to the Theban Plays
Michael J. Cummings ©
Theban Plays retell a mythological tale already familiar to the Greeks.
Why, then, would Athenians attend the performance of a play with a plot
well known to them? The answer, of course, is that they wanted to see how
the events unfolded and how they affected the principal characters.
If you saw the movie Titanic or Pearl Harbor, you were probably
aware ahead of time that the Titanic sank and that Pearl Harbor was left
in smoking ruins. Nevertheless, you saw these movies anyway because you
wanted to see the persons involved and the events leading up to the tragedies.
Athenians approached Sophocles' plays in the same way: It was the way Sophocles
told the story--using his extraordinary writing and interpretive talents--that
Note: Please read all that follows. One section flows into the other
as one continuous story. If you read the sections separately, your understanding
of the Theban Plays will be incomplete.
three Theban plays tell the continuing story of Oedipus and his daughter
Antigone in the following order: (1) Oedipus Rex (also called Oedipus
the King and Oedipus Tyrannus), (2) Oedipus at Colonus,
and (3) Antigone. Because each play can stand alone as a separate
dramatic unit and because Sophocles wrote the plays years apart and out
of sequence, they technically do not make up a trilogy, although some writers
refer to them as such. Most writers refer to them instead as "The Theban
Plays." However, even this name is a misnomer, since the second play takes
place at Colonus.
probable dates for the completion of the plays were 441 B.C. for Antigone,
430 B.C. for Oedipus the King; and 401 B.C. for Oedipus at
Colonus. However, as stated under "Sequence and Classification,"
the story Sophocles tells begins with Oedipus the King, continues
with Oedipus at Colonus, and ends with Antigone.
understand Oedipus the King, as well as the continuation of the
Oedipus story in the other two Theban plays, readers and playgoers should
familiarize themselves with the following mythological background, well
known to the Greeks who attended productions of the plays on the stages
of ancient Greece.
oracle warns King Laius of Thebes that his wife, Jocasta, will bear a son
who will one day kill him. After Jocasta gives birth to a boy, Laius acts
to defeat the prophecy. First, he drives a spike through the child's feet,
then takes him to Mount Cithaeron and orders a shepherd to kill him. But
the shepherd, taking pity on the baby, spares him after binding his feet
and tying him to a tree. A peasant finds the baby and gives him to a childless
couple--Polybus (also Polybius), King of Corinth, and his wife, Periboea
(also Merope). They name the boy Oedipus (meaning swelled foot)
and raise him to manhood.
day, when Oedipus visits the oracle at Delphi, the chief city of a region
in central Greece known as Phocis, the oracle tells Oedipus that a time
will come when he slays his father and marries his mother. Horrified, Oedipus
later strikes out from Corinth. He does not want to live anywhere near
his beloved parents, Polybus and Periboea, lest a trick of fate cause him
to be the instrument of their demise. What he does not know, of course,
is that Polybus and Periboea are not his real parents.
Phocis on the road to Thebes, at an intersection of three roads, Oedipus
encounters his real father Laius, whom he does not recognize, and five
attendants. Laius, who is riding in a mule-drawn wagon, is on his way to
Delphi to hear a prophecy from the oracle. Laius, of course, does not recognize
Oedipus either. Oedipus and Laius quarrel over a triviality--who has the
right of way. The quarrel leads to violence, and Oedipus kills Laius and
four of his attendants. One attendant escapes.
Thebes, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx, a winged lion with the head of a
woman. The grotesque creature has killed many Thebans because they could
not answer her riddle: What travels on four feet in the morning, two
at midday, and three in evening? Consequently, the city lives in great
terror. No one can enter or leave the city.
Oedipus approaches the Sphinx, the beast poses the riddle. Oedipus, quick
of mind, spits back the right answer: man. Here is the explanation: As
an infant in the morning of life, a human being crawls on all fours; as
an adult in the midday of life, he walks upright on two legs; as an old
man in the evening of life, he walks on three legs, including a cane.
and outraged, the Sphinx kills herself. Jubilant Thebans then offer this
newcomer the throne of Thebes. Oedipus accepts it and marries its widowed
queen, Jocasta. Jocasta is, of course, the mother of Oedipus, although
no one in Thebes is aware of this fact. Thus, the oracle's prophecy to
Laius and Oedipus is fulfilled.
