Monday, 13 August 2012

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Plot construction

Oedipus Rex has an extremely unusual plot. From beginning to end it is concerned with the investigation of some past events and incidents. We have here some essentials clues joined together. The play joins together two parallel problems. One of these is the detection of the murderer of Laius. The principal agent here is Oedipus, and the motive is the good of Thebes which is suffering form a terrible plague which can be ended only by the death or banishment of the murderer in question.  The secondary problem is the identity of Oedipus. In this also Oedipus is the chief agent. The problems become one in a way which is fascinating, so that solving of either of the two problems is the like solving both of them.

The plot construction of Oedipus Rex possesses a perfect structure. It is coherently developed from the prologue to the exode. The songs of the chorus also aid in the development and unfolding of the plot by building up the proper mood and atmosphere. There are beautiful parallels of event and situation.

The Three unities: Unity of place, unity of action and unity of time are faithfully observed in Oedipus Rex. The entire action takes place at the royal palace in the city of Thebes. The entire action of the play occupies no more than the twenty-four hours, which was maximum duration permissible according to the rules. Our entire attention is focused on a single theme- the investigation made by Oedipus into the murder of Laius and the discovery of the truth. There are no side-plots, or under-plots. The observance of the unities is not by itself a great merit in a play.
The play is skilfully planned. An element of suspense permeates throughout the play and produces dramatic effect. For instance, when Teiresias arrives, we are in a state of suspense because the prophet is now expected to disclose to Oedipus the identity of the murderer. Teiresias, however tires to avoid giving straight answers to Oedipus´ questions with the result that Oedipus completely loses his temper and insults the prophet. The prophet is not the one to remain quiet. He calls Oedipus the murder and makes a number of veiled prophecies regarding Oedipus´ ultimate fate.
Like Aristotle, Sophocles also spoke of peripeteia and anagnorisis in Oedipus Rex.

The uniqueness of the story of Oedipus Rex lies to some extent in this tragic colour given to a generally comic story.
It is evident that everything proceeds in a logical and convincing manner. Nothing is forced; everything happens naturally. The arrival of the Corinthian messenger is certainly a coincidence, but it is the only coincidence in the play. The scenes we have surveyed produce various feelings in us- pity , fear, awe, admiration, resentment, irritation

Oedipus Rex has irony at several levels, including irony consisting in the inversion of the entire action. Another important features of the construction of the plot of Oedipus Rex is the use of tragic irony. Tragic irony is to be found almost in every major situations in this play.
Nor we can ignore the role of Chorus. The songs of the Chorus may be regarded as representing the reactions of the audience to the play as it unfolds itself. The function of the Chorus was to comment upon the major incidents as they occurred. The entry-song of the Chorus is, for instance, an invocation to the gods to protect people of Thebes. The last song of the Chorus expresses the idea that human happiness is short lived, citing the case of Oedipus as a clear illustration. The chorus soothes the feeling of Oedipus without mentioning his sinful deeds.

There is a great consideration of plausibility in Oedipus´ ignoring all the clues that are put before him by Jocasta and others, and fastening only upon that of the place where three roads met.
These questions as well as a couple of other questions which turn on verisimilitude might be ignored, but there are some others which cannot be ignored because Oedipus himself points attention to them. One of them is the question which Oedipus raises. If Teiresias was really an inspired seer, why was he not able to answer the riddle of the sphinx? Why did he keep silent about he Laius and the marriage of Jocasta when he seems to have known about Oedipus´ identity?  The only thing we can say is that everything seems to have been arranged by fate with Oedipus as the centre.

