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Greek Drama: Tragedy & Oedipus Rex

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1 Greek Drama: Tragedy & Oedipus Rex

2 SOPHOCLES Born in Athens, Greece, between 500-494 BCE
Belonged to an affluent Athenian family Wrote at least 120 plays, 90 of them tragedies Died BCE

3 Social & Political Athens 5th Century BCE
Athenian government was an “exclusionary democracy,” run by elected officials in the form of an open assembly. Only about 10% of the population was eligible to participate. Women, slaves, & “non-citizens” were excluded.

4 Social & Political Athens 5th Century BCE
Although Sophocles was a member of the ruling class, he was aware of the social inequalities in Athenian society. His plays include repeated attempts to warn his fellow Greeks of the divine retribution that would come to them as a result of their prejudices & injustice to the poor.

5 Religious Ideas The Greek pantheon consisted of hundreds of deities in a complex hierarchy. The familiar “Olympian” gods - closest to humans - were a relatively small part of the overall scheme.

6 Religious Ideas While immortal & powerful, the gods were not all-powerful in the sense of our modern concepts of God. The gods themselves were subject to FATE and to each other’s will. In Oedipus Rex, the Delphic Oracle is the prophet of Oedipus’s doomed fate, but she’s not the cause of it - nor is Apollo.

7 Fate & Free Will The Greeks did, to some extent, believe in FREE WILL.
Still, FREE WILL was not more powerful than DESTINY. Oedipus is a perfect example of the belief that, try as they might, people cannot avoid the destinies to which they are born. 1. Accepted a person would eventually have to face the human & cosmic consequences of his/her actions & decisions.

8 Fate & Free Will Nonetheless, as Oedipus’s FATE is the result of his father’s earlier misdeed, human FREE WILL cannot be completely dismissed either.

9 Oedipus’s Backstory Laius - Oedipus’s birth father - was raised by a single mother who ruled Thebes as her dead husband’s regent. Laius’s two young cousins usurped the throne & plotted to kill young Laius. So, Laius was smuggled out of Thebes and given to Pelops, King of Pisa, to raise. Sophocles’s audience would have already known this story of the curse of Laius & his house that resulted in Oedipus’s tragic destiny. Sophocles intent is to illustrate the downfall of the great Oedipus, NOT chronicle the family saga, so he doesn’t share the back story.

10 Oedipus’s Backstory Laius became the tutor of Pelops’s favorite son, Chryssipus, whom he abducted and took back to Thebes. The two cousins having died, Laius claimed his throne & held Chryssipus captive. Pelops raised an army & demanded the return of his son, but it was discovered Chryssipus was already dead.

11 Oedipus’s Backstory Laius & his house were cursed because of his poor treatment of Pelops & Chryssipus. When Laius married Jocasta, he was warned NOT to have children by her because his son by Jocasta would one day kill him. One night, while drunk, Laius imprudently disregarded the prophecy* - and Oedipus was conceived. *Some sources say Jocasta intentionally got Laius drunk.

12 Oedipus’s Backstory Thus, while Oedipus is, to a large extent, a pawn of FATE, at the root of that ill destiny is an act of FREE WILL that went against nature and angered the gods.

13 One More Note on Oedipus’s Backstory
Oedipus came to rule Thebes by solving the riddle posed by the Sphinx and thus saving Thebes from chaos and destruction.

14 What was the Sphinx? The Greek Sphinx was a demon of death and destruction and bad luck. It was a female creature, sometimes depicted as a winged lion with a feminine head, and sometimes as a female with the breast, paws and claws of a lion, a snake tail and bird wings. She sat on a high rock near Thebes and posed a riddle to all who passed.

15 The Sphinx The riddle was: "What animal is that which in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?” She strangled those who could not solve the riddle. Finally, Oedipus came along to save the day.

16 Oedipus & the Sphinx Oedipus was the only who could answer that it was ”man, who in childhood creeps on hands and knees, in manhood walks erect, and in old age with the aid of a staff.” The Sphinx was so mortified at the solving of her riddle that she cast herself down from the rock and perished. Having saved Thebes - and Thebes coincidentally just having lost its king - Oedipus then assumed the throne.

17 Oedipus & Greek Drama So, how did Oedipus’s story end up on the stage in play form?

18 Origins of Greek Drama Sixth Century BCE
According to legend & recorded by Aristotle, Thespis essentially invented acting by stepping in front of the chorus & performing a solo. The word “thespian” has come to mean “actor.” Prior to this, plays were all chorus - no individual actors.

