Greek Tragedy


Born 495 BC. the second of the three known poets of tragedy.
Sophocles was not only a popular poet. He was one of ten Athenian generals to wage war against Samos, and an ordained priest to the god of medicine.

He was Director of the Treasury and served on the Board for civil and military actions.


Several years have passed since Queen Clytemnestra and her lover cousin Aegisthus murdered her husband King Agamemnon of Mycenae. Their son Orestes, obliged to escape certain death from Aegisthus' soldiers after the assassination, has been in hiding. He goes Apollo's Temple at Delphi to ask advice, and the god orders him to avenge his father's death.

Orestes appears early one morning in front of the castle at Argos with his friend Pylades and his tutor Paedagogus. They map out a plan to get to the castle and Clytemnestra.

They hear Orestes’ twin sister Electra crying inside the palace. She and her brother had been seperated after the assassination and Orestes wants to see her but instead Paedagogus takes him to make an offering at his father’s grave, as instructed by the oracle.

Electra comes out of the castle and addresses the heavens to help her vindicate her father’s murder. The Chorus (made of palace virgins) tries to comfort her and councils her to end her grief but she is inconsolable, she hates her mother. She says she is surrounded by evil, and longs for her brother.

Chrysothemis, the younger sister, comes from the castle. She's not surprised to see Electra upset and tells her to get a life, her step-father Aegisthus will lock her up if she doesn’t stop. Electra is annoyed her sister is taking her father’s death so casually.

Chrysothemis is going to Agamemnon’s grave with funeral offerings from her mother who had a nightmare about him. Electra convinces her sister to abandon their mother’s offering and replace it with their own. However Electra still moans and (in the company of a servant also with offerings) Chrysothemis scolds her sister. They get into an argument, each girl taking sides. Chrysothemis, left alone, asks the gods to spare her from what she sees will happen if Electra doesn’t pull herself together.

Clytemnestra is at the altar asking Apollo for wealth, long life and, guardedly, for the death of her son Orestes. Paedagogus, disguised as a Phocian, tells her Orestes is dead. For a minute she has regrets but not for long. She invites him into the castle. Electra is devastated and wants to kill herself. The Chorus tries to console.

Chrysothemis arrives from the gravesite certain Orestes has come back. She’d found on their father’s grave flowers and a lock of hair (a filial symbol). Electra tells her it’s not possible, their brother is dead and they must take revenge. She disagrees, it’s too risky, and leaves.

Orestes and Pylades appear, disguised, with an urn supposedly containing Orestes’ ashes. When he sees how upset Electra is he reveals himself to her, and shows her their father’s ring as proof. Electra’s grief is replaced with great joy, when Paedagogus hustles Orestes into the castle to kill his mother, as Apollo ordered.

Electra acts as stake-out, unless Aegisthus arrives, and encourages her brother as she listens to the death scene inside. Orestes comes out of the castle to tell her Clytemnestra is dead, “In the house, all is well, if well Apollo prophesied”.

Aegisthus appears and Orestes hides in the castle. Aegisthus asks Electra where the strangers had gone, and she points inside. He orders the gates opened so citizens can see what he thinks of Orestes’ corpse. Orestes, still disguised, brings Clytemnestra’s corpse covered with a sheet. When Aegisthus sees his dead wife he realizes he’s been trapped. Orestes orders Aegisthus to the spot where he and Clytemnestra murdered is father years before, and kills him.

Oedipus Rex

Before Oedipus was born his father Laios, king of Thebes, went to the Oracle to ask about the future of the child. The Oracle responded that the boy would kill his father and marry his mother. To keep this from happening the king bound the baby’s feet and gave his son to one of his men with orders to kill it. Instead, the man allegedly left the child on a hill, where it was found by a shepherd and adopted by King Polybus of Corinth. The word Oedipus means “the lame one” and the scholar Paul Diel suggests his handicap may have induced an aggressive attitude to compensate for his deformity.

When Oedipus grew to manhood he in turn consulted the Oracle, who told him he would kill his father. Not knowing that he was adopted he exiled himself from Corinth. During his travels he ran into a cortege that blocked his path. An argument ensued as to whom should take precedence and Oedipus killed his opponent.

