To say that Sophocles was kind of a big deal in Greek tragedy is an understatement. The playwright, who lived from roughly 496-405 BC, was arguably the greatest in Greek history. Among his innovations were the addition of a third actor into his plays and the use of backdrops or scenery-painting. Although only seven of his plays have survived in full, those plays changed the course of drama--and are frequently found in quizbowl questions!
By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at five of its most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Sophocles.
You can’t mention Sophocles without mentioning his most famous play, Oedipus Rex (or Oedipus the King). The play is a tragedy centered on Oedipus, who as an infant was abandoned in the woods to die as an infant because of a prophecy that he will slay his father, King Laertes. Oedipus is found, raised by a shepherd, and eventually returns to his country ignorant of the prophecy and his true parentage. When the play opens, he has unknowingly slain his father and is married now to his mother, Jocasta, who weds him after his rise to the throne. Upon learning the truth about himself, he puts out both his eyes with Jocasta’s brooch and goes into exile, leaving his daughters Antigone and Ismene in the care of Creon, his brother-in-law, who becomes the new king of Thebes.
OEDIPUS AT COLONUS
The second play in the Oedipus cycle, Oedipus at Colonus opens with the blinded man entering Colonus, where he sits down unknowingly on ground sacred to the Furies. The people of Colonus, upon learning his identity, ask him to leave, fearing he will bring a curse upon them. Oedipus, however, appeals to the king of Athens, Theseus, who grants him safe harbor. He also learns that his sons, Polynices and Eteocles, are on the verge of war over control of Thebes. Oedipus refuses to side with either, instead choosing to die in Theseus’ lands, and granting that king his blessing for his kindness.
Antigone tells the story of the title character after her return to Thebes in an effort to prevent war between her brothers. The attempt fails, and the brothers both die in the ensuing war. Creon, once again the king, orders Eteocles buried with honors, but Polynices, as a rebel, is to be left unburied to be eaten by vultures. Antigone refuses to allow this, and sneaks out to bury her brother. Her sister Ismene refuses to help. Antigone is discovered, however, and when confronted by Creon, argues that he is in the wrong. He orders her to be sealed in a cave alive as punishment. Haemon, Creon’s son, is engaged to Antigone, and when his father refuses to spare her, he storms off to find his love. She has already hung herself, however, and Haemon, devastated, stabs himself and dies. Creon’s wife Eurydice, upon hearing this, also commits suicide, leaving a broken Creon to repent.
WOMEN OF TRACHIS
One of Sophocles’ lesser works, this play tells the story of Deianeria, the wife of Heracles. Her husband is constantly absent, and she learns that he has taken a lover named Iole. Distraught, she follows the advice of Nessus the Centaur on how to craft a love potion to win Heracles back. Heracles had given Nessus a mortal wound, however, and he takes his revenge by lying to Deianeria. The potion she crafts is actually a terrible poison, which she soaks into a robe that she sends to her husband as a gift. When he puts it on, he is thrown into unbearable pain. His son confronts Deianeria about her actions, and when she discovers what has occurred she kills herself. The truth behind the robe is revealed to a dying Heracles, who begs to be killed to end his own torment.
Another of Sophocles’ surviving works, this play is about the attempt to get the famous archer to go to Troy to fight on the side of the Greeks. Prophecies say that the archer and his bow must be there for the Greeks to win the war. However, Philoctetes had been abandoned by Odysseus and the Greeks because of a festering wound, and he has not forgiven them. Neoptolemus and Odysseus try trickery and persuasion to return, but to no avail. The spirit of Heracles appears to Philoctetes and promises him that his wound will be cured if the archer goes to aid the Greeks at Troy. Out of loyalty to Heracles, Philoctetes agrees and leaves with Neoptolemus for the war.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
* If any of these plays sound good, you can read the full work for free online! One of our favorite resources, Project Gutenberg, has digitized versions of the plays available here, along with other works by Sophocles.
* Perhaps you’ve heard of Oedipus by way of the psychological idea of the Oedipus Complex? If you’ve always found that Complex complex, this article from Simply Psychology will explain it all for you.
* Sophocles’ two greatest rivals were Aeschylus and Euripedes. Both are worthy of a future Qwiz5, but if you want to know more about the other two of the three great ancient Greek playwrights, check out some background on them at Ancient-Literature.com!
* Melanie SIrof has a short, fun TED-Ed video on innovations in Greek theater and their impact on the stage today:
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