CS 1000 – Week 12
Lecture 1 November 25, 2013
• Three greatAthenian playwrights:
o Aeschylus 524/5 – 456/5 BCE; we have 7 plays
o Sophocles ca. 495-406 BCE; we have 7 plays
o Euripides ca. 485-406 BCE; in medieval manuscripts were have 19 plays
(scholars think that the Rhesus is not by Euripides and the Cyclops is not a
tragedy but a satyr play).
o These three were judged to be the greatest by the Greeks themselves. The
names of many others are known and some ‘fragments’survive
• What survives of these tragedians is not at all random. The 7 plays by Aeschylus
and Sophocles were schools texts in Byzantium and widely read by students
(there was also a selection of 7 plays by Euripides as well).
o The more people read them, the better chance they have of surviving.
• Aconsiderable corpus exists today. There are also fragments which are
quotations by other playwrights which are otherwise lost (ex. With Euripides we
have 1500 fragments that range from one word to a few lines).
• Aristotle’s Poetics: about 50 years after the death of Euripides and Sophocles.
This work is unusually important. It is a take on tragedy by one of the most
distinguished mind in antiquity.
o We have no sense of contemporary response to these plays; Aristotle takes
us much closer to the plays.
o He is important for everything that comes afterwards. The whole Western
tradition of literary criticism started with him.
• The first preserved tragedy is called Persians byAeschylus from 472 BCE. It
dramatized part of the war between Persia and Greece.
• Tragedy was introduced as a competition at the Greater Dionysia in 536/533 BCE.
o At some point tragedy just began and didn’t evolve naturally. Tragedy is a
significant invention. Someone invented it and instituted it formally at this
• The Greater Dionysia was designed under the Pisistratid tyrants in order to
showcaseAthenian culture (this wasn’t the only one, there was also the
• These plays were performed in competition. Each year three poets were chosen to
compete in the Greater Dionysia in the tragic competitions. These poets would
then each provide four plays (3 tragedies and one satyr play).
o The word tragedy in Greek literally means ‘goat song’ 2
o The three tragedies were all connected and the stories were related. The
satyr play was related but more comic. Later on, tragedy was less
concerned with being about the same topic.
• These plays were judged and the poets were assigned first, second, or third place.
• There is a lot of speculation about how and why tragedy developed as it did. What
is more difficult is to know where tragedy came from and what was happening
before 536/533 BCE (i.e. did the Greeks draw on existing traditions?).
Basic Features of Tragedy
• There are certain conventional features
o Examples: words, setting, acts (typically 5)
o Dramatized the demands of the play
o Made up of singers and dancers
o They are central to the origins of Greek tragedy. As tragedy (and comedy)
evolves, the Choral element becomes less and less important.
o This is a group of figures representing recognizable people (Ex. Euripides’
Medea it is a Chorus of Corinthian women).
o They interact with the actors and sings formal songs
o Some think that the original element of Greek tragedy was the Chorus.
This aligns tragedy with song in ritual settings throughout the Greek world
(Choral song is a big element of Greek lyric in theArchaic Period).
• Limited number of actors:
o In the beginning, there were two actors.Aristotle says that through an
innovation of Sophocles, a third actor was added.
o There is no limit on the number of speaking characters in a play but all the
speaking characters must be performed by two (and then three) actors.
o The limit may be part the competitive aspect each person gets a Chorus
and is limited to a certain number of actors to keep the playing field level.
• Actors enter into dialogue among themselves but also with the Chorus who was
represented by the Coryphaeus (‘chorus leader’)
o There is a lot of talking in tragedy, little action occurs on stage, interesting
interaction among the characters, and interaction with the Chorus
• There are also other features which make Greek tragedy distinctive:
o (1) Stichomythia: ‘line talking’; stylized and formal dialogue where two
characters speak to each other. Each character speaks the same number of
lines in a balanced exchange. It contributes to the highly stylized and
artificial nature of tragedy (i.e. it is not real drama like we are used to
o (2) Length of Plays: moderate in length (ranged from 1000-1500 lines);
the individual plays were not the main event of the day but were part of a
o (3) Masks: the actors and the Chorus members wore masks. They were
almost certainly made of a linen material (perhaps around a wood frame).
To see this at first is quite disturbing. One of our basic ways of
reading people is through facial expressions. As a person watches,
he becomes more attuned to other forms of body language and he
listens very carefully to the voice.
These masks provide a very different and effective kind of
There is a lot of discussion about the degree to which the masks
could change depending on the changing circumstances of the
character. Ex. Oedipus puts his eyes out with a brooch. Were his
eyes bloody on the mask or is the language of the play enough?
Why did the Greeks wear masks? The general thought is that they
came from somewhere else, perhaps from its tie to the ritual past
and ritual performance? We hear of other rituals where participants
take on roles and masks are used.
• There is a conscious blending of influences.
• The plots of tragedies are taken from traditional mythology (ex. Homer, Pindar
o Drama cannot give you what epic can. Epic can give you a journey that
lasts weeks and gives you great detail while tragedy seems to unfold in
real time before you. Instead, you will get a moment from epic that is
o Exceptions: we know of two plays that were based on historical events
Aeschylus’Persians (Battle of Salamis) and The Capture of Miletus by
Also, there is one example given byAristotle of a play which had a
plot that was completely made up and not derived from traditional
myth byAgathon calledAnthos.