19 Origins of Greek Drama Fifth Century BCE
Athens made tremendous advances in philosophy, rhetoric, literature, science, architecture, and visual arts. Tragedies were performed in annual competitions that were a part of the Lenaia and the Great Dionysia, religious festivals held in honor of Dionysis. Lenaia - short celebration in January Great Dionysia - week-long event in March/April

20 Dionysis One of the twelve Olympian gods God of wine & ecstasy
Inspirer of ritual madness Patron of theater & agriculture Also called The Liberator - because he freed people from their normal selves - through wine, ecstasy & madness.

21 Theatre of Dionysus, Athens
These ruins - existing on the south slopes of the Acropolis today - are not those of the same exact theater Sophocles used, but rather those of a Roman restoration. It’s just in the same location. Held about 14,000 spectators in its hey day

22 Theater of Epidaurus The Theater of Epidaurus has been preserved in excellent condition and gives a better sense of how the Theater of Dionysis would have looked during the time of Sophocles.

23 At the religious festivals…
Each competing playwright produced 3 tragedies & a satyr-play. The three best submissions were approved & given a chorus for performance. On the last day of the festival, a prize was awarded to the tragic playwright voted best of the year. Dramatists vies for the honor of having their plays performed at the festivals. Satyr play - a kind of farce/burlesque intended to provide comic relief after a tragedy The prize was not money - it was a crown of ivy - and bragging rights.

24 The Three Greatest Athenian Tragic Playwrights
Aeschylus - wrote the Oresteia, a tragic trilogy, & introduced the use of a second actor onstage, interacting with the first. He also began to develop a more complicated plot. He won 13 festival competitions. Euripides - wrote Medea. He won 4 festival competitions.

25 The Three Greatest Athenian Tragic Playwrights
Sophocles brought a third actor on-stage, created scene design, and enlarged the chorus from 12 to 15. wrote the “Theban plays,” Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. won 20 festival competitions. The works of these 3 were recognized as “classics” by the middle of the 4th century BCE. Tragedies were only intended for one performance, but exceptions were made for these 3 playwrights - whose tragedies were performed repeatedly in Athens and elsewhere around Greece.

26 The “Theban Plays” While Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone are often anthologized together and in “chronological” order, they are not a trilogy. Antigone was written first and Oedipus at Colonus last - about 40 years later. Each work should be considered a separate work, NOT episodes in a serial.

27 Conventions of the Greek Theater
Dramatic Irony The audience was already familiar with the plots, taken from well-known myths. Therefore, they always had more information about the action than the characters onstage did. Suspense was in HOW the well-known events would transpire & in the audience’s watching the events unfold in “real time.”

28 Conventions of the Greek Theater
Plays were acted in the daytime, with minimal sets and props. Actors were all male. Actors wore masks, wigs, and high-heeled boots, which increased their visibility to the audience & added to the formality of the experience.

29 Greek Tragedy Masks Tragedy Masks in British Museum
Masks were made of plaster or linen. As many as 28 different types of masks were in use for tragic productions - distinct facial type masks: queen, king, youth, servant, etc. Chorus members wore identical masks.

30 Greek Tragedy Masks Right - mask worn for a god

31 Conventions of the Greek Theater
To increase dramatic intensity, the plays observed the THREE UNITIES described by Aristotle…

32 Unity of Time All the action of the play took place within twenty-four hours, in continuous time. Dialogue and the Chorus provided background information.

33 Unity of Place All of the action was limited to a single setting.

34 Unity of Subject One single main plot focused on the main character. There were no sub-plots.

35 Conventions of the Greek Theater
Due to the religious intent and dignified style, no violence was shown on stage. The messenger ran on stage and spoke to the audience of any deaths or killings.

36 The Chorus Was used to present exposition & to provide commentary on the action & characters: 15 men represented the citizens. They were always on stage, and they frequently sang and danced. They always had a leader who carried on a dialogue with the main characters or with the rest of the chorus.

37 The Chorus The function of the chorus was to… Set the tone
Give background information Recall events of the past Interpret and summarize events Ask questions Offer opinions Give advice, if asked Stay objective Act like a jury of elders or wise men who listened to the evidence and reached a moralistic conclusion at the end of the play

38 The Chorus Performed in song with a highly formal and stylized back-and-forth movement that heightened the emotion of their performance: Strophe - first part of a choral ode Antistrophe - follows the strophe Epode - completes the chorus’s movement Strophe - chorus moves left to right or east to west across stage Antistrophe - chorus moves back right to left or west to east Epode Sophocles lessened the role of the chorus & Euripides made the chorus almost incidental - the role continued to diminish until later playwrights dropped the choral sections completely, establishing the pattern for the 5-act structure adopted by Roman and later by Renaissance dramatists.

