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Ancient Greek Theatre » Sophocles

Sophocles (496-406 B.C.)

sophocles

Sophocles is considered to be the most perfect of all the authors of Tragedies and the philosopher Aristotle based his famous Definition of Tragedy on his play, Oedipus Tyrannus (Oedipus Rex).

Sophocles used 3 actors on stage for the first time, a number which remained the same in the coming centuries. Also, keep in mind that the 3 actors were exclusively male and played every role existing in the play. Regarding the Chorus, Sophocles upped its members to 15 from 12, a number that also remains the same till today.

Sophocles is considered to be the most balanced of the three famous tragedy authors, using an especially elaborate, honey-sweet language, while his heroes are portrayed as naturally and harmoniously as possible. In his theatrical universe, Humans and their free will play the most important part, and Gods can interfere with their actions up to a certain point. In short, Humans define their fate by their actions.

Sophocles’ plays - Synopsis

Ajax (Aeas)

sophocles- Ajax (Aeas)Ajax, a hero of the traditional sort, a man of action and honor, was second only to Achilles among the Greeks in the war of Troy. When Achilles died, Ajax and Odysseus contended for the armor of the first, which was won by Odysseus. In a fit of mad anger, Ajax attacks the leaders of the Greeks, but Athena tricks him by substituting them with cattle and sheep, which he slaughters thinking they are his enemies. The chorus and his wife, Tekmessa, bring the hero to his senses. When he realizes what he has done, he is greatly ashamed. He appears to accept his wife’s pleas to live with his grief and shame, to submit himself to the Gods and the leaders of the Greeks. But Ajax does not mean it, and he suicides falling on his sword. His body is found by Tekmessa and the chorus, who communicate the bad news to Ajax’ brother, Teucrus. The second half of the play deals with the burial of the hero, since Menelaus and Agamemnon, the leaders of the Greeks and Ajax’ great foes, forbid the burial of one who took arms against his own side. In a pair of debates, Teucrus reminds the Greeks of Ajax’ great exploits. Finally, a regretful Odysseus takes his enemy’s side and insists that Ajax should be buried with all the proper honors.

Note: Ajax delivers a most moving soliloquy before committing suicide.

Antigone

Sophocles- AntigoneIt is the morning after the Argive army has attacked Thebes and been defeated. Oedipus’ two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, have killed each other, and the new king, Kreon, their uncle, has issued a decree ordering that Eteocles, who died defending his city, shall be buried with full honors, while the traitor Polynices is to be left for the dogs and birds to devour. Antigone, the sister of the two brothers, fails to persuade their younger sister, Ismene, to defy the edict, and leaves to bury Polynices’ body herself. After Kreon enters and gives the chorus his views on the priority of the state, a guard announces the mysterious burial of the body. He will later return with Antigone, having caught her giving funeral rites to the body. Antigone defies her uncle, claiming the priority of the Gods’ unwritten laws. Her fiance, Haemon, Kreon’s son, enters to plead for Antigone’s life. Kreon, unmoved by his only son’s pleas, pronounces her death sentence: she is to be walled up in a cave. Antigone laments her fate “for doing what was right” and is led away to die. The blind prophet, Tiresias, enters to proclaim that Kreon has confused the worlds of the living and the dead, and that all Thebes is polluted by the unburied corpse. Kreon departs to bury the body and set Antigone free, but it is too late. He arrives at the cave only to find out that Antigone has hanged herself, her body now in the arms of Haemon, who attacks his father and then kills himself. Upon hearing the news, Kreon’s wife, Euridice, also hangs herself, leaving a distraught Kreon to realize his fatal mistake.

Note: Antigone is the tragedy that speaks of the importance of ethics and the unwritten laws. It contains one of the most beautiful chorus songs ever written, referring to “the undefeatable power of Eros”, the god of love.

Trachinian Women (Women of Trachis / Trachiniae)

