History of the Text
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...
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