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Free Study Guide for Oedipus the King by Sophocles

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Sophocles - BIOGRAPHY

Chronologically, Sophocles was the second in the triumvirate of great Greek playwrights, the others being Aeschylus and Euripides. Born in 496 B.C. in the rural suburb of Colonus near Athens, he lived there through most of the fifth century B.C. dying in 406 B.C. Though his father, Sophilius, owned an arms factory in Athens, Sophocles showed little or no interest in political and military affairs. Instead, he became well-versed in the competitive rites of Athenian culture, and, as a youth, won prizes in wrestling and music. At age fifteen, he led the Choral paean to celebrate the famous Greek victory over the Persians at Salamis.

Sophocles produced his first set of plays in 468 B.C. They were immediately successful, and he was awarded the coveted first place at the Dionysian festival that took place every spring, winning over his own mentor, Aeschylus. He went on to win the first prize on at least 18 to 20 occasions and ranked second several other times. Ironically, his greatest play, Oedipus the King, managed only a second place, perhaps due to biased judging. Sophocles also staged his plays at the “henaea”, the annual feast of the wine-vats held each January in Athens after 450 B.C. The feast included elaborate processions, rituals, and dramatic contests.

Sophocles learned much of his art from Aeschylus, the “father of Greek tragedy,” but developed his own innovations to Greek drama. He increased the chorus strength from 12 to 15, included the use of painted scenery on stage, and introduced a third actor as a key figure in the play. (Aeschylus sometime used a third actor, but in a rather limited role.)

Of the more than 120 Sophoclean plays written over a 60 year span, only the titles of about 110 of them are known. Unfortunately, only seven plays have survived intact into modern times. Their probable chronological order is as follows: Ajax and the Trachiniae/Women of Trachis pre-date Antigone (441 B.C.); Electra and Oedipus Tyranus / Oedipus the King followed; and Philoctetes is safely dated to 409 B.C. His last play Oedipus epi Kotonoi /Oedipus At Colonus was written when he was 90. Parts of his satyr play Ichneutae / The Trackers were discovered as recently as 1907.

Sophocles had two sons. The first was Iophon, the tragedian, by his legal wife, Nicostrate. Later in life, he had a second son Agathon (father of the younger Sophocles), by his mistress, Theoris of Sicyon. Literary critics have speculated that his final work Oedipus At Colonus was intended as a retort to his eldest son, Iophon, who during a legal dispute over the family property had accused Sophocles of being senile. To counter this accusation, the great dramatist recited before the court an ode from this play and proved his sanity. The play was produced posthumously on stage by his grandson (also called Sophocles “the younger”) in 401 B.C., five years after Sophocles’ death. In fact, Sophocles died just a few months after his great contemporary and fellow-playwright, Euripides, in whose honor he wrote his famous elegiac chorus. On the eve of the Dionysian festival in 406 B.C., Sophocles, with his actors and chorus, appeared in mourning garb (not wearing the usual garlands) and recited it before an audience that was deeply touched by its message.

The major part of Sophocles’ life coincided with the Golden Age of ancient Greece, when it was an undisputed imperial power and a great center of culture and learning. Some of the great contemporary statesmen who ruled Athens in this period of immense prosperity, such as Cimon and Pericles. were friends of Sophocles. Though he was never tempted to seek honors and fortunes in high places, he was twice elected “strategos”/“general”, once under Pericles and later with Nicias. As one of the ten generals, he led the Athenian expedition in the Samian war of 441- 438 B.C. He also presided over the Athenian treasury during these battle-stricken years. In 413 B.C., after a failed attempt by Athens to topple Sicily, he became one of the Proubloi (or “special commissioners”) mainly due to his widespread fame and popularity after writing the play Antigone.

Reliable contemporary reports reveal that Sophocles was charming, handsome, and wealthy. He had a wide circle of friends, among them Pericles and Herodotus, the great historian to whom he wrote a poem. The Greeks regarded Sophocles as a kind of tragic Homer, hailed him as the favorite of the gods, and honored him with state sacrifices long after his death. (This was not only for his great plays, but for the fact that when the cult of Asclepius, god of healing, was introduced in Athens, Sophocles housed the sacred snake, symbolizing the god, until the temple was ready). In his comedy Rogs (405 B.C.), Aristophanes has Dionysius go down to Hades to ask Euripides to remind the people of Athens what Greek drama was. When asked why he did not ask Sophocles, the character says that since Sophocles had been “contented among the living, he will be contented among the dead.” Phyrnicus, the ancient biographer, agreed that Sophocles’ life was happy and that he enjoyed all his faculties to the very end. Aristotle considered Sophocles to be the greatest tragedian. Matthew Arnold, the 19th century poet and critic, praised Sophocles as a man “who saw life steadily and saw it whole.”


