The Theban Plays of Sophocles
Oedipus Rex....Oedipus at Colonus....Antigone
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site
Study Guide and Plot Summaries by Michael J. Cummings © 2003
Revised in 2008 and 2009 ©
Introduction to the Theban Plays
.......The Theban Plays retell a mythological tale already familiar to the Greeks. Why, then, would Athenians attend the performance of a play with a plot well known to them? The answer, of course, is that they wanted to see how the events unfolded and how they affected the principal characters. If you saw the movie
Titanic or Pearl Harbor, you were probably aware ahead of time that the Titanic sank and that Pearl Harbor was left in smoking ruins. Nevertheless, you saw these movies anyway because you wanted to see the persons involved and the events leading up to the tragedies. Athenians approached Sophocles' plays in the same way: They wanted to see how Sophocles told the story with his
his extraordinary writing and interpretive talents.
.......The three Theban plays tell the continuing story of Oedipus and his daughter Antigone in the following order: (1) Oedipus Rex (also called Oedipus the
King and Oedipus Tyrannus), (2) Oedipus at Colonus, and (3) Antigone. Because each play can stand alone as a separate dramatic unit and because Sophocles wrote the plays years apart and out of sequence, they technically do not make up a trilogy, although some writers refer to them as such. Most writers refer to them instead as "The Theban Plays." However, even this name
is a misnomer, since the second play takes place at Colonus.
.......The probable date for the completion of Antigone was 441 B.C. and for Oedipus the King, 430 B.C. Oedipus at Colonus was produced posthumously in 401 B.C. However, as stated under "Sequence and Classification," the story Sophocles tells begins with Oedipus the King,
continues with Oedipus at Colonus, and ends with Antigone.
.......A tragedy of Sophocles, as well as another Greek playwright, is a verse drama written in elevated language in which a noble protagonist falls to ruin during a struggle caused by a flaw (hamartia) in his character, such as pride (hubris), or
an error in his rulings or judgments. A Greek tragedy has the following characteristics:
Difference Between Tragedy and Comedy
- It is based on events that already took place. The audience is familiar with these events.
- The protagonist (main character) is a person of noble birth and stature.
- The protagonist has a weakness and, because of it, becomes isolated and suffers a downfall.
- Because the protagonist's fall is not entirely his or her own fault, the audience may end up pitying him or her.
- The fallen protagonist gains self-knowledge. He has a deeper insight into himself and understands his weakness.
- The audience undergoes catharsis, a purging of emotions, after experiencing pity, fear, shock and other strong feelings. The people go away feeling better.
The drama usually unfolds in one place in a short period of time, generally about one day.
.......A Greek tragedy focuses on a great and noble character--such as Oedipus, a king--but a Greek comedy usually does not. Also, in a comedy, the author usually pokes fun at the characters. Finally, a comedy does not end tragically. An example of a classic Greek comedy is Lysistrata, by Aristophanes.
Role of the Chorus
.......The chorus generally had the following roles in the plays of Sophocles:
In some ways, the chorus is like the narrator of a modern film or like the background music accompanying the action of the film. In addition, it is like text on the film screen that provides background information or identifies the time and place of the action.
- To explain the action
- To interpret the action in relation to the law of the state and the law of the Olympian gods
- To foreshadow the future
- To serve as an actor in the play
- To sing and/or dance
- To present the author's views.
Pride (Hubris or Hybris) as a Character Flaw
.......Pride was considered a grave sin because it placed too much emphasis on individual will, thereby downplaying the will of the state and endangering the community as a whole. Because pride makes people unwilling to accept wise counsel, they act rashly and make bad decisions. Great pride, such
as that of Oedipus (Oedipus Rex) or Creon (Antigone), is referred to as hybris or hubris.
........To understand Oedipus the King, as well as the continuation of the Oedipus story in the other two Theban plays, readers and playgoers should familiarize themselves with the following mythological background, well known to the Greeks who attended productions of the plays on the stages of ancient Greece.
........An oracle warns King Laius of Thebes that his wife, Jocasta, will bear a son who will one day kill him. After Jocasta gives birth to a boy, Laius acts to defeat the prophecy. First, he drives a spike through the child's feet, then takes him to Mount Cithaeron and orders a shepherd to kill
him. But the shepherd, taking pity on the baby, spares him after binding his feet and tying him to a tree. A peasant finds the baby and gives him to a childless couple--Polybus (also Polybius), King of Corinth, and his wife, Periboea (also Merope). They name the boy Oedipus (meaning swelled foot) and raise him to manhood.
........One day, when Oedipus visits the oracle at Delphi, the chief city of a region in central Greece known as Phocis, the oracle tells Oedipus that a time will come when he slays his father and marries his mother. Horrified, Oedipus later
strikes out from Corinth. He does not want to live anywhere near his beloved parents, Polybus and Periboea, lest a trick of fate cause him to be the instrument of their demise. What he does not know, of course, is that Polybus and Periboea are not his real parents.
........In Phocis on the road to Thebes, at an intersection of three roads, Oedipus encounters his real father Laius, whom he does not recognize, and five attendants. Laius, who is riding in a mule-drawn wagon, is on his way to Delphi to hear a prophecy from the oracle. Laius, of course, does not recognize Oedipus either. Oedipus and Laius quarrel over a
triviality--who has the right of way. The quarrel leads to violence, and Oedipus kills Laius and four of his attendants. One attendant escapes.
........Outside Thebes, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx, a winged lion with the head
of a woman. The grotesque creature has killed many Thebans because they could not answer her riddle: What travels on four feet in the morning, two at midday, and three in evening? Consequently, the city lives in great terror. No one can enter or leave the city.
........When Oedipus approaches the Sphinx, the beast poses the riddle. Oedipus, quick of mind, spits back the right answer: man. Here is the explanation: As an infant in the morning of life, a human being crawls on all fours; as an adult in the midday of life, he walks upright on two legs; as an old man in the evening of life, he walks on
three legs, including a cane.
