The Greek theatre or Greek drama is a theatrical tradition that flourished in ancient Greece between c. 550 and c. 220 BC. Athens, the political and military power in Greece during this period, was the center of ancient Greek theatre. Tragedy (late 6th century BC), comedy (~486 BC), and satyr plays were some of the theatrical forms to emerge in the world. Greek theatre and plays have had a lasting impact on Western drama and culture.
Sophocles (495 BC - 406 BC) was the second of three great ancient Greek tragedians. He was preceded by Aeschylus, and was followed by or contemporary to Euripides. According to the Suda, he wrote 123 or more plays during the course of his life. For almost 50 years, he was the dominant competitor in the dramatic competitions of ancient Athens that took place during the religious festivals of the Lenaea and the Dionysia. His first victory was in 468 BC.
Only seven of his tragedies have survived into modern times with their text completely known. The most famous of these are the three tragedies concerning Oedipus and Antigone: these are often known as the Theban plays or The Oedipus Cycle, although they were not originally written or performed as a single trilogy. Sophocles influenced the development of the drama, most importantly by adding a third character and thereby reducing the importance of the chorus in the presentation of the plot. He also developed his characters to a greater extent than earlier playwrights such as Aeschylus, and used female characters in his plays.
Sophocles died at the venerable age of ninety in 406 or 405 BC. He was so respected by the Athenians that two plays performed at the Lenea soon after his death paid homage to him, and his unfinished play Oedipus at Colonus was completed and performed years later. Both Iophon, one of his sons, and a grandson, also called Sophocles, followed in his footsteps to become playwrights themselves.
In Sophocles' time, the Greek art of the drama was undergoing rapid and profound change. It had begun with little more than a chorus, but earlier playwrights had added first one and then two actors and thereby shifted the action of the plays away from the chorus. Among Sophocles' earliest innovations was the addition of a third actor, further reducing the role of the chorus and creating greater oppourtunity for character development and conflict between characters.
In addition to innovations in the structure of drama, Sophocles' work is known for deeper development of characters than earlier playwrights, whose characters are more two-dimensional and are therefore harder for an audience to relate to. His reputation was such that foreign rulers invited him to attend their courts. Aristotle used Sophocles's Oedipus the King as an example of perfect tragedy, which suggests the high esteem in which his work was held by later Greeks.
After the Great Destruction by the Persians in 480 BC, Athens was rebuilt, and theatre became formalized and an even more major part of Athenian culture and civic pride. This century is normally regarded as the Golden Age of Greek drama. The centerpiece of the annual Dionysia, which took place once in winter and once in spring, was a competition between three tragic playwrights at the Theatre of Dionysus. Each submitted three tragedies, plus a satyr play (a comic, burlesque version of a mythological subject). Beginning in a first competition in 486 BC, each playwright also submitted a comedy.
Aristotle claimed that Aeschylus added the second actor, and that Sophocles added the third actor. Apparently the Greek playwrights never put more than three actors on stage, except in very small roles (such as Pylades in Electra). No women appeared on stage, female roles were played by men. Violence was also never shown on stage. When somebody was about to die, they would take that person to the back to "kill" them and bring them back "dead." The other people near the stage were the chorus which consisted of about 4-8 people who would stand in the back wearing black.
Perhaps the most famous of Sophocles plays are commonly known as the Theban plays or The Oedipus Cycle. The cycle consists of the plays Oedipus Rex (or Oedipus Tyrannos), which won second prize at the Dionysia festival in 427, Oedipus at Colonus, which won first prize when produced by his grandson, and Antigone. Although these three plays are related in plot, they were not written or performed at the same time, and so were likely not originally intended to be a trilogy.
Taking up the theme of humans being trapped both by fate and their own frailties, the plays tell the story of the family of Oedipus, who in Greek mythology killed his father and married his mother without knowing that they were, in fact, his parents. Antigone, a play about Oedipus' daughter, is an example of Sophocles' use of prominent female characters.
Oedipus was a mythical king of Thebes, the “richest city in the world.”Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta and became king of Thebes after killing his father, solving the riddle of the Sphinx and unknowingly marrying his mother. After Oedipus is king, his sons fight over the throne and kill each other.Variations on the Oedipus legend are mentioned in fragments by several ancient Greek poets including Homer, Hesiod and Pindar. Most of what is known of Oedipus comes from a set of plays by Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.
Laius hears a prophecy that his son will kill him. Fearing the prophecy, Laius pierces Oedipus' feet and leaves him out to die, but a herdsman finds him and takes him away from Thebes. Oedipus, not knowing he was adopted, leaves home in fear of a phophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Laius, meanwhile, ventures out to find a solution to the Sphinx's riddle.
As prophesized, Oedipus crossed paths with Laius and this leads to a fight where Oedipus slays Laius. Oedipus then defeats the Sphinx by solving a mysterious riddle to become king. He marries the widow queen Jocasta not knowing it is his mother. A plague falls on the people of Thebes. Upon discovery of the truth, Jocasta hangs herself. After Oedipus is no longer king, Oedipus' sons kill each other.
Sophocles' Oedipus the KingThe people of Thebes are begging the king for help; he must discover the cause of the plague. Oedipus swears to find the person responsible for the pestilence and execute him as well as anyone who aids him. He questions everyone in the palace, including his wife, Jocasta. Eventually, when the blind seer Tiresias informs Oedipus that he himself is both the source of the pollution and the murderer, the king does not believe him. Oedipus insists that the culprit is Creon, Jocasta's brother, whom he believes is plotting to take over the throne.
Oedipus then accuses Tiresias of lying and being a false prophet. It is not until a messenger arrives with news that King Polybus of Corinth (his supposed father) has died of natural causes that a horrified Oedipus finally solves the mystery of his birth. In a moment of recognition, he realizes that he has not only killed his own father but has also married his own mother (with whom he has had four children). When Jocasta learns the horrible truth, she hangs herself in the very chamber where she and her son have unknowingly committed incest. Seizing the brooches from her dress, Oedipus blinds himself.
"Which creature in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?"
She strangled anyone unable to answer.
Sophocles' Oedipus at ColonusOedipus becomes a wanderer, pursued by Creon and his men. He finally finds refuge at the holy wilderness right outside of Athens, where it is said that Theseus took care of him and his daughter, Antigone. He died a peaceful death and his grave is said to be sacred to the gods.
Sophocles' AntigoneWhen Oedipus stepped down as King of Thebes, he gave the kingdom to his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, who both agreed to alternate the throne every year. However, they showed no concern for their father, who cursed them for their negligence. After the first year, Eteocles refused to step down and Polynices attacked Thebes with his supporters
The play is also notable as one of the few plays in which the inside of the palace setting is shown. Usually in Greek tragedy all action took place outside of the house or palace depicted on the skene (the backdrop of the stage); deaths took place "inside," unseen by the audience. In this play, however, the skene was opened to show Creon finding the body of Eurydice.
The character of the sentry is also unusual, as he speaks like a lower-class person, in more natural language, rather than the stylized poetry of the other characters. Similar characters in the works of Shakespeare have been compared to him.
The important issue in the play is the clash of values between Creon and Antigone. Creon advocates obedience to man-made laws while Antigone stresses the higher laws of duty to the gods and one's family.