• In some sense, the Greeks believed that myth was historical so there wasn’t such a
difference between an event in mythology and a historical event like that in the
• (1) Epic Narrative
o Homer (Iliad and Odyssey) and the epic tradition
• (2) Lyric Narrative
o Pindar and Bacchylides
o In tragedy, there are lyric poems which are performed by the Chorus amid
actors speaking to one another and to the Chorus. The Choral Odes are
lyrics which recall this earlier type of poetry.
• (3) Choral Songs 4
o The Choral Odes are not written in the dialect ofAthens (the rest of the
play is) but instead it is in the Doric dialect. This suggests that there was
no nativeAttic tradition of choral poetry to draw on but the tradition that
was used was that of the Peloponnese.
Sophocles’Oedipus the King
• The standard way that people look at this play is a specimen of tragedy that can
prepare you for the more complex Shakespearean tragedy. It is also read in a very
typical way (which is completely wrong).
• This play was performed ca. 425 BCE. This day is significant because the play
begins during a terrible plague in Thebes which was not a traditional feature of
the myth of Oedipus. Sophocles was probably influenced by the recent plague in
Athens around 434-439 BCE.
• It was considered Sophocles’greatest play both in antiquity and by modern
• It is often a model tragedy, illustrating the way in which tragedy works.
• The play is strikingly illusive
o “There is no meaning in the Oedipus Tyrannos” (Waldock). For him it was
about the thrills was without dramatic reading.
• This plot of the play is a moment from a larger myth. The myth concerns the city
of Thebes and its royal family. Laius, king of Thebes, and Jocasta, his wife, are
given a terrible oracle fromApollo at Delphi that Laius is to die at the hands of
his son. Laius and Jocasta have a son, they mutilate his foot and tell a shepherd to
take the baby to Mount Cithaeron and expose it. The shepherd takes pity on the
baby and gives it to the king of Corinth. When Oedpius reaches manhood, he
hears that he is troubled by a rumor that he is not the son of Polybus. In distress
he goes to Delphi to ask if he is Polybus’son. The oracle tells him that he must
murder his father and marry his mother.
• Horrified, Oedipus says that he will never go back to Corinth. He goes towards
• Thebes was having a problem with a sphinx who was eating young Theban men.
She had a riddle and if you couldn’t answer it she ate you.
• Oedipus answers the riddle: what has four legs at dawn, two at noon, and three at
night? – Man
• Oedipus is made king of Thebes and given the widowed queen as his bride.
o On the way to the sphinx, he met a man on the road and killed him (he
didn’t realize that he had fulfilled the first part of his fate that he would
murder his father).
o After the riddle of the sphinx, he fulfills the whole prophecy because he
marries his mother. 5
• It is at this point that the plot of Sophicles’tragedy starts.
Lecture 2 November 27, 2013
Oedipus (Continued) - General Interpretative Considerations
• Background of the myth of Oedipus
o Fulfilled prophecy ofApollo
o Sophocles’tragedy begins at this point, 16-20 years later.
• Sophocles’Oedipus Tyrannos concerns the revelation of the events that had
taken place in the years before.
• The play begins with a plague. Oedipus sends his brother-in-law/uncle to the
oracle of Apollo. The answer thatApollo gets is that he should focus on the killer
of the former king Laius and his presence in the city is causing the trouble.
• He calls in the seer Tiresias who knows the terrible truth. Because he won’t seem
to co-operate, Oedipus thinks that he is being unhelpful for some hidden
• But blind seerers never aspired to kingship so Oedipus calls his brother-in-
law/uncle, Creon, back in thinking that it is him who wants to be king. Oedipus’
wife (and mother) tells him not to worry about prophecies because it was said that
Laius would be killed by his son but a stranger on the road killed him.
• Little by little Oedipus worries less about who killed Laius and more about who
he is. It becomes obvious he is the child of Laius and he has married his mother.
His mother realizes before him and rushes from the stage.
• He goes into her bedchamber where she has hanged herself. Oedipus takes a
brooch from her garment and plunges it into his eyes.
• He comes out with blood streaming from his eyes. He is revealed as an incestuous
kinslayer. Two questions are commonly asked of this play:
o (1) Did Oedipus deserve his fate?
o (2) What does the play say about the relationship between gods and
(1) Did Oedipus Deserve his Fate?:
• Theory: Oedipus suffers because of his character he has a hot temper, doubts
oracles, and is accused of displaying hybris (certain kind of pride or arrogance
that sets a person up for a kind of punishment).
o As a tragic character, Oedipus suffers from a fatal flaw of character (some
aspect of his personality that leads to his terrible fate)
• To justify this, people point toAristotle (Poetics 13).Aristotle offers a definition
of the tragic hero: a high status individual who falls from prosperity into
adversity through a big hamartia.
• He is responsible for his own suffering because of his character. 6
Hamartia: a very misunderstood term, many link it to a fatal flaw of character or ‘sin’. In
Greek the word means a ‘mistake’which comes from the verb meaning ‘to miss the
mark’with a bow and arrow. It is not a moral fault or error but it is an intellectual error
(two examples are Oedipus and Thyestes). Moreover, no one in the play says that there
was anything wrong with Oedipus’character but instead all the characters remain loyal to
him. If he is being presented as someone with a problematic character, someone in the
play would say so to encourage us to think there is a judgment in the text that reinforced
this view. When we look at the character of Oedipus, we see that he is typical character
in Sophoclean tragedy.
• In the Ethics, Aristotle defines harmartema (=instance of hamartia) as “an
offence committed in ignorance of some material fact and therefore free from
poneria or kakia (‘badness’).
o The offence, then, is committed in ignorance and it is free it from being