The Athens Sophocles knew was a small place — a polis, one of the self-governing city-states on the Greek peninsula — but it held within it the emerging life of democracy, philosophy, and theater. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle wrote and taught in Athens, and their ideas gave birth to Western philosophy. Here, too, democracy took root and flourished, with a government ruled entirely by and for its citizens.
During the fifth century B.C., Athens presided as the richest and most advanced of all the city-states. Its army and navy dominated the Aegean after the defeat of the Persians, and the tribute money offered to the conquering Athenians built the Acropolis, site of the Parthenon, as well as the public buildings that housed and glorified Athenian democracy. The wealth of Athens also assured regular public art and entertainment, most notably the Festival of Dionysus, where Sophocles produced his tragedies.
In the fifth century, Athens had reached the height of its development, but Athenians were vulnerable, too. Their land, like most of Greece, was rocky and dry, yielding little food. Athenians often fought neighboring city-states for farmland or cattle. They sought to solve their agricultural problems by reaching outward to more fertile lands through their conquering army and navy forces. Military skill and luck kept Athens wealthy for a time, but the rival city-state Sparta pressed for dominance during the long Peloponnesian War (431- 404 B.C.). By the end of the fifth century, Sparta had starved Athens into submission, and the power of the great city-state ended.
Greek Theater and Its Development
Sophocles' Oedipus Trilogy forms part of a theater tradition that encompasses much more than just entertainment. In fifth century B.C., Athens theater represented an essential public experience — at once social, political, and religious.
For Athenians, theater served as an expression of public unity. Ancient Greek myth — the theme of most tragedies — not only touched members of the audience individually, but drew them together as well. The dramatization of stories from a shared heritage helped to nurture and preserve a cultural identity through times of hardship and war.
But beyond its social and political importance, Greek drama also held a religious significance that made it a sacred art. Originally, the Greek theater tradition emerged from a long history of choral performance in celebration of the god Dionysus.
The Festival of Dionysus — whose high point was a dramatic competition — served as a ritual to honor the god of wine and fertility and to ask his blessing on the land. To attend the theater, then, was a religious duty and the responsibility of all pious citizens.
Drama began, the Greeks say, when the writer and producer Thespis separated one man from the chorus and gave him some lines to speak by himself. In 534 B.C., records show that this same Thespis produced the first tragedy at the Festival of Dionysus. From then on, plays with actors and a chorus formed the basis of Greek dramatic performances.
The actual theater itself was simple, yet imposing. Actors performed in the open air, while the audience — perhaps 15,000 people — sat in seats built in rows on the side of a hill. The stage was a bare floor with a wooden building (called the skene) behind it. The front of the skene might be painted to suggest the location of the action, but its most practical purpose was to offer a place where actors could make their entrances and exits.
In Greek theater, the actors were all male, playing both men and women in long robes with masks that depicted their characters. Their acting was stylized, with wide gestures and movements to represent emotion or reaction. The most important quality for an actor was a strong, expressive voice because chanted poetry remained the focus of dramatic art.
The simplicity of production emphasized what Greeks valued most about drama — poetic language, music, and evocative movement by the actors and chorus in telling the story. Within this simple framework, dramatists found many opportunities for innovation and embellishment. Aeschylus, for example, introduced two actors, and used the chorus to reflect emotions and to serve as a bridge between the audience and the story.
Later, Sophocles introduced painted scenery, an addition that brought a touch of realism to the bare Greek stage. He also changed the music for the chorus, whose size swelled from twelve to fifteen members. Most important, perhaps, Sophocles increased the number of actors from two to three — a change that greatly increased the possibility for interaction and conflict between characters on stage.
The Oedipus Myth
Like other dramatists of his time, Sophocles wrote his plays as theatrical interpretations of the well-known myths of Greek culture — an imaginative national history that grew through centuries. Sophocles and his contemporaries particularly celebrated the mythic heroes of the Trojan War, characters who appear in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
The myth of Oedipus — which also appears briefly in Homer — represents the story of a man's doomed attempt to outwit fate. Sophocles' tragedy dramatizes Oedipus' painful discovery of his true identity, and the despairing violence the truth unleashes in him.
Warned by the oracle at Delphi that their son will kill his father, King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes try to prevent this tragic destiny. Laius pierces his son's feet and gives him to a shepherd with instructions to leave the baby in the mountains to die. But pitying the child, the shepherd gives him to a herdsman, who takes the baby far from Thebes to Corinth. There, the herdsman presents the child to his own king and queen, who are childless. Without knowing the baby's identity, the royal couple adopt the child and name him Oedipus ("swollen-foot").
Oedipus grows up as a prince of Corinth, but hears troubling stories that the king is not his real father. When he travels to Delphi to consult the oracle, Oedipus learns the prophecy of his fate, that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified, he determines to avoid his terrible destiny by never returning home.
Near Thebes, Oedipus encounters an old man in a chariot with his attendants. When the old man insults and strikes him in anger, Oedipus kills the man and his servants. The old man, of course, is Oedipus' father, Laius, but Oedipus does not realize this.
Outside Thebes, Oedipus meets the monstrous Sphinx, who has been terrorizing the countryside. The Sphinx challenges Oedipus with her riddle: "What goes on four feet at dawn, two at noon, and three at evening?" Oedipus responds with the right answer ("A man") and kills the monster.
The Theban people proclaim him a hero, and when they learn that Laius has been killed, apparently by a band of robbers, they accept Oedipus as their king. Oedipus marries Jocasta, and they have four children. Thus, despite all his efforts to prevent it, Oedipus fulfills the dreadful prophecy.
Since everyone knew the myth, Sophocles' play contained no plot surprises for his audience. Instead, the tragedy held their interest through new interpretation, poetic language, and, most especially, dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony arises from the difference between what an audience knows and what the characters on stage know. In Oedipus the King, for example, everyone in the audience knows from the beginning that Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother. The tension of the play, then, develops from Oedipus' slow but inevitable progress toward this terrible self-knowledge.
Watching Oedipus' fate unfold, the audience identifies with the hero, sharing vicariously in the horror of the reversal he suffers and acknowledging the power of destiny. By connecting with the audience, Sophocles has achieved the catharsis that Aristotle thought was so important. In accomplishing this dramatic feat, Aristotle declares, Sophocles' Oedipus the King stands as the greatest tragedy ever written.