the earliest examples of literature in the world) contain no hint of it (although a small number are composed in a form of dialogue) and the rituals of the Vedic period do not appear to have developed into theatre, nor is there any archeological evidence of the existence of early theater. The earliest-surviving fragments of Sanskrit drama date from the 1st century AD and its development came relatively late, perhaps in response to the incursions of Greek cultural influence following the invasion of Alexander the Great into India (ca. 323 BC). Nonetheless, Sankskrit developed a powerful tradition maturing in the time of Kalidasa in the 3rd-4th Centuries AD. The Islamic incursion into India from the Sultanate of Delhi through the Mughul Empire stifled the development of theater however, which it discouraged or banned. Under the British Raj theater revived and flourished with additional patronage from such court patrons as Wajid Ali Shah of Oud, contributing in turn to the flourishing of Urdu and Parsi theater and later Bollywood cinema in which, ironically, many Muslim stars became prominent.


The Natya Shastra (नाट्य शास्त्र, Nāṭyaśāstra) is an ancient Indian treatise on the performing arts encompassing not just theater but also music, dance, costume, makeup, stagecraft and set design. It was written during the period between 200 BCE and 200 CE in classical India and is traditionally attributed to the Sage Bharata.

The Natya Shastra is immensely wide in its scope and its comprehensive detail makes it the foremost compendium on Ancient theater arts, not only in India but the world as a whole.   While it primarily deals with stagecraft, it has come to influence music, classical Indian dance and literature as well. It covers stage design, music, dance, makeup, and virtually every other aspect of stagecraft.  It is very important to the history of Indian classical music because it is the only text which gives such detail about the music and instruments of the period. Thus, an argument can be made that the Natya Shastra is the foundation of the fine arts as a whole in India. The most authoritative commentary on the Natya Shastra is Abhinavabharati by Abhinavagupta.


Kālidāsa (“servant of Kali: कालिदास) was a Classical Sanskrit writer, widely regarded as the greatest poet and dramatist in the Sanskrit language. His floruit  (plays)cannot be dated with precision, but most likely falls within the 5th century AD. His plays and poetry are primarily based on the Hindu Puranas and Hindu philosophy.

Kālidāsa’s greatest play is generally agreed to be Shakuntala, much admired by Goethe. Shakuntala  (Abhijñānaśākuntalam  or “Of Shakuntala recognized by a token”) tells the story of King Dushyanta who, while on a hunting trip, meets Shakuntalā, the adopted daughter of a sage, and marries her. A mishap befalls them when he is summoned back to court: Shakuntala, pregnant with their child, inadvertently offends a visiting sage and incurs a curse, by which Dushyanta will forget her completely until he sees the ring he has left with her. On her trip to Dushyanta’s court in an advanced state of pregnancy, she loses the ring, and has to come away unrecognized. The ring is found by a fisherman who recognizes the royal seal and returns it to Dushyanta, who regains his memory of Shakuntala and sets out to find her. After more travails, they are finally reunited.



Chinese Peking Opera Player in Traditional Mask and Costume

Chinese Peking Opera Player in Traditional Mask and Costume

Theatre in China has a long and complex history. Today it is often called Chinese Opera or Peking or related Opera as the dramatic tradition was traditionally a mixed form integrating music, song and dance along with narrative story, rather than pure stageplays. In the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD), sometimes known as “The Age of 1000 Entertainments,” Ming Huang formed an acting school known as “The Pear Garden” to produce a form of drama that was primarily musical. In addition, as in many cultures such as Islamic, Persian and Japanese traditions drama also developed as a serious art form in the puppet theater.  Public storytelling before audiences  also flourished in the Yuan Dynasty, often accompanied by quasi-dramatization of the tales by the storytellers in front of their public. Tales evolving through Puppet Theater and public storytellers were often later novelized by more mature authors as in the case of Wu Cheng En’s  Xi You Ji, or “Journey to the West.” A similar phenomenon also occurred in the West, as in the case of the Faust saga which was first performed in puppet theaters and later rendered in larger works by masters such as Jonson and Goethe.


Zaju (杂剧; literally meaning “variety show” ) was a form of Chinese drama ascendant in the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1206–1368) or Chinese opera which provided entertainment through a synthesis of recitations of prose and poetry, dance, singing, and mime, with a certain emphasis on comedy (or, happy endings). Zaju is a genre of dramas that had its origins in the Song Dynastybut  has particularly been associated with the time of the Yuan Dynasty and remains important in terms of the historical study of the theater arts as well as Classical Chinese literature and poetry.

