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The Greek Plays Themselves. A Quick Overview of The Most Important Dramas. Agamemnon by Aeschylus. First a little about Aeschylus: He lived from about 520 to 456 BC. He wrote the earliest plays that we have. He added a second actor; before that there was only one actor and the Chorus.

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The Greek Plays Themselves

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The greek plays themselves l.jpg

The Greek Plays Themselves

A Quick Overview of The Most Important Dramas

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Agamemnon by Aeschylus

  • First a little about Aeschylus:

    • He lived from about 520 to 456 BC. He wrote the earliest plays that we have. He added a second actor; before that there was only one actor and the Chorus.

    • Of the 90 plays that he wrote, we have only 7, including three plays (a trilogy) telling a single story, rather like a mini-series on television.

    • The first of this trilogy is Agamemnon, telling about the murder of King Agamemnon, the second, The Libation-Bearers, tells how his son Orestes killed Agamemnon's murderers, and the third, The Eumenides, is about the terrifying goddesses of justice, called Furies, who chased Orestes until the gods put everything right.

    • Agamemnon is considered Aeschylus' greatest work. . .Of the plays in the trilogy, Agamemnon contains the strongest command of language and characterization. The poetry is magnificent and moving, with skillful portrayal of major and minor characters alike (Douthat, Parsons)

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The events of Agamemnon

take place against a backdrop

that would have been familiar

to an Athenian audience.

Agamemnon is returning from his victory at Troy, which has been besieged for ten years by Greek armies attempting to recover Helen, Agamemnon's brother's wife, who was stolen by the treacherous Trojan Prince, Paris.

The tragedies of the play occur as a result of the crimes committed by Agamemnon's family. His father, Atreus, boiled the children of his own brother, Thyestes, and served them to him. Clytemnestra's lover, Aegisthus (Thyestes's only surviving son), seeks revenge for that crime.

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Moreover, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to gain a favorable wind to Troy, and Clytemnestra murders him to avenge her death.

The weight of history and heritage becomes a major theme of the play, and indeed the entire trilogy, for the family it depicts cannot escape the cursed cycle of bloodshed propagated by its past.

The play's mood carries a heavy sense of impending doom.

From the Watchman's opening speech through the Chorus' foreboding words and Cassandra's prophesies, the drama prepares the audience for the King's murder.

The actual act of violence occurs off-stage, a traditional practice in Greek tragedy.

Thematically, the murder of Agamemnon must be understood in the context of three other acts of violence, all of which precede the action of the play.

1. The theft or kidnapping of Helen and the Trojan War—the chorus blames Helen for this.

2. The sacrifice of Iphigenia which justifies Clytemnestra's resolve to murder her husband.

3. Atreas gruesome murder of his nephews which justifies Aegisthus’ murder of his cousin.

But in a broader sense, it is the source of the ancestral curse that pervades the trilogy, as one act of violence leads to another.

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About the Play’s Action

  • The title character, Agamemnon, appears only briefly, and comes across as a cold husband and arrogant king.

  • Clytemnestra, with her icy determination and fierce sense of self-righteousness, is far more attractive to the audience;

  • The audience feels sympathy with her for much of the play.

    • However, her entanglement with the odious Aegisthus

    • and her murder of the innocent hapless Cassandra remind us that, in the larger context of the trilogy,

    • she is not an avenger but an adulteress and a murderer whose crime leads inexorably to Orestes' vengeance in the next play.

    • Note the powerlessness of the chorus throughout the play.

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Medea by Euripides

  • First a little about Euripides:

    • Author of some of the most disturbing Greek dramas. The Bachaai" or the "The Bacchantes" (as it is listed in Dr. Rearick’s site) is a powerful its dark vision of divinity.

    • Media, meanwhile, features probably one of the most unpleasant of heroines in literature.

  • Euripides was born about 480 BC and died in 407 BC

  • He wrote about 90 plays, mostly tragedies. We still have 17 of these tragedies and one satyr play.

  • He wrote about some women in Greek myths, like Electra and Medea. He made men and women from the myths seem quite ordinary and not at all grand. He showed Electra, who was a princess, dressed in rags and living in a hut.

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  • Meanwhile Euripides' standing as a dramatist has often been disputed, especially during his lifetime.

  • While Aristotle heralded him "the most tragic of poets," he also criticized Euripides' confused handling of plot and the less-than-heroic nature of his protagonists.

