Intro to Greek Theater and Oedipus
Intro to Greek Theater and Oedipus
Born in Athens, Greece,
between 500-494 BCE
Belonged to an affluent
Wrote at least 120 plays,
90 of them tragedies
Died 406-405 BCE
SOCIAL & POLITICAL ATHENS
5TH CENTURY BCE
Athenian government was an “exclusionary democracy,”
run by elected officials in the form of an open assembly.
Only about 10% of the population was eligible to
Women, slaves, & “non-citizens” were excluded.
Although Sophocles was a member of the ruling class, he
was aware of the social inequalities in Athenian society.
His plays include repeated attempts to warn his fellow
Greeks of the divine retribution that would come to them
as a result of their prejudices & injustice to the poor.
The Greek pantheon consisted of hundreds of deities
in a complex hierarchy.
The familiar “Olympian” gods - closest to humans were a relatively small part of the overall scheme.
While immortal & powerful, the gods were not allpowerful in the sense of our modern concepts of God.
The gods themselves were subject to FATE and to
each other’s will.
In Oedipus Rex, the Delphic Oracle is the prophet of
Oedipus’s doomed fate, but she’s not the cause of it - nor is
FATE & FREE WILL
The Greeks did, to some extent, believe in FREE
Still, FREE WILL was not more powerful than
is a perfect example of the belief that, try
as they might, people cannot avoid the destinies to
which they are born.
Nonetheless, as Oedipus’s FATE is the result of his
father’s earlier misdeed, human FREE WILL cannot
be completely dismissed either.
Laius - Oedipus’s birth father - was raised by a
single mother who ruled Thebes as her dead
Laius’s two young cousins usurped the throne
& plotted to kill young Laius.
So, Laius was smuggled out of Thebes and
given to Pelops, King of Pisa, to raise.
Laius became the tutor of Pelops’s favorite son,
Chryssipus, whom he abducted and took back
The two cousins having died, Laius claimed his throne
& held Chryssipus captive.
Pelops raised an army & demanded the return of his
son, but it was discovered Chryssipus was already
Laius & his house were cursed because of his poor
treatment of Pelops & Chryssipus.
When Laius married Jocasta, he was warned NOT to
have children by her because his son by Jocasta would
one day kill him.
One night, while drunk, Laius imprudently disregarded
the prophecy* - and Oedipus was conceived.
Thus, while Oedipus is, to a large extent, a pawn of
FATE, at the root of that ill destiny is an act of FREE
WILL that went against nature and angered the gods.
Oedipus came to rule Thebes by solving the riddle
posed by the Sphinx and thus saving Thebes from
chaos and destruction.
WHAT WAS THE SPHINX?
The Greek Sphinx was a demon of death and
destruction and bad luck.
It was a female creature, sometimes
depicted as a winged lion with a feminine
head, and sometimes as a female with the
breast, paws and claws of a lion, a snake tail
and bird wings.
She sat on a high rock near Thebes and
posed a riddle to all who passed.
The riddle was: "What animal is that
which in the morning goes on four feet,
at noon on two, and in the evening
She strangled those who could not
solve the riddle.
Finally, Oedipus came along to save the
OEDIPUS & THE SPHINX
Oedipus was the only
who could answer that it
was ”man, who in
childhood creeps on
hands and knees, in
manhood walks erect,
and in old age with the
aid of a staff.”
The Sphinx was so
mortified at the solving of
her riddle that she cast
herself down from the
rock and perished.
ORIGINS OF GREEK DRAMA
Sixth Century BCE
to legend & recorded by Aristotle, Thespis
essentially invented acting by stepping in front of the
chorus & performing a solo.
The word “thespian” has come to mean “actor.”
Fifth Century BCE
made tremendous advances in philosophy,
rhetoric, literature, science, architecture, and visual
Tragedies were performed in annual competitions
that were a part of the Lenaia and the Great
Dionysia, religious festivals held in honor of Dionysis.
One of the twelve
God of wine &
Inspirer of ritual
Patron of theater &
Theatre of Dionysus, Athens
AT THE RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS…
Each competing playwright produced 3
tragedies & a satyr-play.
The three best submissions were approved &
given a chorus for performance.
On the last day of the festival, a prize was
awarded to the tragic playwright voted best of
QuickTi me™ and a
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THE THREE GREATEST ATHENIAN TRAGIC
Aeschylus - wrote the Oresteia, a tragic trilogy, &
introduced the use of a second actor onstage, interacting
with the first. He also began to develop a more
complicated plot. He won 13 festival competitions.