                                      Oedipus Rex as a Tragedy
Central conception
The conception of tragedy which seems central to Oedipus Rex is that of human suffering which arises in a mysterious way, partly out of man’s own actions, and which , when faced manfully, exalts the human sufferers to a level little below that of the gods. The sophoclean hero is a man of strong personality, great initiative, and very strong sense of self-respect. The plot of a typical Sophoclean tragedy is tight and well-integrated.
The Plot
Aristotle singles out the plot of Oedipus Rex for the highest praise and since his time the greatest superlatives have been used for the plot of this tragedy. Coleridge was another critics who valued the plot of Oedipus Rex highly, for the placed it among three best-constructed plots in the world. One may go even further and say that no work of literary art can ever hope to equal the mastery which Sophocles has here displayed in the handling of the plot. The most noteworthy feature of this play is its sheer inevitability--each incident arises quite logically out the one that has gone before.
Establishment of Justice
The working out of the plot seems to establish justice at the highest level;” the real instruments by which fate works, are men’s unbridled passions; it strikes down the murderer by the murderer, and punished the crime by the crime. But the justice appears beyond and above these furious impulses, and directs them, in spite of themselves, to that mysterious goal towards which it tends:"
Oedipus is superhuman, yet the play possesses universality. Parricide and incest are not common actions, yet the delusion of happiness, and the committing of unwitting crimes, is a universal theme. The element of universality is enhanced by the presence of some of the other characters, notably Jocasta, Creon and chorus. Oedipus also wishes to know who he is , and this theme of the quest for identity also has great universal relevance. Oedipus is a symbol of man, who is elated by good fortune, only to be disappointed al the more when that good fortune gives place to disaster.
The Tragic hero
According to Aristotle the tragic hero must be a person of noble birth and prosperity whose misfortue results, not form depravity or vice but form some hamartia. The last words translated as an error of judgement by most critics but interpreted as tragic flaw by some. Oedipus is clearly the intermediate kind of person stipulated by Aristotle. However, it is difficult to say that his misfortune befalls him because of some flaw in his character, or some error of judgement committed by him. There is no doubt that his character has several flaws and that does commit some errors of judgement, but the question is whether these errors are cause of his tragedy. Oedipus is no doubt rash, impatient, irritable and passionate. He is also very proud of his intelligence, and believes that he can find the answer to every problem. Yet if we take his tragedy to be the basic actions of incest and parricide, then these flaws and errors of Oedipus are quite irrelevant. On the other hand, it is Oedipus who proclaims a severe punishment for the murderer of Laius and also says that he will award the punishment even to himself if he is the guilty person.
Pity and Terror
According to Aristotle, tragedy arouses pity and fear and though these bring about a catharsis or purgation. Although there is a great controversy about the real meaning of catharsis, there is no doubt that the story of the fall of Oedipus is full of great pity and terror. Through these emotions we are made to think deeply about human life.
Character and Fate
Greek tragedy is generally believed to be tragedy of fate, in contrast with Shakespearean tragedy which is regarded as tragedy of character. Whether or not this is true of other Greek tragedies, it is inapplicable to Oedipus Rex. At the most we can say that both character and the fate play a part in the tragedy of Oedipus. Oedipus is the victim of adverse chances, and in this sense fate plays a part in his tragedy. Yet it is because of his character as a great discoverer of truth and a man determined to find out what he has decided to discover, the Oedipus meets with tragic reversal. In the scene where he is cross-examining the shepherds, Jocasta begs him not to carry the investigation further, but he pays no heed to her words. The Theban shepherd also begs that he may not be asked to disclose what he knows, but Oedipus forces him to tell the whole truth. It is this determination of Oedipus to find out the whole truth at any cost which makes him tragic.
Moral Wisdom
Traditionally, Oedipus Rex has been regarded as a play which enshrines much moral wisdom, although the wisdom itself has been identified variously. One view is that the play teaches man to restrain himself within the range of his finite qualities and not vie with the gods. What Oedipus ultimately attains is self-knowledge of a very bitter type, and this knowledge is applicable to all humanity. This knowledge cures him of his earlier conceit that he is all-knowing.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Power of Unwritten Law
After defeating Polynices and taking the throne of Thebes, Creon commands that Polynices be left to rot unburied, his flesh eaten by dogs and birds, creating an “obscenity” for everyone to see (Antigone, 231). Creon thinks that he is justified in his treatment of Polynices because the latter was a traitor, an enemy of the state, and the security of the state makes all of human life—including family life and religion—possible. Therefore, to Creon’s way of thinking, the good of the state comes before all other duties and values. However, the subsequent events of the play demonstrate that some duties are more fundamental than the state and its laws. The duty to bury the dead is part of what it means to be human, not part of what it means to be a citizen. That is why Polynices’ rotting body is an “obscenity” rather than a crime. Moral duties—such as the duties owed to the dead—make up the body of unwritten law and tradition, the law to which Antigone appeals.
The Willingness to Ignore the Truth
When Oedipus and Jocasta begin to get close to the truth about Laius’s murder, in Oedipus the King, Oedipus fastens onto a detail in the hope of exonerating himself. Jocasta says that she was told that Laius was killed by “strangers,” whereas Oedipus knows that he acted alone when he killed a man in similar circumstances. This is an extraordinary moment because it calls into question the entire truth-seeking process Oedipus believes himself to be undertaking. Both Oedipus and Jocasta act as though the servant’s story, once spoken, is irrefutable history. Neither can face the possibility of what it would mean if the servant were wrong. This is perhaps why Jocasta feels she can tell Oedipus of the prophecy that her son would kill his father, and Oedipus can tell her about the similar prophecy given him by an oracle (867–875), and neither feels compelled to remark on the coincidence; or why Oedipus can hear the story of Jocasta binding her child’s ankles (780–781) and not think of his own swollen feet. While the information in these speeches is largely intended to make the audience painfully aware of the tragic irony, it also emphasizes just how desperately Oedipus and Jocasta do not want to speak the obvious truth: they look at the circumstances and details of everyday life and pretend not to see them.
