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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1080

Life in Classical Greece: Sophocles lived during the fifth century BCE. While little information about his life remains, it is known that he was a frequent civil servant in Athens and participated in military life. Often at war, the fifth century saw Athenians defending themselves from the Persians, becoming a center of commerce, and fighting the Spartans for dominance in the region during the Peloponnesian War, a war Athens would lose just one year after Sophocles’s death in 406 BCE. Though marked by military conflict, this period also saw culture flourish. New ideas on the rise included city-wide architectural projects, symposia on theater and poetry, and the early seeds of democracy and self-governance. Most importantly for its legacy, Athens developed an oral and written literary tradition rich in philosophy, rhetoric, comedy, and tragedy. 

  • Oedipus Rex explores some of the cultural conflicts of Sophocles’s time. In particular, Athenian governments were questioning the validity of oracles and prophecy. During the Peloponnesian War, Athenians were skeptical about information from Delphi because Delphi was aligned with Sparta. More generally, Athenians were interested in democracy and self-governance. When Oedipus asserts his desire to govern over advice he receives from oracles, he is enacting a political consideration of Sophocles’s era, the desire of the citizens of Athens to govern themselves. 
  • Athenian citizens had the opportunity to participate actively in civic life. As well as a playwright, Sophocles served as a civic treasurer, an executive commander of the armed forces (an elected position), and a member of the board responsible for Athens’s recovery after its military defeat at Syracuse in 413 BCE. This interest in civic functionality can be seen in Oedipus’s genuine concern for the welfare of his people, who are suffering under a plague, and in the play’s engagement with themes of leadership.

Drama in Classical Greece: The dramatic tradition of ancient Greece evolved from the oral tradition of epic poetry, best preserved in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Over time, the single bard was joined in performance by a singing chorus, and then by another actor to take on secondary speaking roles. By the time of Sophocles, tragedies were performed in competition during the City Dionysia, an annual Athenian festival dedicated to the god Dionysus which began in 534 BCE. Performances were held outdoors in massive amphitheaters, and incorporated song and dance alongside dramatic acting. Stylistically, acting was very presentational, with an emphasis on vocal performance. Up to three speaking actors portrayed all the characters in a single play, using masks and costuming to effect the transitions between roles. 

  • An incomplete historical record makes it difficult to exactly quantify Sophocles’s contributions to the theatrical tradition, but he is credited with a number of major advancements in Greek theatre. Before Sophocles, playwrights appeared as actors in their own works; Sophocles was unable to project his voice well enough to act in the amphitheatre, leading to a gradual separation of role between playwright and actor and the beginning of specific recognition and awards for the latter. He is also credited with the introduction of a third speaking actor to the stage, which drew attention away from the chorus and allowed for greater character development on an individual level. These innovations were apparently well-received by his contemporaries, and Sophocles won the competition at the City Dionysia more frequently than any other playwright. 
  • Much of what is known about the traditional forms of Greek tragedy comes from the writing of Aristotle, a Greek philosopher whose Poetics, written in 335 BCE, describes in detail the necessary characteristics of an effective dramatic work. Many of these are generic to modern theatre of any type, and describe how the elements of plot, character, language, and spectacle should be balanced in a play. Some of these plot points are specific to a tragic narrative, and are here defined: Tragedy itself is described by Aristotle in its perfect form as the story of a relatable human who is brought to ruin by an inherent character flaw. 
– Peripeteia, or reversal, occurs when a character’s action has the opposite effect from its intention. Aristotle cites Oedipus Rex for his example of reversal, using the arrival of the Messenger, which is intended to relieve Oedipus of his concerns and instead confirms his identity and his curse. 
– Recognition occurs in that same moment, when Oedipus realizes that his efforts to thwart the prophecy have been in vain. Aristotle describes the moment of recognition as that which “will produce either pity or fear,” which is, by his definition, the purpose of tragedy as a genre. 
The scene of suffering provides the audience with visual representation of the pain incurred by the tragedy’s protagonist. In Oedipus, this occurs at the point of his blinding. 
– Catharsis is not directly described in Poetics but can be inferred from Aristotle’s description of the “wonder” with which the audience to a tragedy should be imbued with. It comes from the Greek word for “purification” and describes the emotional state of having experienced negative emotions and their resolutions vicariously through the dramatic work.
  • Oedipus Rex is the quintessential Greek tragedy. In his Poetics, Aristotle holds Oedipus Rex as an exemplar of the form. Sophocles presents a city, Thebes, in crisis, and a protagonist of virtue and status, King Oedipus. He then explores that protagonist’s hamartia, or fatal flaw, culminating with a moment of recognition in which the protagonist understands a deeper truth about himself. The play then provides a scene of suffering and a catharsis; in Oedipus’s case, his self-blinding and self-exile as a beggar from Thebes. In Aristotle’s view, Oedipus Rex generates fear and pity in the audience, encouraging them to learn from Oedipus’s mistakes lest they find themselves in similarly tragic circumstances. This was an evolution from earlier dramatic treatments of the Oedipus myth, in which the titular character was portrayed as a tyrant who knew of his parentage early in his reign but said nothing so as to retain his power. 

Modern Interpretations of Oedipus Rex: The contents of Oedipus Rex have had lasting impact on modern understanding of human psychology. A theory developed and popularized by Sigmund Freud in the 19th century suggests that Oedipus Rex explores an elemental nature of human psychology. In killing his father and marrying his mother, Freud argues, Oedipus enacts the latent envy human children feel toward their parent of the same sex and the desire they feel toward their parent of the opposite sex. 

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