Euripides - wrote Medea. He won 4 festival competitions.
brought a third actor on-stage, created scene design,
and enlarged the chorus from 12 to 15.
wrote the “Theban plays,” Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at
Colonus, and Antigone.
won 20 festival competitions.
THE “THEBAN PLAYS”
While Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone
are often anthologized together and in “chronological”
order, they are not a trilogy.
Antigone was written first and Oedipus at Colonus last
- about 40 years later.
Each work should be considered a separate work, NOT
episodes in a serial.
CONVENTIONS OF THE GREEK THEATER
audience was already familiar with the plots,
taken from well-known myths.
Therefore, they always had more information about
the action than the characters onstage did.
Suspense was in HOW the well-known events would
transpire & in the audience’s watching the events
unfold in “real time.”
Due to the religious intent and dignified style, no
violence was shown on stage.
The messenger ran on stage and spoke to the
audience of any deaths or killings.
CONVENTIONS OF THE GREEK THEATER
Plays were acted in the daytime, with minimal sets
Actors were all male.
Actors wore masks, wigs, and high-heeled boots,
which increased their visibility to the audience &
added to the formality of the experience.
THE THREE UNITIES BY ARISTOTLE
To increase dramatic intensity, the plays observed the
THREE UNITIES described by Aristotle…
Unity of Time: All the action of the play took place
within twenty-four hours, in continuous time. Dialogue
and the Chorus provided background information.
Unity of Place: All of the action was limited to a single
Unity of Subject: single main plot no sub-plots.
Was used to present exposition & to provide
commentary on the action & characters:
men represented the citizens.
They were always on stage, and they frequently
sang and danced.
They always had a leader who carried on a dialogue
with the main characters or with the rest of the
The function of the chorus was to…
Set the tone
Give background information
Recall events of the past
Interpret and summarize events
Give advice, if asked
Act like a jury of elders or wise men who listened to
the evidence and reached a moralistic conclusion at
the end of the play
Performed in song with a highly formal and
stylized back-and-forth movement that
heightened the emotion of their performance:
- first part of a choral ode
Antistrophe - follows the strophe
Epode - completes the chorus’s movement
Aristotle’s definition in his Poetics:
“an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a
certain magnitude; in language embellished with each
kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in
separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of
narrative, through pity and fear effecting the proper
purgation of these emotions” (VI.2, p. 23).
KEY TO TRAGEDY: CATHARSIS
Aristotle said tragedy aroused the emotions of
PITY and FEAR.
Ideally, tragedy brings about a purging of these
This release of feelings = Catharsis.
The release was/is thought to produce
emotional relief and encourage psychological
Catharsis = the end goal of tragedy.
THE TRAGIC PLOT
Tragedy is not true in the sense that history is
It’s not a duplication of life, but a
Plot consists of a self-contained and
concentrated single action.
Only those incidents integral to the action are
included in the play.
3 MAJOR ELEMENTS OF THE TRAGIC PLOT
Peripeteia: Reversal of fortune from good to bad.
Anagnorisis: A change from ignorance to knowledge.
This recognition = discovery of true identity or
involvement, establishment of guilt or innocence, &
revelation of previously unknown details.
Scene of Suffering: a destructive of painful action,
such as death, bodily agony, or wounds. This
destructive or painful action should be caused by
loved ones. This will arouse the most fear & pity.
HAMARTIA AND HUBRIS
The tragic condition is often the result of the tragic
hero’s hamartia, often defined as the tragic flaw that
leads to the hero’s downfall.
More accurately, hamartia is an error in judgment or
perception, the hero’s inability to see his flaw or to
accurately foresee the consequences of his decisions
A common trait associated with hamartia is hubris .
Hubris = exaggerated self pride or self confidence,
which often results in fatal retribution.
Hubris against the gods is generally regarded as a
character flaw of the heroes in Greek tragedy and the
cause of their destruction.
OEDIPUS AND THE TRAGIC HERO
The tragic hero’s misfortunes are not caused by vice or
depravity - but by some great error.
The error makes him human to the audience; thus, he
arouses fear and pity in us because we can see ourselves
in his place.
We - the audience - are able to sympathize with the
protagonist because he is imperfect, just like us, and his
suffering exceeds what he deserves.
This sympathetic identification makes catharsis possible.
Consider Oedipus as a tragic hero…
Do you believe he is a pawn of FATE? How much blame does he
bear for his situation?
Do you feel fear & pity for him?
Does the play move you to a cathartic response?