Greek Drama Ep.5: Antigone by Sophocles

Antigone by Sophocles is one of the most well-known ancient Greek theatrical plays. It belongs to a collection of tragedies – the Theban plays – since it takes place in the Greek city of Thebes. It was written by the great tragedian Sophocles and was presented at the theatrical competition of Dionysia in 441 BC. It is based on the myth of Oedipus but Sophocles manages to make the story even more tragic. It focuses on the subject of written vs. unwritten rules and absolute power.

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Main Characters in Antigone

The main characters of Antigone by Sophocles are Antigone (daughter of Oedipus), Ismene (Antigone’s sister), Creon (Antigone’s uncle), Haemon (Antigone’s fiancée), Eurydice (Creon’s wife), Tiresias (the prophet), and the Chorus that consists of a group of elderly men.

Antigone: Summary of the Plot

The play begins with the sisters Antigone and Ismene meeting outside of the palace of Thebes. The two young women are the daughters of the mythical king of Thebes Oedipus and his mother, Iocaste. But what do we know about this family from ancient Greek mythology?

Antigone’s Background

Oedipus and Iocaste married each other without knowing that they are mother and son. This unorthodox marriage was their punishment from the gods for the serious hybris the father of the family had committed. Laius, father of Oedipus and first husband of Iocaste, had abused a young boy, which enraged the gods and goddesses. Since then, countless misfortunes and tragedies hit the family.

The royal family of Thebes could be compared to the cursed families we often talk about today, such as the Kennedys. Some of these misfortunes resulted by their own despicable actions. For example, Oedipus was once so enraged by his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, that he cursed them. He said that they would kill each other one day – which came true after Oedipus’ self-exile.

Eteocles and Polynices fought over the throne of Thebes, after their father left the city-state in a state of shock. He had just learned that he is related to his wife. Polynices then decided to also leave Thebes and go to the city of Argos. There, he married the princess of Argos and ordered the local army to attack his hometown. He wanted to punish his brother and take over the city. Both Eteocles and Polynices died during the battle.

The throne was then overtaken by their uncle, Creon. Creon immediately turned into a tyrant. He wanted to make clear that he wouldn’t allow anyone to overthrow him or question his power. He honored Eteocles for trying to protect Thebes and shamed Polynices publicly for turning against his hometown. He refused to offer a burial ceremony for him and left his body laying on the battleground. Citizens of Thebes were not allowed to touch it. And this is the exact timeline of Antigone’s storyline.

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Main Storyline: Antigone

Antigone and Ismene were the sisters of Polynices and Eteocles. Antigone, the eldest and most rebellious sister, tries to conspire against Creon and bury Polynices. Burying the dead following the rites of the time was an unwritten rule that, according to Antigone, was more important than the rule Creon came up with. Ismene is skeptical. She does want to honor her brother, but she doesn’t want to defy the state either.

“I will not urge thee,-no nor, if thou yet shouldst have the mind, wouldst thou be welcome as a worker with me. Nay, be what thou wilt; but I will bury him: well for me to die in doing that. I shall rest, a loved one with him whom I have loved, sinless in my crime; for I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living: in that world I shall abide forever. But if thou wilt, be guilty of dishonoring laws which the gods have stablished in honor.”, Antigone says.

The two women leave the stage and the Chorus, consisting of elder men, starts narrating the events before the death of Polynices and Eteocles. How Polynices left Thebes and managed to influence the ruler of Argos to attack his hometown.

Then, Creon enters the scene and converses with the Chorus. Is he in the wrong? The elders of Thebes reassure him that he has the power to make decisions for the living and the dead of Thebes. But everything changes when a guard who was supposed to monitor the battleground, enters the scene to announce that the body has been buried.

“Well, this is it.-The corpse-some one hath just given it burial, and gone away,-after sprinkling thirsty dust on the flesh, with such other rites as piety enjoins.”, the guard says.