Dayanara, Heracles Trachinian WomenIt is the morning after the Argive army has attacked Thebes and been defeated. Oedipus’ two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, have killed each other, and the new king, Kreon, their uncle, has issued a decree ordering that Eteocles, who died defending his city, shall be buried with full honors, while the traitor Polynices is to be left for the dogs and birds to devour. Antigone, the sister of the two brothers, fails to persuade their younger sister, Ismene, to defy the edict, and leaves to bury Polynices’ body herself. After Kreon enters and gives the chorus his views on the priority of the state, a guard announces the mysterious burial of the body. He will later return with Antigone, having caught her giving funeral rites to the body. Antigone defies her uncle, claiming the priority of the Gods’ unwritten laws. Her fiance, Haemon, Kreon’s son, enters to plead for Antigone’s life. Kreon, unmoved by his only son’s pleas, pronounces her death sentence: she is to be walled up in a cave. Antigone laments her fate “for doing what was right” and is led away to die. The blind prophet, Tiresias, enters to proclaim that Kreon has confused the worlds of the living and the dead, and that all Thebes is polluted by the unburied corpse. Kreon departs to bury the body and set Antigone free, but it is too late. He arrives at the cave only to find out that Antigone has hanged herself, her body now in the arms of Haemon, who attacks his father and then kills himself. Upon hearing the news, Kreon’s wife, Euridice, also hangs herself, leaving a distraught Kreon to realize his fatal mistake.

Because of her beauty, Dayanara, the wife of Heracles, had been sought by many suitors. One of these, the centaur Nessus, was killed by Heracles, who then claimed her as his bride. Years later, she and her children are exiled in Trachis because of an act of violence committed by Heracles. Alone now for over a year, she wonders what has become of him and sends their son, Hyllus to find out. News arrives that he has conquered the city of king Eurytas in Euboea, and captives arrive from there. Among them is Iole, Eurytas’ daughter. Dayanara learns from Lichas that Heracles attacked that city, not because he had been insulted, but because he wanted the king’s daughter. In jealous despair, she sends Heracles a robe anointed with blood she had taken from Nessus’ wound. The centaur had told her it was a powerful love charm, but it was in fact an incurable poison. Hyllus brings news of Heracles been burnt upon wearing the robe, and Dayanara kills herself with a sword. Heracles is brought on stage in great pain, cursing his wife. He asks Hyllus to marry Iole and then light the funeral pyre that will put him out of his agony.

Note: Deception, jealousy and the demise of a great hero turn this lesser known tragedy into a spectacular play.

Oedipus Tyrannus (Oedipus Rex)

Oedipus Tyrannus (Oedipus Rex)It is the morning after the Argive army has attacked Thebes and been defeated. Oedipus’ two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, have killed each other, and the new king, Kreon, their uncle, has issued a decree ordering that Eteocles, who died defending his city, shall be buried with full honors, while the traitor Polynices is to be left for the dogs and birds to devour. Antigone, the sister of the two brothers, fails to persuade their younger sister, Ismene, to defy the edict, and leaves to bury Polynices’ body herself. After Kreon enters and gives the chorus his views on the priority of the state, a guard announces the mysterious burial of the body. He will later return with Antigone, having caught her giving funeral rites to the body. Antigone defies her uncle, claiming the priority of the Gods’ unwritten laws. Her fiance, Haemon, Kreon’s son, enters to plead for Antigone’s life. Kreon, unmoved by his only son’s pleas, pronounces her death sentence: she is to be walled up in a cave. Antigone laments her fate “for doing what was right” and is led away to die. The blind prophet, Tiresias, enters to proclaim that Kreon has confused the worlds of the living and the dead, and that all Thebes is polluted by the unburied corpse. Kreon departs to bury the body and set Antigone free, but it is too late. He arrives at the cave only to find out that Antigone has hanged herself, her body now in the arms of Haemon, who attacks his father and then kills himself. Upon hearing the news, Kreon’s wife, Euridice, also hangs herself, leaving a distraught Kreon to realize his fatal mistake.

Oedipus became the great and prosperous king of Thebes when he solved the riddle of the Sphinx. His prize for saving the city from the vicious creature was to marry queen Jocasta, widow of king Laius, with whom he now has four children. The play opens when a plague on fertility has struck Thebes, and Jocasta’s brother, Kreon brings a proclamation from the oracle of Apollo at Delphi: in order to save the city, the murderer of Laius must be discovered and driven out of Thebes. Oedipus curses the murderer, announcing terrible punishments for him and whoever may help or hide him. The seer Tiresias reluctantly enters and after an angry exchange with the king he declares that Oedipus himself is the guilty party. Oedipus concludes that Kreon and Tiresias are conspiring against him. Jocasta intervenes as the two men quarrel. She makes comments about the unreliability of oracles and the tells the story of her former husband, Laius, to prove it. Her words lead Oedipus to suspect that he may indeed have killed Laius, in self-defense, at a place where three roads meet. They send for a herdsman who survived the encounter, but in the meantime a messenger from Corinth arrives to announce the death of Oedipus’ “father”, Polybus. Trying to calm his fear regarding marrying his mother, the messenger reveals that Oedipus was not the son of Polybus and Merope of Corinth. In fact, the messenger had received the infant Oedipus from a Theban herdsman, the very same man whom they have summoned concerning the murder of Laius. This herdsman reluctantly reveals that Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta. Upon realizing the horrible truth Jocasta hangs herself, while Oedipus blinds himself. Blind and desperate, he pleads the new king, Kreon, to have mercy on his children, and flees Thebes admitting to have succumbed to the power of the Gods.

