Ancient cultures provide some of our deepest connections to the humanities, drawing life from that distant time when the study of history, philosophy, arts, literature, and language itself began. On the Internet, students can return to those times, re-enter that age of discovery, and learn from their study the timeless nature of the human condition and the profound effects of the human drama on people of any era.
This lesson plan begins with the study of Sophocles' Antigone and the universal issues it raises about power, gender, family obligation, ethics, and honor. It then moves to an exploration of ancient Greece, accents the importance of theater and its staging, the nature of tragedy in this culture, and culminates in student presentations and performances.
At the end of this lesson, students will be able to
Antigone is just one of seven plays that have survived from the many plays Sophocles wrote during his lifetime. The EDSITEment-reviewed Perseus Project as well as The Glory That Was Greece, (available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library) provides historical background for ancient Greece and the importance of theater as ritual in this culture. The latter website contains an ample biography of Sophocles. The EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Sourcebook links to Introduction to Greek Stagecraft, which also has three-dimensional images of Greek and Roman stages. Roger Dunkle of City Univesity of New York provides a useful summary and series of questions for the play in his Study Guide: Sophocles' Antigone, available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Sourcebook.
Visit the Persues Project for information on the controversy concerning the historical basis of Antigone's defiance of Creon's edict, which features Sir Richard Jebb's "Commentary on Sophocles: Antigone."
The UVic Writer's Guide, available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library, provides helpful, clear definitions for literary terms such as dramatic irony, and includes references to historical terms from ancient Greece, such as tragedy, hamartia, hubris, and so on.
Begin by having students read and discuss Antigone by Sophocles. If desired, introduce biographical information for Sophocles and note that students will investigate aspects of Greek drama during the course of the lesson. Focus discussion on the underlying themes of the drama, the interlocking conflicts between men and women, age and youth, society and the individual, human justice and divine law, the obligations we owe to the living and the dead. Have students debate Antigone's choice, whether it betrays a tragic pride and inflexibility or demonstrates an heroic dedication to virtue. Conclude this discussion by having students comment on the relevance of this ancient play to contemporary life. When in recent history have individuals been forced to choose between the law and human rights? (In this connection, students might look into 20th-century versions of the play by Jean Anouilh and Bertolt Brecht.) When in their own lives have they faced a choice like Antigone's, a choice between obedience to authority and remaining true to one's conscience?
Have students imagine themselves time-traveling reporters sent back to the time of Sophocles to report on the opening of his new play, Antigone. Working in small groups, they can use the "Historical Overview" and the online "Encyclopedia" at the Perseus Project website, as well as resources in the school and public library, to learn about aspects of Athenian life in the 5th century BCE. Teachers might assign each group a specific topic in this research—family life, politics, the arts, religion, etc.—but have all groups explore the design and practices of the Athenian theater, as preparation for their report and presentation on Antigone in performance. The "Glory That Was Greece" website—available through the Internet Public Library—conveniently gathers information about Greek theater in a section on "Drama."
Follow up this research with a class discussion in which students share their findings and begin to gain some imaginative command over the facts they have accumulated. Have students explore the Greek Stage Interactive (requires Flash) to test their knowledge of the components of the Greek Stage.
Next, have students consider the structure of the work and its similarities and differences to plays of today. Begin by introducing the following vocabulary, some of which may be unfamiliar to the students:
Alternatively, students can use some of the resources listed in Background or on the LaunchPad, as well as traditional dictionaries and encyclopedic resources, to research these terms in conjunction with the group work listed below. On the EDSITEment LaunchPad, the terms and Group Activities are grouped together.
Use the Group Activities (listed on the EDSITEment LaunchPad) to guide students in their investigations.
Students might write their imaginary firsthand reports of the Antigone "premiere" in the form of a drama review or a traveler's journal. Encourage them to visualize the occasion in detail and to dramatize the experience by reporting, for example, how they got to the theater, where they sat, what they saw on stage and in the crowd surrounding them, how the audience reacted to specific lines of the play, and what they talked about after it was over.
William Stearns Davis's A Day In Old Athens, via the Perseus Project, provides a great deal of information about ancient Greece and is organized by category, which will help students to access easily the pertinent information for their presentations. Sections students may find relevant include:
202. The Greater Dionysia and the Drama . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 231
203. The Theater of Dionysus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 232
204. The Production of a Play . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 233
To skip to the appropriate section, in your web browser click on Edit, then on Find (on this page). Paste (or type) the section title into the dialog box that appears and click on Find Next. Only the text is provided, so visuals must be found elsewhere. If you wish to download the book for students to use as a reference, you may download differently formatted texts.
Conclude the lesson by having students perform key episodes from Antigone using gestures, blocking, and the acting style they "saw" at the play's premiere. Have them experiment with various ways of presenting the different characters' arguments and attitudes and discuss what these differences do to the audience's perceptions and understanding of the play. Discuss as a class how the play is enriched by seeing it in performance and recognizing its connections to Greek culture and society as well as to the world today. To sharpen this summary discussion, have students debate what the play might have meant to the women of Athens. What did it say about their role in society? Suggest that students research further the roles of women in ancient Greek society. What can the play say about the relationship between men and women in society today?
After students have concluded their performances of scenes, some classes may wish to perform scenes in modern dress and a modern setting as well. Discuss the kinds of choices they will need to make as they place the play in modern times. They need to consider costume colors, sets, furniture, props, etc. Also discuss how the design of the stage and theater influence the acting style and the audience's emotional connections to the action.
For English classes interested in exploring the influence of a translation on the audience's perception of the play, have students choose a key episode, then click on the online translation by Sir Richard Jebb at the Perseus Project and the Harvard Classic edition of Antigone translated by E. H. Plumptre Great Books Online (via Internet Public Library), and compare key moments in the Jebb and the Plumptre versions.
Teachers of Greek, Latin, or Ancient History will find the Perseus Project website a valuable resource for helping students develop reading comprehension. The site offers texts by Caesar and Cicero, Xenophon and Demosthenes, among many others, in a format that allows students quick access to hyperlinked wordtools, or a parallel translation, for interpretation of a difficult passage. In this environment, reading a classical text becomes an interactive process that reinforces student effort and reduces the frustration that is often the most formidable obstacle to learning. Have students who use the website for reading assignments report to the class about their experience.
2-3 class periods