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The Theban Plays of Sophocles:
King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone
This is my personal perspective, at this point in my life, on these plays and about Greek drama. This may differ quite radically from what a classics or a literature teacher might have to say about the works. I am neither a classics nor a literature major, though I have studied both somewhat. If you look at these plays, especially when you are older, you might have your own interpretations or parts that have special meaning to you. It is my view that, as long as one is accurate and "faithful" to literary works, there are a great many perspectives from which they might be examined, and an even greater number of ideas, phenomena, principles, and experiences that parts of the plays may exemplify and illuminate. It is often helpful and interesting to use literary or film examples to explain or support points you want to make about real life. But there is a much more important use of good literature, which I will describe shortly.
This introduction is meant to try to bring some life and meaning to the works for those in the modern world reading them for the first time, who, without some help, might find the works arcane, antiquated, and boring because they are looking for something quite different than what the plays actually offer. While the plots of the plays are ostensibly about the consequences of patricide and incest in a particular family -- themes which are not particularly of interest, and hopefully not of much relevance-- to most high school or college students or older adults today, these plots are really just vehicles to mirror, and reflect on, human nature in response to actions, rather than suspenseful plots that merely depict action. In other words, except for this being drama, rather than comedy, these plays are more in the style of the Cosby Show (or most other situation comedies on television) than they are like a Steven Seagal movie. It is not the plot or the action in the Cosby Show that is particularly exciting; it is how the characters respond to what is going on that makes the show interesting. This year on the Cosby show, he has also started talking to the viewer directly by turning toward the camera and talking to the audience, using a technique whose function then is not totally unlike the function of the Greek chorus, who sometimes comment to the audience on the play during the play.
The way I read these plays, they are about character, choices, and consequences - particularly about the, often regrettable or disastrous, consequences of choices people make based on the kind of character and desires they have at the time they act. Furthermore, the character on display is typical of human nature even though the particular situations they face may not be the same we face today. The characters in Greek drama tend to be characters you know, or will some day meet. They will be your mates, your children, your in-laws, your bosses, and your colleagues. Some of them have been your teachers. (In Antigone you might look for remnants of any principals you might have known in Creon.)
But, most importantly, they will be you. The reason is that there are various ways that our choices and decisions come back to haunt us, EVEN when we make reasonable choices from the best possible motivation. (As the chorus says near the end of Oedipus at Colonus "no man has ever lived out of the reach of misadventure's grasping hand.") Often this is because we don't have sufficient knowledge or understanding of the likely consequences of a choice or action. "Fate" is the word often used in conjunction with classic Greek literature and drama, but fate in the sense of pre-determined outcomes is not a perspective held by many Americans today; and I think a more natural way for us to look at the plays is not about how things are destined to happen, but how they occur as a natural consequence of actions and choices we, or the characters in the plays, have made. It is not that one is fated BEFORE one makes a choice to have certain consequences occur, but that certain consequences will inevitably RESULT from certain choices and actions.
Greek drama, especially these plays, are about human nature and the human condition. They are interesting in a reflective, thought-provoking way, not an instantaneous "fun" sort of way. They are good, but they are not fun. I am not good enough to make reading these plays be enjoyable; I am only trying to show how they can be worthwhile in a way other than "enjoyment". One reason it is important to be aware of these plays, or any other great, literature, is because they can teach you about yourself and about your own "fate" in the world. Unless you are incredibly lucky, you are likely to make choices you will someday regret, or which you will at least wish would have turned out differently and had better results - whether about choice of jobs, careers, friends, colleagues, colleges, courses, dates, mates, marriage, raising children, dealing with siblings and parents, the diet you choose, the habits you acquire, etc., etc., etc. Hopefully most of your choices will end up with fortunate consequences, but there will be some that simply won't. The problem added to ill-fated results is that often, especially for sensitive and reflective persons in a society such as ours that publicly is neither sensitive nor reflective, you will also feel alone and isolated in your predicament and in your unhappiness. That often adds far more misery to your situation, than your choice caused in the first place. A familiarity with great literature can often help you see that your predicament and feelings are neither unique nor fatal (which, by the way, great comedy can also do); and often it will help you avoid some problems altogether, by helping you make wiser choices to begin with. For those of you who like to think about things and find meaning in your experiences, particularly bad experiences, great literature is a way of conversing with far away or long dead intellectually kindred spirits when you don't have such people among your geographical neighbors. For those of you who don't now find thinking about deeper things very interesting, just remember that if you ever are moved to think about such things and can't find nearby friends with the same interests, great literature will be there when you need it.