King of Thebes
Fate, the Truth
Wife of Oedipus
Daughters of Oedipus
Chorus of Theban Elders
Thebes, a city northwest of Athens.
a plague ravages Thebes, Oedipus sends Creon, Jocasta's brother, to the
oracle at Delphi to find out the cause of the plague. After Creon returns,
he tells Oedipus the oracle's finding: The cause of the plague is murderer
of Laius, the former king. The murder is in the city at that very moment,
and not until he is identified and punished will the plague end. According
to Creon, Laius died when attacked by while he was traveling to Delphi
with five attendants to hear a prophecy from the oracle. Four of his attendants
were also killed. One escaped. There was a witness to the killings, a shepherd.
learn more, Oedipus summons the blind Theban seer Teiresias, a very old
man who can read omens and fathom the will of the Fates. He also has knowledge
of past prophecies affecting Thebes and its citizens. When Oedipus asks
him the identity of the killer, Teiresias provides only evasive replies,
then refuses to give any information at all. Angry, Oedipus says:
thy silence would incense a flint.
nothing loose thy tongue? Can nothing melt thee,
shake thy dogged taciturnity?
continues to withhold his knowledge, well knowing that disclosing it will
unleash the fury of the gods on Oedipus. However, when Oedipus accuses
Teiresias of planning the murder, Teiresias decides to reveal the truth:
that Oedipus himself is the murderer. Furthermore, in an oblique reference
to Oedipus's marriage to his own mother, Teiresias says, "I say thou livest
with thy nearest kin / In infamy, unwitting in thy shame." Oedipus reacts
by accusing Creon of bribing Teiresias to undo him and Teiresias of willingly
accepting the bribe solely for profit:
for this crown the State conferred on me.
gift, a thing I sought not, for this crown
trusty Creon, my familiar friend,
lain in wait to oust me and suborned
mountebank, this juggling charlatan,
tricksy beggar-priest, for gain alone
but in his proper art stone-blind.
pleads his innocence. But Oedipus, refusing to believe him, threatens him
with a death sentence. Jocasta comes forth to calm Oedipus and end the
altercation, urging him to accept Creon's denial of wrongdoing. The chorus
supports her, saying, "Brand not a friend whom babbling tongues assail;
/ Let not suspicion 'gainst his oath prevail." Oedipus relents and dismisses
Creon, but rancor remains in his heart.
then tells Oedipus that he should put his mind at ease, declaring that
the words of seers are not to be trusted. To prove the truth of her observation,
she reminds Oedipus that Laius was prophesied to die by the hand of his
own son but instead died by the hand of unknown robbers in Phocis at the
intersection of three roads, according to reports shortly after the death
of Laius. But instead of calming Oedipus, the words further unnerve him:
"What memories, what wild tumult of the soul / Came o'er me, lady, as I
heard thee speak!" He begins to suspect that he could be the murderer after
all, especially when Jocasta describes Laius as a tall man whose hair was
streaked with silver. Oedipus seems to have a vague memory of such a man.
Deeply concerned, Oedipus sends for the man who carried the report of Laius's
death to Thebes.
an elderly messenger arrives from Corinth to report the death of King Polybus,
whom Oedipus had thought was his biological father. He presents his report
to Jocasta while Oedipus is elsewhere. The Corinthians, the messenger says,
want Oedipus to be their king. Jocasta, thrilled with this good news, sends
for Oedipus. However, after the messenger presents his report to Oedipus,
he also discloses that Polybus was not the real father of Oedipus. Then
he recites the tale of how Oedipus was abandoned as a baby and later taken
by a shepherd to Polybus and his wife, who raised him. Oedipus sends for
the shepherd. After he arrives, the shepherd reveals that the baby he took
to Polybus came from the House of Laius. Both Oedipus and Jocasta then
realize the truth of the matter. Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus blinds
himself, then urges Creon to exile him.