  • Aristophanes, a comic dramatist, constantly mocked Euripides' tendency towards word-play and paradox.

  • Euripides' role as a dramatic innovator, however, is unquestionable: the simplicity of his dialogue and its closeness to natural human speech patterns paved the way for dramatic realism, while the emotional vacillations in many of his works created our understanding of melodrama. Admired by Socrates and other philosophers,

  • Euripides also distinguished himself as a free thinker; criticisms of traditional religion and defenses of oppressed groups (especially women and slaves) enter his plays with an explicitness unheard of before him. More than edifying pieces of art, works such as The Bacchae, Trojan Women,Iphigenia at Aulis,Alcetis, and Electra would become basic components of the Athenian citizen's political education.

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  • Medea was originally produced in 431 BC, and derived from a collection of tales that circulated informally around all Athenians.

  • Euripides’ audience would have been familiar with its general parameters and many of its specifics.

  • The play's merit consequently lies in its manner of exposition and its emotional focus, which Euripides places squarely in the flights of amoral passion that afflict the protagonist, Medea.

  • Her infamous murders of her own children challenged the Athenian moral universe that continually hovers in the background of the play.

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  • In the opening, a nurse gives exposition but at the same time she also expresses a wish that the past could be undone.

  • Medea, Jason, the chorus, and others will replay their own versions of this futile wish at various stages in the play. Jason and Medea each express remorse at having inaugurated the events the nurse recounts; their past love has doomed them in the present.

  • Tragedy, as an art form, often imparts a very basic message: actions, premeditated or not, bear consequences that must be recognized and endured.

  • Unlike Jason, who uses deceptive rationalizations to avoid facing the consequences of his own actions, Medea simply rides her passions unthinkingly. Even before Creon banishes Medea, she is already a perennial exile, unconcerned with the chains of responsibility that bind her.

  • Both Jason and Medea illustrate the play's most significant absence--accountability.

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  • After planting the crucial backdrop to the story, the play immediately introduces us to Medea's total despair upon being abandoned by Jason, offering in the process Euripides' fundamental psychological insight that victims of an intense emotional wound (Medea) not only turn against those who inflict it (Jason) but against their entire world of emotional attachments (her children).

  • Against some interpretations of Medea, which claim she struggles between her devotion as a mother and her desire for revenge, we could infer from her first cries that her children's murder is fated from the beginning--the natural consequence of Medea's overwhelming emotional shock.

  • The offspring of Jason and Medea, the children are presented as naïve and oblivious to the intrigue that surrounds them. Medea uses them as pawns in the murder of Glauce and Creon, and then kills them in the play's culminating horror.

  • Their innocent deaths provide the greatest element of pathos--the tragic emotion of pity--in the play. Their silence as characters without names shows their marginal role between two warring parents.

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  • Medea is part of the gallery of Euripides' "bad women." Euripides was often attacked for portraying what Aristotle called "unscrupulously clever" women as his main characters; he depicts his tragic heroines with far less apology than his contemporaries.

  • We are not, as in Aeschylus' Oresteia, allowed to comfort ourselves with the restoration of male-dominated order. In Medea that order is exposed as hypocritical and spineless, and in the character of Medea, we see who a woman whose suffering, instead of ennobling her, has made her monstrous.

  • The play is often seen as one of the first works of feminism, and Medea is seen as a feminist heroine.

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  • However, many scholars of Greek theatre have challenged the theory that Medea reflects any feminist ideologies, believing that Euripides was explicitly mocking and describing how they ought not to behave.

    • Moderation was also a theme of the play, and a popular value in ancient Greece. Medea's actions were seen as erratic because they were not in moderation, and in the time of the play, women did not have much say in what went on.

    • Therefore, Medea's reaction was not one taken in moderation. Moderation of everything was one of the Greek ideas, for example, moderation of love, the result being balance and harmony.

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OedipusRex and Antigone by Sophocles

  • A little about Sophocles:

    • It is thought that he won the first prize at the Athenian festival eighteen times and was among the most popular and well-respected men of his day.

    • Like most good Athenians, Sophocles was involved with the political and military affairs of Athenian democracy.

      • He did stints as a city treasurer and

      • as a naval officer, and

      • throughout his life he was a close friend of the foremost statesman of the day, Pericles.

    • He wrote more than 120 plays.

    • He lived until he was over 90, and died in 406 BC, just after Euripides.

    • We have 7 of his tragedies, and part of a satyr play.