Now there are some dilemmas for which there may be no good choices, at least none that are apparent or uncomplicated. One of the classic tragic figures in Greek literature is Achilles who is a central figure in the Iliad and who makes a cameo appearance in death in the Odyssey. Achilles is one of the greatest of Greek warriors at the time of the expedition to bring back Helen to her husband after she has run off with another man to Troy. Achilles is faced with a number of dilemmas, but the main one is that he knows or feels that if he goes to Troy and fights, though he will make Greece successful in the war, he will die. He CAN choose to stay home instead of going to fight, but he does not want to be or appear a coward, nor does he really want to simply live his life as a shepherd at home among the women and children who have not gone off to fight in this war. He goes, he fights, he dies, but his fighting helps make Greece victorious over Troy. When Odysseus later visits him in the Underworld in the Odyssey, at that point Achilles says he would rather be a lowly shepherd living among women and children than to be dead and a fallen hero. Yet, it should be obvious that if Achilles were to be a shepherd in those circumstance, he would soon tire of it and hate it also, and prefer to go off to war even if it meant dying in battle. Given the circumstances and given Achilles' character, there are no good options apparently available to him. The predicament faced by Achilles is the same predicament almost every (potential) soldier has had to face in time of war, though, of course the circumstances surrounding the war might be very different.
With that as an introduction, let me suggest, without going into too much detail, or too many specifics, some things I see the Theban trilogy as being about. King Oedipus is a play that shows that even when well-meaning people do what seems reasonable and right, and is well-intentioned, still disastrous results can occur which people cannot see, and will steadfastly and honestly deny, is their fault. When Oedipus is an infant, his father and mother learn he is a threat to them, so they send off to have him killed, but the servant they delegate the task to does not think it is right and gives the baby Oedipus to a shepherd from a far away land who takes the baby there and finds it a good home with a king and queen who raise him as their own. When he grows up and finds out he is a threat to his mother and father, he leaves who he believes are his parents in order to prevent his performing the heinous deeds predicted of him. When he meets Laius, his biological father, on the road, he kills him in what he considers self-defense, though his own hot-headedness probably contributes strongly to his seeing this as a case of justifiable self-defense. He then saves Thebes from the Sphinx and is dutifully rewarded with the hand in marriage of the recently widowed queen, with whom he conceives four children, who happen to also be his brothers and sisters, and his wife's grandchildren. Each of the above actions lead to, and actually make possible, the terrible fate that befalls Oedipus. Without any one of them, his fate might have been very different.
The plot of the play is also not of special importance because the audience
already knew the Oedipus legend. There was no question what the plot would
be or how the story would turn out; the only real question was how Sophocles
was going to portray or treat it, or interpret it. And in the way he did,
Oedipus turns out to be (fittingly) blind to his own guilt long after it
is obvious to everyone else what has happened. The "suspense" or "action"
in the play for the audience is how the story will unfold to make Oedipus
realize what has happened. There is even tension in the humor, where, in
your translation, the chorus leader is telling someone about Jocasta and
describes her relationship to Oedipus as "his wife and mother of his children",
but in your edition the lines are broken between "mother" and "of his children",
so that it reads that he says Jocasta is his wife and mother/
Then when he finally sees the light, he at that moment, in a fit of overwhelming guilt and anguish, blinds himself as a form of punishment and expiation for the supposed heinous moral evil he has committed and as a way of blocking out the terrible light. I say "supposed" moral evil because the crime itself, under the circumstances, is a curious one to consider a crime, as is also curious Jocasta's and his own reaction to it -- something which he comes to understand and feel quite differently about by the time of the story Oedipus at Colonus.
Antigone is a much easier play for modern audiences to understand. It is simply about conflicts between law and morality -- the conflict created when one's (prima facie) duty to obey the laws of one's country would violate the unwritten laws of one's conscience. (Last night on a popular tv show, this same theme was used when a high ranking marine officer was court-martialed for disobeying an order he considered to be immoral.) The contrasting personalities of the two sisters Antigone and Ismene and the interaction between them is interesting. While Antigone is the stronger personality and has the stronger conviction that duty to her dead brother is more important than duty to the state, Ismene also feels obligated to her sister in a way that is not strong enough for her to act to break the law, but is strong enough for her to be willing to lie in order to share the blame and the punishment with her later. Ismene is willing to accept blame without sin, and punishment without guilt, which is, of course, the exact opposite of what most people would welcome.
