Greek Drama Three types of drama were composed in Athens: tragedy

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Sophocles is the author of Antigone.  He was born in a small community called Colonus in 495 B.C.  He was active as a youth and won awards in wrestling and music and led a chorus of boys at the Athenian celebration of the victory against the Persians, at the age of sixteen.  He was provided with the best traditional aristocratic education including being highly educated in the arts of music and poetry.  He started his career in 468 B.C. at the age of 28 when he took first prize in the Dionysia theater competition.  He won first prize in the annual Athenian dramatic competitions about twenty times and won second place many times.  The Athenians elected Sophocles to high military office twice.  He composed more than 100 plays and today we only have seven complete plays.

Sophocles is considered by many modern scholars as one of the greatest writers of Greek tragedies.  He made numerous contributions to dramatic technique, two of which were very important.  Most Greek tragedies had only two actors, but Sophocles increased the number from two to three.  This allowed the plot to become more complicated and interesting.  His other contribution was that all of his plays existed independently.  The topic or characters could be related but they did not need each other in order to be understood.  Usually plays were written in groups of three.  Sophocles also expanded the focus of the Greek tragedy from religion and morality to include the nature of man and his struggles.

Greek Drama

 Three types of drama were composed in Athens: tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays. They distinguished between tragedy and comedy in two ways. The first defined tragedy as a drama which concerns better than average people (heroes, kings, gods) who suffer a transition from good fortune to bad fortune, and who speak in an elevated language. Tragedy serves the purpose of purging the soul of the "fear and pity" which most of us carry around. Comedy concerns average or below average people who enjoy a transition from bad circumstances to good (but not too good) and who speak everyday language. The second, or rhetorical tradition, defined comedy as a fiction which, though not true, is at least believable, while tragedy is a fiction which is neither true nor believable. Most people look at drama from the second tradition. It's important to realize that comedy isn't necessarily "funny," at least in classical Athens, and tragedy isn't necessarily "tragic" many tragedies have happy endings. There is also something called the "tragic flaw," that is, that the reason the hero of a tragedy suffers a bad change in fortune is because he or she has some character "flaw."

Tragedies were part of a religious festival to Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. On each of four days, three tragedies and a satyr-play were presented by the same poet, and then another would present a comedy.  In some cases the plays were connected in theme and we now call them a trilogy, however the three Theban plays by Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, were not presented together and are not a trilogy. A panel of judges awarded a prize for the best group of plays. Aeschylus and Sophocles usually won when they presented plays, but the other great playwright of classical Athens, Euripides, won only five times.

The plot of a tragedy usually followed a known myth.  Normally the dramas begin with a prologue, or introduction, by one or two actors; then the chorus enters and sings its first song; and a number of "acts" follow, separated by choral odes. The choruses are not simply interludes, but often vital for understanding the play; the chorus is not simply a spectator or commentator, but often a direct participant in the action. The actors also sometimes sing, as well as engage in dialogue with each other.

Aristotelian tragic hero

Tragic flaw

noun Literature.

the character defect that causes the downfall of the protagonist of a tragedy; hamartia.
hu·bris      /ˈhyubrɪs, [hyoo-bris]


excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance.

Characteristic Features

Aristotle once said that "A man doesn't become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall." An Aristotelian tragic hero must possess specific characteristics, five of which are below:

  1. Nobility (of a noble birth) or wisdom (by virtue of birth).

  2. Hamartia (translated as flaw or error in judgment). Either a mistake in the character's actions or in his personality that leads to a downfall.

  3. A reversal of fortune (peripeteia) brought about because of the hero's Hamartia.

  4. The discovery or recognition that the reversal was brought about by the hero's own actions (anagnorisis)

  5. The audience must feel dramatic irony for the character.

Initially, the tragic hero should be neither better nor worse morally than normal people, in order to allow the audience to identify with him. This also introduces pity, which is crucial in tragedy, for if the hero were perfect we would either be outraged with his fate or not especially care due to his ideological superiority. If the hero were evil, then the audience would feel that he had gotten what he deserved. It is important to strike a balance in the hero's character.

Eventually the Aristotelian tragic hero dies a tragic death, having fallen from great heights and having made an irreversible mistake. The hero must courageously accept his death with honor.

Other common traits

Some other common traits characteristic of a tragic hero:

  • The hero must suffer more than he deserves.

  • The hero must be doomed from the start, but bears no responsibility for possessing his flaw.

