How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be when there’s no help in truth! • Oedipus the King, Sophocles
Heroes and legends • 3000BCE–1300CE
Classical Greek drama
c.7th century BCE Dithyrambs, song and dance entertainments by a chorus, are performed in honour of Dionysus in Delos and Athens.
c.532 BCE Thespis, considered to be the first actor, appears on stage playing a role in a drama.
c.500 BCE Pratinas introduces satyr plays — a satirical genre.
458 BCE Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the only trilogy of the classical period to have survived intact, is first performed in Athens.
431 BCE Euripides’ Medea introduces a realism that shocks audiences.
423 BCE Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds satirizes the social scene in Athens, and in particular Socrates.
With the revolt that overthrew the last tyrant king in 510 BCE, and the establishment of a form of democracy, the city-state of Athens ushered in the era of classical Greece. For two centuries, Athens was not only a centre of political power in the region, but also a hotbed of intellectual activity that fostered an extraordinary flowering of philosophy, literary culture, and art, which was to have a profound influence on the development of Western civilization.
Classical Greek culture was dominated by the achievements of Athenian thinkers, artists, and writers, who developed aesthetic values of clarity, form, and balance — principles that were epitomized by classical architecture. A human-centred view also influenced the development of a comparatively new literary art form, drama, which evolved from religious performances by a chorus in honour of the god Dionysus.
Sophocles was born (c.496 BCE) in Colonus, near Athens. He showed an early aptitude for music, and through this became interested in the art of drama, encouraged and perhaps trained by the innovative tragedian Aeschylus. With his first entry in the Dionysia theatre contest in 468 BCE, he won first prize from the reigning champion Aeschylus, and he soon became the most celebrated tragedian of his generation. In all, he wrote more than 120 plays, of which only a handful have survived intact. Sophocles was also a respected member of Athens society, and was appointed as a treasurer in Pericles’ government and later as a military commander. He married twice, and both his son Iophon and grandson Sophocles followed in his footsteps as playwrights. Shortly before his death in 406 BCE, he finished his final play, Oedipus at Colonus, which was produced posthumously by his grandson.
Other key works
c.441 BCE Antigone
c.429 BCE Oedipus the King
c.409 BCE Electra
The birth of drama
By the beginning of the classical era, religious performances had changed from essentially musical ceremonies to something more like drama as we know it today, with the addition of actors to play the parts of the characters in a story, rather than simply narrating.
This new form of entertainment was enormously popular, and formed the focal point of an annual festival of Dionysia, which was held over several days in a custom-built open-air theatre that attracted audiences of up to 15,000 people. Writers submitted work to be performed at the festival, in the form of a trilogy of tragedies followed by a comic play, and competed for prestigious prizes.
Three dramatists dominated the prizewinners’ list for much of the 5th century BCE: Aeschylus (c.525/524—c.456/455 BCE), Euripides (c.484—406 BCE), and Sophocles (c.496—406 BCE). Their contribution, which amounted to several hundred plays, set a definitive standard for the art of tragedy. Aeschylus, as the earliest of the three great tragedians, is generally considered the innovator, initiating many of the conventions associated with the form. He is credited with expanding the number of actors in his plays, and having them interact in dialogue, which introduced the idea of dramatic conflict. Where formerly the chorus had presented the action of the drama, the actors now took centre stage, and the chorus took on the role of setting the scene and commenting on the actions of the characters.
The move towards a greater realism was sustained by Euripides, who further reduced the role of the chorus, and presented more three-dimensional characters with more complex interaction.
Delphi’s theatre has three spaces: the stage, the orchestra or chorus (in front), and the amphitheatre. It was built in the 4th century BCE and could seat about 5,000 people.
Breaking with convention
Of the three great dramatists, it is Sophocles whose tragedies have come to be regarded as the high point of classical Greek drama. Sadly, only seven of the 123 tragedies he wrote have survived, but of these perhaps the finest is Oedipus the King.
The play was one of three written by Sophocles about the mythical king of Thebes (the others being Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone), known collectively as the Theban plays. Breaking with the convention of presenting tragedies in trilogies established by Aeschylus, Sophocles conceived each of these as a separate entity, and they were written and produced several years apart and out of chronological order.
In Oedipus the King (often referred to instead by its Latinized title Oedipus Rex), Sophocles created what is now regarded as the epitome of classical Athenian tragedy. The play follows the established formal structure: a prologue, followed by the introduction of characters and the unfolding of plot through a series of episodes interspersed with commentary from the chorus, leading to a choral exodus, or conclusion. Within this framework, Sophocles uses his innovation of a third actor to widen the variety of character interaction and enable a more complex plot, creating the psychological tensions synonymous with the word “drama” today.
