Skip to Main Content
Skidmore College
First-Year Experience

2005 Summer Reading
The Burial at Thebes

by Prof. Michael Arnush, Classics

Context is everything. When we attend a performance of a play, or watch a movie, we can't help but witness these events through a contemporary lens. Today's playwrights and screenwriters, sensitive to the world of their audience, often reveal modern sensibilities when they (re)create a story. Whether it's Al Pacino's King Lear set in contemporary times, or Steven Spielberg's very modern reworking of H.G. Wells' 1898 novel of War of the Worlds (updating as well the 1939 radio production of Orson Welles and the 1952 filmed version by Harold Pal), authors (re)configure tales cognizant of their audiences' tastes and interests.

Ancient playwrights like Sophocles worked in more subtle fashion. Rather than set the world of Antigone in contemporary Athens (where it was performed) or Thebes (its setting), tragedians of 5th century Athens would introduce modern issues while remaining true to the mythological fabric of the story. So, Sophocles could reflect on the plague that beset Athens in the early 420s BCE by producing the Oedipus Tyrannos in ca. 428, fully aware that his Athenian audience would need little to remind them of the horrors introduced into their own city by witnessing on stage the plague inflicted on Thebes by the sphinx.

What were the sensibilities of an Athenian audience in ca. 441 when Sophocles produced the Antigone? What issues confronted the Athenians, and what was their relationship to the citizens of Thebes? These two essays on Athens and Thebes provide the contemporary backdrop for Sophocles' play. The map provides a visual reminder of the places that figure in the play, or in the mythological background that informs the story.

We should also keep in mind that the play we are reading, The Burial at Thebes, is Seamus Heaney's translated version of Sophocles' original Greek drama. The essays on Sophocles and Heaney provide brief overviews of the two authors' lives and suggest some motivations that drove them to stage their own unique productions.