- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Plume; Revised ed. edition (May 1, 1996)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780452011670
- ISBN-13: 978-0452011670
- ASIN: 0452011671
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 576 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #299,985 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles: Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus; Antigone Revised ed. Edition
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About the Author
Sophocles was born at Colonus, just outside Athens, in 496 BC, and lived ninety years. His long life spanned the rise and decline of the Athenian Empire; he was a friend of Pericles, and though not an active politician he held several public offices, both military and civil. The leader of a literary circle and friend of Herodotus, he was interested in poetic theory as well as practice, and he wrote a prose treatise On the Chorus. He seems to have been content to spend all his life at Athens, and is said to have refused several invitations to royal courts.
Sophocles first won a prize for tragic drama in 468, defeating the veteran Aeschylus. He wrote over a hundred plays for the Athenian theater, and is said to have come first in twenty-four contests. Only seven of his tragedies are now extant, these being Ajax, Antigone, Oedipus the King, Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, and the posthumous Oedipus at Colonus. A substantial part of The Searches, a satyr play, was recovered from papyri in Egypt in modern times. Fragments of other plays remain, showing that he drew on a wide range of themes; he also introduced the innovation of a third actor in his tragedies. He died in 406 BC.
Paul Roche, a distinguished English poet and translator, is the author of The Bible’s Greatest Stories. His other translations include Euripides: Ten Plays, Oedipus Plays of Sophocles, and The Orestes Plays of Aeschylus.
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Though heady, the plays also had an entertainment value. The Spring festival celebrating Dionysus provided an opportunity for playwrights such as Sophocles to compete and put on a performance for thousands of spectators. Tragedies usually ran in the morning and the more lighthearted comedies toward the end of the day.
Being tragedies, lighthearted these three Theban plays are not. They adhere to the Greek tradition of dramatizing the lives of a cursed family, but instead of the House of Atreus, we gain a jagged view of humanity’s affliction through the House of Oedipus.
The first play, Antigone, is actually the last chronologically. Oedipus is dead, yet the curse continues. Thebes has defeated an onslaught of Argosian warriors, led by Polynices, the exiled son of Oedipus. He was killed, along with his brother, Eteocles. Antigone, daughter of Oedipus and sister of both Polynices and Eteocles, wants to bury the body of Polynices, but her uncle and Theban King, Creon, threatens anyone who does so with death. I think you can see where things are headed…
Next comes Oedipus the King, the shining star of the three plays–the painting within the frame. Each piece has its own beauty, but we move back in time to that dreadful moment of discovery. It’s through Oedipus’ actions that we see an evolution in Greek theater. The plot builds perfectly according to Aristotle’s Poetics and is the cornerstone of many a modern story. Oedipus represents the everyman, marching forward, thinking destiny is within his control, only to discover that he is a mere puppet to fate.
A plague has struck Thebes and the only solution is to bring the killer of Thebes’ last king, Laius, to justice. Through plot twists and turns, Oedipus dedicates himself to finding the killer, only to discover that he is the killer, and that he has fulfilled a prophecy which he has tried to avoid all of his life. The truth is too much. His wife and mother, Jocasta, kills herself, and Oedipus gouges out his eyes, his one act of defiant free will.
Finally, we are presented with Oedipus at Colonus. Many years have passed and Oedipus has become a wanderer, guided by the loyal Antigone. He finds himself in the town of Colonus, just outside of Athens. The oracular prophecy makes its next move: Oedipus has arrived in the place where he must be buried. This play is an ode to Athens, and by being buried just outside the city, it will be protected for all time.
Thus ends the Theban trilogy. Similar to my Aeschylus readings, I picked up the Robert Fagles translation. Sophocles’ writing flows easier and is less dense than that of Aeschylus, so if you had a tough time with The Oresteia, you may find Sophocles to be more in your wheelhouse. From Freud to soap operas, you’ll certainly begin to understand the many references to this bit of dramatic history.
The three plays of this trilogy are “Oedipus the King” [a.k.a. “Oedipus Rex” or “Oedipus Tyrannus”], “Oedipus at Colonus,” and “Antigone” [pronounced “an-tig-o-nee” rather than “anti-gone.”] Of the three plays, the first is the most well-known.