    • Sophocles introduced a third actor into his plays, and invented scene painting.

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Oedipus Rex–Oedipus the King

  • The story was not invented by Sophocles. Quite the opposite: the play’s most powerful effects often depend on the fact that the audience already knows the story.

  • Since the first performance of Oedipus Rex, the story has fascinated critics just as it fascinated Sophocles.

    • Aristotle used this play and its plot as the supreme example of tragedy.

    • Sigmund Freud famously based his theory of the “Oedipal Complex” on this story, claiming that every boy has a latent desire to kill his father and sleep with his mother.

    • The play itself is a variation of the myth.

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Major Themes

  • The Willingness to Ignore the Truth

    • The scene when Jocosta and Oedipus compare notes is an extraordinary moment because it calls into question the entire truth-seeking process Oedipus believes himself to be undertaking.

    • Both Oedipus and Jocasta act as though the servant’s story, once spoken, is irrefutable history.

    • Neither can face the possibility of what it would mean if the servant were wrong.

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  • Thus Jocasta feels she can tell Oedipus of the prophecy that her son would kill his father, and Oedipus can tell her about the similar prophecy given him by an oracle (867–875), and neither feels compelled to remark on the coincidence; or why Oedipus can hear the story of Jocasta binding her child’s ankles (780–781) and not think of his own swollen feet.

  • While the information in these speeches is largely intended to make the audience painfully aware of the tragic irony, it also emphasizes just how desperately Oedipus and Jocasta do not want to speak the obvious truth: they look at the circumstances and details of everyday life and pretend not to see them.

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  • The Limits of Free Will

    • Prophecy is a central part of Oedipus the King.

      • Creon returns from Delphi with news of how the plague can be stopped.

      • Oedipus and Jocasta debate the extent to which prophecies should be trusted at all, and when all of the prophecies come true, their debate is seen as flawed.

      • It appears that one of Sophocles’ aims is to justify the powers of the gods and prophets, which had recently come under attack in fifth-century xb.c. Athens.

      • Sophocles’ audience would, of course, have known the story of Oedipus, which only increases the sense of complete inevitability about how the play would end.

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  • Suicide caused by the horror of incest

  • Sight and Blindness


  • Oedipus’ Swollen Foot—Marked by Fate

  • Three Way Crossroad—the crossroads is part of the distant past, dimly remembered, and Oedipus was not aware at the time that he was making a fateful decision.

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The local of the Plays

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  • Antigone draws attention to the difference between divine law and human law.

  • Can be viewed as an early feminist play—

    • Ismene, her sister tells Antigone that women can't stand up to men.

    • She says that Antigone should let the men rule, and obey them even when they are wrong.

    • Ismene is much more like real Athenian women than Antigone.

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  • Child of Oedipus and Jocasta, and therefore both Oedipus’s daughter and his sister. Antigone appears briefly at the end of Oedipus the King, when she says goodbye to her father as Creon prepares to banish Oedipus.

  • She appears at greater length in Oedipus at Colonus, leading and caring for her old, blind father in his exile.

  • But Antigone comes into her own in Antigone. As that play’s protagonist, she demonstrates a courage and clarity of sight unparalleled by any other character in the three Theban plays. Whereas other characters—Oedipus, Creon, Polynices—are reluctant to acknowledge the consequences of their actions, Antigone is unabashed in her conviction that she has done right.

  • She is very much her father’s daughter, and she begins her play with the same swift decisiveness with which Oedipus began his. Within the first fifty lines, she is planning to defy Creon’s order and bury Polynices.

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  • Unlike her father, however, Antigone possesses a remarkable ability to remember the past. Whereas Oedipus defies Tiresias, the prophet who has helped him so many times, and whereas he seems almost to have forgotten his encounter with Laius at the three-way crossroads, Antigone begins her play by talking about the many griefs that her father handed down to his children.

  • Because of her acute awareness of her own history, Antigone is much more dangerous than Oedipus, especially to Creon. Aware of the kind of fate her family has been allotted, Antigone feels she has nothing to lose. The thought of death at Creon’s hands that so terrifies Ismene does not even faze Antigone, who looks forward to the glory of dying for her brother.

  • Yet even in her expression of this noble sentiment, we see the way in which Antigone continues to be haunted by the perversion that has destroyed her family. Speaking about being killed for burying Polynices, she says that she will lie with the one she loves, loved by him, and it is difficult not to hear at least the hint of sexual overtones, as though the self-destructive impulses of the Oedipus family always tend toward the incestuous.

