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Professors Richard Rice and Sterling Watson

Some Dates (all dates BCE), Terms, and Names in the Theban Tragedy

Minoan Period
Mycenean Civilization
First Olympic Games
Homeric poems written
City Dionysia begins:
Thespis wins first tragedy contest
Comedy officially added to City
Dionysia Festival
Persian Wars
Public life of Pericles
Construction of Parthenon
Peloponnesian War
Trial and death of Socrates

Sophocles (496-406)
Antigone (441)
Oedipus Tyrranos (430)
Electra (418)
Oedipus at Colonus (406?)
Euripides (480-406)
Medea (431)
Hippolytus (428)
The Trojan Women (415)
The Bacchae (405)

(500-400 Golden Age of Greece)

City Dionysia

Aeschylus (526-456)
Prometheus Bound
*Oresteia Trilogy (458)


Aristophanes (448-380)
The Clouds (423)
The Birds (414)
Lysistrata (411)
The Frogs (405)
Aristotle (384-322)
The Poetics

Names in Oedipus The King and Antigone (pronunciation)

Antigone (an-tig-uhnee)
Laios/Laius (lie-oos)
Eurydice (you-rid-a-see)
Polybus (poluh-bus)
Polyneices (pol-uh-nice-ease)

Kithaeron/Cithaeron (ki-tie-run)
Eteocles (etee-oh-klees)
Oedipus (ed-uh-pus)
Iocaste/Jocasta (yo-kaahs-tuh)
Teiresias (tie-rees-ee-us)


Creon (kree-on)
Merope (mare-rope-ee)
Haimon/Haemon (hay-mon)
Ismene (is-main-ee)

Greek Tragedy
A tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete in itself, and of
a certain magnitude; in a language embellished with each kind of artistry . . . cast in
the form of drama, not narrative; accomplishing through incidents that arouse pity
and fear the purgation of these emotions.
(Aristotle, Poetics, Chapter VI)

The form of drama we call tragedy was born in Greece in the fifth century BCE.
Aristotles famous definition, written in the fourth century BCE, has the authority of one
who probably saw many classical tragedies performed. In his observations, Aristotle is
not laying down laws for what a tragedy ought to be. He is drawing--from tragedies he
has seen or read--a general description. (Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and
Drama, X.J. Kennedy, Boston: Little, Brown, 1979, p. 899)
Aristotle observes that the protagonist of a tragedy, is a person of high estate,
usually a king or queen or other member of a royal family. Greek dramatists were as
keenly interested in the private lives of the powerful as todays playwrights are, but we
shouldnt accuse them of snobbery. It is the nature of tragedy that the protagonist must
fall from power, dignity and happiness; this high estate makes the fall all the more a
calamity in that it involves an entire nation or people. Nor is the protagonist
extraordinary merely because of his or her position in society. Oedipus is not only a king
but a noble soul who suffers profoundly and who employs splendid speech to express his
suffering. (Kennedy, p. 899)
But tragic heroes are not superhuman; they are fallible. The heros fall is the result,
to use Aristotles term, of hamartia: an error or transgression or (as some translators
would have it) a flaw or weakness of character. The notion that a tragic hero has such a
tragic flaw has often been attributed to Aristotle, but it is by no means clear that this is
what Aristotle meant. According to this interpretation, every tragic hero has some moral
Achilles heel (pride, say, or lust for power) that brings him or her to a bad end. This
interpretation does not fit every tragedy, nor does it unmistakably fit Aristotles favorite
example, Oedipus Rex. (Kennedy, p. 899)
Whatever Aristotle had in mind, critics have found value in the idea of the tragic
flaw. In this view, the downfall of a hero follows from the persons very nature. But
whether we find the heros sufferings due to a flaw in character or an error in
judgement--we will probably find that the downfall results from acts for which the hero is
responsible. In a Greek tragedy, the hero is amply capable of making choices-- capable,
too, of accepting the consequences. (Kennedy, p. 900)
Lets take another look at Aristotles definition of tragedy. By purgation
(katharsis), did the ancient theorist mean that after witnessing a tragedy we feel relief,
having released our pent-up emotions? Or did he mean that our feelings are purified,

refined into something more ennobling? Scholars continue to argue. Whatever his exact
meaning, clearly Aristotle implies that after witnessing a tragedy we feel better, not
worse--not depressed, but somehow elated. We take a kind of pleasure in the spectacle of
a noble person being abased, but this pleasure is a legitimate one. (Kennedy, p. 900) For
tragedy, in the words of Edith Hamilton, affects us as pain transmuted into exaltation by
the alchemy of poetry. (The Idea of Tragedy, in The Greek Way in Western
Civilization, New York: Norton, 1942)