........Surprised and outraged, the Sphinx kills herself. Jubilant Thebans then offer this newcomer the throne of Thebes. Oedipus accepts it and marries its widowed queen, Jocasta. Jocasta
is, of course, the mother of Oedipus, although no one in Thebes is aware of this fact. Thus, the oracle's prophecy to Laius and Oedipus is fulfilled.
Need help with Shakespeare? Click here for Study Guides on the Complete Works
Summary: Oedipus Rex
Oedipus (ED ih pihs or EE dih pihs): King of Thebes. Jocasta: Wife of Oedipus.
Creon: Jocasta's brother. Teiresias (ti RE se uhs): Blind prophet.
Antigone(an TIG uh ne): Daughter of Oedipus. Ismene (iz ME ne):Daughter of Oedipus.
Messenger Shepherd Chorus of Theban
Elders . Setting
Antagonist: Fate, the Truth
Ancient Greece in the city of Thebes, northwest of Athens.
.......Fate punishes the proud and the insolent with ironic outcomes terrible to behold. Oedipus as king of Thebes exhibits great pride (hubris) that blinds his ability to
accept the truth. (Ironically, the blind prophet Teiresias readily "sees" the truth.) As a result, Fate sends Oedipus tumbling headlong into an abyss of humiliation, grief, and remorse in a single day.
.......When a plague ravages Thebes, Oedipus sends Creon, his wife Jocasta's brother, to the oracle at Delphi to find out the cause of the plague. After Creon returns, he tells Oedipus the oracle's finding: The cause of the plague is the murderer of Laius, the former king. The murderer is in the
city at that very moment, and not until he is identified and punished will the plague end. According to Creon, Laius died when attacked while he was traveling to Delphi with five attendants to hear a prophecy from the oracle. Four of his attendants were also killed. One escaped. There was a witness to the killings, a shepherd.
.......To learn more, Oedipus summons the blind Theban seer Teiresias, a very old man who can read omens and fathom the will of the Fates. He also has knowledge of past prophecies affecting Thebes and its citizens. When Oedipus asks him the
identity of the killer, Teiresias provides only evasive replies, then refuses to give any information at all. Angry, Oedipus says:
..............Monster! thy silence would incense a flint.
..............Will nothing loose thy tongue? Can nothing melt thee,
..............Or shake thy dogged taciturnity?
.......Teiresias continues to withhold his knowledge, well knowing that disclosing it will unleash the fury of the gods on Oedipus. However, when Oedipus accuses Teiresias of planning the murder, Teiresias decides to reveal the truth: that Oedipus himself is the murderer. Furthermore, in an oblique reference to
Oedipus's marriage to his own mother, Teiresias says, "I say thou livest with thy nearest kin / In infamy, unwitting in thy shame." Oedipus reacts by accusing Creon of bribing Teiresias to undo him and Teiresias of willingly accepting the bribe solely for profit:
..............See, for this crown the State conferred on me.
gift, a thing I sought not, for this crown
..............The trusty Creon, my familiar friend,
..............Hath lain in wait to oust me and suborned
..............This mountebank, this juggling charlatan,
..............This tricksy beggar-priest, for gain alone
..............Keen-eyed, but in his proper art stone-blind.
.......Creon pleads his innocence. But Oedipus, refusing to
believe him, threatens him with a death sentence. Jocasta comes forth to calm Oedipus and end the altercation, urging him to accept Creon's denial of wrongdoing. The chorus supports her, saying, "Brand not a friend whom babbling tongues assail; / Let not suspicion 'gainst his oath prevail." Oedipus relents and dismisses Creon, but rancor remains in his heart.
.......Jocasta then tells Oedipus that he should put his mind at ease, declaring that the words of seers are not to be trusted. To prove the truth of her observation, she reminds Oedipus that Laius was prophesied to die by the hand of his own son
but instead died by the hand of unknown robbers in Phocis at the intersection of three roads, according to reports shortly after the death of Laius. But instead of calming Oedipus, the words further unnerve him: "What memories, what wild tumult of the soul / Came o'er me, lady, as I heard thee speak!" He begins to suspect that he could be the murderer after all, especially when Jocasta describes
Laius as a tall man whose hair was streaked with silver. Oedipus seems to have a vague memory of such a man. Deeply concerned, Oedipus sends for the man who carried the report of Laius's death to Thebes.
elderly messenger arrives from Corinth to report the death of King Polybus, whom Oedipus had thought was his biological father. He presents his report to Jocasta while Oedipus is elsewhere. The Corinthians, the messenger says, want Oedipus to be their king. Jocasta, thrilled with this good news, sends for Oedipus. However, after the messenger presents his report to Oedipus, he also discloses that
Polybus was not the real father of Oedipus. Then he recites the tale of how Oedipus was abandoned as a baby and later taken by a shepherd to Polybus and his wife, who raised him. Oedipus sends for the shepherd. After he arrives, the shepherd reveals that the baby he took to Polybus came from the House of Laius.
.......Both Oedipus and Jocasta then realize the truth of the matter. Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself, then urges Creon to exile him.
.......The climax occurs when Oedipus realizes the awful truth: that he killed his father, married his mother, and caused the plague afflicting Thebes.
Summary: Oedipus at Colonus
Oedipus (ED ih pihs or EE dih pihs): Banished King of Thebes Antigone (an TIG uh ne): Daughters of Oedipus
Theseus: King of Athens Creon: King of Thebes
Polynices (pol ih NE seez): Older son of Oedipus Messenger: Attendant of Theseus
Chorus of Citizens From Colonus . Setting
Ancient Greece in the town of Colonus, just outside Athens. Colonus is favored by the Furies, spirits who punish evildoers.
