Is Antigone a Play?

Instructor: Sarah Bostock
After reviewing this lesson, you will understand that ''Antigone'' is a Ancient Greek play by famous playwright Sophocles. You will also gain knowledge of Ancient Greek theater and learn a bit about Sophocles himself.

Sophocles, Playwright of Ancient Greece

Athenian Playwright Sophocles
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Have you ever heard of the famous riddle of the great Sphinx? The riddle asks 'What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening'? Do you know the answer? The answer is a man because he crawls as a baby, walks as an adult, and uses a cane in old age. This riddle was written by the famous Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles over 2000 years ago!

Sophocles was born outside of Athens in the year 496 BCE into a wealthy family. He was well educated, and he also studied music and dance. Sophocles was an active member of Athens, which was a powerful polis, or city-state, with a great sense of community. Athens was also one of the earliest democracies in the world, that is male citizens could participate equally in political activities such as voting. The Athens of Ancient Greece was also a center for art, drama, and literature.

During his lifetime, Sophocles wrote more than 120 tragedies, which are plays that explore morality, choice, and fate which never end well for the main characters. Sophocles won many awards for his plays (which we will explore further in the next section) and he even outdid the other well-known playwright of his time, Aeschylus. Unfortunately, only seven of his original plays have been found completely intact.

The Festival of Dionysus

Theater of Dionysus
Theater of Dionysus

The writing career of Sophocles is thought to have started in 468 BCE after his first victory at the Festival of Dionysus. The festival was held every March in Athens to celebrate Dionysus, the god of wine. This is thought to be where tragedy as well as comedy originated. The Dionysus Festival was a competition usually between three different poets or playwrights. Although Sophocles and others are called playwrights, one must remember that they considered themselves poets because of the language and structure used in their tragedies.

Each playwright wrote three tragedies and a satyr (comic or joking tragedy) to be performed one right after the other at the festival. Playwrights presented their plays for the citizens of Athens. Each poet presented his play on a certain day of the festival. At the end of the festival, a group of judges decided which playwright won the competition. It is thought that Sophocles won the Festival of Dionysus at least 18 times in his lifetime. Eighteen times is huge when compared to Aeschylus, the Greek playwright known as the father of tragedy.

The Play Antigone

Sophocles Heroine Antigone
Antigone

One of Sophocles' earlier plays is Antigone, which is believed to have been written and performed around 442 BCE. The play centers on Antigone, the daughter of the Oedipus who is the mythical King of Thebes. Although the play was written first, it is the last play chronologically in the Oedipus Trilogy, which consists of Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. Even though the play is part of a trilogy, it can stand on its own. In fact, Antigone is considered to be one of the finest masterpieces of all Ancient Greek tragedy.

In Antigone, Sophocles explores the consequences of civil disobedience, or when citizens refuse to obey the law. Usually, civil disobedience occurs when citizens believe that the laws are morally unjust. The main character, Antigone, seeks to bury her brother Polynices, but King Creon has told his people that no one shall morn the death of Polynices and neither shall he be buried. The punishment of disobeying this specific order is death, but Antigone doesn't care. In fact, she states, This death of mine is of no importance; but if I had left my brother lying in death unburied, I should have suffered. Now I do not. Antigone is also one of the first pieces of literature to have a female hero.

Elements of Sophoclean Dramas

Antigone And The Body Of Polynices
Antigone And The Body Of Polynices

The play Antigone did not have acts or scenes, and neither did any plays during this time period of Ancient Greece. Instead, the play is divided into episodes, or parts in which one or two main characters speak to the chorus. Most Sophoclean plays contain between three and five episodes; Antigone has five episodes.

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