A new and welcome translation of Sophocles' great Oedipus cycle, by one of the distinguished translators of our era In this needed and highly anticipated new translation of the Theban plays of Sophocles, David R. Slavitt presents a fluid, accessible, and modern version for both longtime admirers of the plays and those encountering them for the first time. Unpretentious and direct, Slavitt's translation preserves the innate verve and energy of the dramas, engaging the reader--or audience member--directly with Sophocles' great texts. Slavitt chooses to present the plays not in narrative sequence but in the order in which they were composed--Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus at Colonus--thereby underscoring the fact that the story of Oedipus is one to which Sophocles returned over the course of his lifetime. This arrangement also lays bare the record of Sophocles' intellectual and artistic development. Renowned as a poet and translator, Slavitt has translated Ovid, Virgil, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Ausonius, Prudentius, Valerius Flaccus, and Bacchylides as well as works in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew. In this volume he avoids personal intrusion on the texts and relies upon the theatrical machinery of the plays themselves. The result is a major contribution to the art of translation and a version of the Oedipus plays that will appeal enormously to readers, theater directors, and actors.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Antigone was the earliest of these plays, though the last within the narrative. I can't help but read it with my Hegel glasses on: the clash between Creon and Antigone is an example of a failed conceptual grasp of the world, in which the claims on us of family/tradition/ancient gods cannot be accommodated by our living in larger, civic communities. Divine law and human law sometimes do not go together, but only a tyrant would insist on hewing to the latter alone. Removing the Hegel glasses, I can see that Creon, to his credit, does change his mind. But this being Greece, by then it's all too late. The 'lesson', if you like, is simply that one has to exercise excellent judgment in these matters.
This question of judgment works through the Oedipus plays, as well; each tyrant (Oedipus in OK, Creon in OC) fails to use good judgment; the good king Theseus does exercise it, and thus Athens rules etc etc... I know we're 'meant' to think that these plays are really about always bowing down to the gods and accepting fate, but that just doesn't square with what actually happens: Athens succeeds because of Theseus's wisdom just as much as his piety; Thebes will eventually fall because of its kings' folly just as much as their impiety. In OK, Oedipus has the chorus's support in his argument with Tiresias, because Oedipus's defeat of the Sphinx acts as proof of his regality; but when he accuses Creon without evidence, they give up on him... because by acting without evidence, he shows poor judgment. And so on.
The best play for reading is easily Oedipus the King, which is horrifying and glorious in equal measure. Also, if anyone out there knows of a good book on Tiresias, let me know.
As for Knox's introductory essays, they're not particularly thrilling. There's too much plot-summary (good news for freshmen, I guess), and his insights are so skewed ("these plays aren't depressing! They're about how we do have some control over our lives!") that it's hard to take him seriously. but they're still worth reading.
I cannot speak to the introductory material, as I skipped that part but there was a substantial amount of it.
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!