“One soul is enough, I know, to pay the debt for thousands, if one will go to the gods in all good faith.”
There’s a pattern with many of these Greek tragedies. Through the sad tales of cursed families, they illustrate the evolution of Western civilization. Fifth-century Athens was a light in the dark, a young democracy, and the Athenians used tragedy as a tool to preserve history, learn from it, and document their growth. With The Oresteia, we saw Aeschylus tackle the ideas of law and respect for the state, and Sophocles continues along those lines, but places the focus on another great philosophical problem–free will vs. fate.
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.
Fun links to learn more:
- My highly informal, yet somehow highly formal, book notes.
- Thug Notes on Oedipus the King. This is the epitome of hilarious and informative.