Aristotle called "Oedipus The King," the second-written of the three Theban plays written by Sophocles, the masterpiece of the whole of Greek theater. Today, nearly 2,500 years after Sophocles wrote, scholars and audiences still consider it one of the most powerful dramatic works ever made. Freud sure did. The three plays--"Antigone," "Oedipus the King," and "Oedipus at Colonus"--Are not strictly a trilogy, but all are based on the Theban myths that were old even in Sophocles' time. This particular edition was rendered by Robert Fagles, perhaps the best translator of the Greek classics into English.
published: 1954 (my copy is a 33rd printing from 1989)
format: 206 page Paperback
acquired: May 30 from a Half-Price Books
read: July 3-4
Each play had a different translator
Oedipus The King (circa 429 bce) - translated by David Grene c1942
Oedipus at Colonus (written by 406 bce, performed 401 bce) - translated by Robert Fitzgerald c1941
Antigone (by 441 bce) - translated by Elizabeth Wyckoff c1954
Greek tragedy can fun. After all those rigid Aeschylus plays, that is the lesson of Sophocles. The drama within the dialogue is always dynamic, and sometimes really terrific. I had to really get in the mood to enjoy reading a play by Aeschylus, otherwise I might be bored by the long dull choral dialogues. These three plays are all different and all from different points in Sophocles career, but they each drew me on their own.
Although they are all on the same story line, they were not written together, or in story order. Antigone was first, and was written when Sophocles was still trying to make a name for himself (vs Aeschylus). Oedipus the King came next, when Sophocles was well established. Oedipus at Colonus was apparently written just before Sophocles death, at about age 90. It wasn't performed until several years after his death. All this seems to show in the plays. Antigone having the sense of an author trying to make a striking impression. [Oedipus the King] carrying the sense of a master playwright with it's dramatic set ups. Oedipus at Colonus is slower, and more reflective. And two of the main characters are elderly.
Oedipus the King
This is simply a striking play, from the opening lines. In line 8, Oedipus characterizes himself to children suppliants as "I Oedipus who all men call the Great." It shows his confidence, but, as Thebes is in the midst of a suffering famine, it also shows outrageous arrogance - it's the only clear sing of this in the play. He is otherwise a noble character throughout. Of course he doesn't know what's coming. In the course of the play he will learn, slowly, his own tragic story - that a man he had killed in a highway fight was his father, and that his wife, and mother of his four children is also his own mother. As each person resists giving him yet another dreadful piece of information, he gets angry at them, threatening them in disbelief at their hesitancy. His denial lasts longer than that of Jocasta, his mother/wife, who leaves the play in dramatic fashion herself, first trying to stop the information flow, and then giving Oedipus a cryptic goodbye. And even as his awareness gets worse and worse, he cannot step out of character, the show-off i-do-everything-right ruler, but must continue to pursue the truth to it bitter fullness.
Oedipus at Colonus
A mature play in many ways. It's slow, thoughtful, has much ambiguity, and has many touching moments. The opening scene is memorable, where a blind Oedipus moves through the wilderness only with the close guidance of his daughter, Antigone.
Who will be kind to Oedipus this evening
And give the wanderer charity?
Though he ask little and receive still less,
It is sufficient:
Suffering and time,
Vast time, have been instructors in contentment,
Which kingliness teaches too.
But now, child,
If you can see a place we might rest,
It's interesting to see Creon, Jocasta's brother, turn bad. But it's more interesting to see Oedipus have a bitter side to him. He maintains his noble character, and that is the point of the play—he is hero because he never did anything bad intentionally, and yet he bears full punishment. But he also makes some interesting calls, essentially setting up a future war between his Thebes and Athens. And, Antigone is striking too. She saves Oedipus critically several times through her advice or her speech. While sacrificing herself and maintaining real affection for Oedipus, she is also shrewd, stepping forward boldly and changing the atmosphere.
This play takes place immediately after what [[Aeschylus]] covered in [Seven Against Thebes]. Polyneices has attacked Thebes with his Argive army, and been repulsed by his brother Eteocles. Both are sons of Oedipus and they have killed each other in the battle. Creon is now ruler. He is a stiff ruler. Despite much warning, he refuses to listen to popular opinion, instead threatening it to silence (a clear political point is being made). But the problems start when he refuses to give his attacker Polyneices a proper burial. He threatens death on anyone who does try to bury him. Antigone openly defies this rule, setting up the play's drama. It's an extreme tragedy with a hamlet-like ending where practically everyone dies. I felt there was less here than in the other two plays, but yet there is still a lot. And it's still fun.
