Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2018-19: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time


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Unit III: Greek Tragedy, ca. 480-400 B.C.

Week 11:Sophocles
(495/4 -406/5 B. C.)

The Theater of Dionysus at Delphi

Please read if you have not already done so:

Sophocles is in many ways considered the greatest of the Athenian tragedians, and there are ample grounds to support that claim. Unlike Aeschylus, who had to invent a number of the basic maneuvers of tragedy himself — things as fundamental as the introduction of a second actor — Sophocles inherited a more mature dramatic form, and worked with it in a way that is, above all, balanced. Unlike Aeschylus, he has not such boundless faith that rationality can solve all the problems of the human condition; but neither does he despair of their solution altogether, as Euripides sometimes seems to do. For him, the key seems to be a rightness of action, in which self-reliance and sober piety are both kept in view. Even then, however, people will be susceptible to evil in the world.

The Oedipus plays, though there are three of them, do not form a trilogy. That is, they were performed on separate occasions. Still they form a kind of dramatic unity, and introduce a number of important characters in the Theban cast of characters. Creon and Teirisias will be seen again, for example, in Euripides' Bacchae.

Please read the Oedipus Rex and the Antigone.

The Oedipus Rex (Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus the King) is sometimes considered to be the single greatest product of Greek drama. There is more event and incident here, and less seemingly unrelated choral song (though there is still a chorus); the plot moves with an inevitable and relentless pressure to its conclusion.

If you have read your Hamilton or Bulfinch, the following may be superfluous, but just in case you haven't:

Oedipus was born to Laius and Jocasta of the royal house of Thebes. At his birth, the oracle at Delphi returned the horrifying prophecy that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother. To prevent this, Laius and Jocasta had him killed — exposed on a mountainside with his ankles pinned together. Fortunately or unfortunately, this didn't quite work: he was taken in and healed by a shepherd on the mountain, and taken into the royal house of another city — Corinth — on the other side of the mountain. There he grew to manhood until he heard from the oracle at Delphi that he was doomed to kill his father and marry his mother. In order to avoid this, he left home (as he imagined) right away — coming, of course, to Thebes, where (after killing an aggressor on the road) he solved the riddle of the Sphinx and thus became the hero of the city — where he was given the queen to be his wife. Of course the stranger on the road turns out to have been his father, and the queen is his mother, so he has fulfilled the prophecy anyway; and in accordance with this complex ritual pollution, a plague comes upon the city. Thus the situation stands where the story opens — though nobody yet knows the reasons for the plague.

Sophocles. London, British Museum. Photograph, Bruce A. McMenomyThe Antigone (that's four syllables, as it's usually pronounced in English — an-TI-go-nee) is more of a problem play, but one that is perpetually timely, it seems: it asks, "What are the legitimate claims of the state over against the claims of one's private conscience and duties to the gods?" Sophocles seems to have a fairly clear understanding of the problem, and the work has been received with renewed interest in every generation.

Please consider a few basic questions: