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The Theban Plays of Sophocles - by Mansi Dhokia

If you are interested in this article, you may be interested in our free Digital Think Tank by Professor Paul Cartledge entitled 'Thebes: The Forgotten City' on March 2nd at 6pm. For more information and free tickets, check out the link here

Three plays - Oedipus Tyrannus, Antigone, and Oedipus at Colonus - are regarded as the Theban Plays of Sophocles. They are not a trilogy in the same way as Aeschylus’ Oresteia, since they were not performed in the same year and were written for separate festivals many years apart. However, they are linked in theme and characters as they generally concern King Oedipus and the fate of the city of Thebes, despite inconsistencies in the myth between the three plays.

The first play in the story of Thebes is Oedipus Tyrannus (also known as Oedipus Rex or Oedipus The King). This is perhaps Sophocles’ most well-known play and is lauded in Aristotle’s Poetics as an example of an excellent tragedy because it conforms to the tragic ideals that he sets out in his work. The play primarily concerns the character of Oedipus, who grew up in Corinth and came to Thebes as an adult, outwitting and slaying the Sphinx which was terrorising Thebes. Thus, he was instated as the king and married to Jocasta, widow of the previous king. The play begins as a plague is ravishing the city of Thebes and Oedipus is trying to prevent the suffering of his people. He is told that the plague will only subside once the murderer of the previous king, Laius, has been found.

So begins the tale of murder and incest for which the play is well-known today, capitalised by the psychologist Sigmund Freud’s theory of the ‘Oedipus Complex’ - Freud uses Oedipus as an example of a man who has a subconscious desire of violence towards his father and sexual feelings towards his mother. The primary message of Sophocles’ play, however, focuses on the subtlety of ignorance and fate rather than the actions of murder and incest. The theme of knowledge is at the core of the play, with Oedipus beginning the action as a man who thinks he knows everything about his life before coming to the slow realisation that he murdered Laius, his own father. A complex sequence of events brought this about: there was a prophecy that the son of Laius and Jocasta would kill his father and marry his mother; in order to prevent this, Laius and Jocasta gave their son, Oedipus, to a shepherd to be killed on the mountainside. The shepherd could not bring himself to kill the infant and so gave him to the king and queen of Corinth, whom Oedipus grew up thinking were his biological parents. When Oedipus heard a prophecy that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother, he fled from Corinth to avoid his fate and ended up in Thebes after killing a traveller - Laius - along the way. Thus, it was in trying to escape his fate that Oedipus sealed it.

Painting of  The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods, Bénigne Gagneraux (1784)
The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods, Bénigne Gagneraux (1784)

The play uses dramatic irony, alongside the slow realisation of the characters, to elicit a sense of pity and fear within the audience - they would have been familiar with the myth of Oedipus and so would know that Oedipus’ obsessive search for Laius’ murderer will be in vain. Oedipus’ tragic flaw is his own quest for knowledge no matter the price; once it finally becomes clear what he has unwittingly done, this spurs on the tragic ending of Jocasta committing suicide and Oedipus blinding himself. He ends the play a disgraced man, physically blind yet now possessing all the knowledge about himself that he lacked at the beginning.

Oedipus at Colonus also has Oedipus as the protagonist but is a very different story. It was written much later in Sophocles’ life and was actually produced posthumously by his grandson. It follows Oedipus after he has left Thebes and arrives at Colonus, a village near Athens. It is here that Sophocles sets Oedipus’ tragic death at Colonus after his exile from Thebes with his two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Oedipus hears from Ismene about the situation in Thebes: his sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, are fighting for the throne. They want Oedipus to return to Thebes as the oracle has said that it will bring good fortune, but Oedipus believes that he is fated to die at Colonus. He refuses to go back and curses his sons to die at each other’s hands. Creon - the new king of Thebes and brother of Jocasta - and Polyneices both come for Oedipus; Creon tries to take Oedipus back to Thebes by force and Polyneices tries to beg his father to return, but it is futile. In the end, Oedipus dies peacefully under the protection of Theseus, the king of Athens.

Painting of Oedipus at Colonus, Fulchran-Jean Harriet (1778)
Oedipus at Colonus, Fulchran-Jean Harriet (1778)

The final Theban play is Antigone. It was written in 441 BCE, so it was actually the first of the Theban plays to be performed even though it is the last one in the story. It follows the actions of Oedipus’ daughter, Antigone, after her brothers Polyneices and Eteocles have killed each other. Eteocles was honoured with a burial in the city whereas her uncle Creon has expressly forbidden Polyneices to be granted proper burial rites. Antigone wishes to bury her brother and goes against Creon’s wishes to do so - for this, she is imprisoned and kills herself. This results in further deaths: Creon’s son Haemon was betrothed to Antigone and kills himself; Creon’s wife Eurydice kills herself after her son dies. Antigone’s moral defiance of Creon results in a mass tragedy for the whole family, leaving Creon paying the penalty for his immovability as ruler of the city.

Painting of Antigone in front of the dead Polynices, Nikiforos Lytras (1865)
Antigone in front of the dead Polynices, Nikiforos Lytras (1865)

Antigone is a play in which gender is a key issue: the main conflict is between Antigone, a young woman, and Creon, the ultimate masculine figure. This gender binary creates conflict - Creon cannot believe that he is being disobeyed and bested by a woman. It also feeds into the struggle between the public and the private duties of an individual in Ancient Greece; Creon is the symbol of civic duty while Antigone believes her familial duty to bury her brother transcends such rules of the public authority. The binary opposition between the two characters is fascinating, especially as this is a tragedy and both Antigone and Creon suffer the consequences of their actions. Arguably, Antigone is happier at the end despite her own death as she has achieved her goal of burying her brother, whereas Creon must despair the loss of his son and wife alone.

Overall, the Theban plays of Sophocles are interesting to consider as they form a large portion of the playwright’s extant work. Although they centre around the myth of Thebes rather than Athens, they are written down by a 5th century Athenian playwright and so hold insight into Sophocles’ contemporary Athens (alongside historical Thebes). The Theban saga is one of the most well-known veins of mythology and Sophocles’ plays cement Thebes as a very important city in the Ancient Greek world.

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