The Yuan zaju were poetic music dramas comprising four acts, with the “act” defined as a set of songs following and completing a certain musical modal progression. Occasionally one or two “wedges,” or short interludes in the form of an aria performed by another character might be added to either support or enhance the plot. Within the acts, lyrics were written to accompany existing tunes or set-rhythmic patterns; and, the major singing roles were restricted to one star per act. The zaju theater, as did Greek and Roman New Comedy, featured particular specialized roles or type characters for performers, such as Dan (旦, dàn, female), Sheng (生, shēng, male), Hua (花, huā, painted-face) and Chou (丑, chŏu, clown).

Berthold Brecht--Adapted Yuan Dynasty Play "The Chalk Circle"

Berthold Brecht–Adapted Yuan Dynasty Play “The Chalk Circle”

Famous playwrights (that is, authors of zaju) include Guan Hanqing, author of The Injustice to Dou E, and the author Bo Renfu,  who wrote three existing plays, plus a lost work on Tang Minghuang and the lady Yang Guifei.  Wang Shifu wrote the popular play The Story of the Western Wing which became a classic. Li Qianfu wrote Circle of Chalk, which was used by Berthold Brecht in shaping his “Augsberger Kreidekreis” and later play “Kaukasische Kreidekreis” or Caucasian Chalk Circle, a modern readaptation of the “Judgment of Solomon” theme of two women fighting over a child.

Voltaire: Adapted and Praised the Yuan Dynasty Drama "The Orphan Zhao" by Li Hanqing

Voltaire: Adapted and Praised the Yuan Dynasty Drama “The Orphan Zhao” by Ji Junxian

The Orphan of Zhao (趙氏孤兒, Zhaoshi guer) is another Chinese play from the Yuan era, attributed to the thirteenth-century dramatist Ji Junxian, which depicts the theme of familial revenge, which is placed in the context of Confucian morality and social hierarchical structure. The Orphan of Zhao was the first Chinese play to have been translated into any European language, and was later adapted by Voltaire in his L’Orphelin de la Chine. About his adapted play, Voltaire’s thesis was that of a story exemplifying rational morality, that is as he explained, that genius and reason has a natural superiority over blind force and barbarism. Voltaire praised the Confucian morality of The Orphan of Zhao, remarking that it was a “valuable monument of antiquity, and gives us more insight into the manners of China than all the histories which ever were, or ever will be written of that vast empire”


Masked Actor in Japanese Noh Drama

Masked Actor in Japanese Noh Drama


Japan’s traditional performing arts of Noh and Kyogen developed together in the 14th century during the Muromachi period (1333-1573). Today, they are thought of together as the art of Nogaku, or as Noh & Kyogen.

Noh is a kind of symbolic drama colored with the graceful aesthetic effect of quiet elegance that is expressed through the word yugen (“elegant, refined, and elusive beauty”). Its subjects are taken from history or classical literature, and it is structured around song and dance. Its most obvious characteristic is that the main actor performs while wearing a mask of exceptional beauty. Its themes are more concerned with human destiny than with mundane events, and it developed into a highly stylized and refined performing art that takes place upon a very simple stage. The play known as The Well-Curb is often used as typical of the vision-like Noh plays of its dramatic world. When audiences experience Noh, they are touched with a feeling different from that evoked by other theatrical forms.

Kyogen is a kind of spoken drama that is based upon laughter and comedy. In contrast to Noh, it uses the everyday life of the common people in feudal society or folk tales as its subject, and realistically depicts a kind of “Everyman” figure. This dynamic art―whose typical main character is a servant named Taro Kaja―evokes a gentle and entertaining humor.  Thus, Kyogen fulfills a role similar to that of Classical Greek Comedy, providing relief and  relaxation between the tragedies at Greek festivals.

Noh plays can be roughly divided into two types: genzai no (Realistic Noh) and mugen no (Fantasy Noh). In realistic Noh, the main character is someone actually living in this world, and the story proceeds according to real time. The main theme is the depiction of the inner feelings of a character placed in a dramatic situation, and the drama develops through a basically spoken dialogue. In contrast, the main character of a fantasy Noh is a god, demon, or ghost―someone who transcends this ordinary world. Most Noh of this type have two acts: act one, in which the main character appears in some disguise to the waki or foil supporting character, who has come to visit some spot famous in history or literature or legend; and act two, in which the character re-appears in its true form, and usually performs a dance.  It is because act two is fundamentally established as taking place within a dream or vision of the waki that this type is called mugen (lit., “dream and vision,” or “fantasy”) Noh.