I don't imagine citizens of Thebes liked these plays. There is an unspoken sense of noble Athen poking fun its neighbor throughout. But, as it's not Athens, they give the playwright freedom to work in otherwise dangerous political points - and those are clearly there. But, mostly, these were fun plays. They don't need to be read as a trilogy. They were not meant that way, despite the plot-consistency. Each is independent. There are four more plays by Sophocles. I'm actually going to save them and start Euripides next. Because I think Sophocles is something to look forward to and that might push me through the next bunch.
As foretold by Teiresius, a blind prophet, Oedipus unwittingly kills his own father, then marries his own mother, with whom he has four children.
The three plays in this book, King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, show us what happens when Oedipus realises what he has done.
This harrowing tale, when read in the order above, forms a continuous narrative from Oedipus' birth, through to his tragic and horrifying act, his death, and then the consequences for his children.
I was surprised to learn though that this was not the order in which they were written. Sophocles (496-406 BC) wrote the last play, Antigone, first, in 442-441BC. This was followed by King Oedipus, the first of the trilogy in 429-420BC, and then Oedipus at Colonus in 401 BC which was released/performed in 401 BC, after the author's death.
There are some minor inconsistencies as a result of this non-sequential writing, but these do not detract from the impact of the drama.
Newcomers to Greek drama will find the introduction helpful, as this gives us a background on the origins and development of the dramatic form in Ancient Greece, a detailed analysis of each play, and the relevance of these texts to today's audience.
On this last note, I found one particular scene in Antigone very reminscent of recent events in Australian politics. Creon, brother-in-law to Oedipus and now the new king, stubbornly refuses to change his ruling on the burial of Oedipus' son, and the punishment for Antigone, who has defied this ruling. Despite indications that he may lose his family, his supporters, and his throne, Creon remains resolute.
I think the final words belong to Haemon, Creon's son:
"...good as it is to have infallible wisdom,
Since this is rarely found, the next best thing
Is to be willing to listen to wise advice."
If only John Howard had read this. Some things never change.
Of course there is much, much more to the story and, depending on which version you read, you get it. In my version of Antigone translated by Elizabeth Wyckoff the language is watered down and somewhat pedestrian. It's not as lyrical as other translations. A small example: from a 1906 Oxford Clarendon Press version (translated by Robert Whitelaw): "Ismene: There's trouble in thy looks, thy tidings tell" compared with the 1954 University of Chicago Press version (translated by Elizabeth Wycoff): "Ismene: What is it? Clearly some news has clouded you" (p 159). Ismene is basically saying the same thing in each line, but the Whitelaw version has more animation, more movement. In the end Antigoneis a simple story about the man against The Man, no matter how you read it.
I was assigned the play in two separate classes this semester, along with Antigone in one of them. I decided to go above and beyond by reading all of the plays, including Oedipus at Colonus, and I'm very glad I did. Although this often-skipped middle work is not as dramatically potent as the other two plays, Sophocles’ use of language is (as others have remarked) even more mature and lyrical than it was before. Also, one really read the three together not because there elements are perfectly cohesive—they aren’t—but because it is only then that the modern reader can understand the full scale of the Theban tragedy, something the Ancient Greeks would have known about going in.
Despite the popularity of Oedipus the King and the maturity of Oedipus at Colonus, most everyone I’ve talked to seems to likeAntigone best. I can understand why. It is the most varied of the plays, incorporating a little humor and romance, as well as the usual tragic elements. I think Antigone and Haemon are the first truly sympathetic characters in the cycle, which makes their downfall all the more heartrending.
Paul Roche’s translation is easy to read and modern in tone—almost too modern, to tell the truth. There is an almost Hemingway-like disregard of punctuation at times (“What another summons?” should read “What? Another summons?”) not to mention one of the most inane contractions I’ve ever seen (“what’re”). Still, these are minor blemishes, and the sheer readability of Roche's rendering is a definite aid in understanding these ancient tragedies.
Scholars have been discussing and debating these plays for literally centuries. I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of them, and can easily see myself coming back to them in the future.
Oedipus is portrayed bold, mighty, and just, as the Priest claims him "greatest in all men's eyes".(l 40) Yet he also has human foibles and it is soon clear he has a destiny that, in spite of his actions, cannot be avoided. One theme of Oedipus the King is based on his hubris, but there is also the importance of his search for knowledge, the truth of his own being. Before the action of this play begins, Oedipus has already attempted to outrun fate, marking himself early for destruction. By attempting to escape a prophecy that he would kill his father, and leaving the palace at Corinth where he was raised, he sets the machinery of doom in motion.
