Concepts, values, and ideas in ancient drama: The research methodology of the past of values

Assoc. Prof. Maria Dimaki-Zora, member of  the NKUA team, talks about the  methodology followed in VAST regarding the  past of values, focusing on the values of ancient Greek drama and their timeless dynamics.
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Concepts, values, and ideas in ancient drama: The research methodology of the past of values

The values of ancient Greek drama and their timeless dynamics are unquestionable issues. The social and political significance of drama and theatre in the context of Athenian democracy has been repeatedly discussed and proven in scientific research on ancient drama internationally. The fact that these texts continue to be on stage worldwide and that their textual elements continue to be projected, decoded, and further inaugurating an intercultural dialogue was a central axis of our scientific and research program VAST (Values Across Space and Time) in its first phase.

We were called, as a research team, with the scientific responsibility of Professor Grammatas, to explore and to highlight the values of the ancient drama, focusing on archetypal, timeless values but also on concepts and ideas projected through texts. 

Our aim was not to simply record words and linguistic elements, but to interpret a representative corpus of ancient drama texts, through the perspective of highlighting concepts and values that reappear often as textual elements and they constitute structural elements of the drama, ready to be recruited in a perpetual process of re-reading and re-interpreting by a modern audience.

Our methodology was determined by the purpose of the research, according to which in the first phase we should find, highlight and determine the importance of values and concepts that are textually registered.

In the first phase of the program, we dealt with the textual analysis and study of the way in which the values are highlighted as registered concepts in selected texts. The members of the scientific team, after discussion and based on literary, theatrical, linguistic/stylistic but also pedagogical, historical, sociological elements and criteria, have resulted in the selection of representative works, which have been the corpus of our research and belong to both tragedy and comedy, coming from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

With these criteria we chose:

  • From Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides, Suppliant Women, Seven against Thebes, Prometheus Bound
  • From Sophocles: Philoctetes, Electra, Antigone, Oedipus Rex
  • From Euripides: Hecuba, Medea, The Suppliants

The research work was based on the study of the texts as well as the study of relevant bibliography, through which we could identify central values, concepts, and ideas, as well as bipolarities, who hold an important place in creating meaning.

Let us clarify at this point that, in order to choose the best possible methodological approach, we decided to proceed in a dual manner: initially on the basis of a pre-existing research case that proposed the existence of specific moral, social, political, cultural values in the works of ancient Greek drama (that is a corpus-based research) and was based on a thorough study of the bibliography and then, on the basis of a research guided by the texts themselves (corpus-driven research), so that the hypothesis, that is the particular values and concepts, would result from the text corpus itself.

Based on this purpose, for each of the dramas, a list of the following categories of analysis was drawn up. 

  1. Work Title: Refers to the title, the genre (tragedy/comedy), the author and the subject
  2. Relationships/Situations/Conditions/Content: The key points that constitute the essential content of the text are presented: human, interpersonal, existential, ideological conflicts, Bipolarities such as war/peace, law/submission, freedom/power, respect/oppression, logic/passion, duty/exaggeration, measure/impatience, etc.
  3. Ideas, Values, Messages: Those arising from the above mentioned and constitute the content of the values and concepts of ancient drama and ancient Greek thought, such as: human rights, human dignity, measure, justice, equality, respect, reason, dialogue, freedom, democracy.
  4. Iconic archetypal timeless values: Iconic/key reference points with global and timeless power. They create the concept of “classic” in the world of values, such as: freedom, democracy, dialogue, human rights, human dignity, etc.
  5. Bodies/Persons: Which heroes and dramatis personae represent and express these values?
  6. Passages: Specific quotations in which these ideas/values are found.
  7. Interpretation/Content: Which interpretation has been given to these values? What is the “classic/ dominant” view? What is the position/recognition of these values in the historical past?
  8. Related values in other literary genres: Is it a “common place” in ancient Greek thought or a unique element? Is its content recasting and returning differently to the works of the genre (tragedy/comedy) or elsewhere (literature, philosophy, history)?
  9. Comments: Personal commentary/interpretive approach of the previous ones.

This recording was a valuable supporting material and the basis for our research, highlighting the value of dramas with a tool of textual, dramatical analysis and an interpretive intertextual analysis.

After uploading, in English translation, from the PERSEUS digital library database, we continued with the annotation of the texts, with the matching words, phrases and / or periods of speech with the three categories that we had already drawn up.

  1. Key / Main Concepts / Values / Ideas
  2. Expanded / Various Content
  3. Opposite Concepts / Conceptual Couples / Bipolarities

In a thorough study we identified the words that signify values, the short phrases in which these words appear, and the content of these values/concepts in broader textual pieces (sentences, periods of speech). Because of the dramatic form of writing, especially for the bipolarities, more extensive passages were highlighted, with emphasis on lyrics or extracts from the “struggle” between heroes.

The note not only highlights the linguistic choices of the authors but also the way in which they display through their linguistic choices the ideological and value background of their works, the way of building more general and more specific identities, including gender identities and in general, representations of relationships, behaviors, versions of the social, political and spiritual life of the time during which the works were written and represented.

The restrictions of the research we encountered were related to the above mentioned need for interpretive approach to texts and identifying values, based on a synthetic method, which would take into account the textual, linguistic, stylistic analysis in conjunction with the study of the bibliography.

We should also consider that the values identified in the process of this first phase would not be possible to represent an one-sided correspondence between the linguistic form and their varied functions (emphasis, building of character, rhetorical function, identity or gender representation) which leaves room for more than one interpretations between researchers.

For these reasons, in the process of the annotation, we proceeded in two ways: initially identifying unique words and then identifying broader passages.

In the first case, which has a clearly lesser degree of subjectivity, we had a word annotation that was identified with the corresponding category, such as in the following excerpt from Agamemnon of Aeschylus, where the Chore says:

I tell you in the time just justice that you yourself, be sure of that, will not escape the peoples’ curses and death by stoning at their hand.

In this case, the word Justice corresponds exactly to the Justice value of the first category (key concepts/values/ideas).

Subsequently, we have made highlights based on broader texts, whose meaning can be interpreted as identical or relevant to the content of the values, concepts, ideas or bipolarities of the platform. This second way has a greater degree of subjective interpretation. E.g. In the Eumenides, the following verses:

I Will Select Judges of Homicide Bound by Oath, and I Will Establish This Tribunal for All Time Democracy

spoken by the goddess Athena and referring to the founding of the Supreme Court, were annotated by the value of democracy, since it was considered, according to the bibliography, that they represent the establishment of judicial institutions in the context of Athenian Republic.

Generally, it should be emphasised that the annotation followed the initial instructions for scientific and methodological consistency and a process which could not, of course, produce identical annotations between the researchers but gave rich interpretive keys to future readers, contributing to the deeper and broader understanding of the texts of ancient Greek drama.

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