Social Historical Background - Antigone

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Festivals of Dionysus

Religious festivals were celebrated in Athens to pay homage to the God Dionysus, the patron of wine. He brought joy and fun but rage and thoughtlessness too. This is similar to the effects of wine on people; wine makes people either happy or thoughtless. Dionysus died in winter and was reborn in spring. The festival took place for five days in spring to worship the rebirth of Dionysus and grape vines.  In the mind of an ancient Greek person, the theatre was a product of Dionysus. Therefore Sophocles, when writing the play, included a scene of thanks to Dionysus which the chorus perform. This would have been interpreted by the Athenians as a noble inclusion and made Sophocles popular.

The festival evolved from the rural town of Dionysia. In the large cities dramatic performances took place. The dramatic element developed when competitions called for playwrights to design plays and showcase them at the festivals. Two popular forms of drama materialised from these competitions: Tragedy and comedy. Tragedies aimed to teach religious lessons. Sophocles was a tragic playwright and his play “Antigone” is an example of this. Comedies were seen as trivial and a waste of time to ancient Greeks. Comedies joked about the gods and intellectuals, albeit in a respectful manner.

The theatre in ancient Athens had the ability to teach moral lessons, inform of contemporary issues or amuse. It was a powerful tool and was used by governments/polis to influence people’s opinions and keep their populations up to date with current affairs. For this reason the government encouraged all men to go to the theatre. Those who could not afford to go were even offered free grants.

“Antigone” was aimed at an Athenian audience. The play showed the downfall of man and highlighted how bad Thebes was. Athens was a democracy whilst Thebes was under dictatorship. Men visiting the theatre would see how oppressive the life of a Theban was thus increasing support for democracy. This mattered to the local polis because if the people were against a party’s ideas they would not be elected in further terms.

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Role of Women in Society

A woman was meant to be obedient to the ruling man in her life. Once a girl reached thirteen years of age she was negotiable for marriage. Women in Athens were devoid of rights. They could not go out of the house unless it was to see another woman and could not vote or influence the government. Women were not allowed to go to the theatre. The reason women were treated with so much injustice is because they were viewed by men as uncontrollable and wild.  However women did play an important part of ...

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