All of you have been taught that one should obey the law and that if
you think a law is immoral, you must work to get it changed instead of
simply breaking it or taking the law into your own hands. But that is not
always possible. And in the Nuremberg trials, it was the position of the
United States government that there are higher laws than the laws of a
nation, though our government seems not to recognize that principle when
it is claimed to apply to American laws. Nevertheless, the problem of conflicts
between laws and morality has long been recognized. When Thoreau described
the concept of civil disobedience, later used by Gandhi in India, by the
NAACP in the Civil Rights Movement, and by college students in campus demonstrations
against the Vietnam War, that presented another way of dealing with the
conflict, but Antigone was not advocating acceptance of punishment after
open defiance of a law; she was trying to avoid that punishment because
she thought it was the law that was wrong, not her actions. "Civil disobedience"
is not a satisfactory option when one is talking about "crimes" that carry
a severe penalty, such as execution, and when the lawmakers and judges
are as blind as Creon was to immorality of the laws at issue, or proudly
unwilling to repeal or to relent from enforcing a bad law when they think
it will make them look weak and cause them to "lose" their authority. Many
people today, including a teacher on the Internet this morning!, often
argue that even though there are extenuating circumstances they must enforce
a (bad) rule and (undeserved) punishment, or risk diminishing the respect
they think their students or employees (or whoever) have for their authority.
An example, from Antigone, of what it means NOT to be "faithful" to a text:
But if you look at the text of the play itself in this translation at least, NOWHERE does Antigone say one has a duty to family members in general that overrides the concerns of the state. She argues all the way through the play that she has an obligation to bury her brother under the circumstances (that she cannot have any more brothers, since all three of them are dead, as are her parents -- one of her brothers, of course, being also one of her parents). She never makes the more general claim that she or anyone else has an obligation to all kin, or even to all brothers, that takes precedence over obeying laws sanctioned by the death penalty. Her claim is that one has an obligation to honorably bury one's last (possible) brothers when they are dead.
Now it may seem odd to us that one would think a brother is somehow more important than a spouse or a child in this regard. But remember we make all kinds of distinctions in law in regard to inheritance taxes, incest, and next-of-kin rights that distinguish what is right or wrong on the basis of very strict differentiations between kinds of relatives. And remember, this play was written at a time long before much of our currently accepted morality was discovered or figured out, and even today, we are still discovering (and sometimes inventing bad) principles which we think are moral duties. And there are, I think, undoubtedly moral principles we take today for granted which future generations will think we must have been crazy or really strange to have thought were even right, let alone obvious. Remember it was less than forty years ago that black people could not ride in the fronts of buses, drink from certain drinking fountains, use public restrooms, go to most public schools, or enter public restaurants here in Birmingham, and that the majority of the white population thought that was perfectly moral. Right now there is a war raging in the software industry about "standards" and copyright laws, about "licensing", and about ownership of intellectual property. Some day we may think it ludicrous that people were given exclusive rights to sell something for lots of money that anyone could just copy for next to nothing if they were only allowed to, or that we would have laws permitting satellite and cable tv companies to charge money that they use to ensure that people cannot watch their signals.
Oedipus at Colonus is, it seems to me, the deepest and most insightful of the three plays, with also the richest language. Oedipus has come to realize that he is not (totally) to blame for having killed his father and for having married his mother, since he did not know either was his parent, and had no reason to believe they were. But he cannot see that he has some responsibility for his crimes and subsequent downfall because his arrogance and his temper have been driving forces that led to them, and that continue to bring misery to his family. He accepts no responsibility for killing a man, simply because he believes it was a justified homicide and because he did not know the man was his father. ("I tell you I have endured foulest injustice; I have endured wrong undeserved; God knows nothing was of my choosing.") He praises the loving devotion of his daughter Antigone, while at the same time praying that both his sons be cursed to die by each others' hands in the battle for Thebes; and yet it is the fulfillment of his curse on his sons which brings about the death of Antigone as she gives the same loving devotion to them that she gave to him. Moreover, it is the same hot temper which led him to kill his father, and to put out his own eyes, which leads him in effect to also kill his sons, though not with his own hands. "I may be old, but anger does not cool except with death that ends all bitterness." (Unfortunately his anger toward his sons does not end with his death, and it is not only his life which ends with his anger. Antigone and the two sons also die because of his, and the sons' anger.) Creon tells Oedipus "...in time you cannot fail to learn that this same angry temper which besets you, this spite against your friends, has been your ruin always, as it is now." Yet Oedipus does fail to learn this;and there is a special poignancy to the word "always" in that line, for the ruin of Oedipus extends beyond the end of his life.
Also, his relationship with his sons is similar to the one he had with his father in that his father and his sons both essentially cast him out of Thebes.
As to the richness of language and psychological and philosophical insights,
I will only quote a few passages (from a different edition/translation
(2) She continues, "...remember the old hard things that happened to you on account of your father and mother." (As if there weren't old hard things that happened to his father on account of him!)