Creon leaves the stage frantically and the Chorus starts highlighting the importance of laws and state power.

Antigone’s Punishment

Creon comes back on stage, along with Antigone. The young woman confesses to the crime, saying that the law of god was more important to her than the law of the state ruler.

“Yes; for it was not Zeus that had published me that edict; not such are the laws set among men by the justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For their life is not of to-day or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth.”, she says.

Creon orders the arrest of Antigone and Ismene. He speculates that the younger sister knew about her sister’s actions but did nothing to alert him nor the guards. Then, another character enters the scene. A young man named Haemon. He is the son of Creon and fiancée of Antigone. He tries to persuade his father to spare the two women, but a fight ensued. Haemon leaves and the Chorus starts talking about the power of love and compares Antigone to Niobe, whose children were killed and were not given a proper burial after an act of hybris.

Creon then decides to free Ismene and punish Antigone by burying her into a cave. The young woman is led into her eternal prison, while mourning her youth and the wedding she was planning all this time.

“Tomb, bridal-chamber, eternal prison in the caverned rock, whither go to find mine own, those many who have perished, and whom Persephone hath received among the dead! Last of all shall I pass thither, and far most miserably of all, before the term of my life is spent. (…)”

Creon’s Punishment

Once Antigone is led and abandoned into the cave, a prophet named Teiresias enters the scene. He warns Creon of the hybris he is about to commit: leaving the dead unburied and burying the living. Not only that, but everyone in Greece will despise the ruler of Thebes. The Chorus asks Creon to listen to prophet Teiresias but he leaves angrily.

What follows is the discovery of Antigone’s body in the cave. She ended her own life. Haemon, just like Romeo, then stabbed himself, ending his own life. Once Creon’s wife and Haemon’s mother hears the news, she proceeds to do the same. The play ends with Creon holding the body of his son, acknowledging his mistakes.

“Wisdom is the supreme part of happiness; and reverence towards the gods must be inviolate. Great words of prideful men are ever punished with great blows, and, in old age, teach the chastened to be wise.”, the leader of the Chorus concludes.

Antigone in a Nutshell:

  • “Antigone” is a tragedy that was first presented by Sophocles in 441 BC.
  • The play is set in Thebes, Greece.
  • Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, is the main heroine.
  • She defies the written laws of the state and follows the unwritten laws of the gods.
  • Creon, her uncle and ruler of Thebes, commits hybris by punishing Antigone – he ends up being punished by fate.
  • “Catharsis” is achieved when Creon sees the consequences of his actions and acknowledges his mistakes.

Main Theme in Antigone: Written vs Unwritten Rules

Just like in most ancient Greek tragedies, the main theme of Antigone is hybris – the consequences of pride, arrogance, and overconfidence. Creon, the ruler of Thebes, treated the death of Polynices with a lack of compassion. He needed to reestablish order after the battle with Argos, but he got blinded by the absolute power. Yes, Polynices betrayed his city-state, but Creon decided to continue his punishment, after his death. He came up with an inflexible and strict rule and then punished Antigone for disobeying him. He didn’t listen to anyone who tried to warn him – not even prophet Teiresias.

Another theme in Antigone that differentiates it from other plays, is about status quo, moral/ divine law versus human law. Antigone is an archetypical rebel: a young, fearless female against a powerful older male. Antigone chose the unwritten rules over the rules of the state. She even ends up sacrificing her own life for her beliefs.

Were her actions worth it? Could there be another solution to this problem, such as debating with Creon? Did Creon turn into a tyrant before or after the rebellious act? How is a tyrant born? And what if everyone started disobeying the law to follow their moral standards? These are the questions that viewers are called to answer after watching the play. Feel free to share your opinions in the comment section.  

Greek Drama Ep.4: Helen by Euripides

A beautiful woman accused of causing chaos and bringing all evils to this world. She could be Eve or Pandora. But, this time, she is Helen. The one accused of causing the Trojan War. The one who left her husband’s side and traveled to Troy with another man, Paris.