39 Greek Tragedy Aristotle’s definition in his Poetics:
“an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative, through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions” (VI.2, p. 23). Aristotle is the Western world’s first literary critic & aesthetician. From him & Poetics (his major critical work), later critics developed the various rules of tragic composition. Aristotle said tragedy grew out of improvisations on dithyrambic choral odes (songs sung or chanted and danced by large choruses of men at the festivals. He said tragedy kept evolving from the dithyrambic choral odes until it reached perfection - then stopped evolving. This definition is his idea of IDEAL tragedy. Serious = noble or elevated both in tone and level of life. Complete = a perfect logical whole w/ beginning, middle, & end placed so perfectly that removing anything would spoil the work’s integrity. Magnitude = perfect balance of length & subject matter - nothing extra is added; nothing essential is omitted.

40 Key to Tragedy: Catharsis
Aristotle said tragedy aroused the emotions of PITY and FEAR. Ideally, tragedy brings about a purging of these emotions. This release of feelings = Catharsis. Catharsis was originally a medical term - literally would mean a “vomiting” of emotions. Tragedy heals.

41 Key to Tragedy: Catharsis
The release was/is thought to produce emotional relief and encourage psychological health. Tragedy heals. Catharsis = the end goal of tragedy. Did you ever cry watching a play, dance performance, movie? That’s catharsis. Allows us to cry & feel better. Aristotle said Catharsis was also brought about by comedy, epic, and music.

42 The Tragic Plot Tragedy is not true in the sense that history is true.
It’s not a duplication of life, but a representation. Plot consists of a self-contained and concentrated single action. Only those incidents integral to the action are included in the play. So, don’t say things are unrealistic - the writer has artistic freedom to create a work in a way that will elicit the proper responses for tragedy. Any outside action - unrelated incidents in the main character’s life - is not to be contained in the play. Oedipus - focused on Oedipus’s determination to free his city from the plague destroying it - at any cost - that’s what drives him.

43 3 Major Elements of the Tragic Plot
Peripeteia / Reversal of fortune Anagnorisis / Recognition Scene of suffering / Pathos 1. Peripeteia - “reversal of fortune” from good to bad.

44 3 Major Elements of the Tragic Plot
2. Anagnorisis - a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined for good or bad fortune. This recognition = discovery of true identity or involvement, establishment of guilt or innocence, & revelation of previously unknown details. *In the best tragedies, the peripeteia (reversal) & anagnorisis (recognition) occur together and create suspense. Of major importance b/c at this point, the protagonist acknowledges errors made and accepts responsibility.

45 3 Major Elements of the Tragic Plot
3. Scene of Suffering - a destructive of painful action, such as death, bodily agony, or wounds. This destructive or painful action should be caused by loved ones. This will arouse the most fear & pity. *All 3 of these elements appear near the play’s conclusion because they are the probable & inevitable results of the exposition & complications.

46 Hamartia The tragic condition is often the result of the tragic hero’s hamartia, often defined as the tragic flaw that leads to the hero’s downfall. More accurately, hamartia is an error in judgment or perception, the hero’s inability to see his flaw or to accurately foresee the consequences of his decisions or actions. Often the error in judgment or perception is the result of a character flaw - examples: the hero is blinded by his anger to who his friends really are - the hero’s pride won’t allow him to back down & avoid a fatal fight.

47 Hubris A common trait associated with hamartia is hubris (or hybris).
Hubris = exaggerated self pride or self confidence, which often results in fatal retribution. Hubris against the gods is generally regarded as a character flaw of the heroes in Greek tragedy and the cause of their destruction. Well-known examples of HUBRIS - Achilles dragging Hector’s corpse around the wall of Troy in the Illiad; Creon refusing to bury Polynices in Antigone. Oedipus kills Laius over which of them has the right of way in Oedipus Rex.

48 The Tragic Hero The tragic hero’s misfortunes are not caused by vice or depravity - but by some great error. The error makes him human to the audience; thus, he arouses fear and pity in us because we can see ourselves in his place. We - the audience - are able to sympathize with the protagonist because he is imperfect, just like us, and his suffering exceeds what he deserves. This sympathetic identification makes catharsis possible. Integral to the concept of catharsis If he were a saint, his suffering would be undeserved/unfair - pity would give way to indignation & anger. If he were a villain, his suffereing would be deserved - pity would give way to satisfaction.

49 Oedipus as the Tragic Hero
As you read Oedipus Rex, consider Oedipus as a tragic hero… Do you believe he is a pawn of FATE? How much blame does he bear for his situation? Do you feel fear & pity for him? Does the play move you to a cathartic response?

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