Traveling along the highways, he soon enough meets and murders a man he thinks is merely an overly aggressive stranger. Years later, he discovers that the dead man is his natural father, Laius, and that he has unwittingly performed the act he was trying to avoid. The play begins with Oedipus again attempting to reshape the arc of his life that was described by prophecy. The hints of his coming failure are numerous.
In the Priest’s first long speech, when he begs Oedipus to save the city, he appeals to the king’s long experience—as a statesman, as a wanderer, as a ruler and as a vagrant. Unknown to the Priest and to Oedipus—but known to the audience—is that this king’s experience also includes killing his father and marrying his mother. The very experience to which the Priest appeals is moving Oedipus step by step to destruction. This exchange between the Priest and Oedipus is an example of how Sophocles builds dramatic tension into his play by including multiple levels of meaning in a single statement.
The technique will be repeated throughout the play. It reappears just a few lines later, when Oedipus tells the Priest that he has asked for help from the Oracle at Delphi and will follow its advice or consider himself a traitor. With the borrowed omniscience of the gods, the audience knows that Oedipus is already a traitor for having killed Laius, and that he will be faced with pronouncing the judgment he has pronounced upon himself. It remains only to witness what happens.
In another exchange weighted with similarly complex levels of meaning, Creon tells Oedipus what he has learned from the Oracle. Creon begins with the murder of Laius as background, and Oedipus says that he knows of the previous king, but has never seen him. Creon continues, delivering the Oracle’s instructions, and Oedipus vows to find and punish the murderer of Laius.
While the Oracle’s wishes are being delivered by Creon and while Oedipus reacts to them, the audience knows, as before, what Oedipus does not—that he murdered Laius, that he is the dead king’s son and that the widowed queen Oedipus married is his mother. Once again, there is something transfixing, tragic and doomed about watching Oedipus, in his ignorance, attempting to follow the Oracle’s orders but all the time preparing for the revelation of his crime and his subsequent doom.
The first hint of the truth is revealed to Oedipus by the blind prophet, Tiresias, and the king answers the seemingly unbelievable charge with rage, insults and threats. Raised in Corinth by the royal house as if he were the natural son of his adoptive parents, Oedipus rejects what Tiresias says as errant nonsense, saying "Had you eyes I would have said alone you murdered him [Laius]."(ls. 348-9) The blind prophet, who taunts Oedipus as being the one who is unable to see the truth, claiming "you are the land's pollution."(l 353) He challenges the king to reconsider everything about himself and the challenge is met with rage - Oedipus is unable to see the truth or to hear well-intentioned advice.
Pride and faith in his own abilities moves Oedipus ever onward toward doom, failure to honor the gods results in the very destruction they foretell, and humanity is unable to escape what is predicted for it. His wife, Jocasta, is a flawed individual. Her arrogant dismissal of the gods and her proclamations of victory over fate foretell her undoing. As much as Oedipus, she is unable to see until it is too late that her life fulfilled the very prophecy she sought vainly and pridefully to undo. Oedipus begins to see, in brief glimpses, how blind he has been to the central facts of his own life.
Thinking that he is doing a good deed, a Messenger tells Oedipus that it’s fine for Oedipus to come back to Corinth any time—he’s in no danger of fulfilling the prophecy there, the Messenger says. By telling Oedipus that the queen who raised him is not his natural mother, the Messenger has unknowingly revealed enough of the truth to make Oedipus tragically curious and to push Jocasta toward despair. Motivated by a simple desire to ease worry, the Messenger has released the machinations of fate that will produce the full revelation of the truth and all its awful effects. When the Messenger speaks, he is as blindly ignorant of his fatal role in serving destiny as Oedipus and Jocasta are of theirs. He speaks, but he does not see.
In this section, the theme is hammered home time and again that people go through their lives thinking they are fulfilling one purpose when they are actually lurching toward the completion of several others. The gods know this and watch events unfold from above. The first audiences of this play knew the histories of its characters before the first lines were spoken, and the drama unfolded for viewers who watched with the borrowed omniscience of the gods. Modern readers are left to decide for themselves what they think about fate, prophecy and human attempts to outrun destiny.
The climax of the play is both pitiful and tragic. Yet, it also yields knowledge for Oedipus of who he really is, even as he goes forth as a blind man. The chorus intones the message that "Time who sees all has found you out / against your will;" (ls. 1213-14). As Aristotle put it in his Poetics, Sophocles has organized his story so as to emphasize the elements of ignorance, irony, and the unexpected recognition of the truth. The magnificence of this drama has allowed it to endure and challenge readers ever since.