Banished King of Thebes
Daughters of Oedipus
King of Athens
King of Thebes
Older son of Oedipus
Attendant of Theseus
Chorus of Citizens From
Colonus, a town outside Athens
favored by the Furies, spirits who punish evildoers.
Oedipus leaves Thebes, Creon becomes the temporary ruler of the city while
it is decided which of the sons of Oedipus, Polynices or Eteocles, will
become the permanent ruler. However, in time, the brothers agree to rule
in alternate years. Meanwhile, the blinded Oedipus wanders for years from
one place to another with his daughter Antigone, suffering many trials
that earn him redemption for his sins of long ago. Eventually, he arrives
at Colonus, a town just outside Athens where he believes he is fated to
is favored by the Eumenides, a euphemistic term for the Furies--three spirits
who punish evildoers beyond the pale of human justice. The townspeople
of Colonus refuse to accept him and order him to leave. He is the accursed
Oedipus, after all, and his presence can only bring the wrath of the gods
upon Colonus. But the ruler of Athens (and its suburb, Colonus) accepts
him and declares that Oedipus may count on Colonus as his final resting
place. This ruler is Theseus, famed for countless heroic adventures against
man and beast. No one in his realm dares countermand his edicts; what he
says is law. Theseus is a just man, but he is also a practical one, hoping
to capitalize on a prophecy that the land where Oedipus is buried will
be a land that receives the blessings and protection of the gods.
and by, Oedipus's other daughter, Ismeme, joins him at Colonus and reports
that Polynices and Eteocles are at war over the throne of Thebes. It seems
Eteocles refuses to yield the throne to Polynices even thought it is the
latter's turn to rule. She also reports that Creon is approaching from
Thebes on a special mission. After Creon arrives, he tries to persuade
Oedipus to return to Thebes, believing that his death and burial there
will protect the city from turmoil resulting from the war between Polynices
and Eteocles. To further his plans, Creon has his henchmen abduct Antigone
and Ismene. Then he tries to carry off Oedipus himself. However, redoubtable
Theseus prevents further mischief by Creon and rescues Antigone and Ismene.
arrives to ask his father to help him defeat Eteocles. Enraged that one
son would seek the death of the other son, Oedipus curses them both, calling
down the wrath of the gods on each.
thereafter thunder rumbles in the heavens while Oedipus talks with Theseus,
and Oedipus says his time to die is near. They then exchange ominous words:
sign assures thee that thine end is near?
gods themselves are heralds of my fate;
their appointed warnings nothing fails.
sayest thou they signify their will?
thunder, peal on peal, this lightning hurled
upon flash, from the unconquered hand.
bidding goodby to his daughters while Theseus remains nearby, Oedipus dies.
A courier reports to the citizens (the chorus) that the manner of Oedipus's
crossing to the afterlife is known only to Theseus. The courier says:
was a messenger from heaven, or else
gentle, painless cleaving of earth's base;
without wailing or disease or pain
passed away--an end most marvelous.
Although it has been argued that Antigone
is the protagonist, she does not experience a requirement of classical
Greek protagonists: a moment of truth in which the protagonist recognizes
and acknowledges his or her mistakes, failures, or
Creon King of Thebes,
who creates conflict when he forbids the burial of Polynices
of Oedipus, sister of Polynices, and niece of Creon. She defies Creon's
orders and buries Polynices.
Ismene Reticent sister
Haemon Son of Creon,
betrothed to Antigone
Eurydice Wife of
Chorus of Theban Elders
Thebes, a city northwest of Athens.
Thebes, Eteocles and Polynices have been fighting over the throne. Though
they were to rule in alternate years, Eteocles had refused to yield kingship
to his brother when it was the latter's turn to rule. After Polynices flees
to Argos to seek help, the king of that city helps him muster an army.