The Theatre of Sophocles

Sophocles (ca. 496-406 BCE), was born near Athens to a family of wealth and
position. He was a contemporary of the two other great Greek tragedians, Aeschylus and
Euripides. Only seven of his 123 plays have come down to us in complete form. His first
successful tragedy was Ajax. Antigone followed, then Oedipus Rex and Electra. Among
the Greek dramatists of his time Sophocles was known for his innovations: increasing the
size of the chorus, adding more actors, and introducing painted scenery.
For a citizen of Athens in the fifth century BCE, when the surviving classical
tragedies were written, a play was a religious occasion. Plays were given at the Lenaea,
or feast of the winepress, in January; or during the great Dionysia, or feast of Dionysus,
god of wine and crops, in the spring. So well did the Athenians love contests that at the
spring festival each playwright was to present--in competition -- three tragedies on
successive days, the last tragedy to be followed by a satyr play, a mythic parody
containing a chorus of actors playing satyrs, creatures half goat or horse, half man. The
costs of the plays (and presumably the prize money) were borne by a wealthy citizen
chosen by the state. (Kennedy, P. 900)
Seated in the open air, in a hillside amphitheater, as many as fourteen thousand
spectators could watch a performance that must have somewhat resembled an opera or
modern musical. The audience, arranged in rows, looked out across a rounded orchestra
or dancing place, where the chorus of fifteen (the number was fixed by Sophocles) sang
passages of lyric poetry and executed dance movements. (It is also possible that actors
and chorus sometimes shared the orchestra.) In these song and dance interludes may have
originated the modern custom of dividing the play into acts and scenes. (Kennedy, p. 900)
The chorus provided stage business and helped tell the story: in the plays of
Sophocles, they converse with the protagonist and comment on the action, offering words
of advice. As they physically stand between the audience and principal actors, the
members of the chorus serve as middlemen who voice the reactions of the spectators.
(Kennedy, 902)
Behind the orchestra stood the actors, in front of a stage house or skene (the source
of our word scene). Originally, the skene was a dressing room; later it is believed to have
borne a painted backdrop. Directly behind the skene, a colonnade or row of pillars

provided (according to one scholarly guess) a ready-made set for a palace. (This is a
rough description of the Athenian theater of Dionysus; several other Greek cities had
theaters, each unique in certain details.) (Kennedy, 902)
In the plays of Aeschylus in the early fifth century BCE, no more than two actors
occupied the stage at any time. Sophocles, in the mid-century, increased the number to
three, making situations of greater complexity possible. Still later in the century, in the
time of Euripides (last of the trio of supreme Greek tragic dramatists), the skene
supported a hook-and-pulley by which actors who played gods could be lowered or
lifted--hence the Latin phrase deus ex machina (god from the machine) that has come to
mean any unconvincing means of bringing a play quickly to a resolution. (Kennedy, 902)
What did the actors look like? They wore masks (personae, the source of our word
person: a thing through which sound comes); some of these masks had exaggerated
mouthpieces, probably designed to project speech. From certain conventional masks the
spectators recognized familiar types: the old graybeard, the young soldier, the beautiful
girl (womens parts were played by male actors). Perhaps in order to gain in dignity,
actors eventually came to wear the cothurnus or buckskin, a high, thick-soled elevator
shoe. All this must have given the actors a slightly inhuman appearance, but we may
infer that the spectators accepted such conventions as easily as opera lovers accept an
operas artifice. (Kennedy, 902)
On a Great Dionysian feast day in about the year 430 BCE, not long after Athens
had survived a devastating plague, the audience turned out to watch a tragedy by
Sophocles, set in the city of Thebes at the moment of another terrible plague. This timely
play was Oedipus Rex (King Clubfoot, to translate the Latin title given the play by later
scholars--the Greek title was Oedipus Tyrannos, Clubfoot the Tyrant). It was an old
story, briefly told in Homers Odyssey, and presumably the audience was familiar with it.
(Kennedy, 902)

The Theban Legend

The city of Thebes, north of Athens, was founded by Cadmus, son of Agenor and
brother of Europa. Cadmus trusted companions, who might have been the first citizens
of Thebes, were eaten by a fierce dragon, soon slain by Cadmus. The oracle at Delphi
instructed him to sow the dragons teeth in the ground at the site of Thebes. When he had
done so, a tribe of fully armed and ferocious giants sprang up and fought one another
until only five remained. Submitting to Cadmus, these became the founders or city
fathers of Thebes.
Cadmus descendents, Laius and Jocasta, produced an infant, who, according to
Apollos oracle, was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Laius and Jocasta,
understandably, tried to avert this disaster by having their baby put to death. They gave
him to a servant--a shepherd--who was told to abandon the baby on a mountainside

