The Three Theban Plays by Sophocles

Read as part of #CBAM2017

The Three Theban Plays are in chronological order Antigone, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at 41ciilrcml-_sx310_bo1204203200_Colonus. The dramatic order, the order the story plays out, is Oedipus the King, Oediupus at Colonus and Antigone. I read the chronological order. There are many pros and cons with either reading order. I was fine with the chronological one, partly because Antigone, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus were written many years apart from one another. Antigone, while not a badly written play, is not as sophisticated as At Colonus. Reading Antigone first might have helped save the story, as I’ve read a lot of people who read it in the dramatic order being disappointed with Antigone.

There are many topics to talk about regarding these plays, even Freud used Oedipus the King to work out one of his main theories: We all want to kill our father and marry our mother. The theme I gravitated towards might be influenced by the fact I read Antigone first, where the theme is much more prevalent. Antigone wants to bury her brother, but is forbidden by her uncle Creon, King of Theban, because the brother had fought against Theban in war. We see these two forces being put up against one another, being loyal towards your family (Antigone) or towards your town or nation (Creon). (Theban is a town, but the structure of the time a town was almost what we call a nation today.) Both draw on elements like who the people side with or the will of the gods to figure out who is right. While it’s clear that we as the audience are not supposed to side with Creon, it’s interesting if we should be siding with Antigone. Personally I think a line from Ismene, her sister, to Antigone at the beginning is very telling:

You’re wrong from the start,

you’re off on a hopeless quest.

She is trying to convince Antigone that going against her uncle, and by that the law of the land, is not a positive thing. It will only bring her misery. Maybe Sophocles is trying to say that seeing either the family or the nation as something sacred everything else can be sacrificed for, are both equally wrong.

This theme of nation vs. family are prevalent in the other plays as well. Oedipus the King goes back to the beginning when Oedipus discovers his big dark secret. He wants to figure this out to help the town, but by doing it does put his family, who are constantly telling him to back down from his quest, in a horrible position. In Oedipus at Colonus we follow Oedipus as an old man, and now the tables have turned. His family is seeking him out to save the town.

Theme of nation is also interesting regarding some of the other themes in the play. Oedipus is the victim of a great tragedy. Language wise this tragedy is referred to differently throughout the plays. In Antigone it’s the will of the gods, in The King it’s active actions, but At Colonus states:

Oedipus: I have suffered, friends,

the worst horrors on earth, suffered against my will,

I sear to god, not a single thing self-willed-

oedipus
Albert Greiner sr. & jr. (ca. 1896): Der niederländische Schauspieler Louis Bouwmeester als der geblendete Ödipus in Sophokles’ Drama.

We can’t chose our family, in the same way Oedipus can’t chose who his parents (and therefore what tragedy) he is going to have. Nation (town) is different. In Antigone, her brother has chosen to fight for a different nation, in At Colonus Oedipus chooses to support a different nation. Both motivated by their family. Though while they do have a choice, they do have huge consequences to them. For this to be a tragedy they needed a choice, which is found in the nation, not the family. To quote Richard Fagles:

If the witches had bewitched Macbeth, so that the murder of Duncan were not an act of his will, Macbeth would not be a tragedy – it would be a sort of science-fiction story in which a man is injected with a drug that makes him carry out the will of some external force. We might sympathize with him but could hardly be expected to engage ourselves emotionally with his actions, presented as a play. If Macbeth were injected with a witches’ brew or Oedipus with fate-serum, we could not regard them as tragic, or even dramatic. (Introduction to Oedipus the King)

You can see my vlog (video blog) about Prophecies and Time (Inspired by Oedipus the King) here.

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