With numberless swords and shields gleaming in the bright sun, Polynices
returns to Thebes and lays siege to the city. But the forces of Eteocles
are also many and strong, and a standoff results. Then the brothers duel
in hand-to-hand combat and kill each other. The armies resume battle to
no avail, and the forces of Polynices withdraw. The war dead, including
to the two brothers, lie on the battlefield unburied.
Creon--the brother of the late queen of Thebes, Jocasta, and brother-in-law
of the late king, Oedipus--assumes the throne. He regards his nephew Polynices,
the attacker of Thebes, as a traitor. Consequently,
in his first act as King of Thebes, he forbids the burial of Polynices
under pain of death, a ruling that appears to violate an ancient moral
law and sacred tradition: the right of all families to bury their dead.
Antigone, the sister of Polynices, condemns the decision. After learning
of it, she tells her sister, Ismene, that Creon has decreed an honorable
burial for Eteocles, enabling him to enter the afterlife as an esteemed
and worthy soul, but has ordered Polynices to lie unburied, a feast for
the vultures, dooming his soul to wander aimlessly. Though only a slip
of a girl aged 15 or 16, Antigone decides to defy the decree. Ismene, horrified,
urges Antigone to keep her place in a male-dominated society that surely
will not brook the defiance of a teenage girl.
we not perish . . .
in defiance of the law we cross
monarch's will?--weak women, think of that,
framed by nature to contend with men.
this too that the stronger rules;
must obey his orders, these or worse.
Antigone has made up her mind. When night falls, she goes to the battlefield
and throws a ceremonial handful of dust on the corpse of her brother, satisfying
ancient traditions and qualifying Polynices for a peaceful life in the
afterworld. A guard then arrests her and takes her to Creon. Although she
readily admits she disobeyed his decree, she says she did so out of respect
for divine law, which takes precedence over man-made law.
for these laws were not ordained of Zeus,
she who sits enthroned with gods below,
enacted not these human laws.
did I deem that thou, a mortal man,
by a breath annul and override
immutable unwritten laws of Heaven
stubborn refusal to cooperate with Creon prompts him to rail against her
in a show of his manly authority:
this proud girl, in insolence well-schooled,
overstepped the established law, and then--
second and worse act of insolence--
boasts and glories in her wickedness.
if she thus can flout authority
I am woman, she the man.
he does not realize is that his intentionally ironic comment (last line
of quotation) is in fact true, figuratively. Antigone does become the man
in her boldness, proving herself more than a match for Creon. In retaliation,
he sentences her to be buried alive in a tomb even though she is betrothed
to his own son, Haemon.
prophet Teiresias later persuades Creon to reverse his decision, warning
that to do otherwise would invoke the wrath of the gods. Creon relents,
buries Polynices, and goes to the tomb to release Antigone. But Creon's
change of heart comes too late to forestall fate: Antigone has hanged herself
rather than accept Creon's sentence passively. Haemon, overcome with grief
and anger, lunges wildly at his father with a sword, but misses. Haemon
then plunges the sword into his own body and dies. Creon's distraught wife,
Eurydice, then turns a dagger on herself, cursing Creon, and she too dies.
Creon stands alone to harvest the terrible suffering he had sown by exalting
the law of the state, or man's law, over the law of the gods, or the moral
of Sophoclean Tragedy
of Sophocles has the following characteristics:
Between Tragedy and Comedy
based on events that already took place and with which the audience is
is a person of noble birth and stature.
has a weakness and, because of it, becomes isolated and suffers a downfall.
the protagonist's fall is not entirely his or her own fault, the audience
may end up pitying him or her.
protagonist gains self-knowledge. He has a deeper insight into himself
and understands his weakness.
undergoes catharsis, a purging of emotions, after experiencing pity,
fear, shock and other strong feelings. The people go away feeling better.
usually unfolds in one place in a short period of time, usually about a
tragedy focuses on a great and noble character--such as Oedipus, a king--but
a Greek comedy usually does not. Also, in a comedy, the author usually
pokes fun at the characters. Finally, a comedy does not end tragically.