(3) Theseus tells Creon: "Your lengthening days have given you age and robbed you of discretion."
(4) And when Oedipus finds out that finally he will achieve some peace just as he is about to die, he says: "A poor return: youth lost and age rewarded" which is perhaps the original version of "too little, too late" or the ad that used to run on tv "when I was young I had plenty of money but no time to travel or enjoy life; now that I am old, I have plenty of time, but no money."
(5) And Ismene is the original "silent" complainer: "Father, I will not tell you what trouble I had to find out where you were and how you lived; enough the experience without the telling again." [Sighhhhhhhh.]
(6) Polynices seems typical of many subsequent "leaders" and managers. After it is pointed out to him that he and his armies will be defeated, and he is asked "how many of your men will follow" when they find this out, he replies, "They will not hear it; I wouldn't tell such tales. The careful leader does not spread alarm by publishing bad news unnecessarily." [emphasis mine -- not telling your army you are taking them to certain defeat is to tell them bad news unnecessarily? What would count as necessary bad news? And would the careful leader not try to avoid certain defeat altogether?] Yet countless business managers, as many case studies in business ethics will attest, try to hide bad news or bad results as if they think no one will ever discover the truth. Apparently Polynices is the founding father of many schools of business management. Also, if you ever hear any of Churchill's speeches during the darkest days of World War II when the Germans were beating the English at every opportunity, and the only good news was that there was not worse news, you will see that a great leader can publish bad news, and yet turn it to his country's advantage. Churchill was able to rally people around the bad news and make them feel that, as he quoted Longfellow or someone, "the darkest hour is always just before the dawn" and that things would soon improve. Churchill was able to report bad news in a way that actually gave people hope, not despair.
The passage where Oedipus explains to Theseus that in politics, as in
many personal relationships, change is the only constant, and that complacency
in the continuing security of any relationship is never wise, is very nicely
Or consider the passage describing the person who seeks a longer and longer life, and who is not content with his past -- put succinctly by the "Car Talk" guys, Ray and Tom as "the problem with living a long time is that all the extra years come at the end, when you are old": "Show me the man who asks an over-abundant share of life, in love with more, and ill content with less, and I will show you one in love with foolishness. In the accumulation of many years, pain is in plenty, and joy not anywhere when life is over-spent. And at last there is the same release when Death appears, unheralded by music, dance, or song, to give us peace. ... The simple playtime of our youth behind, what woe is absent, what fierce agony? Strife, and the bloody test of battle, envy, and hatred -- and at length unloved, unkind, unfriended age, worst ill of all, and last, consumes our strength. So stand, not I alone, but all, and he, our much-tried friend, a rock in a wild north sea at winter's height, fronting the rude assault of all the billows of adversity that break upon his head from every side unceasing -- from the setting sun, from dayspring, from the blaze of noon, and from the pole of night."
Finally, I wrote earlier that Oedipus' crime of incest was a curious one. What seems to me to be so odious about incest is two-fold, neither of which applies in Oedipus' case. Incest is bad when it occurs with a young child who is taken advantage of, but Oedipus was not a child. Second, the idea of sex with one's parent is disgusting for a variety of reasons when one thinks of having sex with the parent one grew up with. Many children don't want to have anything to do with their parents, as they are interested in gaining their independence. But Oedipus did not grow up with Jocasta. For him to learn she was his mother seems to me would have been greeted more by disbelief and by the idea that maybe incest wasn't such a bad thing then, rather than to have been greeted by him with rage and outrage at her and at himself. Imagine finding out that some movie star that you idolize and have a great crush on or attraction for is your brother or sister separated from you at birth. Girls, suppose you found out Brad Pitt was your long lost brother; would that make him any less attractive to you? Or guys, suppose you found out Dolly Parton was really your mom? Would you suddenly find her, or the idea of being with her, disgusting? I don't think so. You might feel a conflict, but the conflict would be between your emotions and your ideas; they would not be between the emotion of desire and the feeling of disgust. You would not likely have any feelings of disgust. And, in reverse, if you suddenly found out that the parents who raised you and the siblings you fight with every day were not your biological relatives, would you be able to become romantically or sexually attracted to them now? I don't think so! Even with Oedipus' having the kind of temper he did, it seems to me unlikely that he would have suddenly been thrown into a sufficient fit to put out his own eyes over the news of finding out his wife was really his biological mother. As an old man in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus has not only forgiven himself for his incest, but seems to be angry with Jocasta mostly for having tried to have him killed, and for abandoning him as a child, not for marrying him and "causing" him thus to be committing incest.
If you want to discuss or respond to me about these plays or about anthing I have written above or said in your class, you may e-mail me directly at the address below.