.......Through love, piety, and hardship, Oedipus achieves redemption. Oedipus, stripped of dignity, wanders in a wilderness of suffering for many years. Though blind, he begins to "see" again with the eye of his soul, recognizing his faults and
realizing the importance of love and right living with the help of his daughters, Antigone and Ismene.
........After Oedipus leaves Thebes, Creon becomes the temporary ruler of the city while it is decided which of the sons of Oedipus, Polynices or Eteocles, will become the permanent ruler. However, in time, the brothers agree to rule in alternate years. Meanwhile, the blinded Oedipus wanders for
years from one place to another with his daughter Antigone, suffering many trials that earn him redemption for his sins of long ago. Eventually, he arrives at Colonus, a town just outside Athens where he believes he is fated to die.
........Colonus is favored by the Eumenides, a euphemistic term for the Furies--three spirits who punish evildoers beyond the pale of human justice. The townspeople of Colonus refuse to accept him and order him to leave. He is the accursed Oedipus, after all, and his presence can only bring the wrath of the gods upon Colonus. But the ruler of Athens (and its
suburb, Colonus) accepts him and declares that Oedipus may count on Colonus as his final resting place. This ruler is Theseus, famed for countless heroic adventures against man and beast. No one in his realm dares countermand his edicts; what he says is law. Theseus is a just man, but he is also a practical one, hoping to capitalize on a prophecy that the land where Oedipus is buried will be a
land that receives the blessings and protection of the gods.
........By and by, Oedipus's other daughter, Ismeme, joins him at Colonus and reports that Polynices and Eteocles are at war over the throne of Thebes. It seems
Eteocles refuses to yield the throne to Polynices even thought it is the latter's turn to rule. She also reports that Creon is approaching from Thebes on a special mission. After Creon arrives, he tries to persuade Oedipus to return to Thebes, believing that his death and burial there will protect the city from turmoil resulting from the war between Polynices and Eteocles. To further his plans,
Creon has his henchmen abduct Antigone and Ismene. Then he tries to carry off Oedipus himself. However, redoubtable Theseus prevents further mischief by Creon and rescues Antigone and Ismene.
........Polynices arrives to
ask his father to help him defeat Eteocles. Enraged that one son would seek the death of the other son, Oedipus curses them both, calling down the wrath of the gods on each.
........Shortly thereafter, thunder rumbles in
the heavens while Oedipus talks with Theseus, and Oedipus says his time to die is near. They then exchange ominous words:
................What sign assures thee that thine end is near?
................The gods themselves are heralds of my fate;
................Of their appointed warnings nothing fails.
................How sayest thou
they signify their will?
................This thunder, peal on peal, this lightning hurled
................Flash upon flash, from the unconquered hand.
........After bidding goodby to his daughters while Theseus remains nearby, Oedipus dies. A courier reports to the citizens (the chorus) that the manner of Oedipus's crossing to the afterlife is known only to Theseus. The courier says:
................It was a messenger from heaven, or else
................Some gentle, painless cleaving of earth's base;
................For without wailing or disease or pain
................He passed away--an end most marvelous.
.......The climax occurs when the courier reports the death of Oedipus.
Although it has been argued that Antigone is the protagonist, she does not experience a requirement of classical Greek protagonists: a moment of truth in which the protagonist recognizes and acknowledges his or her mistakes, failures, or sins.
Creon: King of Thebes, who creates conflict when he forbids the burial of Polynices.
Antigone (an TIG uh ne): Daughter of Oedipus, sister of Polynices, and niece of Creon. She defies Creon's
orders and buries Polynices.
Ismene (iz ME ne): Reticent sister of Antigone.
Haemon: Son of Creon, betrothed to Antigone.
Eurydice (yoo RID uh se, yor RID uh se): Wife of Creon.
Teiresias (ti RE se uhs): Blind prophet.
Chorus of Theban Elders
Ancient Greece in the city of Thebes, northwest of Athens.
Intractability and pride cause the downfall of even the noblest humans. Both King Creon, defender of the temporal law, and his niece Antigone, defender of the eternal law, doom themselves with their
Overriding divine law with the law of the state leads to ruin. Creon's refusal to permit Antigone to bury her brother Polynices was a violation of moral law even though Polynices had rebelled
against Creon's rule as King of Thebes.
Injustice and tyranny can provoke justified civil disobedience. To uphold the moral
law, Antigone breaks the civil law. Down through the ages and into modern times, citizens have used this theme to guide them in redressing their grievances. During the Vietnam War, American protesters took the role of Antigone as they demonstrated and sometimes rioted against the government's war policy.
Women can be as wise and as strong as men. The Thebes of Creon is a male-dominated society that reduces women to subservient roles. Thus, when a mere slip of a girl, the teenage Antigone, dares to speak out against his unjust policy, he regards her behavior as a challenge not only to his royal power but
also to his masculine power. Throughout the play, he repeatedly denounces her as much for her gender as for her defiance of his decree forbidding the burial of Antigone's brother. However, to the very end, Antigone is unshaken in her resolve, demonstrating to Athenian audiences of Sophocles' time that women can be just as wise and as strong as men--in fact, in Antigone's case, even more
........In Thebes, Eteocles and Polynices have been fighting over the throne. Though they were to rule in alternate years, Eteocles had refused to yield kingship to his brother when it was the latter's turn to rule. After Polynices flees to Argos to seek help, the king of that city helps him muster
an army. With numberless swords and shields gleaming in the bright sun, Polynices returns to Thebes and lays siege to the city. But the forces of Eteocles are also many and strong, and a standoff results. Then the brothers duel in hand-to-hand combat and kill each other. The armies resume battle to no avail, and the forces of Polynices withdraw. The war dead, including to the two brothers, lie on the battlefield unburied.