An example of a classic Greek comedy is Lysistrata, by Aristophanes.
of the Chorus
chorus generally had the following roles in the plays of Sophocles:
ways, the chorus is like the narrator of a modern film or like the background
music accompanying the action of the film. In addition, it is like text
on the film screen that provides background information or identifies the
time and place of the action.
the action in relation to the law of the state and the law of the Olympian
as an actor in the play
the author's views.
as a Character Flaw
was considered a grave sin because it placed too much emphasis on individual
will, thereby downplaying the will of the state and endangering the community
as a whole. Because pride makes people unwilling to accept wise counsel,
they act rashly and make bad decisions. Great pride, such as that of Oedipus
(Oedipus Rex) or Creon (Antigone), is referred to as hybris
of the Plays
punishes the proud and the insolent with ironic outcomes terrible to behold.
as king of Thebes exhibits great pride (hubris) that blinds his ability
to accept the truth. By contrast, the blind prophet Teiresias readily "sees"
bigger they are, they harder they fall. Thanks to whims of fate
and his own pride and arrogance, Oedipus, a great and mighty king, tumbles
headlong into an abyss of humiliation, grief, and remorse in a single day.
love, piety, and hardship, Oedipus achieves redemption.
Oedipus, stripped of dignity, wanders in a wilderness of suffering for
many years. Though blind, he begins to "see" again with the eye of his
soul, recognizing his faults and realizing the importance of love and right
living with the help of his daughters, Antigone and Ismene.
and pride cause the downfall of even the noblest humans. Both
Creon and Antigone doom themselves with their recalcitrance. Overriding
divine law with the law of the state leads to ruin. Creon's
refusal to permit Antigone to bury her brother Polynices was a violation
of moral law even though Polynices had rebelled against Creon's rule as
King of Thebes.
and tyranny can provoke justified civil disobedience. To uphold
the moral law, Antigone breaks the civil law. Down through the ages and
into modern times, citizens have used this theme to guide them in redressing
their grievances. During the Vietnam War, American protesters took the
role of Antigone as they demonstrated and sometimes rioted against the
government's war policy. (4) Women can be as wise and as strong as
men. The Thebes of Creon is a male-dominated society that reduces
women to subservient roles. Thus, when a mere slip of a girl, the teenage
Antigone, dares to speak out against his unjust policy, he regards her
behavior as a challenge not only to his royal power but also to his masculine
power. Throughout the play, he repeatedly denounces her as much for her
gender as for her defiance of his decree forbidding the burial of Antigone's
brother. However, to the very end, Antigone is unshaken in her resolve,
demonstrating to Athenian audiences of Sophocles' time that women can be
just as wise and as strong as men--in fact, in Antigone's case, even more
(ED ih pihs or EE dih pihs)
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(an TIG uh ne)
Isemene (iz ME ne)
Teiresias (ti RE se uhs)
Eurydice (yoo RID uh se,
yor RID uh se)
Polynices (pol ih NE seez)
Creon (KRE on)
Sophocles died more than twenty-four centuries ago, he continues to live
today in his plays as one of history's greatest writers. His themesjustice,
pride, obstinacy, flawed humanity, and the struggle between destiny and
free willare as timely today as they were in his own time. Aristotle lauded
Sophocles as the supreme dramatist, maintaining that Oedipus the King
was a model for all playwrights to imitate.
was born a mile northwest of Athens in the deme (township) of Colonus between
497 and 495 B.C. Because his father, Sophillus, shared in the profits of
a successful family weapons and armor manufactory, Sophocles was a child
of advantage, enjoying the comforts of the privileged and receiving an
education that undergirded his natural talents. He studied poetry, dance,
philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, law, athletics, and military tactics.