Note: Oedipus Tyrannus is considered to be a true masterpiece, the most perfect of all tragedies. In fact, Aristotle based its famous Definition of Tragedy on this play.

Electra

Electra Receiving the Ashes of her Brother OrestesIt is the morning after the Argive army has attacked Thebes and been defeated. Oedipus’ two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, have killed each other, and the new king, Kreon, their uncle, has issued a decree ordering that Eteocles, who died defending his city, shall be buried with full honors, while the traitor Polynices is to be left for the dogs and birds to devour. Antigone, the sister of the two brothers, fails to persuade their younger sister, Ismene, to defy the edict, and leaves to bury Polynices’ body herself. After Kreon enters and gives the chorus his views on the priority of the state, a guard announces the mysterious burial of the body. He will later return with Antigone, having caught her giving funeral rites to the body. Antigone defies her uncle, claiming the priority of the Gods’ unwritten laws. Her fiance, Haemon, Kreon’s son, enters to plead for Antigone’s life. Kreon, unmoved by his only son’s pleas, pronounces her death sentence: she is to be walled up in a cave. Antigone laments her fate “for doing what was right” and is led away to die. The blind prophet, Tiresias, enters to proclaim that Kreon has confused the worlds of the living and the dead, and that all Thebes is polluted by the unburied corpse. Kreon departs to bury the body and set Antigone free, but it is too late. He arrives at the cave only to find out that Antigone has hanged herself, her body now in the arms of Haemon, who attacks his father and then kills himself. Upon hearing the news, Kreon’s wife, Euridice, also hangs herself, leaving a distraught Kreon to realize his fatal mistake.

Orestes returns home to Mycenae with his faithful tutor, to whom his sister, Electra entrusted him after their father’s murder. Electra appears and laments with the chorus about her own state, the murder of her father, her relationship with her mother and Aegisthus, and especially Orestes’ long absence. Her sister, Chrysothemis, can put up with this, but she cannot. Clytemnestra scolds her daughter for being outside alone. The tutor enters to tell the queen and Electra a false tale: Orestes has been killed at Delphi. A stricken Electra vows to take revenge on her mother by herself. Chrysothemis appears to tell of offerings placed on the tomb of Agamemnon, but Electra is convinced that they mark the death of their brother. Finally, Orestes enters with an empty urn, which supposedly contains his ashes. After a while, Electra recognizes her brother, the token being their father’s signet ring. With Electra’s encouragement, Orestes and his loyal friend, Pylades, enter the palace and kill Clytemnestra. Aegisthus arrives, eager to learn more about the “death” of Orestes, but finds only the body of Clytemnestra and his own death awaiting him.

Note:The recognition scene between Electra and Orestes is one of the most emotional in the history of ancient Greek tragedies.

Philoctetes

Philoctetes by Jean-Germain DrouaisIt is the morning after the Argive army has attacked Thebes and been defeated. Oedipus’ two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, have killed each other, and the new king, Kreon, their uncle, has issued a decree ordering that Eteocles, who died defending his city, shall be buried with full honors, while the traitor Polynices is to be left for the dogs and birds to devour. Antigone, the sister of the two brothers, fails to persuade their younger sister, Ismene, to defy the edict, and leaves to bury Polynices’ body herself. After Kreon enters and gives the chorus his views on the priority of the state, a guard announces the mysterious burial of the body. He will later return with Antigone, having caught her giving funeral rites to the body. Antigone defies her uncle, claiming the priority of the Gods’ unwritten laws. Her fiance, Haemon, Kreon’s son, enters to plead for Antigone’s life. Kreon, unmoved by his only son’s pleas, pronounces her death sentence: she is to be walled up in a cave. Antigone laments her fate “for doing what was right” and is led away to die. The blind prophet, Tiresias, enters to proclaim that Kreon has confused the worlds of the living and the dead, and that all Thebes is polluted by the unburied corpse. Kreon departs to bury the body and set Antigone free, but it is too late. He arrives at the cave only to find out that Antigone has hanged herself, her body now in the arms of Haemon, who attacks his father and then kills himself. Upon hearing the news, Kreon’s wife, Euridice, also hangs herself, leaving a distraught Kreon to realize his fatal mistake.

