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In the world of Sophocles' Oedipus the King, everything happens on a grand scale, from feats of heroism to the most terrible of mistakes. It is a world of gods, prophets, kings, and plagues; a world of ancient tragedy whose stories unfold with relentless majesty and high emotion. As the great philosopher Aristotle explained in his Poetics (350 BC), the great tragedies are plays capable of arousing pity and fear, and thereby of purging those very emotions in us. Since at least Aristotle's time, Oedipus the King has been praised as a model of the greatness of Greek tragedy. For Aristotle the genius of the play resided in the organic perfection of its structure, and Sophocles' characterization remarkably complex for his time of Oedipus.
Generations of readers and spectators after Aristotle have agreed with his assessment of Oedipus. The king's flaws are clear enough to make his tragic fall believable, but so deeply enmeshed with his heroic qualities that we cannot help but feel sympathy for him. And while some have found Oedipus' plot frustrating the great eighteenth-century satirist Voltaire complained that it was absurd Oedipus knew so little about the death of Laius most readers have felt that its complex unfolding illustrates the mysterious nature and wondrous certainty of fate.
Beyond that point, however, the debates have never ended. Some have argued that the play illustrates the dignity of humanity. They see Oedipus as a wholly noble human, pursuing his inquiry fearlessly and accepting the terrible truths as they emerge. Others see the way Oedipus' ignorance robs him of his heroism, and argue that the play shows us the dark abyss of reality over which we skate through life, only rarely aware of the cruel depths below.
These widely disparate views are typical examples of the source of Oedipus' greatness: its mysterious polarities, which are there for us to wonder at but never to fully understand. The play gives us a hero who is both nobly courageous and polluted, shows us that fate is both cruel and grand, and that truth both sets you free and destroys you. It reaches deeply into the mysterious, noble, awful essence of human life and leaves its audience astonished and aghast.
Sophocles was born in Colonus, a small suburb of Athens, in 496 BC. His father was a wealthy merchant (some scholars believe he was an armor-maker), and he brought Sophocles up with all the advantages available to him, including a thorough education in math, literature, and music. Sophocles rapidly became known for his good looks and cultured ways. In 480, when he was sixteen, Sophocles was chosen to lead a choir of boys in a celebration of the Grecian victory at Salamis over the invading Persian navy. This event marked the beginning of Sophocles' public career in politics and cultural events.
In 468 BC, at the age of twenty-eight, Sophocles was invited to participate as a playwright in the City Dionysia, a festival held every year in the Theater of Dionysus for the presentation of new plays. This dramatic competition was the gateway to literary recognition in Athenian culture. Sophocles took first prize with his debut effort, defeating Aeschylus (525-456), who was then the preeminent playwright of Athens. This fabulous beginning was followed by an equally fabulous career in which Sophocles presented at least 120 plays, and won at least eighteen first prizes.
Throughout his life Sophocles maintained the cultural and political presence he had assumed as a young man. For many years he served as a priest in the cult of a local hero, Alcon, and of the Panhellenic god of healing, Asclepius. (This kind of service involved administration of the cult, and participation in public services in honor of the deity or hero.) He also served his city as a member of the Board of Generals, a standing committee devoted to the military affairs of the state. In this capacity he came to be closely acquainted with state leaders such as Pericles and the renowned historian Herodotus. For a time, in midcentury, Sophocles was director of the treasury for the Delian League, which was a defensive alliance among many of the major Greek city-states.
It is hard to assign exact dates to the productions of Sophocles' plays, and even harder to pin down the details of his biography. Therefore we cannot talk confidently about the relation between his plays and his public (not to mention private) life at any given time. Scholars estimate that the first preserved play of Sophocles, Ajax, was composed between 451-444 BC, while his last remaining play, Oedipus at Colonus, was staged in 401, shortly after the his death. Oedipus the King was composed and staged around 429 BC.
The Rise of Athens and Greek Culture
The century that encloses Sophocles' long life (496- 406 BC) saw dramatic ups and downs rivaled only, perhaps, by our own twentieth century. At the time of Sophocles' birth Athens was still a rustic and developing city-state; one among many such city-states throughout Greece that collectively forged a cultural identity during the fifth century BC. These early fifth-century city-states Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth had roots in the epic past of the Homeric world described in The Odyssey, but were now beginning to awaken to the realities of modernity including a commercial economy, constitutional democracy (of a limited sort), and organized citywide cultural and religious events.
By the middle of the fifth century BC, when Sophocles was in his prime, Athens had proven itself the foremost Greek city-state. The great Persian empire had been defeated by the Athenians a crucial military and cultural victory in which the outnumbered, but highly motivated, Athenians had defended their growing democracy from a monarchy led by despots like Darius and Xerxes. In the decades following Persia's defeat, Athens entered one of the world's most brilliant eras of civilization. The Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides, who provided us with the stories and records of this midcentury outburst of political briliance and artistic genius, helped to establish our notion that the period from 495-429 BC was the perfection of this high period of Greek culture. The Western world's reverence for classical Greek culture is largely formed by our understanding of this era.