Word was out that the brother of the deceased King Laios was sending a call for help to anyone who could lift the curse imposed by the Sphinx. Half animal-half human, the Sphinx was eating people traveling to Thebes when they couldn’t solve a riddle. The town was literally under siege and the citizens nearing starvation. Oedipus made the journey to try his luck and gave the correct answer. The Sphinx disintegrated in a fit of rage, the curse was lifted, and Oedipus was an instant hero. He became king of Thebes and married the queen, Jocasta. The city prospered until a long plague hit the region. Finally Oedipus sent Creon, Laios’ brother, to the Oracle to discover what was causing the pestilence. Creon returns with “good news.” The plague would be lifted once the murderer of the old king was unveiled.

Oedipus leaves no stone unturned. He calls for the blind prophet Teresias, who refuses to answer until Oedipus accuses him of being the killer. Angered, Teresias speaks words he promised would never leave his mouth and tells Oedipus that he, the king, is Laios’ murderer.

At first Oedipus doesn’t believe the old prophet and neither does his wife, Jocasta. She tells him how her first husband was killed by robbers and that her child was dead. However Oedipus has serious doubts, and tells Jocasta about his decision as a young man to consult the Oracle after someone implied he was not King Polybus’ son. He asks his wife exactly when the king was killed.

A messenger arrives from Corinth to announce the death of King Polypus. The messenger tells Oedipus he was adopted by King Polybus. Jocasta tries to stop the man from speaking but Oedipus keeps asking questions. She rushes into the palace. Another old man arrives and the messenger recognizes him as the shepherd who gave him the child. Oedipus wants to know more but the old man will not speak until Oedipus threatens him. He finally tells Oedipus to ask his wife. There was no more doubt in Oedipus’ mind that he was the murderer of his father. He runs into the castle in search of Jocasta, and finds she has killed herself. Oedipus tears out his eyes (to see only though his inner eye.)

It was popular with Greeks to visit the Oracle with important questions but people tended to read the words literally, or see what they wanted to see when it fact the Oracle's words held a hidden message. The Oracle showed people sides of themselves (veiled by their ego) that uncorrected would lead to their ruin.

Sigmund Freud may have been the first person to make the connection the between Oracle’s metaphors and their psychological content. He's depicted as having an epiphany when saw Oedipus Rex performed on stage and after some research came up with the Oedipus complex.
According to Freud a young boy subconsciously wishes he could marry his mother but to do so he has to get the father out of the way. It’s a normal part of growing up and the same feeling appears in girls who want to marry their fathers. Most likely the Oracle was warning Laios about his relationship with his son. His decision to abandon the child, instead of finding the reason his son would want to kill him, is what caused the tragedy. In the same manner, when the Oracle told Oedipus that he would kill his father, it could have been a warning that his somewhat arrogant attitude would get him in trouble.

Oedipus at Colonus

In Sophocles’ next play blind Oedipus hands the throne to Creon, his deceased wife’s brother, and takes leave of Thebes with his daughter, Antigone. His two boys and his younger daughter, Ismene, stay behind. The father and daughter wander for a while and are eventually invited to live on an island where the Benevolent Ones had a sacred place for people in distress. They were later guests of the king of Athens, who treated Oedipus with great respect. Ismene went to see her father before he died at Colonus (near Athens) and gave the blind old man the peace he strived for. The Oracle at Delphi told her Oedipus had the blessings from Apollo, and that he’d be remembered for his wisdom and strength. After her father’s death Antigone went back to Thebes, only to find trouble.


King Creon, Antigone’s uncle, had given the throne to Eteocles, the younger of Oedipus’ sons, which caused conflict between the two brothers. The older brother, Polynice, went to Argos and married the daughter of King Adrastus. Adrastus funded and headed an expedition against Eteocles aided by seven skilled warriors (the Seven Against Thebes.) Both brothers and all the warriors except Adrastus died in the battle. In reprisal, Creon ordered that Polynice be refused a burial. Anybody who went against his decree would be bricked into a wall, alive.

According to Greek tradition, a person’s soul will find no peace until it’s been buried. Though her sister Ismene tries to stop her, Antigone goes against her uncle’s ruling and covers her brother’s body. She doesn’t run away but, once bricked in, commits suicide to avoid dying slowly. The citizens of Thebes, outraged at the king’s actions, force him to tear the wall down only to find she was already dead with Creon’s son, Haeamon, grieving at her side. The young man kills himself in front of his father.

After the death of his comrades Adrastus took his beleaguered army to Athens. Ten years later, the sons of the original seven, the Epigoni, led a punitive expedition against Eteocles and invaded Thebes.