Greek mythology and the Homeric hymns that kept them alive focused on brave heroes who fought battles and explored the world. Greek tragedy, on the other hand, placed the misunderstood characters under the spotlight. In the IIiad and the Odyssey, we hear what men had to say about Helen. In the play Helen by Euripides, we listen to her side of the story.

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Euripides’ Helen (Theatrical Play)

In 412 BC, the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides presented a trilogy of plays at the annual theatrical competition of Dionysia in Athens. One of those plays was Helen – inspired by the legend of Helen of Troy.

Helen’s Myth | Helen of Troy

According to the myth, Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leda and wife of king Menelaus of Sparta. One night, Helen reportedly escaped Sparta with her Trojan lover, Paris. The latter was a young prince who was promised by goddess Aphrodite the most beautiful woman in the world. And, despite popular belief, it is not clear whether Helen chose to leave with Paris.

Ancient Greek sources are contradictory regarding Helen’s stance on this matter. Herodotus and most sources mention she was abducted by Paris. The poet Sappho, however, argues that Helen left Sparta willingly. “Full easy it is to make this understood of one and all: for she that far surpassed all mortals in beauty, Helen her most noble husband. Deserted, and went sailing to Troy, with never a thought for her daughter and dear parents.”, she writes.

Looking closely at the storyline, we can easily notice how irrelevant Helen’s stance appeared to be. Nobody really cared whether Helen was abducted or decided to escape from Sparta because she was unhappy. She was portrayed as the destructive woman – source of all evils- for whom several ships sailed towards Troy. And many young men fought and lost their lives. She, a “wicked woman”, was blamed for starting a vicious war.

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Euripides’ Take on Helen’s Myth

The unconventional ancient Greek tragedian Euripides wanted to defend Helen. Inspired by Herodotus’ claim that the Spartan queen was taken to Egypt by god Hermes, he told her version of the story.

In Euripides’ version of the story, Paris did not travel to Troy with Helen herself, but with an “eidolon” – a lifeless copy of her. Goddess Hera, protector of marriage, wanted to stop Paris from doing so. The Trojan prince had offered the apple of discord to another goddess and she aimed at punishing him. She ordered the messenger god Hermes to guide Helen out of her palace and transport her to Egypt, where she took refuge at the palace of Proteas.

The play starts with Helen standing next to Proteas’ grave, explaining her story. She is hopeless. She was taken away from home against her will. She had no way of returning home and she knew her name was tainted anyways. Not only that, but she felt uneasy in Egypt after her protector’s death. King Proteas’ son, Theoklymenos, put a lot of pressure on her. He wanted to marry her.

Helen then comes across a familiar face. Teucros, the best Greek archer who participated at the Trojan war, had visited the palace of Proteas to ask for a prophecy. Proteas’ daughter, Theonoe, was a well-known fortune teller at that time. Helen is desperate to know where her husband is and if he is searching for her. Teucros, however, informs her that Menelaos is probably dead. She also becomes aware of how hated she is by both Greeks and Trojans. Helen then starts mourning on stage, along with a group of Spartan women. She has lost all hope.

But what Helen, the tragic character of play, does not know, is that Menelaos is alive and hiding on the riverside of the Nile. He was washed ashore when his ship sunk. Him, the counterfeit Helen, and his men, were all hiding in a cave.

Menelaos then decides to seek for help at the palace of Proteas, where he comes across an old maid. The woman explains that Greeks are not welcome here. Theoklymenos, the son of Proteas, will execute any Greek who steps foot at his house, to keep Helen by his side. Menelaos is buffled. Who is this Helen she is talking about?

Menelaos and Helen finally meet and after a long dialogue – during which they are both skeptical about each other – they reunite. “I was tricked by the gods into taking to my arms a misty phantom-form, to my sorrow.”, he says. With one of the characters replying: “How so? Was it then for this we vainly toiled?”.