........Meanwhile, Creon--the brother of the late queen of Thebes, Jocasta, and brother-in-law of the late king, Oedipus--assumes the throne. He regards his nephew Polynices, the attacker of Thebes, as a traitor. Consequently,
in his first act as King of Thebes, he forbids the burial of Polynices under pain of death, a ruling that appears to violate an ancient moral law and sacred tradition: the right of all families to bury their dead. Antigone, the sister of Polynices, condemns the decision. After learning of it, she tells her sister, Ismene, that Creon has decreed an honorable burial for Eteocles, enabling him to
enter the afterlife as an esteemed and worthy soul, but has ordered Polynices to lie unburied, a feast for the vultures, dooming his soul to wander aimlessly. Though only a slip of a girl aged 15 or 16, Antigone decides to defy the decree. Ismene, horrified, urges Antigone to keep her place in a male-dominated society that surely will not brook the defiance of a teenage
................Shall we not perish . . .
................If in defiance of the law we cross
................A monarch's will?--weak women, think of that,
................Not framed by nature to contend with men.
................Remember this too that the stronger rules;
................We must obey his orders, these or
........But Antigone has made up her mind. When night falls, she goes to the battlefield and throws a ceremonial handful of dust on the corpse of her brother, satisfying ancient traditions and qualifying Polynices for a peaceful life in the afterworld. A guard then arrests her and takes her to
Creon. Although she readily admits she disobeyed his decree, she says she did so out of respect for divine law, which takes precedence over man-made law.
................Yea, for these laws were not ordained of Zeus,
................And she who sits enthroned with gods
................Justice, enacted not these human laws.
................Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man,
................Could'st by a breath annul and override
................The immutable unwritten laws of Heaven
Antigone's stubborn refusal to cooperate with Creon prompts him to rail against her in a show of his manly authority:
................But this proud girl, in insolence well-schooled,
................First overstepped the established law, and
................A second and worse act of insolence--
................She boasts and glories in her wickedness.
................Now if she thus can flout authority
................Unpunished, I am woman, she the man.
What he does not realize is that his intentionally ironic comment (last line of quotation) is in fact true, figuratively. Antigone does become the man in her boldness, proving herself more than a match for Creon. In retaliation, he sentences her to be buried alive in a tomb even though she is betrothed to his own son,
........The prophet Teiresias later persuades Creon to reverse his decision, warning that to do otherwise would invoke the wrath of the gods. Creon relents, buries Polynices, and goes to the tomb to release
Antigone. But Creon's change of heart comes too late to forestall fate: Antigone has hanged herself rather than accept Creon's sentence passively. Haemon, overcome with grief and anger, lunges wildly at his father with a sword, but misses. Haemon then plunges the sword into his own body and dies. Creon's distraught wife, Eurydice, then turns a dagger on herself, cursing Creon, and she too dies.
Creon stands alone to harvest the terrible suffering he had sown by exalting the law of the state, or man's law, over the law of the gods, or the moral law.
.......The climax occurs when Creon, realizing he cannot bend Antigone to his will, sentences her to be buried alive. His action precipitates the suicides of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice and leaves Creon a broken man.
Biography of Sophocles
......Although Sophocles died more than twenty-four centuries ago, he continues to live today in his plays as one of history's greatest writers. His themesjustice, pride, obstinacy, flawed humanity, and the struggle between destiny and free willare as timely today as they were in his own time.
Aristotle lauded Sophocles as the supreme dramatist, maintaining that Oedipus the King was a model for all playwrights to imitate.
......Sophocles was born a mile northwest of Athens in the deme (township) of Colonus
between 497 and 495 B.C. Because his father, Sophillus, shared in the profits of a successful family weapons and armor manufactory, Sophocles was a child of advantage, enjoying the comforts of the privileged and receiving an education that undergirded his natural talents. He studied poetry, dance, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, law, athletics, and military tactics. He also studied music and
became accomplished at playing the cithara, a stringed instrument resembling the lyre of the harp family.
......In spite of his aristocratic background and
entitlements, Sophocles was a man of the people: kindly, generous, popular. Fellow Athenians esteemed him highly throughout his life. That he was quite handsome may have helped bolster his popularity.
earned his entry into the Athenian literary world with a play entitled Triptolemus, which does not survive. He used it in 468 to defeat another outstanding dramatist, Aeschylus, in a writing competition. Competing plays were performed in a theater dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. Sophocles went on to win about two dozen more drama awards against Aeschylus and other
extraordinary writers. It is said that he sometimes acted in plays. On one occasion, he reportedly presented a juggling act that dazzled the audience.
......Until Sophocles' time, dramatists wrote tragedies three at a time. The second play
continued the action of the first, and the third play continued the action of the second. The entire three-play series of tragedies was called a trilogy. Sophocles broke with tradition by writing single plays that stood alone as dramatic units. Ajax is an example of a stand-alone Sophocles play. The Oedipus series of plays
(Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone) is not technically a trilogy (although sometimes referred to as one) because the plays were written years apart as single units.
......Sophocles also emphasized people more than his predecessors, taking characters in well-known plots from mythology and dressing them up as real human beings with noble but complex personalities vulnerable to pride and flawed judgment. Audiences in ancient Athens did not go to a Sophocles play to be entertained by a plot with a surprise
ending. They already knew the ending. They went to a Sophocles play to see how the characters reacted to the forces working for or against them--mostly against. Thus, Sophocles' plays required superb writing and characterization to hold the interest of the audience.
......In portraying his characters, Sophocles raised irony to high art, making the characters unwitting victims of fate or their own shortcomings. The irony was both verbal (with characters speaking words laden with meaning unknown to them) and dramatic (with characters ensnaring themselves in predicaments charged with danger that they do
not recognize but that the audience well knows will lead to disaster). The audience knew, for example, what Oedipus did not know (until the end of Oedipus the King): that the man he killed and the woman he married were his father and mother. This type of dramatic irony occurs often in Sophocles' plays, allowing the audience to
become engrossed with a character's response to a situation rather than the eventual outcome of the situation.