He also studied music and became accomplished at playing the cithara, a
stringed instrument resembling the lyre of the harp family.
spite of his aristocratic background and entitlements, Sophocles was a
man of the people: kindly, generous, popular. Fellow Athenians esteemed
him highly throughout his life. That he was quite handsome may have helped
bolster his popularity.
earned his entry into the Athenian literary world with a play entitled
Triptolemus, which does not survive. He used it in 468 to defeat
another outstanding dramatist, Aeschylus, in a writing competition. Competing
plays were performed in a theater dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine
and revelry. Sophocles went on to win about two dozen more drama awards
against Aeschylus and other extraordinary writers. It is said that he sometimes
acted in plays. On one occasion, he reportedly presented a juggling act
that dazzled the audience.
Sophocles' time, dramatists wrote tragedies three at a time. The second
play continued the action of the first, and the third play continued the
action of the second. The entire three-play series of tragedies was called
a trilogy. Sophocles broke with tradition
by writing single plays that stood alone as dramatic units. Ajax
is an example of a stand-alone Sophocles play. The Oedipus series of plays
(Oedipus the King, Oedipus
at Colonus and Antigone) is not technically
a trilogy (although sometimes referred to as one) because the plays were
written years apart as single units.
also emphasized people more than his predecessors, taking characters in
well-known plots from mythology and dressing them up as real human beings
with noble but complex personalities vulnerable to pride and flawed judgment.
Audiences in ancient Athens did not go to a Sophocles play to be entertained
by a plot with a surpise ending. They already knew the ending. They went
to a Sophocles play to see how the characters reacted to the forces working
for or against them--mostly against. Thus, Sophocles' plays required superb
writing and characterization to hold the interest of the audience.
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portraying his characters, Sophocles raised irony to high art, making the
characters unwitting victims of fate or their own shortcomings. The irony
was both verbal (with characters speaking words laden with meaning uknown
to them) and dramatic (with characters ensnaring themselves in predicaments
charged with danger that they do not recognize but that the audience well
knows will lead to disaster). The audience knew, for example, what Oedipus
did not know (until the end of Oedipus the King):
that the man he killed and the woman he married were his father and mother.
This type of dramatic irony occurs often
in Sophocles' plays, allowing the audience to become engrossed with a character's
response to a situation rather than the eventual outcome of the situation.
of Sophocles' innovations was an increase in the number of actors in plays
from two to three, presenting more opportunities to contrast characters
and create foils.
He also introduced painted scenery, enhanced costuming, and fixed the number
of persons in the chorus at 15. The chorus also diminished in importance;
it was the actors who mattered.
key to his work was provided by Matthew Arnold in the phrase to the effect
that Sophocles possessed an 'even-balanced soul,' " drama critic John Gassner
wrote in Masters of the Drama (New York: Random House, 1954, Page
42). "He comprehended both the joy and grief of living, its beauty and
ugliness, its moments of peace and its basic uncertainty so concisely expressed
by his line 'Human life, even in its utmost splendor and struggle, hangs
on the edge of an abyss.' "
handling of human tragedy was influenced, in part, by the tragedies of
war. During his lifetime he had witnessed the devastating Persian and Peloponnesian
wars and even participated in a war when he served as a general with Pericles
to quell rebellion on Samos, an Aegean island.
military duty, Sophocles served as a city treasurer, helping to control
the money of the Delian Confederacy of states. He also served as member
of a governing council and as a priest in the service of Asclepius, the
god of medicine, to whom he was especially devoted. Well into old age,
he remained productive in civic activities and writing. He wrote Oedipus
at Colonus, for example, when he was over 90. It was that play
which saved him from a charge of mental incompetency brought by his sons.
According to ancient accounts by Cicero and Plutarch, when Sophocles appeared
in court, he read from Oedipus at Colonus, which he was working
on at that time. So impressed were the members of the jury that they acquitted
him, apparently realizing that only a man fully in charge of his faculties
could write such beautiful words. Sophocles died about 405. He and his
wife, Nicostrate, had a son, Iophon, who was also a tragedian. Sophocles
and his mistress, Theoris of Sicyon, had a child named Agathon. Agathon
was the father of Sophocles the Younger, also a writer.