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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 CHARACTERS - LIST OF CHARACTERS

OTHER ELEMENTS

GREEK THEATER

There are certain traditions of the Greek theater that can be seen in the Oedipus trilogy. Let's look at some of these. Classical actors wore masks to suggest the characters they were playing. Men played all the roles in the play, because the Greeks thought it was undignified for women to appear onstage. (This attitude prevailed even in Shakespeare's time, 2000 years later.) An actor might play more than one role. In Oedipus the King, for example, while the actor who played Oedipus couldn't play anyone else (Oedipus appears in every scene), the actor who played Creon (who appears only in the first and last scenes) could have doubled in smaller roles like the first messenger or the shepherd. A third actor could have played the roles of Teiresias, Iocaste, and the second messenger. Since they all wore masks, the audience wouldn't notice that Creon had suddenly become a shepherd.

The Chorus was not considered part of the acting ensemble; its role was to chant, sing, or dance as part of the artistic development of the story, and it stayed in a separate area of the stage. These performers may have worn masks as well, but historical sources suggest they were graceful, dignified dancers, who used their own faces to express the changing moods and attitudes of the scenes.


Sophocles made some radical innovations in the use of the Chorus. He increased the traditional number of the Chorus from twelve to fifteen. He also introduced dirgelike instrumental music, probably played on a flute or lyre, to underscore the choral chanting and singing. In other Greek drama, the Chorus usually commented only on the action, or provided transitions between scenes. In Oedipus the King, however, Sophocles gave the Chorus a much more active role, as the "ideal spectator," and as the voice of the Theban citizens. The relationship of the Chorus to Oedipus will therefore be an important gauge of his moral progress throughout that play.

GREEK DRAMATIC THEORY

The greatest statement of classical dramatic theory was written by Aristotle in The Poetics. He cites the Oedipus trilogy as the best example of Greek tragedy, noting the brief scenes, choral odes, and simple poetry. Aristotle also sets forth some basic elements of tragedy, all of which are brilliantly demonstrated by Sophocles.

THE TRAGIC HERO

According to Aristotle, Oedipus is a tragic hero because he is not perfect, but has tragic flaws. Aristotle points out that Oedipus' tragic flaw is excessive pride (hubris) and self-righteousness.

Aristotle also points out certain characteristics that determine a tragic hero. Using Oedipus as an ideal model, Aristotle says that a tragic hero must be an important or influential man who commits an error in judgment, and who must then suffer the consequences of his actions. The tragic hero must learn a lesson from his errors in judgment, his tragic flaw, and become an example to the audience of what happens when great men fall from their lofty social or political positions.

Watch for these characteristics of the tragic hero to reveal themselves as you read the plays. Oedipus begins as a respected, admired ruler. At the end of Oedipus the King he has been stripped of his political power, blinded himself, and exited humbly as a most pitiful creature. What imperfections in his character lead to such a tragic downfall? What were his errors in judgment that resulted in his loss of prestige and respect? What lesson can you learn from his "reversal" in fortune?

CATHARSIS

Aristotle said that a tragedy should move the audience by depicting suffering and pain. The Greeks felt that the audience could learn a moral lesson from seeing a noble man suffer, especially if he learns a lesson from his pain. Psychologically, the effect of this is to produce a climax of tragic pain, after which the audience feels purged, as if they had gone through these events themselves and learned the lesson from firsthand experience. This is supposed to cleanse their souls.

THE UNITIES

Because Greek drama was staged without a great deal of spectacle, it appeared natural that the script should also be written in a simple, direct manner. The Aristotelian tradition was to have a "unity of time," in which the playwright included action or events that could logically have taken place in only twenty-four hours. There was also a "unity of place," in which the playwright limited the action or events being described to one locale or setting. The unities dealt with only actual events the audience saw while seated in the theater; dialogue could therefore fill you in on events that happened years earlier or in another city. Watch how Sophocles uses dialogue to tell the story of Oedipus' entire life, one episode at a time. What the Athenian audience would have actually "seen," on the other hand, would have held rigidly to the tradition of the classical unities: One crucial twenty-four-hour period of time in the life of Oedipus or Antigone, who do not leave Thebes in the course of the play.

Although at first glance these unities seem like artificial restrictions, they serve an important dramatic purpose. First, they heighten the emotional intensity of the play. Second, they help to build suspense and intrigue. Third, they limit the scope of the play and focus directly on the main character. (This creates a third unity, "unity of subject.") Fourth, the unities direct audience attention toward the moral of the play by revealing that your lives are as brief as a fleeting day, and you must consider the moral consequences of who you are, here and now.

Table of Contents | Oedipus the King Message Board | Oedipus at Colonus Message Board | Antigone Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
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