With Theonoe’s help, they manage to escape by boat and return to Sparta. Theoklymenos becomes enraged and almost kills his sister. But Theonoe is saved last minute with the help of the gods and goddesses.

Helen, a Play with Anti-War Sentiment

On a surface level, the tragedy focuses on the importance of virtue and oaths, especially between husband and wife. But Helen is more than a play about loyalty. The play is about the nonsense of war. What was the purpose of the Trojan war? Just a lifeless shadow. Euripides had just witnessed the defeat of Athens in the Sicilian Expedition. This war had caused great panic to Athenians and people started questioning the necessity of war.

Moreover, the play brings forward the voices of women who have been shamed and blamed from society without much proof. Both the feminist and anti-war sentiment of the play were inspired by the teachings of the sophists. The latter were Greek lecturers who questioned the values and ethics of their time. Some of them argued that women should be equal to men, that war only brings destruction, gods and goddesses do not exist, and that humanity should focus on science.

Euripides’ plays were controversial, since they questioned the morals of his time. He is known as the misunderstood tragedian and it took years to get recognized for his contribution to theatre. Helen has inspired many contemporary artists, including the Greek poet Yorgos Seferis.

Greek Drama Ep.6: The Concepts of Hybris, Nemesis, and Catharsis

Hybris, nemesis, and catharsis are three important aspects of every ancient Greek tragedy. Hybris and nemesis were mentioned way before the birth of Greek theatre; we know the terms from ancient Greek mythology. And catharsis is a concept that was introduced in drama. But what is the meaning of these three theatrical terms?

Greek Drama Ep.5: Antigone by Sophocles

Antigone by Sophocles is one of the most well-known ancient Greek theatrical plays. It belongs to a collection of tragedies – the Theban plays – since it takes place in the Greek city of Thebes. It was written by the great tragedian Sophocles and was presented at the theatrical competition of Dionysia in 441 BC. It is based on the myth of Oedipus but Sophocles manages to make the story even more tragic. It focuses on the subject of written vs. unwritten rules and absolute power.

Greek Drama Ep.2: Introducing the Greek Tragedians (Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles)

Last time, we discussed the basics of ancient Greek theater. The history of drama, its peak years with the Dionysian competitions, and the formation of the three distinct types of drama, which are tragedy, comedy, and satyr. Today, Helinika is introducing the big- three ancient Greek tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. Before we get started, make sure you are subscribed to this YouTube channel and never miss a video in the future.

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Aeschylus: The Father of Tragedy | Greek Drama

Our understanding of the earliest Greek tragedies comes from Aeschylus. He is the tragedian who gave great power to the art of tragedy. He added more characters than usual in his plays and added more interactions between them. He basically introduced the theatrical dialogues and the concept of the protagonist and deuteragonist (second actor). That is why he is known as the “father of tragedy”.

Aeschylus was born in 525 BC in the city of Eleusis, just few kilometers away from Athens. He came from a noble family and, before his theatrical career, he worked at a vineyard. He was a respectable member of the Athenian community.

The tragedian had also fought at the battle of Marathon against the Persians in 490 BC, where he lost his brother. One of his most well-known works are “Persai” (The Persians), the only ancient Greek tragedy that was inspired by real events, rather than ancient Greek mythology.

Aeschylus died in 455 BC in Sicily. It is rumored that he died under comico-tragical circumstances. He was allegedly walking on a field, when a turtle fell on his head and killed him. According to the story, an eagle had caught the turtle and dropped it on the ground to break its shell; a technique that eagles often use to eat their pray.

Popular Works from Aeschylus:

There are many tragedies attributed to Aeschylus. Many of them have not been saved (e.g. Myrmidons, Nereids etc.). Here are some popular tragedies by the “father of tragedy”:

  • The Persians
  • Seven Against Thebes
  • The Suppliants
  • The Oresteia
  • Prometheus Bound

Sophocles: A Successful Tragedian | Greek Drama

Sophocles was one of the most successful playwrights in the Dionysian competitions. He won 24 out of the 30 theatrical competitions he participated in. He is attributed with adding a third actor on stage and reducing the importance of the chorus – the dancing choir – in the plot. The plays now started to resemble more the theatrical plays we watch today.