The Limits of Free Will
Prophecy is a central part of Oedipus the King. The play begins with Creon’s return from the oracle at Delphi, where he has learned that the plague will be lifted if Thebes banishes the man who killed Laius. Tiresias prophesies the capture of one who is both father and brother to his own children. Oedipus tells Jocasta of a prophecy he heard as a youth, that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother, and Jocasta tells Oedipus of a similar prophecy given to Laius, that her son would grow up to kill his father. Oedipus and Jocasta debate the extent to which prophecies should be trusted at all, and when all of the prophecies come true, it appears that one of Sophocles’ aims is to justify the powers of the gods and prophets, which had recently come under attack in fifth-century b.c. Athens.
Sophocles’ audience would, of course, have known the story of Oedipus, which only increases the sense of complete inevitability about how the play would end. It is difficult to say how justly one can accuse Oedipus of being “blind” or foolish when he seems to have no choice about fulfilling the prophecy: he is sent away from Thebes as a baby and by a remarkable coincidence saved and raised as a prince in Corinth. Hearing that he is fated to kill his father, he flees Corinth and, by a still more remarkable coincidence, ends up back in Thebes, now king and husband in his actual father’s place. Oedipus seems only to desire to flee his fate, but his fate continually catches up with him. Many people have tried to argue that Oedipus brings about his catastrophe because of a “tragic flaw,” but nobody has managed to create a consensus about what Oedipus’s flaw actually is. Perhaps his story is meant to show that error and disaster can happen to anyone, that human beings are relatively powerless before fate or the gods, and that a cautious humility is the best attitude toward life.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Almost every character who dies in the three Theban plays does so at his or her own hand (or own will, as is the case in Oedipus at Colonus). Jocasta hangs herself in Oedipus the King and Antigone hangs herself in Antigone. Eurydice and Haemon stab themselves at the end of Antigone. Oedipus inflicts horrible violence on himself at the end of his first play, and willingly goes to his own mysterious death at the end of his second. Polynices and Eteocles die in battle with one another, and it could be argued that Polynices’ death at least is self-inflicted in that he has heard his father’s curse and knows that his cause is doomed. Incest motivates or indirectly brings about all of the deaths in these plays.
Sight and Blindness
References to eyesight and vision, both literal and metaphorical, are very frequent in all three of the Theban plays. Quite often, the image of clear vision is used as a metaphor for knowledge and insight. In fact, this metaphor is so much a part of the Greek way of thinking that it is almost not a metaphor at all, just as in modern English: to say “I see the truth” or “I see the way things are” is a perfectly ordinary use of language. However, the references to eyesight and insight in these plays form a meaningful pattern in combination with the references to literal and metaphorical blindness. Oedipus is famed for his clear-sightedness and quick comprehension, but he discovers that he has been blind to the truth for many years, and then he blinds himself so as not to have to look on his own children/siblings. Creon is prone to a similar blindness to the truth in Antigone. Though blind, the aging Oedipus finally acquires a limited prophetic vision. Tiresias is blind, yet he sees farther than others. Overall, the plays seem to say that human beings can demonstrate remarkable powers of intellectual penetration and insight, and that they have a great capacity for knowledge, but that even the smartest human being is liable to error, that the human capability for knowledge is ultimately quite limited and unreliable.
Graves and Tombs
The plots of Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus both revolve around burials, and beliefs about burial are important in Oedipus the King as well. Polynices is kept above ground after his death, denied a grave, and his rotting body offends the gods, his relatives, and ancient traditions. Antigone is entombed alive, to the horror of everyone who watches. At the end of Oedipus the King, Oedipus cannot remain in Thebes or be buried within its territory, because his very person is polluted and offensive to the sight of gods and men. Nevertheless, his choice, in Oedipus at Colonus, to be buried at Colonus confers a great and mystical gift on all of Athens, promising that nation victory over future attackers. In Ancient Greece, traitors and people who murder their own relatives could not be buried within their city’s territory, but their relatives still had an obligation to bury them. As one of the basic, inescapable duties that people owe their relatives, burials represent the obligations that come from kinship, as well as the conflicts that can arise between one’s duty to family and to the city-state.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Oedipus’s Swollen Foot
Oedipus gets his name, as the Corinthian messenger tells us in Oedipus the King, from the fact that he was left in the mountains with his ankles pinned together. Jocasta explains that Laius abandoned him in this state on a barren mountain shortly after he was born. The injury leaves Oedipus with a vivid scar for the rest of his life. Oedipus’s injury symbolizes the way in which fate has marked him and set him apart. It also symbolizes the way his movements have been confined and constrained since birth, by Apollo’s prophecy to Laius.
The Three-way Crossroads
In Oedipus the King, Jocasta says that Laius was slain at a place where three roads meet. This crossroads is referred to a number of times during the play, and it symbolizes the crucial moment, long before the events of the play, when Oedipus began to fulfill the dreadful prophecy that he would murder his father and marry his mother. A crossroads is a place where a choice has to be made, so crossroads usually symbolize moments where decisions will have important consequences but where different choices are still possible. In Oedipus the King, the crossroads is part of the distant past, dimly remembered, and Oedipus was not aware at the time that he was making a fateful decision. In this play, the crossroads symbolizes fate and the awesome power of prophecy rather than freedom and choice.
Antigone’s Entombment
Creon condemns Antigone to a horrifying fate: being walled alive inside a tomb. He intends to leave her with just enough food so that neither he nor the citizens of Thebes will have her blood on their hands when she finally dies. Her imprisonment in a tomb symbolizes the fact that her loyalties and feelings lie with the dead—her brothers and her father—rather than with the living, such as Haemon or Ismene. But her imprisonment is also a symbol of Creon’s lack of judgment and his affronts to the gods. Tiresias points out that Creon commits a horrible sin by lodging a living human being inside a grave, as he keeps a rotting body in daylight. Creon’s actions against Antigone and against Polynices’ body show him attempting to invert the order of nature, defying the gods by asserting his own control over their territories.

