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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles-Online Book Summary
Table of Contents | Oedipus the King Message Board | Oedipus at Colonus Message Board | Antigone Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version


The Athens that Sophocles knew in the fifth century B.C. was a curious place. By modern standards it was a small and uncomfortable city. There was no running water, no central heating, and no adequate transportation. The average Athenian was poorly paid, uneducated, and probably would rather watch athletic contests than go to the theater.

Yet, amazingly, fifth-century Athens became a fountainhead of Western civilization in the study of history, architecture, sculpture, philosophy, and drama. No one can really explain why all this happened in that city at that time-unless it was because the Athenians' enormous spirit and energy led them to explore their world with a keen eye and an open mind. Like the early American settlers, the Athenians were a proud, independent, and fierce people who resisted any attempts to enslave them. Having fought off invasions by the Persian Empire from the east, and by others from the south, they were fired with a sense of patriotism and self-confidence. They knew their city was the dominant city in Greece.

Athens was an autonomous city-state, or polis, like most of the cities in ancient Greece. It had adopted a form of government that helped it survive the chaotic times of foreign invasions-a kind of democracy that encouraged open assembly of all nonslave male citizens, and gave equal rights to them, much as today's New England town meetings do. Local officials were elected to office and served until they were defeated in another election by another opponent. Sophocles himself was twice elected to a government position and served with distinction in the armed forces. This democracy, however, wasn't quite as enlightened as it sounds. Women and slaves weren't allowed any voice in government. Sophocles was a member of the ruling class, but he could see that the system wasn't perfect.

The small population and the town-meeting form of government encouraged Athenian citizens to participate actively in public affairs, and to try to decide their own political and social destinies. They were required by law to present their own defenses before a jury of their peers if they were taken to court. Public law also required that Athenians compete in athletics, which was considered part of their physical and moral obligation to the nation. (From this, of course, the Olympic Games were born.) The Athenian of Sophocles' time was thus forced by law to act personally in situations that today we automatically leave to the experts. It was difficult for citizens to avoid participating in this system. You could protest about things you saw that were wrong-as Sophocles certainly did-but you were expected to keep up your civic responsibilities, too. This culture focused on the dignity of the individual and his power over his own fate.

These were the times in which Sophocles lived and wrote his plays. Born in the early years of the fifth century B.C., Sophocles was witness to an era of military exploration, political turmoil, and social revolution-all of which he included in his plays. As the youngest son of a wealthy merchant, Sophocles was well educated and was accustomed to luxuries that the average Athenian couldn't afford. His wealth and education, however, didn't prevent him from becoming a sensitive and fair observer of Athenian life. In his lifetime Sophocles served Athens as a soldier, a politician, and finally a wise, old counselor. But his greatest contribution was as a writer.

Frequently called the "greatest" of Greek tragic playwrights, Sophocles wrote more than one hundred plays. The seven that survive are Ajax (written c. 445 B.C.), Antigone (c. 442), Oedipus the King (c. 425), Philoctetes (c. 409), Electra and Trachiniae (c. 408), and Oedipus at Colonus
(c. 407). All of these plays reflect what Sophocles saw and felt during his lifetime, and they were bold, serious statements. When you read these plays you will discover that Sophocles predicted the impending decline of Athens, pointing to the city's moral decay and religious hypocrisy. He also foretold the injustice and prejudice that would arise if the Athenian democracy didn't protect the rights of minorities. He was ashamed of the cruel treatment of war slaves and was saddened by the poverty of the peasants and hired workers. Like a modern-day Abraham Lincoln, Sophocles issued an "Athenian Address" in his plays and warned the audience of impending doom if they didn't change their ways.

Many such predictions are found in the Oedipus trilogy, and as you read the characters' dialogue and observe their actions, keep in mind that the plays were meant to stand as grim warnings. Most of Sophocles' audience couldn't read or write, but Sophocles felt that if they heard his message they might be saved from destruction. Therefore, he dramatized legends the audience would already know. He organized his plays in simple episodes and included songs to give the play a rhythm that was easy to follow. This, he felt, would help the average person receive moral instruction just by viewing the play. If Sophocles had lived today, he would probably have understood exactly how to use television to sway people to his political views.

Why did a leading citizen like Sophocles start writing plays to get his message across? It's important to realize that theater was not considered entertainment in Athens. Drama was a regular part of the religious life of the city. Each theatrical performance was thought of as an act of worship, honoring the god Dionysus. Dramatic festivals dedicated to Dionysus were held in late March and throughout the first week of April. Theater was allowed only during this festival time, so it was an event that brought the community together. We have similar town festivals today to celebrate holidays, like Labor Day and the Fourth of July.

The weeks set aside to honor Dionysus were so sacred that all shops and offices were closed. Some jails even freed their prisoners. The spectacular state-sponsored celebration brought in visitors and VIPs from all parts of the world, like a world premiere of a film might do today. At first, admission to the festival was free. Later, when admission was by donation, a public fund was established to enable those who couldn't otherwise afford it to attend.

All Athenians were expected to attend the festival, held at the Theatre of Dionysus on the slope of the Acropolis. The audience, as you might expect, was not a select group. The theater had a capacity of about 14,000. The audience included old men, soldiers, farmers, sailors, teachers, athletes, carpenters, and students. They sat on marble benches in the open air, surrounding the stage on three sides. They were a lively audience, likely to burst into tears if they were moved (they were just as likely to boo or hiss if they didn't like the play). Yet they were expected to conduct themselves respectfully. Severe penalties and fines were levied for lewd behavior, and the records show that occasionally spectators were forcefully removed from the theater.

For the most part, however, the festival was a dignified and solemn affair. The audience assembled at sunrise and sat through three tragedies, a short farcical play, and a comedy all in one day. At the end of the festival prizes were awarded by a jury of spectators, local politicians, and dignitaries appointed by lot. First prize was a crown of ivy (Sophocles was reported to have won twenty-two such prizes). The playwright wasn't interested in making money from the play, nor was the producer. Usually the producer was a wealthy citizen who donated money to stage the play as a token of his public service. Again, private individuals-amateurs, so to speak-performed the jobs we think only trained professionals can do, and they did it not for profit but for the good of the state, as a public duty.

The spectators viewed the play as a vital moral lesson, and they came expecting to hear life's most serious problems discussed. They had no other forms of dramatic entertainment-no television or movies. For them, watching other people acting out a story-even a familiar legend, such as the legend of Oedipus-would have been a very special occasion.

As you read the play, try to visualize the historical times and the theatrical traditions that have been described here. Then try to imagine yourself as a fifth-century Athenian sitting in an open-aired amphitheater watching Oedipus advance toward his tragic end. Perhaps you will forget your own problems and identify with those of Oedipus. When you are able to do that, you will have captured the spirit of the times and the spirit of the play.

Table of Contents | Oedipus the King Message Board | Oedipus at Colonus Message Board | Antigone Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles-Study Guide

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