The Greek dramatist was born in 497 BC in Colonus, in the outskirts of Athens. He was born into wealth and his father was an armor manufacturer. He died at the age of 91 in 406 BC in Athens. There are several urban legends on how he died. Athenians would say that he choked on a grape or that he tried to recite a long sentence from one of his plays, without pausing to take a breath.

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Popular Works from Sophocles:

Sophocles wrote over 120 plays but few have been saved:

  • Ajax
  • Antigone
  • Women of Trachis
  • Oedipus Rex
  • Electra
  • Philoctetes
  • Oedipus at Colonus

Euripides: The Misunderstood Tragedian | Greek Drama

Euripides is now one of the greatest ancient Greek tragedians, but he needed time and hard work to be recognized as such. He was the youngest of the big-three and the one who was ridiculed the most at the start of his career. He was the target of the “father of comedy”, Aristophanes.

The tragedian is attributed with many theatrical innovations. He represented mythical heroes as ordinary people. The audience could identify with their suffering. He shocked his colleagues with how he represented women: as humans with real and complicated personalities. Women were as virtuous as men, if not more. “I would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once.” – his heroine Medea says.

Euripides was the “most tragic” of the poets. He cared for the misunderstood and the misfits more than he cared for the war heroes. He died in 406 BC at the age of 74 in the Greek kingdom of Macedonia. Some say he was struck by lightning. Others, that the cold winter in the northern part of Greece were to blame.

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Popular Works from Euripides:

Euripides wrote between 92 to 95 plays, from which eighteen survived. Some of his most popular plays are:

  • Medea
  • Electra
  • The Trojan Women
  • Helen
  • Iphigeneia in Tauris
  • Iphigeneia in Aulis
  • Bacchae
  • Orestes

Stay tuned till the next episode. We will be discovering the tricks ancient tragedians used to help the audience get immersed into the plot. Did they use any machines? If you enjoyed this video, feel free to comment and like.

Greek Drama Ep.1: Introduction to Classical Theater (History & More) | Drama 101

Welcome to Helinika’s first episode of the new series on Greek drama. Drama is enjoyed worldwide in theaters, operas, television sets, and computer devices. But did you know that the roots of (western) drama take us back to ancient Greece?

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What is the Meaning of “Drama”?

The word derives from the Greek “δρᾶμα”, which means “action”. This comes as no surprise, since drama is basically acting. Its birthplace is no other than Athens, the current capital of the Hellenic Republic of Greece. When visiting Greece, however, you can visit another city that bears the same name: Drama in northeastern Greece.

History of Drama | Classical Greek Drama

The birthplace of drama -at least as we know it in the West- is Classical Greece. Classical Athens to be precise. Around the 5th Century BC, ancient Greeks started incorporating choirs and dance choreographies – called dithyrambs– in the worship of the pagan god Dionysus.

Dionysus was the god of grape harvest and wine. He was also associated with fertility, religious ecstasy… even madness. It comes as no surprise that the German philosopher Nietzsche associated passion and chaos with Dionysus. Dionysian was what he described as the state of intoxication and disorder.

Indeed, the start of Greek drama consisted of all that: religious ecstasy, alcohol consumption, and a general lack of boundaries.The first Dionysian dithyrambs resembled concerts from the 1960s and 1970s, rather than organized theatrical performances. Many historians also suspect that actors would dress up as satyrs: half goat – half man creatures that teased people.

As time passed by, these theatrical acts started becoming more organized. Distinct types of drama emerged, such as tragedy and satyr. In the 4th Century BC, drama in Greece was institutionalized and theatrical competitions emerged. Not only that, but the first ever dramatic theory was also recorded some years later (335 BC): Aristotle’s “Poetics”.