Analysis of Major Characters


Oedipus is a man of swift action and great insight. At the opening of Oedipus the King, we see that these qualities make him an excellent ruler who anticipates his subjects’ needs. When the citizens of Thebes beg him to do something about the plague, for example, Oedipus is one step ahead of them—he has already sent Creon to the oracle at Delphi for advice. But later, we see that Oedipus’s habit of acting swiftly has a dangerous side. When he tells the story of killing the band of travelers who attempted to shove him off the three-way crossroads, Oedipus shows that he has the capacity to behave rashly.
At the beginning of Oedipus the King, Oedipus is hugely confident, and with good reason. He has saved Thebes from the curse of the Sphinx and become king virtually overnight. He proclaims his name proudly as though it were itself a healing charm: “Here I am myself— / you all know me, the world knows my fame: / I am Oedipus” (7–9). By the end of this tragedy, however, Oedipus’s name will have become a curse, so much so that, in Oedipus at Colonus, the Leader of the Chorus is terrified even to hear it and cries: “You, you’re that man?” (238).
Oedipus’s swiftness and confidence continue to the very end of Oedipus the King. We see him interrogate Creon, call for Tiresias, threaten to banish Tiresias and Creon, call for the servant who escaped the attack on Laius, call for the shepherd who brought him to Corinth, rush into the palace to stab out his own eyes, and then demand to be exiled. He is constantly in motion, seemingly trying to keep pace with his fate, even as it goes well beyond his reach. In Oedipus at Colonus, however, Oedipus seems to have begun to accept that much of his life is out of his control. He spends most of his time sitting rather than acting. Most poignant are lines 825–960, where Oedipus gropes blindly and helplessly as Creon takes his children from him. In order to get them back, Oedipus must rely wholly on Theseus.
Once he has given his trust to Theseus, Oedipus seems ready to find peace. At Colonus, he has at last forged a bond with someone, found a kind of home after many years of exile. The single most significant action in Oedipus at Colonus is Oedipus’s deliberate move offstage to die. The final scene of the play has the haste and drive of the beginning of Oedipus the King, but this haste, for Oedipus at least, is toward peace rather than horror.


Antigone is very much her father’s daughter, and she begins her play with the same swift decisiveness with which Oedipus began his. Within the first fifty lines, she is planning to defy Creon’s order and bury Polynices. Unlike her father, however, Antigone possesses a remarkable ability to remember the past. Whereas Oedipus defies Tiresias, the prophet who has helped him so many times, and whereas he seems almost to have forgotten his encounter with Laius at the three-way crossroads, Antigone begins her play by talking about the many griefs that her father handed down to his children. Because of her acute awareness of her own history, Antigone is much more dangerous than Oedipus, especially to Creon. Aware of the kind of fate her family has been allotted, Antigone feels she has nothing to lose. The thought of death at Creon’s hands that so terrifies Ismene does not even faze Antigone, who looks forward to the glory of dying for her brother. Yet even in her expression of this noble sentiment, we see the way in which Antigone continues to be haunted by the perversion that has destroyed her family. Speaking about being killed for burying Polynices, she says that she will lie with the one she loves, loved by him, and it is difficult not to hear at least the hint of sexual overtones, as though the self-destructive impulses of the Oedipus family always tend toward the incestuous.
Antigone draws attention to the difference between divine law and human law. More than any other character in the three plays, she casts serious doubt on Creon’s authority. When she points out that his edicts cannot override the will of the gods or the unshakable traditions of men, she places Creon’s edict against Polynices’ burial in a perspective that makes it seem shameful and ridiculous. Creon sees her words as merely a passionate, wild outburst, but he will ultimately be swayed by the words of Tiresias, which echo those of Antigone. It is important to note, however, that Antigone’s motivation for burying Polynices is more complicated than simply reverence for the dead or for tradition. She says that she would never have taken upon herself the responsibility of defying the edict for the sake of a husband or children, for husbands and children can be replaced; brothers, once the parents are dead, cannot. In Antigone we see a woman so in need of familial connection that she is desperate to maintain the connections she has even in death.


Creon spends more time onstage in these three plays than any other character except the Chorus. His presence is so constant and his words so crucial to many parts of the plays that he cannot be dismissed as simply the bureaucratic fool he sometimes seems to be. Rather, he represents the very real power of human law and of the human need for an orderly, stable society. When we first see Creon in Oedipus the King, Creon is shown to be separate from the citizens of Thebes. He tells Oedipus that he has brought news from the oracle and suggests that Oedipus hear it inside. Creon has the secretive, businesslike air of a politician, which stands in sharp contrast to Oedipus, who tells him to speak out in front of everybody. While Oedipus insists on hearing Creon’s news in public and builds his power as a political leader by espousing a rhetoric of openness, Creon is a master of manipulation. While Oedipus is intent on saying what he means and on hearing the truth—even when Jocasta begs and pleads with him not to—Creon is happy to dissemble and equivocate.
At lines 651–690, Creon argues that he has no desire to usurp Oedipus as king because he, Jocasta, and Oedipus rule the kingdom with equal power—Oedipus is merely the king in name. This argument may seem convincing, partly because at this moment in the play we are disposed to be sympathetic toward Creon, since Oedipus has just ordered Creon’s banishment. In response to Oedipus’s hotheaded foolishness, Creon sounds like the voice of reason. Only in the final scene of Oedipus the King, when Creon’s short lines demonstrate his eagerness to exile Oedipus and separate him from his children, do we see that the title of king is what Creon desires above all.
Creon is at his most dissembling in Oedipus at Colonus, where he once again needs something from Oedipus. His honey-tongued speeches to Oedipus and Theseus are made all the more ugly by his cowardly attempt to kidnap Antigone and Ismene. In Antigone, we at last see Creon comfortable in the place of power. Eteocles and Polynices, like their father, are dead, and Creon holds the same unquestioned supremacy that Oedipus once held. Of course, once Creon achieves the stability and power that he sought and Oedipus possessed, he begins to echo Oedipus’s mistakes. Creon denounces Tiresias, for example (1144–1180), obviously echoing Oedipus’s denunciation in Oedipus the King (366–507). And, of course, Creon’s penitent wailings in the final lines of Antigone echo those of Oedipus at the end of Oedipus the King. What can perhaps most be said most in favor of Creon is that in his final lines he also begins to sound like Antigone, waiting for whatever new disaster fate will bring him. He cries out that he is “nothing,” “no one,” but it is his suffering that makes him seem human in the end.