Japanese Bunraku Theater Puppet

Japanese Bunraku Theater Puppet

The Bunraku puppet theater emerged in the 17th Century in Osaka, Japan and flourished thereafter not only as a popular entertainment for the new urban middle classes, but as a high art form rivaling other dramatic traditions in its depth, beauty and subtlety. The puppet theater consists of three closely coordinated elements: the puppets, the music—primarily a banjo-like shamisen, and the chanting, performed by a chanter who sits to the side of the stage and speaks or sings all of the roles of the puppets and any third-person narration. Unlike Western puppet theater, the puppet masters who operate the puppets make no attempt to conceal themselves but rather appear with the puppets on the stage, the lesser puppeteers in black hooded costume and the master puppeteer who appears with his face exposed.

Bunraku Puppet Theater Performance with Master Puppeteer Onstage Manipulating the Puppet

Bunraku Puppet Theater Performance with Master Puppeteer Onstage
Manipulating the Puppet

The stories often present the lives of ordinary middle-class persons, often in the tragic circumstances of their empty and mundane lives. The most famous Bunraku playwright was Chikamatsu Monzaemon, whose masterpiece “The Love Suicides at Amijima” presents the life story of a struggling paper merchant with a wife and young children, Jihei, on the verge of bankruptcy who becomes enmeshed in a tragic love for a courtesan prostitute, Koharu. The love of Jihei and Koharu proves to be utterly hopeless as both are trapped in inescapable fetters, Jihei without the money to buy Koharu out of her life of prostitution and Koharu forced to seek out richer clients to pay her debts. Informed with the Buddhist ethos of Samsara, or recognition of the transient, meaningless and illusory nature of this world, they resolve to commit suicide together and unite their souls and their loves in heaven or the next life. The play itself is the inexorable working out of this inalterable fate and destiny, which no practical solutions can alter and which can only temporalized and delayed until the inevitable end.


Japanese Kabuki Theater Actor---The Male Actor Impersonates the Female Character in Kabuki

Japanese Kabuki Theater Actor—The Male Actor Impersonates the Female Character in Kabuki

The history of Kabuki began in 1603 when Izumo no Okuni, a woman, began performing a new style of dance drama in the dry riverbeds of Kyoto. It originated in the 17th century. Japan was under the control of the Tokugawa shogunate, enforced by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The name of the Edo period derives from the relocation of the Tokugawa regime from its former capital in Kyoto to the city of Edo, present-day Tokyo. Female performers played both men and women in comic playlets about ordinary life. The style was immediately popular, and Okuni was asked to perform before the Imperial Court. In the wake of such success, rival troupes quickly formed, and kabuki was born as ensemble dance and drama performed by women—a form very different from its modern incarnation.

The new Kabuki theater, however, soon developed hostility and censure from the Tokugawa authorities in spite of, or because of its success. The all-woman Kabuki drew criticism firstly because the actresses were also available at the theater as prostitutes. The aristocratic Tokugawa Shogunate also came to object to the theater as a place of the undesired mixing of classes with upper-class samurai and nobles rubbing shoulders, as well as body parts more than sensitive than shoulders, with both the middle-class audiences who came to the theater as the site of fashion and the place to see and be seen, as well as and  lumpen-class prostitutes, pimps, playboys, pseudo-intellectuals and parasites surrounding the world of the stage. Laws were then thought up to curb the menace.