Dionysian Dramatic Performances | Theater of Dionysus

In the ancient theater of Dionysus, near the Acropolis of Athens, the first ever theatrical competition started taking place: the Dionysians. Dramatists would present a tetralogy of plays – three tragedies and a satyr play. The latter would help the audience experience “catharsis” – a strong relief from the negative emotions that people accumulated while watching these tragedies.

Comedies were introduced in the competitions around the 442 BC. Before that time, they were considered to be less important and comedians were not eligible to win a prince. But what was the price exactly? It was no other than a goat – a symbol of Dionysus.

The theater of god Dionysus was constructed in the 6th Century BC but the competitions – which lasted for many consecutive days – started in the 5th Century BC. During these competitions, judges and spectators would sit down and enjoy the plays.

At first, Athenians were able to watch the plays for free. Later, middle and upper class Athenians and foreigners were required to purchase a ticket. People facing financial problems were able to watch for free – the city-state would cover the costs.

Ancient Athenians believed that theater had a positive impact on human psychology. Every Athenian citizen had to participate. Crowds of people would be gathering in the theater with snacks and drinks from morning till sunset, watching the plays and discussing the plot with each other.

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Types of Greek Drama

Tragedy, Comedy, and Satyr play were the three types of ancient Greek drama. Tragedy was the most common one. It really translates to the “song of the goat” – probably because of the goat dress-up in the Dionysian dithyrambs (the predecessor of tragedy). But there are also numerous other theories. For example, that the name is connected to the prize that was offered to the winners of the theatrical contests, which was no other than a goat.

Tragedies were inspired by the stories that had been told for centuries in Greece – the Greek myths. Stories of heroes and heroines, gods and goddesses. But the main focus was not the glory of these heroes and divine beings but rather the suffering of the humans in these stories. In Helinika’s Greek mythology videos we focused on characters such as Jason and Odysseus. In this series, we will be discussing tragic characters, such as Medea and Helen of Troy.

All actors in tragedies -and other types of drama- were male. They would play even the women’s roles. Actors wore masks and shoes that elevated their bodies. There was a chorus – a choir that also danced. Violent acts would not be shown on stage and several devices were used to create visual effects. But we will talk on this subject on a different video.

Satyr plays were something between a comedy and a tragedy. They resembled the dithyrambs the most, meaning that they were the most chaotic and obscene plays that were presented to the audience. The actors would dress up as satyrs: goat-like creatures with a big sexual appetite. An example would be the play “Cyclops” of Euripides, which narrates the encounter of Odysseus with Cyclops Polyphemus.

Comedies were the opposite of tragedies. The word translates to “laughter provoking songs”. Comedies had happy endings and had an overall more uplifting mood. The characters though were less inspiring. Aristotle would describe them as “worse than the average (person)”, whereas tragic heroes and heroines were “better than the average (person)”.   

The Greek who really influenced comedy was Aristophanes. He wrote 40 comedies and he is known as “the father of comedy”. His works were very similar to satyr play, since they involved obscene language and actions and a lot of the events had a tragic tone to them. He would also criticize and make fun of the political and philosophical personalities of his time, including Socrates. Aristophanes’ plays resemble what we now consider a satirical play.

Other Greek Theaters and Greek Drama Today

Greek drama continued being popular until the beginning of the Hellenistic period. It inspired Roman theater, which focused more on entertainment and performance, rather than tragedy and catharsis.

Apart from the theater of Dionysus, many other theaters were built in ancient Greece, including the Herodion of Athens, the theater of Philippi in northern Greece, and the little and great theaters of Epidauros at the Sanctuary of Asclepius.

Ancient Greek plays -adapted or unchanged- are still played to this day around the world, including some of these ancient theaters. Playing at the annual cultural festival of Epidauros is a great achievement for theater actors and actresses. Next time you visit Greece, check whether there are any ancient Greek plays performed in the Herodion of Athens or the Epidauros.