The Chorus

The Chorus reacts to events as they happen, generally in a predictable, though not consistent, way. It generally expresses a longing for calm and stability. For example, in Oedipus the King, it asks Oedipus not to banish Creon (725–733); fearing a curse, it attempts to send Oedipus out of Colonus in Oedipus at Colonus (242–251); and it questions the wisdom of Antigone’s actions in Antigone (909–962). In moments like these, the Chorus seeks to maintain the status quo, which is generally seen to be the wrong thing. The Chorus is not cowardly so much as nervous and complacent—above all, it hopes to prevent upheaval.
The Chorus is given the last word in each of the three Theban plays, and perhaps the best way of understanding the different ways in which the Chorus can work is to look at each of these three speeches briefly. At the end of Oedipus the King, the Chorus conflates the people of “Thebes” with the audience in the theater. The message of the play, delivered directly to that audience, is one of complete despair: “count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last” (1684). Because the Chorus, and not one of the individual characters, delivers this message, the play ends by giving the audience a false sense of closure. That is, the Chorus makes it sound like Oedipus is dead, and their final line suggests there might be some relief. But the audience must immediately realize, of course, that Oedipus is not dead. He wanders, blind and miserable, somewhere outside of Thebes. The audience, like Oedipus, does not know what the future holds in store. The play’s ability to universalize, to make the audience feel implicated in the emotions of the Chorus as well as those of the protagonist, is what makes it a particularly harrowing tragedy, an archetypal story in Western culture.
The Chorus at the end of Oedipus at Colonus seems genuinely to express the thought that there is nothing left to say, because everything rests in the hands of the gods. As with Oedipus’s death, the Chorus expresses no great struggle here, only a willing resignation that makes the play seem hopeful—if ambivalently so—rather than despairing. Oedipus’s wandering has, it seems, done some good. The final chorus of Antigone, on the other hand, seems on the surface much more hopeful than either of the other two but is actually much more ominous and ambivalent. Antigone ends with a hope for knowledge—specifically the knowledge that comes out of suffering. This ending is quite different from the endings of the other two plays, from a mere truism about death or the fact that fate lies outside human control. The audience can agree with and believe in a statement like “Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy,” and perhaps feel that Creon has learned from his suffering, like Antigone seemingly did at the beginning of the play.
While the Chorus may believe that people learn through suffering, Sophocles may have felt differently. Antigone represents the last events in a series begun by Oedipus the King, but it was written before either of the other two Oedipus plays. And in the two subsequent plays, we see very little evidence in Antigone that suffering teaches anyone anything except how to perpetuate it.


Plot Overview


Antigone and Ismene, the daughters of Oedipus, discuss the disaster that has just befallen them. Their brothers Polynices and Eteocles have killed one another in a battle for control over Thebes. Creon now rules the city, and he has ordered that Polynices, who brought a foreign army against Thebes, not be allowed proper burial rites. Creon threatens to kill anyone who tries to bury Polynices and stations sentries over his body. Antigone, in spite of Creon’s edict and without the help of her sister Ismene, resolves to give their brother a proper burial. Soon, a nervous sentry arrives at the palace to tell Creon that, while the sentries slept, someone gave Polynices burial rites. Creon says that he thinks some of the dissidents of the city bribed the sentry to perform the rites, and he vows to execute the sentry if no other suspect is found.
The sentry soon exonerates himself by catching Antigone in the act of attempting to rebury her brother, the sentries having disinterred him. Antigone freely confesses her act to Creon and says that he himself defies the will of the gods by refusing Polynices burial. Creon condemns both Antigone and Ismene to death. Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s betrothed, enters the stage. Creon asks him his opinion on the issue. Haemon seems at first to side with his father, but gradually admits his opposition to Creon’s stubbornness and petty vindictiveness. Creon curses him and threatens to slay Antigone before his very eyes. Haemon storms out. Creon decides to pardon Ismene, but vows to kill Antigone by walling her up alive in a tomb.
The blind prophet Tiresias arrives, and Creon promises to take whatever advice he gives. Tiresias advises that Creon allow Polynices to be buried, but Creon refuses. Tiresias predicts that the gods will bring down curses upon the city. The words of Tiresias strike fear into the hearts of Creon and the people of Thebes, and Creon reluctantly goes to free Antigone from the tomb where she has been imprisoned. But his change of heart comes too late. A messenger enters and recounts the tragic events: Creon and his entourage first gave proper burial to Polynices, then heard what sounded like Haemon’s voice wailing from Antigone’s tomb. They went in and saw Antigone hanging from a noose, and Haemon raving. Creon’s son then took a sword and thrust it at his father. Missing, he turned the sword against himself and died embracing Antigone’s body. Creon’s wife, Eurydice, hears this terrible news and rushes away into the palace. Creon enters, carrying Haemon’s body and wailing against his own tyranny, which he knows has caused his son’s death. The messenger tells Creon that he has another reason to grieve: Eurydice has stabbed herself, and, as she died, she called down curses on her husband for the misery his pride had caused. Creon kneels and prays that he, too, might die. His guards lead him back into the palace.