In “Oedipus the King,” the titular character is facing a crisis in his kingdom. When the oracles are consulted about how the calamity might be brought to an end, Oedipus is told that he must banish the killer of his predecessor, i.e. the previous king of Thebes. Oedipus consults his own oracle to find out who the ne’er-do-well is who murdered the last king, and the fortune-teller tells Oedipus that he’ll never say who committed the killing —but acknowledges that he does know who it was. Oedipus mocks and threatens the oracle until the fortune-teller gets fed up and tells the king that it was he, Oedipus, who killed his predecessor. Oedipus doesn’t believe it at first, thinking it’s an attempt to facilitate a coup. Far ickier than the accusation of murder is the fact that —if true— it means that Oedipus has been getting busy with his own mother and has even sired children with her. Oedipus calls for an investigation. When a peasant who saw everything is called to testify, his story strikes Oedipus as disturbingly familiar. It turns out that Oedipus’s blood father (the previous king) had been told by his own oracle that his son would kill him and steal his wife, and so he had baby Oedipus sent away to die. Oedipus (who had been rescued from being staked up on a mountain) was coming through Thebes, not knowing it was his homeland, when he had a skirmish on the road with the man that he didn’t realize was both the king and his father. Later, Oedipus marries the queen (apparently there were no busts or portrait paintings of the last king anywhere) and becomes the king without knowing that the man he’d killed in self-defense was the last king / his father. When the truth revealed, everything goes south. The queen kills herself, and Oedipus’s response is almost as severe. Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and goes into exile. Antigone, one of Oedipus’s daughters, says she will be the ex-king’s guide, and because the old man is blind and not familiar with where he’s going, he doesn’t have much choice but to accept.
In “Oedipus at Colonus,” Oedipus and Antigone arrive at neighborhood on the fringes of Athens, i.e. Colonus, and are planning to take up residency. The locals are welcoming until they find out the blind man is Oedipus. The story of the ex-king who killed his father and got it on with his mother has spread far and wide. The townspeople agree to call in their king, Theseus, and let him decide. Theseus decides to shelter the Thebean ex-king, being moved by his story of how Oedipus was unwittingly ruined and how the former king accepted his punishment when his offenses were brought to light. Theseus’s support becomes more complicated when Creon, a royal from Thebes, shows up and says they need Oedipus back because an oracle now says that the location of his burial will determine the outcome of a future conflict. Oedipus says no way, and Creon has Antigone and her sister (who joined them at Colonus to warn Oedipus) kidnapped. Theseus faces a serious challenge because now his actions might bring the city-state to war, let alone offending the gods. However, he sticks to his guns and rescues the daughters and agrees to personally oversee Oedipus’s burial (so that no one can grave-rob and move Oedipus’s body to a position that would create a more pleasing forecast from the oracles.)
“Antigone” takes place after the death of Oedipus. The dutiful Antigone is now back in Thebes. When her brother Polyneices is killed and Creon orders that the prince not be buried, Antigone refuses to accept the decree. She steals the body and gives it a proper burial. Antigone was engaged to marry Creon’s son, Haemon, but Creon decrees that the woman will be imprisoned in a cave for disobedience of the king’s order. Haemon asks his father to be reasonable, but Creon will have none of it. Eventually, the words of an oracle convince Creon to change his mind, but he finds himself too late. Like Oedipus, various ruin then befalls Creon.
While the details of the story may strain credulity in places, these works are powerful morality tales. The recurring theme is that one can’t make an end-run around fate by way of vice and neither can one otherwise manhandle events to achieve a desirable outcome. Oedipus’s father sends his son to be killed, but the outcome remains the same. Creon can’t plant Oedipus’s corpse where he pleases and neither can he deny a man proper burial. It’s almost a karmic tale. Perhaps, the path to pleasing the gods is through virtue, and not through finagling one’s way to compliance with forecasts.
I find it fascinating how crucial a role is played by oracles throughout the three plays—and what that says about human nature. The fortune-tellers are always right and are always heeded. In a sense, this story tells one about humanity’s fear of uncertainty, what people are willing to do to allay that fear, and how the world is ultimately too complex for those attempts to work out. The law of unintended consequences remains ever present.
I enjoyed these plays. They are brief, stirring, readable, and thought-provoking. I would recommend them for any reader—particularly those interested in the classics.