The Greeks have been besieging Troy for ten years and suddenly discover that they cannot take the city without the presence of Philoctetes and the bow of Heracles he has in his possession., Agamemnon and Menelaus, the sons of Atreus, Odysseus and all the other Greek leaders had abandoned him on the deserted island of Lemnos, in the beginning of the war, with an agonizing wound that would not heal. Neoptolemus, the young son of Achilles, and Odysseus are sent to fetch him. The youth would prefer to use force or to try to persuade Philoctetes, but Odysseus insists that only deception will succeed. Neoptolemus meets Philoctetes and hears how he has heroically prevailed for ten years over loneliness and pain, but still tells him a false tale that he is fleeing Troy. A merchant enters, lying about Odysseus being on his way to Lemnos to fetch Philoctetes. Before they can leave, Philoctetes has a paralyzing attack of pain, and before he passes out, gives the bow to the youth, who promises to keep it safe until the hero wakes. Neoptolemus keeps his promise and, when Philoctetes revives, tells him the entire truth. Odysseus enters and escorts the youth –and the bow– away, but Neoptolemus returns, hands the bow back, and formally asks Philoctetes to come with them to Troy. Philoctetes refuses and it seems that Neoptolemus is willing to guide him back to his homeland. Heracles then appears, promising healing for Philoctetes and success for the Greeks.

Note: Philoctetes is one of the most selfless, betrayed and unrecognized heroes of Greek mythology, and the various aspects of his complex personality are formidably portrayed in this tragedy.

Oedipus at Colonus

Oedipus and Antigone. Painting by Per Wickenberg (1833)It is the morning after the Argive army has attacked Thebes and been defeated. Oedipus’ two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, have killed each other, and the new king, Kreon, their uncle, has issued a decree ordering that Eteocles, who died defending his city, shall be buried with full honors, while the traitor Polynices is to be left for the dogs and birds to devour. Antigone, the sister of the two brothers, fails to persuade their younger sister, Ismene, to defy the edict, and leaves to bury Polynices’ body herself. After Kreon enters and gives the chorus his views on the priority of the state, a guard announces the mysterious burial of the body. He will later return with Antigone, having caught her giving funeral rites to the body. Antigone defies her uncle, claiming the priority of the Gods’ unwritten laws. Her fiance, Haemon, Kreon’s son, enters to plead for Antigone’s life. Kreon, unmoved by his only son’s pleas, pronounces her death sentence: she is to be walled up in a cave. Antigone laments her fate “for doing what was right” and is led away to die. The blind prophet, Tiresias, enters to proclaim that Kreon has confused the worlds of the living and the dead, and that all Thebes is polluted by the unburied corpse. Kreon departs to bury the body and set Antigone free, but it is too late. He arrives at the cave only to find out that Antigone has hanged herself, her body now in the arms of Haemon, who attacks his father and then kills himself. Upon hearing the news, Kreon’s wife, Euridice, also hangs herself, leaving a distraught Kreon to realize his fatal mistake.

After many years of wandering, the blind and desperate Oedipus and his daughter, Antigone, arrive at Colonus (Kolonos), near Athens. Upon hearing from a stranger that he has reached the grove of the Eumenides (the Dread Goddesses), he realizes that he has reached the end of his journey. The chorus is at first appalled to learn that this is the cursed Oedipus, but after hearing his plea, agrees to let the king of Athens, Theseus, decide what is to become of him. Ismene, Antigone’s sister, arrives unexpectedly, bringing news that Kreon has been sent to bring Oedipus back to Thebes, as an oracle has declared that his presence will aid any city that possesses him. Theseus arrives and grants Oedipus refuge in his kingdom. In the meanwhile, Kreon has taken Ismene prisoner and carries off Antigone, leaving Oedipus alone. The chorus calls Theseus for help; he rescues Oedipus’ daughters and announces that a stranger from Argos wishes to speak with Oedipus. He is no other than Oedipus’ estranged son, Polynices, who asks his father to help him regain his rightful rule in Thebes, but a furious Oedipus rejects him and curses both his sons. Thunder now echoes through the grove and Oedipus realizes his time has come. Theseus is the only witness to the final moments of Oedipus, who, at last, comes to his rest.

Note: Sophocles wrote this tragedy at a very old age, being extremely disappointed by his son’s behavior towards him. His disappointment is evidently reflected in the personality and the words of an aged Oedipus.



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