(Cithaeron) after piercing its feet with an iron pin so that it could not crawl away.
The servant could not bear to leave the child to die, so he gave him to a Corinthian
shepherd, urging him to take the infant far away from Thebes and raise him as his own.
Eventually the Corinthian brought the child to his master, Polybus, King of Corinth. The
childless Polybus was happy to adopt the Theban baby whom he named Oedipus
(Swollen-foot), in pity for its mutilated feet.
Oedipus grew up in Corinth, well-loved by the King and Queen whom he supposed
to be his true parents. In his young manhood he heard, from Apollos oracle, the horrible
prediction that fate had in store for him. Attempting to escape this fate, he fled from
Corinth, resolving never to see his presumed parents again. As he wandered toward
Thebes, he killed a feisty old man who wouldnt give him room to pass on a narrow road.
Thebes was in a state of calamity and confusion; its king dead (at the hands of an
unidentified traveler) and the city besieged by the deadly Sphinx, who killed all who
failed to answer her clever riddle. When Oedipus was able to destroy her power by
answering the riddle, he was received with great joy as Thebes next king and heir. He
married Jocasta and together they produced Eteocles, Polyneices, Antigone, and Ismene.
After fifteen years of deceptive prosperity, pestilence and famine once again struck
Thebes. Her despairing citizens appealed to Oedipus to save them again and prayed to
their gods, particularly Apollo, to deliver them from their wretchedness. Oedipus sent his
brother-in-law, Creon, to the shrine of Apollo; Creon returned with word that the
murderer of Laius, the former king of Thebes, was in their midst and must be driven from
the city before the plague would pass.
Oedipus also sent for the blind old seer, Teiresias, who told him that he, Oedipus,
was the slayer of Laius, that Laius was his father, and that he had married his own
mother. The suddenness of the revelation made it incredible to all. Oedipus thought
Creon was in league with the seer, and unjustly accused him of wishing to seize the
kingdom. Creon answered with restraint and dignity, but Oedipus unrestrained rage
brought them close to blows before Jocasta stopped their quarrel.
The very things Jocasta told Oedipus to reassure him that Teiresias charge could
not be true aroused Oedipus to apprehension. Oedipus recalled killing an unknown old
man and his retinue years before as he had departed from Delphi. He had allowed only
one survivor to escape. The circumstances of the killing seemed to correspond with those
Teiresias had described in relating the death of Laius. A messenger now arrived with
word of the death of King Polybus, at which Oedipus rejoiced, believing he could not
now kill his father. To still his fear that he might yet wed his mother, the messenger
revealed that Oedipus was not the true son of these parents. Under questioning he told
how he had found Oedipus as an abandoned child and taken him to Corinth and Polybus.
Jocasta now perceived that Oedipus was indeed her son, for Laius had abandoned
their child in fear of a prophecy that he would die at the childs hand. She rushed into the

palace, leaving Oedipus to piece together the rest of his story. The missing link was
provided by the survivor of Laius murder, who proved to be the same servant who had
exposed the child Oedipus to die. At this discovery of the complete fulfillment of the
dreaded oracle, Oedipus rushed into the palace after Jocasta. A servant soon reported that
Jocasta had hanged herself and Oedipus had struck out his own eyes so as to look no
longer upon the scene of his abomination. Oedipus reappeared with blood-stained
cheeks, cursing his fate and calling upon Creon to send him into the exile he had himself
decreed for the murderer of Laius.

Oedipus surrenders his throne to his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices. The two
sons agree to rule in alternate years, but the first refuses to yield to the second his turn.
Polyneices, thus betrayed, brings the armies of seven allied chieftains against Thebes to
fight for his rights. The war is bitter and in the course of it, although the invaders are
repulsed, the brothers meet in personal combat and slay each other. Their uncle, Creon,
becomes king. As the play, Antigone, opens, Creon has issued a decree forbidding
anyone upon pain of death to bury the body of Polyneices.



Although Sophocles named his play Antigone, many critics say that Creon is the
tragic hero, pointing out that Antigone is absent from the last third of the play.
Evaluate this view.


What are the religious premises of the play? Did Sophocles believe the gods were
always just? What role does Fate play in Antigones story? There are references
in the play to the curse upon the house of Oedipus. Is fate or personal choice
responsible for Creons (for Antigones) tragedy?


Oedipus has been called an Everyman, at least partly because of Freuds famous
formulation about the universality of the Oedipal struggle. Is Antigone an
Everywoman? Or is she a novel and individual person whose plight is in no way
representative of all women at all times?


Are the words, hamartia, and hubris, relevant to Antigone? To Creon?


Why does Creon (Scene V, p. 229), contrary to the Choruss advice, bury the body
of Polyneices before he releases Antigone? Does his action show a zeal for piety as
short-sighted as his earlier zeal for law? Is his action plausible in view of the facts
that Teiresias has dwelt on the wrong done to Polyneices, and that Antigone has
ritual food to sustain her? Or are we not to worry about Creons motive?



What function does Eurydice serve? How deeply do we feel about her fate? What
function does Ismene serve?


Reflect upon the works you have read in Western Heritage so far. Which other
hero does Antigone (does Creon) most resemble? In what ways is she/he like and
not like this person.


In what ways does the story of Antigone follow the pattern of the mythic quest of
the hero?


Which of the themes of Western Heritage (self, state, transcendent) would Antigone
have said meant the most to her? What about Creon?


Reflect upon your own life. Has there been a moment when you were Antigone or
Creon? Compare and contrast your own experience to that of the characters in the