......Another of Sophocles' innovations was an increase in the number of actors in plays from two to three,
presenting more opportunities to contrast characters and create foils. He also introduced painted scenery, enhanced costuming, and fixed the number of persons in the chorus at 15. The chorus also diminished in importance; it was the actors who mattered.
......"The key to his work was provided by Matthew Arnold in the phrase to the effect that Sophocles possessed an 'even-balanced soul,' " drama critic John Gassner wrote in Masters of the Drama (New York: Random House, 1954, Page 42). "He
comprehended both the joy and grief of living, its beauty and ugliness, its moments of peace and its basic uncertainty so concisely expressed by his line 'Human life, even in its utmost splendor and struggle, hangs on the edge of an abyss.' "
......Sophocles' handling of human tragedy was influenced, in part, by the tragedies of war. During his lifetime he had witnessed the devastating Persian and Peloponnesian wars and even participated in a war when he served as a general with Pericles to quell rebellion on Samos, an Aegean island.
......Besides military duty, Sophocles served as a city treasurer, helping to control the money of the Delian Confederacy of states. He also served as member of a governing council and as a priest in the service of Asclepius, the god of medicine,
to whom he was especially devoted. Well into old age, he remained productive in civic activities and writing. He wrote Oedipus at Colonus, for example, when he was over 90. It was that play which saved him from a charge of mental incompetence brought by his sons. According to ancient accounts by Cicero and Plutarch, when Sophocles appeared in court, he read from
Oedipus at Colonus, which he was working on at that time. So impressed were the members of the jury that they acquitted him, apparently realizing that only a man fully in charge of his faculties could write such beautiful words. Sophocles died about 405. He and his wife, Nicostrate, had a son, Iophon, who was also a tragedian. Sophocles and his mistress, Theoris of Sicyon, had a child
named Agathon. Agathon was the father of Sophocles the Younger, also a writer.
Above: Public domain image of Sophocles from Widimedia Commons
Glossary of Greek Drama
Agon: a debate between characters in a play. For example, in The Clouds, a comedy staged in 423 B.C. by Aristophanes, two teachers at a thinking shop operated by Socrates debate the validity of traditional values and logical reasoning (which Aristophanes supports) vs the new ideas and deceptive
reasoning of philosophers known as sophists.
Anagnorisis Startling discovery; moment of epiphany; time of revelation when a character discovers his true identity. Anagnorisis occurs in Oedipux Rex when Oedipus realizes who he
Antagonist Chief opponent of the protagonist in a Greek play.
Attica Peninsula in southeastern Greece that included Athens. According to legend, the King of Athens, Theseus, unified 12 states in Attica into a single state dominated by Athenian leadership and the Athenian dialect of the Greek language. The adjective Attic has long been associated with the culture, language and art of Athens. The great period of Greek drama,
between the Sixth and Fourth Centuries, B.C., is known as the Attic Period. Drama itself was invented by an Attic actor, Thespis, who introduced speaking parts to accompany choral odes.
(resolution) of a tragedy in the drama of ancient Greece.
Catharsis In literature and art, a purification of emotions. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) used the term to describe the effect on the audience of a tragedy acted out on a
theater stage. This effect consists in cleansing the audience of disturbing emotions, such as fear and pity, thereby releasing tension. This purgation occurs as a result of either of the following reactions: (1) Audience members resolve to avoid conflicts of the main characterfor example, Oedipus in Oedipus Rex and Creon in Antigonethat arouse fear or pity or (2) audience members
transfer their own pity and fear to the main character, thereby emptying themselves of these disquieting emotions. In either case, the audience members leave the theater as better persons intellectually, morally, or socially. They have either been cleansed of fear of pity or have vowed to avoid situations that arouse fear and pity. In modern usage, catharsis may refer to any experience, real or
imagined, that purges a person of negative emotions.
Chorus Bystanders in a Greek play who present odes on the action. A parode (or parados) is a song sung by the chorus when it enters. A
stasimon is a song sung during the play, between episodes of action. The chorus generally had the following roles in the plays of Sophocles and other Greek playwrights: (1) to explain the action, (2) to interpret the action in relation to the law of the state and the law of the Olympian gods, (3) to foreshadow the future, (4) to serve as an actor in the play, (5) to sing and/or
dance, and (6) to give the author's views. In some ways, the chorus is like the narrator of a modern film or like the background music accompanying the action of the film. In addition, it is like text on the film screen that provides background information or identifies the time and place of the action. On occasion, the chorus may address the audience, as in the revised version of The Clouds, by Aristophanes.
Chalmys Short, sleeveless outer garment, or cloak, worn by some actors in a play of ancient Greece.
Cothurni (singular, cothurnus): Boots worn by actors in ancient Greece to increase their height and, thus, visibility to theater audiences. Singular: cothurnus.
Denouement Outcome or conclusion of a literary work; the final part of a plot. The denouement occurs after the climax.
Conversation between characters in a play.
Drama: Literary work with dialogue written in verse and spoken by actors playing characters experiencing conflict and tension. In Greek drama, a play often derives its plot from stories from history
or mythology. The English word drama comes from the Greek word "dran," meaning "to do."
Dramatic irony Failure of a character to see or understand what is obvious to the audience. Oedipus, for example, was unaware early on
of what the audience knew: that he was married to his own mother, Jocasta.
Dionysia See Dionysus.
