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Oedipus Rex | Context


Culture and Society in Ancient Greece

At the time Sophocles was alive, Greece was split into poleis, or city-states. These states were walled cities that included the countryside around them for the purposes of government, economy, military organization, and participation in community life. Athens was one of the major city-states. It is in Athens that Sophocles became an extremely active citizen in politics and the military. All citizens were part of the military at some point in their lives. They were also part of committees that ran the government, establishing the beginnings of a democratic society.

Women, children, and slaves were not considered citizens. They were, therefore, not allowed to participate in Athenian public life. The female character in Oedipus Rex, however, holds a fair amount of power. Jocasta is central to the plot in that she plans the murder of her own child to avoid her fate. She, along with the Chorus, is also able to stop Oedipus from being unreasonable with Creon and tries to protect Oedipus from knowledge of his fate. When these attempts fail, she takes her own life. Antigone and Ismene, Oedipus's daughters, are taken away from him in Oedipus Rex. However, in a later play, Oedipus at Colonus, they are the two of his four children who act on the principle of kindness, duty, and care for their father in his blindness and self-imposed banishment. In addition, although women had no power in Athens, two of Sophocles's plays, Electra and Antigone, focus on stories with strong female characters. Both characters try to tread the path of virtue, attempting to do the right thing as they take matters into their own hands. They are both thwarted by male characters who either disappear or refuse to allow them to follow the rules of decency. However, they clearly take on the roles of heroes, regardless of the failings of other characters.

Religious life also played a central role in the lives of Athenians. Sophocles was the only one of the three major tragic playwrights (the other two being Aeschylus and Euripides) who unquestioningly accepted the power of the gods in his plays. He was more interested in the human perception of right and wrong and the experience of fate and suffering than he was in discussing matters of religious theory. Sophocles felt that human suffering served to create a focal point for mortals (beings who die as opposed to gods), showing them who controlled fate: the gods. Oedipus Rex is a powerful example of the role that prophecy played in people's lives. It also shows what can happen when human beings do not pay attention to what the gods tell them to do.

Ancient Greek Theater

Theater in ancient Greece took place during festivals that celebrated the wine god Dionysus. The festivals became the place for playwrights to win not only the approval of the audience but also prizes in competitions for the best dramatic performances. Tragic playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides won prizes for many of their plays, but it was Sophocles who most often won first prize. It is even said that he never won less than second prize for any of his plays performed at the festivals.

Tragedies were not the only type of play performed onstage in ancient Greece. By the middle of the 5th century BCE, Athenian audiences were treated to comedies, mostly written by Aristophanes. Aristophanes often wrote parodies featuring characters from other plays. Because most plays centered on myths that were familiar to the Athenian people, it was common for playwrights to address the same myth in different ways. They wrote from different story angles, changed parts of the plots, or switched characters' perspectives on the myths. Athenians also enjoyed performances of satyr plays, which many playwrights, including Sophocles, wrote in addition to their main genres. Satyr plays were performances of tragic stories. However, the choruses were satyrs, combinations of men and horses. The satyrs danced, used foul language, drank too much, and gave the audience comic contrast to the seriousness of the story lines.

Plays were performed in outdoor theaters that could hold thousands of spectators. They had stone seats arranged in semicircles, angled up the sides of hills. Spectators could look down onto the stage and see all of the action. However, actors had to project their voices quite loudly. The also had to use huge gestures to transmit the action of the play to audience members sitting in the upper-level seats. Actors were male, and they wore masks with obvious expressions and costumes that could be seen from far away. In Sophocles's time plays included a chorus of 12 to 15 singers and dancers. The chorus interpreted the story for the audience after each episode and often interacted with characters to elaborate on ideas. Playwrights before Sophocles used only two actors onstage at a time. Sophocles introduced the use of three actors at a time, expanding the possibilities for dramatic expression.


Sophocles's influence extends far beyond Oedipus Rex. Aristotle's Poetics, a theory of drama and poetry written almost a century after Oedipus Rex, cites Sophocles's technique of creating a strong yet deeply flawed central character as the very definition of dramatic tragedy. It is the basis on which many tragedies have since been written. But Oedipus Rex in particular has captured the attention of audiences in a compelling and persistent way. Although Sophocles was certainly not the first person to write about this myth, people tend to think of his play when they think of the Oedipus story.

Oedipus Rex and the Oedipus myth have inspired many works of literature since Sophocles's time. Both British writer John Dryden (1631–1700) and French philosopher and author Voltaire (1694–1778) wrote plays based on the Oedipus story, but the influence of the myth has gone beyond literature. In music Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) wrote an oratorio—a longer musical composition for solo vocalists, a chorus, and an orchestra—using the Oedipus myth in 1927. In 1899 Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939( named a psychological state after the main character—"Oedipus complex"—which is sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex and rivalry with the parent of the same sex. It is a twist on the myth that does not mirror the emotions expressed in Oedipus Rex. It does, however, show that the story itself has become part of the language of the human psyche.

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