Greek Tragedy

Although originally stemming from the “Dionysia” or religious festivals dedicated to Dionysius, the God of Wine, Greek tragedy was solemn, poetic, and philosophic in tone. Plays such as the ones about Oedipus often told the tale of a central character/protagonist who was an admirable but, not necessarily, a perfect person. This individual was often confronted by hostile forces from both outside (the fates or gods) and within (individual free will, pride, etc.). The protagonist often had to make difficult moral/ethical choices in order to resolve these conflicts. If the protagonist’s struggle ended in defeat or death, the play was labeled a tragedy. Most Greek tragedies were based on myths and, as Aristotle says, were “an imitation of an action” that was both serious and complete in itself.

Tragedies were marked by certain common elements. They consisted of a series of dramatic episodes linked by choral odes, chanted by an on-stage chorus of 12 -15 persons. This chorus often commented on the dramatic action or analyzed, in their own fashion, the pattern of events and the behavior of the central character/characters. They sang, danced, and recited the choral odes and lyrics to the accompaniment of such musical instruments as the lyre or flute (which Dionysus himself is known to have played). The main episodes were performed by, at the most, three actors who could appear simultaneously on stage. Men played both men and women’s parts and the three central actors shared all the roles in a play. Masks were worn to depict the kind of characters they represented, such as an aging man or a young woman. The use of masks was a way to surrender or submerge one’s own identity -- a principle basic to all Dionysian rituals.

For a clearer idea of how Greek tragedy works, one must refer to Aristotle’s definitive comments given in his great critical treatise about Greek drama, entitled The Poetics (circa 335 B.C.). It deals with theories of Greek tragedy as seen in the finest plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. These principles of classical Greek tragedy have influenced almost all the later tragic dramatists of the Western world. Though modern tragedy often deviates widely from the Greek classical norms, it still acknowledges the universality of Aristotle’s fundamental concepts, especially his ability to pinpoint those elements in human nature that are, always and everywhere, responsible for tragedy in life.

Aristotle’s View of Tragedy

In his Poetics, Aristotle claims that comedy shows man to be worse than what he is in real life. In tragedy, however, man is represented as better than he is in actual life. He defines tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in a language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament . . . in the form of action, not narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, and has as its goal a catharsis of emotions. Thus, he identifies six major features of tragic drama: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, and Melody.

For Aristotle the most important part of tragedy is the Plot or Action, which is the structure of the incidents. Plot is the very life-blood of tragic drama. Without action, there can be no tragedy, though it is sometimes possible to have a tragedy without character. Any tragic drama must be long enough to depict a reversal, or a change from good fortune to bad in the central figure. It must be so constituted that all its parts combine to form a unified and organic whole.

Character is the second most significant feature; it gives tragedy its moral dimension. The central personage in tragedy must be morally good, of fitting heroic stature, true-to-life, and consistent in action. The change in the fortune of the central figure must be from good to bad, from prosperity and success to adversity and failure. This downfall is often the consequence of a fatal flaw in a character or an error in judgment, which in Greek is called “Hamartia”. The failure of the tragic hero/heroine is also due to “hubris” or a false sense of pride in the character’s own secure position.

The tragic dramatist must choose suitably heroic characters and place them in a well-constructed plot which aims at the imitation of such actions as will excite pity and fear in the audience. These twin emotions are the distinctive effects that tragedy aims to invoke. The downfall of a noble, well-renowned, prosperous, and basically good person naturally evokes pity “for his/her misfortune;” it also evokes terror or fear that such misfortunes can easily overtake any human. This leads to an effect of catharsis or purging of the very emotions of pity and terror evoked by tragedy. Because of this catharsis, tragedy has a psychological, as well as a social, dimension since it provides an outlet for undesirable emotions.

Aristotle also draws a distinction between simple and complex plots. He states that more profound tragedy ensues when the playwright skillfully manipulates the actions in a complex plot. Complex action achieves its greatest impact through surprises and astounding revelations. The two devices that give tremendous power to the plot are what the Greeks called “peripeteia” and “anagnorisis”. Peripeteia is often wrongly translated as a “reversal of fortune”. More correctly, it refers to a reversal of the situation, where the action turns towards a direction just the opposite of its original course. Anagnorisis refers to recognition of a person/situation. It is a change from a state of ignorance to one of knowledge, which produces hate among the characters and the final downfall of the central character. Such changes shown through “Peripeteia/Anagnorisis” must be within the limits of probability and produce the effect of dramatic irony.

Finally, the element of noble Thought gives to tragedy its proper intellectual point of reference. Diction is the playwright’s choice of appropriate phraseology for effective communication or maximum effect. Melody and Spectacle are useful embellishments in a tragic play and can be quite entertaining for the audience, though sometimes these, especially the element of spectacle, constitute a distraction from the essence of drama. Aristotle’s theories must not be interpreted as rigid rules since they were merely observations about contemporary Greek drama. Taken too literally, strict adherence to the Unities has often resulted in a stilted, artificial, and rigid drama which Aristotle would hardly have advocated.

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