The first legal reform of the Kabuki was to reverse its gender. Since the women actresses were notorious as prostitutes an initial answer was suggested that only boys could play the parts. However the situation, as do many government initiatives, went from bad to worse as the cure proved worse than the disease. It seems that with the all-boy Kabuki ensemble, including young boys playing all the female roles, an epidemic of homosexual prostitution broke out, proving to the authorities that whatever measures were taken to assure public morality, boys will be boys—or rather girls. The bureaucrats facing up to their failure, then passed a law that young boys could not perform but only men of age could play both male and female roles. This did not solve the problems the shogunate objected to but made them manageable enough to constitute a modus vivendi for some time. The puritan and repressive impulse was neither extinguished nor exhausted of its stratagems for plotting the demise of Kabuki, however. The Kabuki theaters were largely of wood and from time to time would burn down. During one large fire, which destroyed the entire red-light and entertainment district of which the Kabuki theater was a part, the conservatives adopted the stratagem of refusing to grant the theater a new rebuilding permit, calling it a fire-trap. This forced the Kabuki to relocate into the northern suburbs of Asakusa outside the city limits, along with many of the tea houses and brothels that inhabited the entertainment district. This was a fate shared, incidentally, by such illustrious theaters as Shakespeare’s Globe, which relocated outside the city limit of London to avoid harassing regulation. Far from accomplishing the puritan objective of abandonment of dissolute sexual behavior, and instituting a new ethos of moral probity, however, the new Asakusa district took advantage of open space and cheap land and laxer supervision to build the entertainment district to expanded size and scope, flourishing as never before.

There was considerable cross-fertilization between the various theater genres. For instance Chikamatzu Monzaemon, the master playwright of the Bunraku puppet theater, adapted his puppet plays, “The Love Suicides at Sonezaki” and “The Love Suicides at Amijima” into Kabuki scripts and they enjoyed a great popularity in the live theater as well. So popular were the Love Suicide plays that there was an epidemic of copycat love suicides across Japan, just as there was a wave of romantic suicides following the publication of Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther.” The Shogun government, however, was sure it had the answer: it banned love suicide plays. Nonetheless, Japan even to the present time has one of the highest suicide rates, including joint suicides, in the world, but is comforted that the diligent government continues to take firm action.










The classical traditions of drama are alive and with us, and the past continues to be both present and alive into the future. As we have seen, such Renaissance masters as Shakespeare borrowed heavily from the classical models, utilizing the insights of Plautus and Terence in shaping comedies such as “A Comedy of Errors” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and utilizing Seneca and Kyd’s “Revenge Plays” to shape the structure of masterpieces such as “Hamlet. These in turn continue to inform and instruct playwrights down to the present day, though he has also drawn criticism over history from the Neoclassicists for failure to observe the classical “unities” of time, place and action set forth by Aristotle in his Poetics.

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England’s national poet and the “Bard of Avon.” His works consist of 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and miscellaneous verse.  His plays are roughly classifiable into three categories: comedies, tragedies and histories, with some overlap. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright, making him the foremost icon of World Literature, World Theater and World Drama.

His most famous and ifluential plays include immortal classics of all the genres, including the tragedies Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Julius Caesar,  and Romeo and Juliet, comedies including Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, and histories including Henry IV, Richard III and Henry V.

Shakespeare’s work has made a lasting impression on later theatre and literature. In particular, he expanded the dramatic potential of characterisation, plot, language, and genre. Until Romeo and Juliet, for example, romance had not been viewed as a worthy topic for tragedy.  Soliloquies had been used mainly to convey information about characters or events; but Shakespeare used them to explore and portray characters’ minds. His work heavily influenced later poetry. The Romantic poets attempted to revive Shakespearean verse drama, though with little success.

Shakespeare influenced novelists such as Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, and Charles Dickens.  The American novelist Herman Melville’s soliloquies owe much to Shakespeare; his Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick is a classic tragic hero, inspired by King Lear Scholars have identified 20,000 pieces of music linked to Shakespeare’s works. These include two operas by Giuseppe Verdi, Otello and Falstaff, whose critical standing compares with that of the source plays.  Shakespeare has also inspired many painters, including the Romantics and the Pre-Raphaelites.  The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud drew on Shakespearean psychology, in particular that of Hamlet, for his theories of human nature.[156]

In Shakespeare’s day, English grammar, spelling and pronunciation were less standardised than they are now, and his use of language helped shape modern English.Samuel Johnson quoted him more often than any other author in his A Dictionary of the English Language, the first serious work of its type. Expressions such as “with bated breath” (Merchant of Venice) and “a foregone conclusion” (Othello) have found their way into everyday English speech.


The classical tradition, including the theorization of dramatic and tragic dynamics in Aristotle’s Poetics, also shaped the conventions of the genre outside the English canon into the Early Modern Era, most significantly in the plays of Racine and Moliere in France and in the plays of Calderon and Lope de Vega in Spain, among countless others.