The Decline of Athens
By the later years of the meteoric fifth century, the Athenians had begun to fall apart. The greatest of Greek dramas by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides had become part of the people's experience, as had the construction of wonderful temples like the Parthenon, on the Acropolis. Furthermore, the city-state of Athens had effectively used its military and economic muscle to gain primacy over the many competing rival states of Greece. But overuse of this military muscle was proving too tempting to resist. In 439 to pick a typical instance the subject residents of the island of Sámos tried breaking from Athens, and were slaughtered en masse. In 433 Athens formed a defensive alliance with Corcyra and thus initiated a policy of siding with certain Greek city-state allies against others. The internecine struggle against Sparta, which had earlier been the great ally of Athens in expelling the Perians, broke out into the long-lasting (431-422) Peloponnesian War, which gave a nearly final knockout blow to the political supremacy of Athens. By the end of the century, thanks to some adventurist politics at sea and a reckless effort to intervene in the politics of Sicily, Athens had militarily been wiped out by Sparta and other rivals and had been superseded in all the finer productions of art and culture.
Ancient Greek Theater and the Cult of Dionysus
Ancient Greek religion does not bear much resemblance to modern monotheistic faiths. The Greeks worshiped many different gods and goddesses, most of whom, by today's religious standards, are distinctly ungodly especially Dionysus. Dionysus was the god of human and agricultural fertility. Starting around 1200 BC, members of the cult of Dionysus began celebrating their favorite god with ritual orgies, multiday drinking binges, and ecstatic emotional, physical, and sexual rampages. For the ancient Greeks, reaching an altered mental state through these kinds of excesses was a way of releasing pent-up emotions and coming closer to the divine. By 600 BC, these religious rites were part of mainstream Greek culture, celebrated every spring.
In 534 BC, Athenian ruler Peisistratus added something new to the spring festival: a drama competition. At first, these dramas consisted mainly of odes sung by choruses of men dressed as satyrs the lusty half-man, half-goat servants of Dionysus. During the fifth century, Greek drama became more complex, thanks to innovations by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. The drama competitions of Sophocles' time drew enormous crowds, sometimes as many as seventeen thousand in a day, to open-air amphitheaters. These were not likely quiet, subdued audiences. Most would have been indulging in wine for days as a part of the Dionysian festival.
Sophocles' Innovations and Oedipus the King's Connection to History
Sophocles was a hands-on playwright profoundly immersed in the world of dramatic production. We know, for example, that he was an outstanding stage performer. Not only was he a serious actor, but the juggling act he presented in his play The Nausicaa was the talk of Greece for years. Eventually, Sophocles withdrew from acting, because his voice was not strong enough to reach the distant seats of the theater, but he continued to introduce radical innovations in dramaturgy. He is perhaps most famous for bringing a third actor onto the Grecian stage: Attic tragedy had sprung from a simple dialogue between the chorus and a single chorus leader, and even the great dramatist Aeschylus (525-456 BC), whose powerful plays formed the backdrop to Sophocles' achievements, had worked with only two characters at a time. While Aeschylus contented himself with characters Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes who were brilliant sketches rather than organic characters, Sophocles went much further toward rounding out the tragic character. About Oedipus, for instance, we know various mutually enriching traits: his pride, his hot temper, his remorseless intelligence, his capacity to grow through suffering. About Aeschylus' Agamemnon, we know only his military determination and his headlong rush into tragedy. Sophocles also modified the Aeschylean practice of presenting his dramas in trilogy form. By compacting an entire dramatic concept into one play, instead of three, Sophocles made a decisive step toward the concentration of dramatic power.
Unlike the works of Euripides, a great fifth-century tragedian who wrote directly about the burning issues of his day, Sophocles' plays have a more indirect relation to their time and their creator's life. Nevertheless, the facts we do have can lead us toward fascinating discussions of the text. For example, Sophocles composed Oedipus the King around 429 BC, shortly after a great plague had assailed the city of Athens. Clearly, Oedipus is itself fundamentally concerned with plague and its pollutions. Whether it can be said to interpret the moral and spiritual meaning of such plagues, or simply to have incorporated their terrible resonance into the structure of traditional tragedy, is a matter for debate and discussion. Similarly, Oedipus was written while the cultural and political triumphs of Athens were still in place, but were just on the verge of beginning a precipitous decline, brought on, in part, by the arrogant overuse of power. Among the great and timeless issues Sophocles introduces to us burning moral choice, the power of jealousy and revenge, the cruelties of fate, the dignity of noble survival history brings its own kind of resonance.
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