Antigone Historical and Social Context
by Sophocles

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Fifth Century Greece and Its Influence

The fifth century B.C. in Greece was a time of great advancement in philosophy, art, and government. Great writers such as Aristotle, Aeschylus, and Sophocles wrote plays, philosophy, and political tracts that would influence the world for thousands of years to come. Democracy was being established, and the "Hippocratic Oath," written by Hippocrates the Great in 429 B.C., was being taken by the first doctors; this oath is the same oath taken by contemporary doctors. The Golden Age of Athens (480-404 B.C.) was in full swing during Sophocles's lifetime, and it was during this period in history that many ideals of the modern Western world first appeared.

Bronze Age of Greece

Antigone takes place in Bronze Age Thebes, sometime during the 1200s B.C. Sophocles uses the legends of the family of Oedipus (Antigone's father) in order to explore social and political issues of his time. Attending the theater was a civic and religious duty in Sophocles's time. By setting his play in a time period 800 years before his own, he could explore social and political issues without offending those currently in power. He uses the authoritarian rule of Creon and the strong-willed Antigone to warn against the dangers of dictatorship and to highlight the status of women in Greek society.

Civil and Moral Unrest

In 429 B.C. a great plague killed almost two-thirds of the population of Athens, causing civil and moral unrest and testing the bounds of democracy. Warfare was also common at this time in Greek society, as the city-states of Greece competed with each other for trade, commerce, and artistic superiority. This unrest is reflected in the events portrayed in Antigone, beginning with the civil war that pits Antigone's brothers against each other and ending with the deaths of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice.

Democracy and Government

Sophocles was not only a respected writer, but also a member of the government in Athens. Democracy was practiced differently in Ancient Greece than it is in the modern United States. Full citizenship, which included the right to vote, was only given to free men; women and slaves were not considered full citizens and so lacked the same rights as men. They were forced to follow a different code of conduct. Despite such inequities and restrictions, the foundations laid in the fifth century B.C. provided a framework for the founders of the United States—and other world democracies-when they sought to establish a free democratic government.

Playwrights and Drama

The writers of the fifth century B.C. established the traditions of both tragedy and comedy. The first three plays at the Great Dionysia festival were tragedies, followed by the satyr play, which poked fun at the characters and situations of the earlier tragedies; "satyr" served as the forerunner to the modern dramatic convention of satire, which uses humor to criticize or mock. The satyr plays were then followed by a comedy by another playwright, as the competition for comedic plays was separate from the competition for tragedies.

There were strict rules for tragedy in the Great Dionysia, and the plays were viewed as valued cultural commodities. To qualify—let alone win—dramatic works had to subscribe to a strict format that had been used for many years. To preserve this cultural jewel, a great deal of importance was placed on the passing of knowledge; it was as much a role of the playwright to teach as it was to compose. Aeschylus, a great writer of tragedy, was one of the teachers entrusted to teach younger writers the methodology of tragedy. Sophocles was one of his students (who would later defeat his instructor at the Great Dionysia), and he, in turn, also shared his knowledge with younger writers. Modern plays are evaluated according to the standards set forth by plays written in Ancient Greece, and contemporary playwrights look to writers such as Sophocles and Aeschylus for instruction and inspiration.

The Sophists

Athens in the fifth...

(The entire section is 1,333 words.)