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  • Antigone draws attention to the difference between divine law and human law. More than any other character in the three plays, she casts serious doubt on Creon’s authority. When she points out that his edicts cannot override the will of the gods or the unshakable traditions of men, she places Creon’s edict against Polynices’ burial in a perspective that makes it seem shameful and ridiculous.

  • Creon sees her words as merely a passionate, wild outburst, but he will ultimately be swayed by the words of Tiresias, which echo those of Antigone. It is important to note, however, that Antigone’s motivation for burying Polynices is more complicated than simply reverence for the dead or for tradition.

She says that she would never have taken upon herself the responsibility of defying the edict for the sake of a husband or children, for husbands and children can be replaced; brothers, once the parents are dead, cannot. In Antigone we see a woman so in need of familial connection that she is desperate to maintain the connections she has even in death.

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Greek Comedy

  • The evolution of comedy is more complex than tragedy, though as to its origin and earlier development there is little exact information. All that Aristotle can tell us is that it first took shape in Megaris and Sicyon, whose people were noted for their coarse humour and sense of the ludicrous, while Susarion, the earliest comic poet, was a native of a Megarian town. Add to this that it arose from the phallic processions of the Greeks, as did tragedy from the dithyramb, and we have about all that is known about the origins of comedy.

  • At country festivals held in celebration of the vintage it was the custom for people to pass from village to village, some in carts, uttering the crude jests and abuse unjustly attributed to the tragic choruses; others on foot, bearing aloft the phallic emblem and singing the praises of Phales, the comrade of Bacchus.

  • In cities it was also the custom, after an evening banquet, for young men to roam around the streets with torches in their hands, headed by a lyre or flute-player.

  • Such a group of revellers was called a comus, and a member of the band a comoedus or comus-singer, the song itself being termed a comoedia, or comedy, just as a song of satyrs was named a tragoedia, or tragedy.

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What Makes You Laugh?

“Oh Great! Nothing Kills a Joke Faster than Having to Explain It!” Rearick

  • Surprise—This is why people laugh even at course jokes, they’re surprised. (It’s also why one hears laughter just as much as screams in spook houses.)

  • Extremes—The grotesque. Often things are funny just because they are a bit more than what we know is true.

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  • The Phallic processions were continued as late as the days of Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE), and we learn from one of the orations of Demosthenes that the riotous youths who infested the streets of Athens delighted in their comic buffooneries. Pasquinades of the most obscene kind were part of the exhibitions. When formally established as part of the Dionysiac festivals, the Leneas and Dionysia, it had its chorus, though less numerous and costly than the dithyrambic choir, and the actors, at first without masks, disguised their features by smearing them with the lees of wine.

  • By Plato comedy is defined as the generic name for all exhibitions which have a tendency to excite laughter. Though its development was mainly due to the political and social conditions of Athens, it finally held up the mirror to all that was characteristic of Athenian life.

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  • The old comedy, dating from the establishment of democracy by Kleisthenes, about 510 BC, arose, as we have seen, from the obscene jests of Dionysian revellers, to which was given a political application.

  • In outward form these comedies were the most extravagant of burlesque, in essence they were the most virulent of abuse and personal vilification.

  • In its license of word and gesture, on its audacious directness of invective, no restriction was placed by the dramatist, the audience or the authorities.

  • The satire and abuse were directed against some object of popular dislike, to whom were not only applied such epithets as coward, fool and knave, but he was represented as saying and doing everything that was contemptible, as suffering everything that was ludicrous and degrading.

  • But this alone would not have won for comedy such recognition as it received from the refined and cultured community of the age of Pericles.

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  • The comic dramatist who would gain a hearing in Athens must borrow from tragedy all its most attractive features, its choral dances, its masked actors, its metres, its scenery and stage mechanism, and above all the chastened elegance of the Attic language - for this the audience required from the dramatist, as from the lyric poet and the orator.

  • Thus comedy became a recognized branch of the drama, often presenting a brilliant sparkle in dialogue and a poetic beauty in the choral parts not unworthy of the best efforts of the tragic muse.

  • Thus, also, it became a powerful engine in the hands of a skillful and unscrupulous politician.

  • In the hands of Aristophanes it gains the quality of “High Seriousness” as defined by Mathew Arnold.

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The Local of the Play

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Lysistrata by Aristophanes

  • A little about Aristophanes:

    • We think he was born about 448 BC and died in 380 BC. (?)