Typically, a tragedy of this sort was the story of a hero suffering a misfortune that leads to his undoing, traditionally at the hands of the gods or fate. As classical tragedy developed, however, the hero’s reversal of fortune was increasingly portrayed as the result of a frailty or fault in the character of the protagonist — the “fatal flaw”. In Oedipus the King both fate and character play their part in the tragic events. The character of Oedipus is also far from black and white. At the beginning of the play he appears as the respected ruler of Thebes, to whom the people turn to rid them of a curse, but as the plot unfolds his unwitting involvement in the curse is revealed.
This revelation contributes to the atmosphere of foreboding that was a characteristic of the best classical tragedies. The sense of doom arose from the fact that many of these stories were already well known, as that of Oedipus must have been. Such a situation creates tragic irony, when the audience is aware of a character’s fate and witnesses his unsuspecting progress towards inevitable doom. In Oedipus the King, Sophocles ratchets up this atmosphere of inevitability by introducing various references to prophecies that were made many years before, which both Oedipus and his wife Jocasta have ignored. The story is not so much about the events that lead to Oedipus’s downfall, as about the events that prompt revelations of the significance of his past actions.
"The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves."
Oedipus the King
The chain of events begins with Thebes stricken by plague. When consulted, the oracle at Delphi says that the plague will abate when the murderer of Laius, the former king of Thebes and previous husband of Jocasta, is found. Oedipus seeks the advice of the blind prophet Tiresias to find the killer. This puts Tiresias in a difficult position because, although blind, he can see what Oedipus cannot: that Oedipus himself is the unwitting murderer, and advises him to let the matter rest. But Oedipus demands the truth, and then furiously refuses to believe the prophet’s accusation, while Tiresias further reveals that the killer will turn out to be the son of his own wife. A rattled Oedipus recalls a visit to Delphi as a youth, where he had gone to determine his true parentage, having overheard that he had been adopted. Instead, the oracle told him that he would murder his father and marry his mother — so he had fled, journeying towards Thebes. On his way to the city, he had met and killed an older man who barred his way.
The significance of this is not lost on the audience, especially when Sophocles introduces Jocasta, Oedipus’s wife and the widow of Laius, who comforts Oedipus by arguing that prophecies are untrue; there was a prophecy that Laius would be killed by his son, she says, when he was slain by bandits.
This information makes clear to the audience that the prophecy given to Oedipus has been self-fulfilling; it prompted him to leave home and set in motion the events that led to his unconsciously killing his own father Laius and becoming king of Thebes in his place, with his own mother Jocasta as his wife.
The climax is reached as things become clear to Oedipus. He reacts by blinding himself. The chorus, which has throughout the tragedy expressed the inner thoughts and feelings that could not be expressed by the characters themselves, closes the drama by repeating to an empty stage that “no man should be considered fortunate until he is dead”.
An ancient house-mosaic depicts masks used in tragedies. Actors often wore masks, some with exaggerated expressions, to help convey the character they were representing.
"Why should anyone in this world be afraid, Since Fate rules us and nothing can be foreseen? A man should live only for the present day."
Oedipus the King
The Western tradition
Oedipus the King gained immediate approval with Athenian audiences, and was hailed by Aristotle as probably the finest of all classical Greek tragedies. Sophocles’ skilful handling of a complex plot, dealing with themes of free will and determinacy, and the fatal flaw of a noble character, not only set a benchmark for classical drama, but also formed the basis of the subsequent Western tradition of drama.
Following their deaths, there were no Greek tragedians of the same stature as Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. Drama continued to be a central part of Athenian cultural life, but the plaudits were more often given to the producer or actors than the writer himself. The comedies of Aristophanes (c.450—c.388 BCE) also helped to fill the void left by the absence of great tragedy, and gradually popular taste grew for less serious drama.
Even today, however, the tragedies of the classical Greek period remain significant, not least for their psychological exploration of character, which Freud and Jung used in their theories of the unconscious, drives, and repressed emotion. The surviving works of the Athenian tragedians, and Oedipus the King in particular, were revived during the Enlightenment, and have been performed regularly ever since, with their themes and stories reinterpreted by many writers.
Aristophanes’ comedy Wealth (Ploutus in Greek), performed here by modern actors, is a gentle satire that focuses on life — and the distribution of wealth — in Athens.
Aristotle’s Poetics c.335 BCE
Aristotle (384—322 BCE) held the tragedians in high regard, and his Poetics is a treatise on the art of tragedy. He saw tragedy as a mimesis (an imitation) of an action, one that should arouse pity and fear. These emotions are given a katharsis, a purging, by the unfolding of the drama.
The quality of such a tragedy is determined by six elements: plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle, and melody. The plot must be a “unity of action”, with a beginning, middle, and end. At least one of the characters should undergo a change in fortune, through fate, a flaw in character, or a blend of the two. Next in importance is thought, by which he means the themes, and the moral message, of the play. This is followed by diction, the language, such as the use of metaphors, and the actor’s delivery. The spectacle (scenery and stage effects) and melody (from the chorus) should be integral to the plot and enhance the portrayal of character.
See also: Iliad • Aeneid • Odyssey • Oresteia • Medea • Wasps • First Folio • The Misanthrope