Oedipus the King

A plague has stricken Thebes. The citizens gather outside the palace of their king, Oedipus, asking him to take action. Oedipus replies that he already sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the oracle at Delphi to learn how to help the city. Creon returns with a message from the oracle: the plague will end when the murderer of Laius, former king of Thebes, is caught and expelled; the murderer is within the city. Oedipus questions Creon about the murder of Laius, who was killed by thieves on his way to consult an oracle. Only one of his fellow travelers escaped alive. Oedipus promises to solve the mystery of Laius’s death, vowing to curse and drive out the murderer.
Oedipus sends for Tiresias, the blind prophet, and asks him what he knows about the murder. Tiresias responds cryptically, lamenting his ability to see the truth when the truth brings nothing but pain. At first he refuses to tell Oedipus what he knows. Oedipus curses and insults the old man, going so far as to accuse him of the murder. These taunts provoke Tiresias into revealing that Oedipus himself is the murderer. Oedipus naturally refuses to believe Tiresias’s accusation. He accuses Creon and Tiresias of conspiring against his life, and charges Tiresias with insanity. He asks why Tiresias did nothing when Thebes suffered under a plague once before. At that time, a Sphinx held the city captive and refused to leave until someone answered her riddle. Oedipus brags that he alone was able to solve the puzzle. Tiresias defends his skills as a prophet, noting that Oedipus’s parents found him trustworthy. At this mention of his parents, Oedipus, who grew up in the distant city of Corinth, asks how Tiresias knew his parents. But Tiresias answers enigmatically. Then, before leaving the stage, Tiresias puts forth one last riddle, saying that the murderer of Laius will turn out to be both father and brother to his own children, and the son of his own wife.
After Tiresias leaves, Oedipus threatens Creon with death or exile for conspiring with the prophet. Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta (also the widow of King Laius), enters and asks why the men shout at one another. Oedipus explains to Jocasta that the prophet has charged him with Laius’s murder, and Jocasta replies that all prophecies are false. As proof, she notes that the Delphic oracle once told Laius he would be murdered by his son, when in fact his son was cast out of Thebes as a baby, and Laius was murdered by a band of thieves. Her description of Laius’s murder, however, sounds familiar to Oedipus, and he asks further questions. Jocasta tells him that Laius was killed at a three-way crossroads, just before Oedipus arrived in Thebes. Oedipus, stunned, tells his wife that he may be the one who murdered Laius. He tells Jocasta that, long ago, when he was the prince of Corinth, he overheard someone mention at a banquet that he was not really the son of the king and queen. He therefore traveled to the oracle of Delphi, who did not answer him but did tell him he would murder his father and sleep with his mother. Hearing this, Oedipus fled his home, never to return. It was then, on the journey that would take him to Thebes, that Oedipus was confronted and harassed by a group of travelers, whom he killed in self-defense. This skirmish occurred at the very crossroads where Laius was killed.
Oedipus sends for the man who survived the attack, a shepherd, in the hope that he will not be identified as the murderer. Outside the palace, a messenger approaches Jocasta and tells her that he has come from Corinth to inform Oedipus that his father, Polybus, is dead, and that Corinth has asked Oedipus to come and rule there in his place. Jocasta rejoices, convinced that Polybus’s death from natural causes has disproved the prophecy that Oedipus would murder his father. At Jocasta’s summons, Oedipus comes outside, hears the news, and rejoices with her. He now feels much more inclined to agree with the queen in deeming prophecies worthless and viewing chance as the principle governing the world. But while Oedipus finds great comfort in the fact that one-half of the prophecy has been disproved, he still fears the other half—the half that claimed he would sleep with his mother.
The messenger remarks that Oedipus need not worry, because Polybus and his wife, Merope, are not Oedipus’s biological parents. The messenger, a shepherd by profession, knows firsthand that Oedipus came to Corinth as an orphan. One day long ago, he was tending his sheep when another shepherd approached him carrying a baby, its ankles pinned together. The messenger took the baby to the royal family of Corinth, and they raised him as their own. That baby was Oedipus. Oedipus asks who the other shepherd was, and the messenger answers that he was a servant of Laius.
Oedipus asks that this shepherd be brought forth to testify, but Jocasta, beginning to suspect the truth, begs her husband not to seek more information. She runs back into the palace. The shepherd then enters. Oedipus interrogates him, asking who gave him the baby. The shepherd refuses to disclose anything, and Oedipus threatens him with torture. Finally, he answers that the child came from the house of Laius. Questioned further, he answers that the baby was in fact the child of Laius himself, and that it was Jocasta who gave him the infant, ordering him to kill it, as it had been prophesied that the child would kill his parents. But the shepherd pitied the child, and decided that the prophecy could be avoided just as well if the child were to grow up in a foreign city, far from his true parents. The shepherd therefore passed the boy on to the shepherd in Corinth.
Realizing who he is and who his parents are, Oedipus screams that he sees the truth and flees back into the palace. The shepherd and the messenger slowly exit the stage. A second messenger enters and describes scenes of suffering. Jocasta has hanged herself, and Oedipus, finding her dead, has pulled the pins from her robe and stabbed out his own eyes. Oedipus now emerges from the palace, bleeding and begging to be exiled. He asks Creon to send him away from Thebes and to look after his daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Creon, covetous of royal power, is all too happy to oblige.