    • Although he place and exact date of his birth are unknown, he was still young in the 420s when he achieved sudden brilliant success in the Theater of Dionysus with his Banqueters.

    • He was obviously educated and must accordingly have been from a relatively wealthy family; his deme—a portion of Greece--was Kudathenaion (the same as that of the leading Athenian statesman Cleon).

    • He is famous for writing comedies such as The Birds for the two Athenian dramatic festivals: the City Dionysia and the Lenea.

    • He wrote forty plays, eleven of which survive; his plays are the only surviving complete examples of Old Attic Comedy, although extensive fragments of the work of his rough contemporaries Cratinus and Eupolis survive.

    • Eleven of his 40 comedies still exist, including Lysistrata.

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  • In his comedies he makes fun of important people in Athens, and attacks the war that Athens was fighting against Sparta, The Peloponnesian War, for more than 20 years off and on.

  • In some plays Aristophanes dresses his Chorus as animals (frogs, wasps, birds) or even

  • Hints in the text of his plays, supported by ancient scholars, suggest that he was prosecuted several times by Cleon for defaming Athens in the presence of foreigners and the like; how much truth there is to this is impossible to say.

  • The Frogs was given the unprecedented honor of a second performance. According to a later biographer, he was also awarded a civic crown for the play.

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  • The opening scene of Lysistrata enacts the stereotypical and traditional characterization of women in Greece and also distances Lysistrata from this clichéd, housewife character

  • The audience is met with a woman, Lysistrata, who is furious with the other women from her country because they have not come to discuss war with her.

  • Lysistrata is not only angered because the women won't prioritize war and the peace of their country, but she is ashamed that the women won't stand up to the stereotypes and names that their husband's give them. Lysistrata tells Kleonike, "I'm positively ashamed to be a woman", and Kleonike proudly admits, "That's us!"

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  • Images of Lysistrata

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  • Ironically, even though she despises the labels men give to women, Lysistrata fits the stereotype of “the devious woman.”

  • Lysistrata deviates from the Grecian male will to further the Peloponnesian War and, with the help of other women, essentially takes over Greece and ends the war

  • Like a man, with her plan for a sex strike in mind, Lysistrata examines women for their sexual potential. When Lampito, Ismenia and the Korinthian Girl enter, Lysistrata scrutinizes the women's bodies, as a male would do. Homosexuality would have not sounded the same bells it does for us.

  • Recognizing the performance practices of Ancient Greece is vital to an understanding of Aristophanes's real purpose in the writing of Lysistrata.

  • The illusion and sexual tension of an original performance of Lysistrata would have been undoubtedly influenced by the fact that males played all of the female parts and that there was only an all-male audience to watch.

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  • With this in mind, it seems that one could view Lysistrata as a chauvinist piece, with men playing at their idealized woman.

  • However there remain a few earnest arguments for empowering women in the play.

    • The shortage of men in Athens necessitated the empowerment of women. Indeed, in the play there seems an overabundance of women by comparison to the males. Lauren K. Taafee points out that the conditions of Athens in 412 and 411 BC may have actually caused such an inequality.

    • The Sicilian expedition killed many young and middle-aged men.

    • The male population was actually reduced by one-third in 411.

  • Thus, Lysistrata complains about a real problem facing Athens when she complains that there is a shortage of men because of the war.

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Sex Strikes?

"If men were to go on strike! and deny women sex, in the end you would have a bunch of horny men"

  • “Sex Strikes Through the Ages”

  • “No Water, No Sex: Wives Tell Husbands women want Turkish village's system fixed”

  • Colombian Gangsters Face Sex Ban

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Sites Cited

  • Ancient Greek Comedy” Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. November 2006

  • Borey, Eddie. "GradeSaver: ClassicNote: Medea Study Guide." 7 November 2006. GradeSaver. 7 November 2006

  • Davidson, James. "Dover, Foucault And Greek Homosexuality: Penetration and the Truth of Sex." Past & Present 170 (2001): 3-51.

  • Douthat, Ross. SparkNote on Agamemnon. 2 Nov. 2006

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  • Lusher, Lindsey. SparkNote on Lysistrata. 7 Nov. 2006

  • Parsons, David “The Writers” Classics Teaching Resources. 2 Nov. 2006

  • Prado, Ignacio. SparkNote on Medea. 7 Nov. 2006

  • SparkNote on The Oedipus Plays. 2 Nov. 2006

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