Dionysus Patron god of Greek drama; god of wine and vegetation. Dionysus, called Bacchus by the Romans, was the son of Zeus and one of the most important of the Greek gods. Dionysus died each winter and was reborn each spring, a cycle his Greek devotees identified with the death and rebirth of nature. He thus symbolized renewal and
rejuvenation, and each spring the Greeks celebrated his resurrection with ceremonies that eventually included drama contests. The most prestigious of these festivals was the Greater Dionysia, held in Athens for five days and participated in by playwrights such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Euripides. Festivals held in villages and small towns were called the Rural
Dithyramb Choral hymn that praised Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, and sometimes told a story. In his great work Poetics, Aristotle wrote that dithyrambs inspired the
development of Greek tragic plays, such as those of Sophocles. The first "play" supposedly took place in the 6th Century B.C. when Thespis, a member of a chorus, took the part of a character in a dithyramb. The action shifted back and forth between him and the chorus. See also thespian.
Emmelia Type of dance accompanying some odes.
Episode Scene or section of a play with dialogue. An episode may be
compared with acts or scenes in a Shakespeare play. Episodes come between the odes sung by the chorus. The dialogue in an episode usually involves one or two characters and the chorus.
Exodos, or Exode Final
scene of a play after the last stasimon.
Greater Dionysia See Dionysus.
Hamartia Character flaw or judgment error of the protagonist of a Greek tragedy. Hamartia is derived the Greek word hamartanein, meaning to err or to make a mistake. The first writer to use the term was Aristotle, in The Poetics.
.Hybris or Hubris Great pride. Hybris often is the character flaw (hamartia) of a protagonist in Greek drama. Pride was considered a grave sin because it placed
too much emphasis on individual will, thereby downplaying the will of the state and endangering the community as a whole. Because pride makes people unwilling to accept wise counsel, they act rashly and make bad decisions.
device in an ancient Greek theater that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the "heavens." The Greek word for machine, mechane, later gave rise to a pejorative Latin term, deus ex machina (god from a machine), to describe a contrived event in a literary work or film. A contrived event is a plot weakness in which a writer makes up an incident--such as a detective stumbling upon
an important clue or a hero arriving in the nick of time to save a damsel in distress--to further the action. The audience considers such events improbable, realizing that the writer has failed to develop the plot and the characters in such a way that their actions spring from their motivations. The term (pronounced DAY ihs ex MAHK in uh or DE ihs ex MAHK in uh) is usually used
adverbially, as in The policeman arrived deus ex machina to overhear the murderer admit his guilt to his hostage. However, it can also refer to a character who becomes the "god from the machine."
Mask Face covering with
exaggerated features and a mouth device to project the voice. Greek actors wore masks to reveal emotion or personality; to depict the trade, social class or age of a character; and to provide visual and audio aids for audience members in the rear of the theater.
Ode Poem sung in a play or a festival.
Old Comedy: a genre of plays in Greece of the Fifth Century, B.C. Old comedy displayed great imagination and used cutthroat satire, caricature, and
sometimes vulgar dialogue to ridicule people, ideas, trends, and institutions. The Clouds, by Aristophanes, is an example of old comedy.
Onkos Headdress worn by some Greek actors to increase their height
and, thus, visibility to theater audiences.
Orchestra See Theater, Greek.
Parabasis: an ode in
which the chorus addresses the audience to express opinions of the author, including his views on politics, social trends, and other topics. In The Clouds, a comedy by Aristophanes, the chorus scolds the audience for its lukewarm reception of an earlier production of the play.
Paraskenia See Theater, Greek.
Parodos, or Parode See chorus.
Periakti Prism having surfaces painted with pictures. When it revolved, it could change the scenery on a stage.
Peripeteia In a tragedy, sudden reversal of fortune from good to bad.
Poetics Important work by Aristotle written about 335 B.C. It analyzes Greek theater and outlines its origin
and development. One of its theses is that literature and other forms of art imitate the activity of humans. Tragedy is the higher form of the playwright's craft, Aristotle says, because it imitates the action of noble persons and depicts lofty events. Comedy, on the other hand, focuses on ordinary humans and events.
Prologos: Prologue that begins the play with dialogue indicating the focus or theme of the play.
Proscenium See Theater,
Protagonist Main character in an ancient Greek play who usually interacts with the chorus. In a tragedy, the protagonist is traditionally a person of exalted status--such as a king, a queen, a political leader,
or a military hero--who has a character flaw (inordinate pride, for example). This character flaw causes the protagonist to make an error of judgment. Additionally, the typical protagonist experiences a moment of truth in which he or she recognizes and acknowledges his or her mistakes, failures, or sins.
Skene See Theater, Greek.
Stasimon See chorus.
Satire In Greek literature, a play or a passage in a play that pokes fun at public figures, institutions, ideas or the gods. An example of a satire is The Clouds, a comedy by Aristophanes.
Satyr play Play that pokes fun at a serious subject involving gods and myths; a parody of stories about gods or myths. Fragments of Sophocles' satyr play Ichneutae (Trackers) survive along with his seven complete tragedies.
Tetralogy Four plays (three tragedies and one satyr play) staged by a playwright during the drama competition each spring in honor of Dionysus.
Theater, Greek Open-air structure in which plays were performed. The stage faced the afternoon sunlight to illuminate a performance while allowing the audience to view the action without squinting. A Greek theater consisted of the
.....Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and sometimes an Greek Theater
.....entrance or exit
area for actors), the skene eventually became a background showing appropriate scenery.
.....Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.
.....Proscenium: Acting area, or stage, in front of the skene.
.....Orchestra: Ground-level area where the chorus performed. It was in front of the proscenium.
.....Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra.
.....Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus.
.....Theatron: Tiered seating area built into a hillside in the shape of a horseshoe.
.....Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens.
Theatron Tiered seating area built into a hillside in the shape of a horseshoe.
Thespian Noun meaning actor or actress; adjective referring to any person or thing pertaining to
Greek drama or drama in general. The word is derived from Thespis, the name of a Greek of the 6th Century B.C. who was said to have been the first actor on the Greek stage. See also dithyramb.