Jean Racine  (1639 –1699), was a French dramatist and master tragedian,one of the three great playwrights of 17th-century France alongside Moliere and Cornielle., and an important literary figure in the Western tradition. Racine was primarily a writer of tragedies, producing such “examples of Neoclassical perfection” Phèdre, Andromache, and Athalie. Racine’s plays displayed his mastery of the alexandrine meter and his writing is renowned for elegance, purity, speed, and fury, and for what Robert Lowell described as a “diamond-edge”, and the “glory of its hard, electric rage.” Racine’s dramaturgy is marked by his deep psychological insight, the prevailing and unbridled passion of his characters, and the nakedness of both the plot and stage.

Racine is both celebrated and lamented for his strict observance of Aristotle’s “unities” and fulfillment of the Neoclassical ideals of rational control and structure. The number of characters, all of them royal, is kept down to the barest minimum. Action on stage is all but eliminated, and even his diction was reputed to be limited to 4000 words, avoiding colloquialism.

For Racine, tragedy shows how men fall from prosperity to disaster and the higher the position from which the hero falls, the greater, in a sense, is the tragedy. Thus Racine’s tragedy is an aristocratic tragedy in which Racine describes the fate of kings, queens, princes and princesses, liberated from the constricting pressures of everyday life and able to speak and act without inhibition.

Greek tragedy, from which Racine borrowed so plentifully, tended to assume that humanity was under the control of gods indifferent to its sufferings and aspirations. In the Oedipus Tyrranus, Sophocles’ hero becomes gradually aware of the terrible fact that, however hard his family have tried to avert the oracular prophecy, he has nevertheless killed his father and married his mother and must now pay the penalty for these unwitting crimes. The same awareness of a cruel fate driven by uncontrollable passions, that leads unwary men and women into sin and demands retribution  pervades such works of Racine as La Thébaïde, Phèdre and Mithridate.


Moliere--Master of French Comedy

Moliere–Master of French Comedy

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière, (1622 –1673) was a French playwright and actor who is considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature. Among Molière’s best-known works are Le Misanthrope (The Misanthrope), L’École des Femmes (The School for Wives), Tartuffe ou L’Imposteur (Tartuffe or the Hypocrite), L’Avare (The Miser), Le Malade Imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid/The Hypochondriac), and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman). Though he received the adulation of the court and Parisians, Molière’s satires attracted criticisms from moralists and the Roman Catholic Church. Tartuffe ou L’Imposteur (Tartuffe or the Hypocrite) and its attack on religious hypocrisy roundly received condemnations from the Church, while Don Juan was banned from performance.

In his comedy Molière satirizes and lampoons many social and psychological types emerging from the urban bourgeois society emerging in his day. In this he combines some of the features of Aristophanes Old Comedy, with its targeting of particular persons, celebrities or local events, along with the focus of the New Comedy of Menander and Plautus, focused on more universal social or individual characterological types.




Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600 – 1681), was a dramatist, poet and writer of the Spanish Golden Age. During certain periods of his life he was also a soldier and a Roman Catholic priest. Born when the Spanish Golden Age theatre was being defined by Lope de Vega, he developed it further, his work being regarded as the culmination of the Spanish Baroque theatre. As such, he is regarded as one of Spain’s foremost dramatists and one of the finest playwrights of world literature.

Calderón maintained that any play was but fiction, and that the structure of the baroque play was entirely artificial. He therefore sometimes makes use of meta-theatrical techniques often associated with Post-Modernism, such as making his characters read in a jocose manner the clichés the author is using, and they are thus forced to follow. Some of the most common themes of his plays were heavily influenced by his Jesuit education. For example, as a reader of Saint Thomas Aquinas, he liked to pit reason against the passions, intellect against instinct, or understanding against will. In common with many writers from the Spanish Golden Age of Theater his plays usually show his vital pessimism, that is only softened by his rationalism and his faith in God, a theme which echoes the Stoicism of Seneca, the pessimism of the mature Euripides and the melancholy of the Shakespeare of “the sound and fury.”  The anguish and distress usually found his oeuvre is best exemplified in one of his most famous plays, La Vida es sueño, or Life is a Dream in which Segismundo claims:

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.

¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño.
¡Que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son!
What is life? A frenzy.
What is life? An illusion,
A shadow, a fiction,
And the greatest good is small;
For all of life is a dream,
And dreams, are only dreams.

About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: rsheppard99_2000@yahoo.com Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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