Oedipus at Colonus

After years of wandering in exile from Thebes, Oedipus arrives in a grove outside Athens. Blind and frail, he walks with the help of his daughter, Antigone. Oedipus and Antigone learn from a citizen that they are standing on holy ground, reserved for the Eumenides, goddesses of fate. Oedipus sends the citizen to fetch Theseus, the king of Athens and its surroundings. Oedipus tells Antigone that, earlier in his life, when Apollo prophesied his doom, the god promised Oedipus that he would come to rest on this ground.
After an interlude in which Oedipus tells the Chorus who he is, Oedipus’s second daughter, Ismene, enters, having gone to learn news from Apollo’s oracle at Delphi. She tells him that, back in Thebes, Oedipus’s younger son, Eteocles, has overthrown Polynices, the elder, and that Polynices is now amassing troops in Argos for an attack on his brother and on Creon, who rules along with Eteocles. The oracle has predicted that the burial place of Oedipus will bring good fortune to the city in which it is located, and both sons, as well as Creon, know of this prophecy. Both Polynices and Creon are currently en route to try to take Oedipus into custody and thus claim the right to bury him in their kingdoms. Oedipus swears he will never give his support to either of his sons, for they did nothing to prevent his exile years ago.
King Theseus arrives and says that he pities Oedipus for the fate that has befallen him, and he asks how he can help Oedipus. Oedipus asks Theseus to harbor him in Athens until his death, but warns that by doing him this favor, Theseus will incur the wrath of Thebes. Despite the warning, Theseus agrees to help Oedipus.
Creon appears in order to abduct Oedipus, but, proving unsuccessful, he kidnaps Antigone and Ismene instead. Theseus promises Oedipus that he will get his daughters back. Theseus does in fact return with Oedipus’s daughters shortly.
Soon after, Polynices arrives, seeking his father’s favor in order to gain custody of his eventual burial site. Oedipus asks Theseus to drive Polynices away, but Antigone convinces her father to listen to his son. Polynices tells Oedipus that he never condoned his exile, and that Eteocles is the bad son, having bribed the men of Thebes to turn against Polynices. Oedipus responds with a terrible curse, upbraiding his son for letting him be sent into exile, and predicting that Eteocles and Polynices will die at one another’s hands. Polynices, realizing he will never win his father’s support, turns to his sisters. He asks that they provide him with a proper burial should he die in battle. Antigone embraces Polynices, saying that he is condemning himself to death, but he resolutely says that his life remains in the hands of the gods. He prays for the safety of his sisters and then leaves for Thebes.
Terrible thunder sounds, and the Chorus cries out in horror. Oedipus says that his time of death has come. Sending for Theseus, he tells the king he must carry out certain rites on his body, and that by doing so he may assure divine protection to his city. Theseus says that he believes Oedipus and asks what to do. Oedipus answers that he will lead the king to the place where he will die, and that Theseus must never reveal that spot, but pass it on to his son at his own death, who in turn must pass it on to his own son. In this way Theseus and his heirs may always rule over a safe city. Oedipus then strides off with a sudden strength, taking his daughters and Theseus to his grave.
A messenger enters to narrate the mysterious death of Oedipus: his death seemed a disappearance of sorts, “the lightless depths of Earth bursting open in kindness to receive him” (1886–1887). Just as the messenger finishes his story, Antigone and Ismene come onstage, chanting a dirge. Antigone wails that they will cry for Oedipus for as long as they live. Not knowing where to go now, Antigone says they will have to wander forever alone. Theseus returns to the stage, asking the daughters to stop their weeping. They plead to see their father’s tomb, but Theseus insists that Oedipus has forbidden it. They give up their pleas but ask for safe passage back to Thebes, so that they may prevent a war between their brothers. Theseus grants them this, and the Chorus tells the girls to stop their weeping, for all rests in the hands of the gods. Theseus and the Chorus exit toward Athens; Antigone and Ismene head for Thebes.

Important Quotations Explained

1. My own flesh and blood—dear sister, dear Ismene, how many griefs our father Oedipus handed down! Do you know one, I ask you, one grief that Zeus will not perfect for the two of us while we still live and breathe? There’s nothing, no pain—our lives are pain—no private shame, no public disgrace, nothing I haven’t seen in your grief and mine. (Antigone, 1–8)
Antigone’s first words in Antigone, “My own flesh and blood,” vividly emphasize the play’s concern with familial relationships. Antigone is a play about the legacy of incest and about a sister’s love for her brother. Flesh and blood have been destined to couple unnaturally—in sex, violence, or both—since Oedipus’s rash and unwitting slaying of his father. Antigone says that griefs are “handed down” in Oedipus’s family, implicitly comparing grief to a family heirloom.
In her first speech, Antigone seems a dangerous woman, well on her way to going over the edge. She knows she has nothing to lose, telling Ismene, “Do you know one, I ask you, one grief / that Zeus will not perfect for the two of us / while we still live and breathe?” Before we even have time to imagine what the next grief might be, Antigone reveals it: Creon will not allow her brother Polynices to be buried. Ismene, on the other hand, like the audience, is one step behind. From the outset, Antigone is the only one who sees what is really going on, the only one willing to speak up and point out the truth.