Tragedy Verse drama written in elevated language in which a noble protagonist falls to ruin during a struggle caused by a flaw (hamartia)
in his character or an error in his rulings or judgments. Following are the characteristics of a Sophocles tragedy: (1) It is based on events that already took place and with which the audience is familiar. (2) The protagonist is a person of noble stature. (3) The protagonist has a weakness and, because of it, becomes isolated and suffers a downfall. (4) Because the protagonist's fall is not
entirely his or her own fault, the audience may end up pitying him or her. (5) The fallen protagonist gains self-knowledge. He has a deeper insight into himself and understands his weakness. (6) The audience undergoes catharsis, a purging of emotions, after experiencing pity, fear, shock and other strong feelings. The people go away feeling better. (7) The drama usually unfolds in one
place in a short period of time, usually about a day.
Trilogy Group of three plays on a related subject or theme.
Zeus King of the Olympian gods.
Definition and Background.......The Greek theater was an open-air stone structure with tiered seating, a stage, and a ground-level orchestra. It was an outgrowth of festivals honoring the god Dionysus. In these festivals, called Dioniyia, the Greeks danced and sang hymns called dithyrambs that sometimes told stories.
One day, Thespis, a choral director in Athens, used spoken words, or dialogue, to accompany the singing and dancing in imitation of poets who had done so before. Soon, the dialogues of Thespis became plays, and he began staging them in a theater.
......."A contest of plays in 535 [B.C.] arose when Pisistratus, the tyrant' whom the common people of Athens invested with power, brought a rustic festival into the city [Athens]," drama critic John Gassner writes in Masters of Drama. Such contests became regular features of the festivals, and the theaters in which they were held were
specially built to accommodate them.
Major Sections of the Theater.....(1) A tiered, horshoe-shaped seating area called a theatron. The theatron faced the east to allow the audience to view plays--usually staged later in the day--without squinting.
.....(2) A stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors.
.....(3) An orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus.
Other Theater Sections
.....Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and sometimes an entrance or exit area for actors), the skene
eventually became a background showing appropriate scenery.
.....Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.
.....Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra.
.....Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus.
.....Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens.
The Gods of Mount Olympus
.......Encyclopedias and mythology books generally list the same twelve gods as permanent residents of Mount Olympus by virtue of their overriding importance and their genealogical background. However, two of these important deities spent most of their time in the domains which they governed, the sea and the
underworld. In addition, the Greeks of one era sometimes differed with the Greeks of another era on who were the most important gods. Consequently, the list of the favored twelve sometimes changed, omitting one god in favor of another.
.......The Olympian gods were the successors of an earlier dynasty of gods known as Titans. The Titan ruler, Cronos, believing that one of his children might attempt to overthrow him, swallowed each of them after his or her birth. However, one child, Zeus, was rescued by his mother and hidden on the island of Crete. Later, Zeus forced his father to vomit the
other children from his stomach. Then, with the help of his siblings, he overthrew Cronus to become lord of the universe.
.......The names of the chief Olympian deities are listed below. Writers in ancient Greecesuch as
Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripidesused the original Greek names, the English transliteration of which appears at left in the list. Writers in ancient Rome and its dominions used the Latin version of the names, the English transliteration of which appears in parentheses.
.......Some English language writers, past and present, use the transliteration of the Greek version; others prefer the transliteration of the Latin (or Roman) version. For example, William Shakespeare used the transliteration of the Latin version in his plays and poems. Instead of referring to the king of the gods as Zeus (the
transliteration of the Greek name), he referred to him as Jupiter and Jove, the transliterations of the Latin names (Iuppiter and Iovis). Here are the names of the Olympian gods and a brief description of each:.Zeus (Jupiter and Jove)
King and protector of the gods and humankind. As ruler of the sky, he made rain and thunder and wielded lightning bolts. Zeus was the youngest son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea.
Hera (Juno) Queen of the gods and protector of marriage. She was the
wife of Zeus and, as the daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, also his sister.
Athena or Pallas Athena (Minerva) Goddess of wisdom and war. She was born fully grown in a suit of armor, issuing from the forehead of
Zeus. The Greeks highly revered her and built many temples in her honor.
Ares (Mars) God of war and the son of Zeus and Hera.
Poseidon (Neptune) God of the sea and brother of Zeus.
Hades (Pluto) God of the underworld and brother of Zeus.
Hephaestus (Vulcan) God of fire and metalwork who built the palaces in which the Olympian gods lived. He also forged their armor and made their jewelry. He was the son of Zeus and Hera.
Apollo, Phoebus Apollo, or Phoebus (Same as Greek Names) God of prophecy, music, poetry, and medicine. His alternate name, Phoebus, means brightness, and he was thus also considered the god of the sun. He was the son of Zeus and Leto, the daughter of Titans. The Greeks highly revered him and built many temples in his honor. One such temple at Delphi was the site of a famous oracle,
the Pythia, who pronounced prophecies as the mouthpiece of Apollo.
Artemis (Diana) Goddess of the hunt. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leto (see Apollo) and the twin sister of Apollo.
Aphrodite (Venus) Goddess of love and beauty. According to Homer, she was the daughter of Zeus and Dione, the daughter of a Titan; according to the Greek poet Hesiod, she was born from the foam of the sea.
Hermes (Mercury) Messenger god who wore a winged hat and winged sandals. He was also the god of science, luck, commerce, and cunning. He was the son of Zeus and Maia, the daughter of a Titan.
Hestia (Vesta) Goddess of the home and hearth and sister of Zeus........Other lists of the major Olympian gods omit Hades in favor of
Hebe, a cupbearer of the gods. Still others rank Dionysus (Roman name, Bacchus), the god of wine and vegetation and a patron of the arts, as one of the elite twelve.The Abode of the Gods
.......The Olympian gods lived in palaces constructed by Hephaestus on the summit of Mount Olympus, the highest peak (9,570 feet) in a mountain range between Macedonia and Thessaly near the Aegean Sea. Mount Olympus is sometimes called Upper Olympus because it lies just north of a lesser peak (5,210
feet) known as Lower Olympus.