Oedipus the King is a mystery story--with Oedipus the detective unraveling a secret that becomes his own doom. You may have heard of the "Oedipus Complex" associated with theories by Freud. Yes, that's this Oedipus, and that speaks to how primal, how deep goes some of the themes in this play. In the book 100 Top Plays, Oedipus the King comes in second only to Shakespeare's King Lear as most important play. Antigone comes in at number fifteen, after Aeschylus' Oresteia and two plays by Euripides. Antigone is the rare play with a female title protagonist--and its basic theme of the individual against the state resonated with me strongly, even as a teenager first reading it. Oedipus at Colonus, I found less memorable and impressive. In terms of the timeline, its events fall between those of Oedipus the King and Antigone, though this was actually one of Sophocles' last plays. That said, it falls nicely in between the two, filling some gaps, and it does have its beauties. But comparing this to the other two is like comparing Shakespeare's King Lear and Hamlet to, oh, his Cymbeline.
Oedipus the King follows which shows the sequence of events leading up to Oedipus learning the truth about his birth and the crimes he has committed. It has him summoning the shepherd who is the sole witness of the death of Laius and it also emerges how he grew up not knowing his real parents. It's a sad tale as Oedipus did so much to try and avoid fulfilling the prophecy. The final play is Oedipus at Colonus which finishes the story of Oedpius after his exile. It concludes his story taking it to his death in Athens with Theseus. His daughters Antigone and Ismene are with him at the end.
I really enjoyed all three plays although I do feel that having Antigone first was out of order and it should have been the final play in the collection. I would really like to see them performed live, especially Oedipus the King which is the most powerful of the three with the truths it reveals. A must for all mythology fans.
Oedipus as an infant is sent to die on a hill because of that malicious tart, this fate is altered by another and he is sent to foster parents. He doesn't who is real mother is until after he has married her later in life and then freaks out big time and goes into self mutilation and self abasement.
The moral might be to send your oracles to the enemy camp, don't keep them at home among your friends.
I cannot speak to the introductory material, as I skipped that part but there was a substantial amount of it.
Unlike Aeschylus, whose plays I battled through out of a sense of obligation and gravitas, Sophocles' Oedipal cycle snared me. Perhaps it is Robert Fagles' talented translation, perhaps I am simply reading with more care, but the complexity of the characters shone through, even 2500 years later.
It's not Oedipus I'm talking about here. For Oedipus, things happen to him and around him, but he himself is not much more than a vessel of fate. In the final play, "Oedipus at Colonus", he even argues (fiercely!) that he is innocent of his ghastly acts, instead a hopeless pawn of the gods' prophesies.
It's the women, and most strongly, Antigone. Her depth highlights the conflicting sense of womanhood held by the ancient Greeks. In Greek literature we usually see women in one of two ways. One: the simpering, overwrought mental weaklings (I tend to think of these as the Penelopes or the Aphrodites). These waifs are usually simultaneously revered for their constancy and tenderness, reviled for their uselessness. But then there's the other side of femininity. The Athena-like assertiveness, the uncompromising, the virginal.
This is Antigone (and, to a lesser extent, her sister Ismene). She is persuasive and adventurous. She risks her life for the honor of family. She is so upstanding that Oedipus can't quite compute--on multiple occasions he exhorts that his daughters are being so strong it's they who are the men, not his sons. It's not surprising that the Greeks would tend to ascribe positive characteristics as masculinity, but it interesting to me how far Antigone gets to go. However, I would argue that in this sense she had to die. Die, that is, before her marriage to Haemon, which would have taken her out of the virginal limelight and forced her into the sphere of domestic womanhood. I'd assert that this would have destroyed the integrity of her character.
Antigone's strength is but one aspect of probably a billion subthemes in these plays. It will take me a long time to sort it all out in my mind. A moment of bragging: I almost instantly recognized Oedipus' character at the beginning of "Colonus": totally King Lear! Turns out I was right; Shakespeare borrowed heavily.
1 - ANTIGONE: Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and heir to her family's persistent dark cloud of misfortune. She wants to bury her equally-unlucky brother but her loyalty to her doomed brethren may cost her. (Of course it will! It's Sophocles!)
2 - OEDIPUS THE KING: Oedipus is the best king for miles around and everyone knows it, including him.* Unfortunately an ominous stain is creeping into his idyllic kingdom; a plague is raging and it seems the gods are upset about something or other. The only person who seems to know what's up is a blind prophet and he's got some bad news for poor Oeddy.
3 - OEDIPUS AT COLONUS: The action in this place takes place between the events of Oedipus the King and Antigone. This the most philosophical of the trilogy, dealing with ideas of fate, guilt, and redemption. (I thought it was a bit boring.)
* Uh oh! Hubris!
I've only read Antigone so far, but it was stunning.