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Antigone (The Oedipus Plays) | Context

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The Oedipus Trilogy

Sophocles wrote three plays based on the Greek tragic hero of Oedipus: Antigone (442–441 BCE), Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King (c. 430–426 BCE), and Oedipus at Colonus (c. 406–401 BCE). It is interesting that Sophocles did not write the trilogy in chronological order and did not intend for the plays to be performed together—a marked contrast to how Aeschylus chose to present the myth of Oedipus, for example. The result is that each play tells its story in a unique way, although each has the crucial elements of successful tragedy. Perhaps the most notable difference between the three plays is in characterization. The characters change quite a bit from play to play.

In Oedipus Rex Oedipus arrives in Thebes, frees the city from a curse, becomes king, and marries the queen, who was recently widowed after the murder of the king. Later Oedipus learns that he is the son of the murdered king and his new wife. Realizing that he has unwittingly fulfilled a curse that he would kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus blinds himself and becomes a wanderer.

In Oedipus at Colonus Oedipus, after years as a vagrant, arrives in Colonus, accompanied by his daughter Antigone. He has become a quiet, spiritual man who is resigned to his fate and focused on protecting Thebes and those members of his family whom he deems worthy. The play ends with his death, as Oedipus's daughter Antigone moves to claim her fate in Thebes.

In Antigone the audience witnesses the final fruition of the curse that plagues Oedipus's family. His sons die in battle while fighting on opposing sides for the kingship of Thebes. Antigone hangs herself.

Greek Theater

The plays audiences see in theaters today don't much resemble those that Antigone's original audiences would have witnessed. Ancient Greeks did not consider a play to be entertainment as much as a religious rite. For instance the festival of Dionysus was a large affair featuring theatrical performances that took place in ancient Athens to honor the god of theater and grape harvests.

Greek plays were presented outdoors in arenas that held thousands of people. Attending plays was a civic duty for Greeks, so drama was integral to their culture and helped to give the people a shared identity. The highlight of yearly festivals was the contest that determined the best playwright. Sophocles emerged as the first-place winner in many of these competitions, coming in second only to the two other great Greek playwrights of his era, Aeschylus and Euripides.

Male actors played all of the characters and wore masks. This convention allowed actors to quickly shift roles and to be more completely transformed into each character. The typical Greek chorus present in every play featured up to 15 singers, yet their masks gave them all the same face, representing their unified voice. Sophocles is considered the first playwright to include a third main character, which elevated the interactions and conflicts within a play.

Greek Politics

Antigone was written and performed at a time of impressive Athenian prominence. Democracy had been achieved, and the great democratic leader Pericles was at the helm. However, the journey to this point had been chaotic, and leaders like Pericles were intent on maintaining order. He viewed loyalty to the state as more important than family allegiances and instituted policies to promote this stance and maintain peace.

Sophocles was deeply involved in Athenian politics and clearly saw what was going on as democracy became defined. He served as a city treasurer and later as a general and proboulos (adviser) in a campaign against a revolt by some of Athens's citizens. Antigone questions what makes such rebellions just and to what extent citizens are meant to obey those who make the laws.

The Thebans portrayed in the play take a great deal of pride in their city-state, and most Greek males would have been a part of the military at some point in their lives. Ancient Greece provided the foundations of a democratic society, and so it is significant that there is tension in Antigone regarding a ruler who tries to enact laws that his citizens find unjust. In a true democracy the people agree upon the laws that they obey, and a leader does not have ultimate power over the citizenry.

Greek Culture

All citizens were not equal in ancient Greece. Women and slaves were not considered citizens—which was reflected in Creon's dismissal of Antigone's belief that she has the right to honor her brother's death. Yet Sophocles portrays Antigone as the true moral compass of the play, and she is considered one of the strongest female characters developed in ancient literature.

Antigone's struggle brings up an important gender conflict in the play, since Creon (and ancient Greek society in general) dismisses her position about burying her brother. Such blatant disregard of her argument is based on the fact that she is a woman. Yet she is the only one who stands up to Creon for what she sees as an unjust law—that she will be punished for attempting to honor the body of her dead brother—and is willing to accept the consequences. In the person of Antigone then, Sophocles gives audiences a hero who is willing to die for justice.

The role of the gods in Greek tragedies reflects their importance in ancient Greek culture. One of the main themes of Antigone is that the gods have ultimate power over mortals and expect to be obeyed. To flout their laws is to incur their wrath. Creon refuses to admit for much of the play that Antigone is right to place respect for the gods above the laws of mortals. This is his tragic flaw. Both Antigone and Creon display a trait that the ancient Greeks called hubris, a quality that combines foolish pride and dangerous overconfidence.

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