Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Sophocles' Antigone: Ancient Greek Theatre, Live From Antiquity!


The Lesson


Antiquity thumb

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.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Greek drama compare to our modern theater?
  • How do the themes in plays from other times and cultures relate to issues of today?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Appreciate ancient Greek drama through study of a play by Sophocles
  • Evaluate the cultural and historical context of Greek drama and its role in Greek society
  • Reconstruct the experience of seeing a Greek drama performed and share that experience in an imaginative presentation, performance, and report


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.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Students can access the primary source materials and some of the activity materials via the EDSITEment LaunchPad.
  • The electronic version of Antigone is available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Perseus Project. Note about this edition: the arrows at the top-right corner of the text allow you to progress page by page through the work. The red mark on a blue bar along the top of the work shows how far you have progressed through the text.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Play for All Time

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?

Activity 2. The Student as Reporter

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."

  • Where were Greek tragedies staged?
  • What did the stage look like?
  • What kinds of props and scenery were used?
  • When during the year were plays performed? When during the day?
  • Who performed in them? What costumes did they wear?
  • Who came to the plays? How did they behave? What were they looking for -- entertainment, knowledge, enlightenment?
  • What kinds of issues were addressed in plays?
  • What was the playwright's role in the performance?

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.

Activity 3. The Play in Its Age

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:

  • The Greek Chorus and its various functions (with an example of each)
  • Ode
  • Greek Theater, its structure and layout
  • Episode
  • Anagnorisis
  • Catharsis
  • Deus ex Machina
  • Peripeteia
  • Stichomythia
  • Dramatic Irony
  • Pathos (2 examples)
  • Tragedy, its characteristics
  • Tragedy
  • Tragic hero, his/her characteristics
  • Hamartia
  • Hubris

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.

  • Compare the setting of the play to those of modern plays and how its limitations affect staging. Consider what happens in the key episodes and the motivations and actions of characters when in the public setting with the Chorus always present, hearing and seeing all. Speculate how dialogue and intensity would change with a private setting versus the public setting.
  • Note the important functions of the chorus and have students cite examples of these functions. Discuss any modern plays that incorporate a chorus (e.g. The Stage Manager in Our Town and the typical chorus in musicals) and any similarities and differences with the ancient play.
  • Discuss the importance of the audience's prior knowledge of the events of the plot and its impact on the audience's experience and appreciation of the performance. Follow with definitions of dramatic irony and foreshadowing and a discussion of their importance, having students cite instances and their effect on the audience and the play.
  • Discuss the concept of the tragic hero, comparing Creon with Antigone in terms of attributes and epiphany or lack of epiphany.
Activity 4. The Student as Critic or Journalist

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.

Activity 5. The Student as Performer

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?


  • To evaluate students' skills in play analysis, give them (individually or in groups) an episode from Antigone for them to evaluate and compare the characters' motivations, choices, and actions. List several passages for students to identify and explain examples of dramatic irony, foreshadowing, epiphany, etc., and their importance to the plot and characters. Give several Choral passages for them to identify various functions of the Chorus and their importance.
  • To evaluate students' attentiveness to group presentations and performances, collect and assess their notes from their own and others' presentations and performances.
  • To evaluate students' understanding of the text in context, assess the thoroughness of their production notes created in their groups as they analyzed the language of their selected scenes and explained their direction of the action (see Extending the Lesson).
  • To evaluate students' skills in applying their knowledge of the text in a new context, give them (individually or in groups) another Sophoclean Greek tragedy, such as Oedipus the King or a Euripidean play such as Medea, to compare and contrast to Antigone.

Extending The Lesson

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.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Ancient World
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Drama
  • History and Social Studies > World
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Investigating/journalistic writing
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Report writing
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Writing skills

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