2. Anarchy—show me a greater crime in all the earth! She, she destroys cities, rips up houses, breaks the ranks of spearmen into headlong rout. But the ones who last it out, the great mass of them owe their lives to discipline. Therefore we must defend the men who live by law, never let some woman triumph over us. Better to fall from power, if fall we must, at the hands of a man—never be rated inferior to a woman, never. (Antigone, 751–761)
This is one of Creon’s speeches to the Chorus. The word “anarchy” (in Greek, anarchia) literally means “without a leader.” The Greek word is feminine and can be represented by a feminine pronoun, which is why Creon, speaking of anarchy, says, “She, she destroys cities, rips up houses. . . .” Because Creon uses the feminine pronoun, he sounds as if he might be talking about Antigone, and maintaining order is certainly connected, in his mind, with keeping women in their place. Creon sees anarchy as the inevitable consequence when disobedience of the law is left unpunished. For Creon, the law, on whatever scale, must be absolute. His insistence on the gender of the city’s ruler (“the man”) is significant, since masculine political authority is opposed to uncontrolled feminine disobedience. Creon sees this feminine disobedience as something that upsets the order of civilization on every possible level—the political (“destroys cities”), the domestic (“rips up houses”), and the military (“breaks the ranks of spearmen”). The only way to fight this disorder is through discipline; therefore, says Creon, “we must defend the men who live by law, [we must] never let some woman triumph over us” (758).

3. Fear? What should a man fear? It’s all chance, chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through the dark. Better to live at random, best we can. And as for this marriage with your mother—have no fear. Many a man before you, in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed. Take such things for shadows, nothing at all— Live, Oedipus, as if there’s no tomorrow! (Oedipus the King, 1068–1078)
The audience, familiar with the Oedipus story, almost does not want to listen to these self-assured lines, spoken by Jocasta, wherein she treats incest with a startling lightness that will come back to haunt her. What makes these lines tragic is that Jocasta has no reason to know that what she says is foolish, ironic, or, simply, wrong. The audience’s sense of the work of “fate” in this play has almost entirely to do with the fact that the Oedipus story was an ancient myth even in fifth-century b.c. Athens. The audience’s position is thus most like that of Tiresias—full of the knowledge that continues to bring it, and others, pain.
At the same time, it is important to note that at least part of the irony of the passage does depend on the play, and the audience, faulting Jocasta for her blindness. Her claim that “chance rules our lives” and that Oedipus should live “as if there’s no tomorrow” seems to fly in the face of the beliefs of more or less everyone in the play, including Jocasta herself. Oedipus would not have sent Creon to the oracle if he believed events were determined randomly. Nor would he have fled Corinth after hearing the prophecy of the oracle that he would kill his mother and sleep with his father; nor would Jocasta have bound her baby’s ankles and abandoned him in the mountains. Again and again this play, and the other Theban plays, returns to the fact that prophecies do come true and that the words of the gods must be obeyed. What we see in Jocasta is a willingness to believe oracles only as it suits her: the oracle prophesied that her son would kill Laius and so she abandoned her son in the mountains; when Laius was not, as she thinks, killed by his son, she claims to find the words of the oracle worthless. Now she sees Oedipus heading for some potentially horrible revelation and seeks to curb his fear by claiming that everything a person does is random.

4. People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus. He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance, he rose to power, a man beyond all power. Who could behold his greatness without envy? Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him. Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.
           (Oedipus the King, 1678–1684)
These words, spoken by the Chorus, form the conclusion of Oedipus the King. That Oedipus “solved the famous riddle [of the Sphinx] with his brilliance” is an indisputable fact, as is the claim that he “rose to power,” to an enviable greatness. In underscoring these facts, the Chorus seems to suggest a causal link between Oedipus’s rise and his fall—that is, Oedipus fell because he rose too high, because in his pride he inspired others to “envy.” But the causal relationship is never actually established, and ultimately all the Chorus demonstrates is a progression of time: “he rose to power, a man beyond all power. / . . . / Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him.” These lines have a ring of hollow and terrifying truth to them, because the comfort an audience expects in a moral is absent (in essence, they say “Oedipus fell for this reason; now you know how not to fall”).

5. Stop, my children, weep no more. Here where the dark forces store up kindness both for living and the dead, there is no room for grieving here—it might bring down the anger of the gods.
(Oedipus at Colonus, 1970–1974)
Theseus’s short speech from the end of Oedipus at Colonus argues that grieving might not be a good thing—a sentiment unusual in the Theban plays. Sophocles’ audience would have seen, before this speech, the most extreme consequences of excessive grief: Antigone’s death, Haemon’s death, Eurydice’s death, Jocasta’s death, Oedipus’s blinding, Oedipus’s self-exile. The rash actions of the grief-stricken possess both a horror and a sense of inevitability or rightness. Jocasta kills herself because she cannot go on living as both wife and mother to her son; Oedipus blinds himself in order to punish himself for his blindness to his identity; Eurydice can no longer live as the wife of the man who killed her children. Theseus’s speech calls attention to the fact that the violence that arises from this grieving only leads to the perpetuation of violence.
At the end of Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone and Ismene beg to be allowed to see their father’s tomb, to complete the process of their grieving at that spot. But Theseus insists on maintaining the secret as Oedipus wished. Unlike the other two Theban plays, death is in this play a point of rest, a point at which lamentation must stop rather than begin.

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