ANCIENT GREEK TRAGEDY: In ancient Greece, tragedies addressed the relationship between the
individual, the community, and the gods. 

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle mapped it out as follows:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action involving incidents that arouse fear and pity

Tragedy deals with how catastrophic events work to affect individuals: 

How does the protagonist react to the situation?

What choices does he or she make?

How does she or he confront life when faced with difficult choices?

There is a specific moment of friction in the play that produces the dramatic action.

The tragic action should involve an error in judgment made by the tragic figure (hero) in the play.

The tragic hero should be a better-than-ordinary, yet imperfect, individual with whom the audience 

may sympathize (= the tragic hero should be relatable). Watch two short videos about tragic heroes here and here.

[A tragic hero is a character who commits an error in judgment that inevitably leads to his or her downfall and 

sometimes to greater wisdom.]

The tragic hero should have a tragic flaw (hamartia), a weakness or imperfection that brings the protagonist 

into conflict with fate or with the antagonist, and ultimately leads to his/her downfall. Often the tragic hero's hamartia 

is hubris (= excessive pride).  

A tragedy must effect a catharsis in the spectators: an emotional release that comes from the spectators identifying 

with the suffering of the tragic hero. 

Sophocles' tragedies are concerned with flawed but virtuous human heroes:
  • What drives them? 
  • How do they behave in the face of impossible situations? 
  • How do they choose between two equally valid options? 
  • How do they explain (or justify) their choices and actions? 
  • Are they willing to assume responsibility for their choices and actions? 
  • What are the consequences for those choices and actions, for themselves, their family members, their fellow citizens?  

If you're interested in the question of authority addressed in Sophocles' play, you may enjoy reading Autumn 

Bieberle's short article, "Antigone: True Authority." 

designed by ancient Greek architect Polyclitus the Younger

seats about 12 000 spectators in its 55 rows


Greek tragedies and comedies were always performed in outdoor theaters. Early Greek theaters were probably little more than open areas in city centers or next to hillsides where the audience, standing or sitting, could watch and listen to the chorus singing about the exploits of a god or hero. From the late 6th century BCE to the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE there was a gradual evolution towards more elaborate theater structures, but the basic layout of the Greek theater remained the same. The major components of Greek theater are labeled on the diagram below.

Orchestra: The orchestra (meaning "dancing space") was normally circular. It was a level space where the chorus would dance, sing, and interact with the actors who were on the stage near the skene. The earliest orchestras were simply made of hard earth, but in the Classical period some orchestras began to be paved with marble and other materials. In the center of the orchestra there was often a thymele, or altar. The orchestra of the theater of Dionysus in Athens was about 60 feet in diameter.

Theatron: The theatron (meaning "viewing-place") is where the spectators sat. The theatron was usually part of hillside overlooking the orchestra, and often wrapped around a large portion of the orchestra (see the diagram below). Spectators in the fifth century BCE probably sat on cushions or boards, but by the fourth century the theatron of many Greek theaters had marble seats.

Skene: The skene (meaning "tent") was the building directly behind the stage. During the 5th century, the stage of the theater of Dionysus in Athens was probably raised only two or three steps above the level of the orchestra, and was perhaps 25 feet wide and 10 feet deep. The skene was directly in back of the stage, and was usually decorated as a palace, temple, or other building, depending on the needs of the play. It had at least one set of doors, and actors could make entrances and exits through them. There was also access to the roof of the skene from behind, so that actors playing gods and other characters (such as the Watchman at the beginning of Aeschylus' Agamemnon) could appear on the roof, if needed.

Parodos: The parodoi (meaning "passageways") are the paths by which the chorus and some actors (such as those representing messengers or people returning from abroad) made their entrances and exits. The audience also used them to enter and exit the theater before and after the performance.


After a prologue spoken by one or more characters, the chorus enter, singing and dancing. 
Scenes then alternate between spoken sections between characters and sung sections 
between the characters and the chorus. 

The prologue is spoken by one or two characters. 
It usually gives background necessary for understanding the events of the play.

Parode or Parodos (Entrance Ode)
This is the song sung by the chorus as the first enter the orchestra and dances. 
The chorus usually remain on stage throughout the remainder of the play. 
Chorus members wear masks and dance expressively, using the hands, arms and body.

Episodes and Stasima (singular: stasimon)
For the rest of the play, there is alternation between episodes and stasima, until the final scene (exode).

There are typically 3-5 episodes in which one or two actors interact with the chorus. 
Speeches and dialogue are typically iambic hexameter: six iambs (short-long) per line, 
but rhythmic anapests are also common. In lyric passages the meters are treated flexibly. 
At the end of each episode, the chorus remains on state while other characters usually leave. 
The chorus dance and sing a stasimon, or choral ode.

A stasimon is a choral ode sung by the chorus. 
It often comments on or reacts to the preceding episode, and puts it into a larger mythological framework.

Exode / Exodos (Exit Ode)
The exode is sung by the chorus after the last episode, 

usually offering words of wisdom concerning the actions and outcome of the play.

Structure of Sophocles' Antigone

Antigone asks for her sister Ismene's help in burying their brother Polyneices. 
Ismene refuses, and Antigone rejects her sister.

The Chorus enter(s), rejoicing and thanking the gods that the attack of Polyneices has been defeated 
and Thebes is safe.

First Episode
Creon enters, and announces his plan to bury Eteocles but leave Polyneices unburied. 
A guard enters, and reports that someone has tried to bury Polyneices. Creon reacts with anger, threatens the guard.

First Stasimon
The Chorus dances and sings its Ode to Man ("There are many strange and wonderful things, 
but nothing more strangely wonderful than man.")

Second Episode
Antigone is brought before Creon, and confesses that she buried her brother. 
She and Creon argue, Creon decrees she will die. Ismene is led in. 
When she claims to have helped her sister, Antigone rejects her.

Second Stasimon
The Chorus reflects on the destiny of Antigone's house, fate, and the nature of a divine curse.

Third Episode
Haemon argues with his father Creon, and leaves. Creon decrees that Antigone be entombed, alive.

Third Stasimon
The Chorus sings a song about the power of the god Eros.

Fourth Episode
Antigone, lamenting her fate to the Chorus, is led to the cave.

Fourth Stasimon
The Chorus compares Antigone's fate and imprisonment to that of three others: Danae, Lycurgus, and Cleopatra.

Fifth Episode
Teiresias enters, and tells Creon he has made a serious mistake. 
Creon realizes his error in judgment, and rushes to bury Polyneices and release Antigone from the cave.

Fifth Choral Ode
The Chorus calls upon Dionysus, the god who protects Thebes ("O you with many names...").

A messenger reports the deaths of Antigone and Haemon. 

Euridyce, Creon's wife, commits suicide. Creon laments his losses.

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