.......Minor goddesses called the Seasons maintained watch at the entranceway of Mount Olympus, a gate of clouds which opened and closed whenever a god left or returned to
.......In their lofty domain, the gods breathed only pure air, or ether. They took their meals in the palace of Zeus, eating ambrosia to sustain eternal life and drinking a delicious beverage called nectar,
served by Hebe. Near the throne of Zeus sat lesser goddesses known as Muses, who were nine in number. They regaled the gathering with songs of the gods and of earthly heroes and history. These daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, learned under the tutelage of Apollo.
.......Other lesser gods on Olympus included the following: (1) Eros (Cupid), god of love and son of Aphrodite who shot arrows that impregnated humans with love. (2) Iris, messenger goddess of Zeus and Hera who created rainbows when she flew across the sky. (3) Themis, a companion of Zeus who was the goddess of
justice. She holds scales on which she weighs the claims in a suit of law. (4) The Charites, or Graces, goddesses of joy and beauty. (5) Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance and punishment. (6) Aidos, the goddess of conscience.
Literature and the Gods
.......Since ancient times, western literature has lived at the foot of Mount Olympus, the nearly two-mile high colossus that was believed to be home to important Greek gods. Writers of every age and every genre have invoked the magic of Olympus to make fire and thunder with wordsor to perfume them
with the breath of Venus. .......[Apollo] came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his
arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning. (English translation by Samuel Butler)The gods could also be quick to laugh. In "Book 8" of The Odyssey, the
blacksmith god, Vulcana lame and ugly hunchbackfashions an invisible chain to ensnare his beautiful wife, Venus, and her inamorato, Mars, after they rendezvous to make love. In bed, they become hopelessly entangled in the chain. Vulcan then invites other gods to look upon his unfaithful wife and her paramour caughtlike wasps in a spiders webin his trap. .......On this the gods gathered to the house of Vulcan. Earth-encircling Neptune came, and Mercury the bringer of luck, and King Apollo. . . . Then the givers of all good things stood in the doorway, and the blessed gods roared with inextinguishable laughter, as they saw how cunning Vulcan had been. . . .
(English translation by Samuel Butler)
.......The Greek writers Hesiod (born in the 7th or 8th Century B.C.) and Homer (born in the 8th or 9th Century B.C.) immortalized the Olympian godsHesiod in the Theogony and in Works and
Days, Homer in The Iliad and The Odyssey. The Theogony presents a creation myth and a genealogy of the gods, along with accounts of their exploits. The Works and Days advises farmers how to prosper, through honest toil and righteous living, without incurring the disfavor of the gods. Homers Iliad tells the story of the final year of the Trojan War, between
Greece and Troy, focusing on the greatest Greek warrior, Achilles, and on the machinations of Olympian gods who take sides and attempt to influence the outcome of the war. The Odyssey narrates the adventures of Odysseus (known as Ulysses to the Romans), a hero of the war who designed the famous Trojan horse to breach the walls of Troy, on his long sea voyage home after the war. While
sailing home, the Olympian gods alternately help or hinder his progress. The Iliad and The Odyssey, both epic poems, are among the greatest works in world literature.
.......Every great writer since Hesiod
and Homerincluding Sophocles, Vergil, Ovid, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Miltonhas climbed Olympus to retrieve metaphorical divinities or one of their qualities to illumine, clarify, or beautify his or her language.
.......Though everlasting and supernal, the gods of Olympus exhibited humanlike behavior. They could be loving and generous, wise and forbearing. They could also be petty and base, fickle and vile. And, they could be quick to anger. In "Book I" of The Iliad, the Olympian god Apollo descends the great mountain in a rage after the Greek general Agamemnon captures a beautiful maiden and
refuses to give her up to her father, Chryses, a priest of Apollo.
Greek and Latin Classics Available at Amazon.com
Drama, Poetry, Mythology, Philosophy, History, Correspondence (Letters)
Apuleis, Aristophanes, St. Augustine, Caesar, Cicero, Demosthenes, Dio Cassius, Euripides, Herodotus, Hippocrates, Homer,
Josephus, Livy, Lucan, Martial, Menander, Ovid, Philo, Plato, Pliny, Plutarch, Seneca, Sophocles, Tacitus, Thucydides, Vergil, Xenophon
Books, Videos, Lesson Plans for Sale at Amazon.com
Allegory and the Tragic Chorus in Sophocles
Ancient Greek Theater: A Short Introduction
Ancient Sun, Modern Light: Greek Drama on the Modern Stage
Antigone, Women of Trachis, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus
Barron's Book Notes:
Sophocles' Oedipus Trilogy
Blindness in a Culture of Light: Oedipus at Colonus
Bloom's Notes: Sophocles' Oedipus Plays
Complete Plays of Sophocles
Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes
Dictionary of Classical Mythology
Electra, Antigone, Philoctetes
Eyewitness: Ancient Greece
Greek Myths, by Robert Graves
Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction
Heroes, Gods and Monsters of Greek Myths
Illustrated Wall Chart of Greek Myths
Images of the Greek Theatre
Language of Sophocles
Marriage in Sophoclean Tragedy
Modern Critical Views: Oedipus
Musical Design in
Mythology: Tales of Gods and Heroes, by Edith Hamilton
Oedipus Cycle: Cliffs
Oedipus at Colonus
Oedipus: Evidence and Self-Conviction
The Meaning of a Masculine Life
Public and Performance in the Greek Theatre
Seal of Orestes: Self-Reference & Authority in Electra
Theatre in Ancient Greek Society
Tragedy: A Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy
Tragedy: Greek Tragedy in Action
Tragedy in Athens: Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning
More To Explore