  • The hero must be noble in nature, but imperfect so that the audience can see themselves in him or her.

  • The hero must have discovered his fate by his own actions, not by things happening to him.

  • The hero must see and understand his doom, and that his fate was revealed by his own actions.

  • The hero's story should arouse fear and empathy.

  • The hero must be physically or spiritually wounded by his experiences, often resulting in his death.

  • Ideally, the hero should be a king or leader of men, so that his people experience his fall with him. This could also include a leader of a family.

  • The hero must be intelligent enough to have the opportunity to learn from his mistakes.

  • The hero must have a weakness, usually hubris, a subtle but irreversibly tragic form of pride.

  • The hero must be faced with a very serious decision.

  • The suffering of the hero must have meaning.

  • A tragic hero's story generally follows a sequence of "Great, Good, Flaw, Downfall."

Summaries for the Oedipus Trio

Antigone was written first but is the ending of a long story about a family and its fate.  This is a quick summary of the first two plays so that you have some background for Antigone.

Oedipus Rex

Much of the myth of Oedipus takes place before the opening scene of the play. The main character of the tragedy is Oedipus, son of King Laius of Thebes and Queen Jocasta. As a baby, Oedipus was sent to die or be killed, but instead the baby was given to a shepherd and raised in the court of King Polybus of Corinth. Hearing from an oracle that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother, he left Corinth under the belief that Polybus and his wife Merope were his true parents. On the way he met Laius on the road and became involved in a fight over right of way. In this fight Oedipus killed Laius, fulfilling the first half of the oracle's prophecy. Oedipus went on to solve the Sphinx's riddle. His reward for freeing the kingdom of Thebes from the curse of the Sphinx was the rule of the city and the hand of the queen. Jocasta, believing her son to be dead, does not suspect the possibility of incest. The play begins some years after Oedipus takes the throne of Thebes. The play shows Oedipus' investigation, in which he curses and promises to exile those responsible for the murder, unwittingly cursing himself. Oedipus learns the truth; Jocasta has hanged herself, and Oedipus, upon discovering her body, blinds himself with the brooches of her dress. The play ends with Oedipus entrusting his children to Creon, his brother-in-law, and going into exile, as he promised at the beginning.

Oedipus at Colonus

The storyline continues in Oedipus at Colonus, which features the blind former king as a shattered old man. His daughter, Antigone, is his loyal companion. Wandering together, they come upon a sacred grove that is protected by the Furies—the protectors of Athens. When he discovers where he is, Oedipus realizes that the last piece of the prophecy foretelling his life is about to be fulfilled. If he is granted shelter there and dies there, on Athenian soil, his body will draw the blood of the enemy—in this case, the invading force of Thebes, his former home.  Before that happens, other curses and prophesies are cast and fulfilled. Back home in Thebes, his two sons are quarreling over the throne Oedipus abandoned, and one comes to him seeking help. Oedipus greets his son, Polynices, with the curse of mutual fratricidal murder.When the play ends, that curse has been fulfilled. Polynices and Eteocles have killed each other in battle. Creon gives Eteocles a hero’s burial but leaves Polynices to rot in the sun outside the city gates.  This is against the most sacred laws of their gods and will set the final tragedy of the family cycle in motion in Antigone.


In Sophocles' Antigone, when Oedipus stepped down as king of Thebes, he gave the kingdom to his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, both of whom agreed to alternate the throne every year. However, they showed no concern for their father, who cursed them for their negligence. After the first year, Eteocles refused to step down and Polynices attacked Thebes with his supporters (as portrayed in the Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus and the Phoenician Women by Euripides). Both brothers died in the battle. King Creon, who ascended to the throne of Thebes, decreed that Polynices was not to be buried. Antigone, Polynices' sister, defied the order, but was caught. Creon decreed that she was to be put into a stone box in the ground, this in spite of her betrothal to his son Haemon. Antigone's sister, Ismene, then declared she had aided Antigone and wanted the same fate, but Creon eventually declined executing her. The gods, through the blind prophet Tiresias, expressed their disapproval of Creon's decision, which convinced him to rescind his order, and he went to bury Polynices himself. However, Antigone had already hanged herself in her tomb, rather than suffering the slow death of being buried alive. When Creon arrived at the tomb where she had been interred, Haemon attacked him upon seeing the body of his deceased fiancée, but failing to kill Creon he killed himself. When Creon's wife, Eurydice, was informed of the death of Haemon, she too took her own life.

Oedipus Family Tree










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