Tragedy was the characteristic cultural statement of the Athenian democracy: that democracy required the total involvement of citizens in its political life. In such a democracy, tragedy must be preeminently political. In the view of Aristotle, Sophocles (495–406 B.C.) was the supreme tragedian. He was active in the political life of Athens and served as a general. He was also a critic of Pericles and his policies. This novel view is presented through the lens of three of his most enduring plays. In Antigone, Sophocles warned the Athenians about the potential for the abuse of power in the overweening personal authority of Pericles. Oedipus the King was an indictment of the failure of Pericles and “his war.” In his intense patriotism, Sophocles continued to use his plays as a forum for the discussion of the moral dimension of Athenian policies. Oedipus at Colonus proclaimed that the salvation of Athens lay in a return to traditional religious and moral values.
Questions to Consider:
1. Do we have anything in our American democracy comparable to Athenian tragedy as a public forum for the consideration of moral and political issues?
2. Can you see Pericles in the character of Oedipus in Oedipus the King?