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MonkeyNotes-Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles
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PLOT CONSTRUCTION IN GREEK DRAMA

Originally, Greek tragedy depicted a single situation with little or no direct representation of action on stage. Around 534 B.C., Thespis, a poet from Attica, introduced the first actor (protagonist) into public performances, which earlier featured only a chorus. He is, therefore, regarded as one of the inventors of tragedy as well as the creator of a definite plot in drama. The central actor usually impersonated a legendary or historical character and delivered set speeches that linked the episodes of a tragedy.

Aeschylus added a second actor, called the 'deuteragonist' and sometimes referred to him as the 'antagonist', as he was often in conflict with the protagonist. Sophocles enlarged the importance of a third major actor (called 'tritagonist'), and in Oedipus At Colonus , a fourth actor ('tetragonist') is introduced. If other minor characters appeared in a tragedy, all such additional roles were performed by the three main characters. The longest and most difficult part was assigned to the protagonist, along with other minor parts that could be combined with it. Such doublings were possible as Greek tragic actors used masks on stage.

The development of plot in Greek tragedy springs from the opposition of these two or three main characters, who are involved in some intense form of dramatic conflict, which provides the essence of the tragedy. In the plot of Oedipus At Colonus, the hero, Oedipus, is pitted against Creon in a clear-cut battle of strong, but opposed, wills. Some would even say that Polyneices is another antagonist in this play, for both he and Creon wish to drag Oedipus into the Theban civil war against his will. However, the main focus of the plot is on Oedipus' desire to die in peace at Colonus, although his two sons and Creon try to drag him into the power struggles of public life that Oedipus has now put behind him.


The plot of Greek tragedy usually concentrated on a single action and rarely included any form of subplot. But, in Oedipus At Colonus, the Theban civil war and the attempts of Oedipus' two sons to win Oedipus over to their side forms a kind of subplot to the main plot of Oedipus' determination to stay on in Colonus and find release in death. The subplot does not detract attention from the central plot, but adds to the conflict. It serves to enhance the reason why Oedipus decides to stay on at Colonus after winning the sympathy of its people and the love and protection of their noble king.

Aristotle in his Poetics praises Sophocles as an innovator in tragedy. His introduction of a third actor enabled him to make plot, dialogue, and the relationship of characters more complex. Besides, he abandoned the Aeschylean practice of writing trilogies in a single inter-related unit. Instead, Sophocles gave each of his plays a self-contained plot. Aristotle compliments his Oedipus the King as the greatest Greek tragedy for its tightly knit plot.

In other Sophoclean plays, such as Antigone and Oedipus At Colonus, the unity of action is complete, and the plot is handled with amazing dexterity, unfolding at a rapid pace. In Oedipus At Colonus, the entire action occurs over the span of one day. Oedipus, led by Antigone, arrives in Colonus one morning. They are accepted into the community by the chorus and Theseus later the same day. By noon, Creon and Polyneices enter and by late evening, Oedipus goes to his death. Thus, Sophocles observes a strict unity of time and place in this play.

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