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The Three Theban Plays

The Three Theban Plays [PDF]

Sophocles Theban play cycle, Antigone, Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, spans the length of his career as a playwright. Traditionally, Antigone is placed at the end of the cycle, but chronologically it was the first that Sophocles wrote. I think this offers a big key to interpreting the plays as a whole. This key has to do with the evolution of Athenian society and how the subject-matters dealt with in the plays relate to the rapid growth and decay that Democratic Athens experienced—a period that coincided with Sophocles’ own life.

In Antigone, the major struggle of the play is between the command of the gods versus the commands of the state, and the uneasy relation between the two. When this play was written Sophocles was middle-aged and the greatest living dramatist in Athens. Within ten-years, Athens would be immersed in an internecine war with Sparta, a struggle that would entangle all of the Greek World. It is only natural to see this play as indicative of a kind of anxiety that permeated the burgeoning Athenian Empire. Barely two generations had passed since Athens, in alliance with other Greek city states, had defeated Persia and become the pre-eminent power in Greece. All that Athens would eventually become famous for—philosophy, politics, art, tragedy—had been created and codified in a heady world of public ceremony and committed citizenship. Such a microcosm of civil society hasn't really existed save for this one brief fifty-year period. But at the same time, there was a traditional world behind the newness that did not exactly dovetail with the expanding world of legalism and popular justice. That traditional world had been grafted onto the new, and undoubtedly such a hybrid system caused tensions. I think this is clearly evident in Antigone. Dreyfus and Kelly, in their recent Heideggerian book on Grecian Religion and modern literature, All Things Shining, make the claim that the gods of pagan Greece were really the personification of moods. The Ancient Greeks listened to these moods; they told them when to sacrifice and when to stand strong. The intrusion of reason into the pagan world must have been particularly jarring as a consequence. Which do you listen to: reason or the gods? In Antigone, reason is the voice of the State which is embodied by Creon, who has taken over the Kingship from Oedipus. Creon won’t allow Antigone to bury her brother Polynices because he had turned traitor to the State. Considering the heavy patriotism of the Greek City States at the time, this command of Creon would not have been seen as unreasonable.

What’s genius about Sophocles’ handling of this myth is that he embodies the clash between traditional religious consciousness and rational citizenry in the clash between Creon and Antigone. We should not forget as well though that Antigone has a very dark past. She was one of the offspring of an incestuous union between mother and son, between Jocasta and Oedipus. Antigone's allegiance to Hades, the god of the underworld, is forged because of this past, which haunts and cuts off her hope for the future; she is able to commit herself to her rebellious enterprise because the god speaks to her and motivates her. It’s hard for us to identify with this sort of awareness, so we must try the harder to imagine Sophocles’ world of 5th Century Athens where the old religion is still healthy and alive and yet competing with an extremely successful, secular political system which imparts so many benefits to the public. Antigone is a reminder of ancient traditions, of a way of knowing the world and how to comport oneself to the mystery of life. However, because both Antigone and Creon are unswerving in their allegiances, their story ends tragically. Hegel’s interpretation of this play is essentially correct: this is a play of conflicting values, but it is a tragedy that plays itself out over the course of the whole Theban cycle.

Oedipus Rex is rightly the most acclaimed of the three plays—being considered by Bernard Knox as the unquestioned masterpiece of the Ancient Theatre. The power of the play is undeniable, not least for the tale of incest and murder that are at its heart. Two world views are here put at odds. The first is represented by Oedipus, the King of Thebes, who came to power after solving the Sphinx’s riddle, a feat which lifted the plague that had beset the city. At the start of the play, another plague has struck the city and the seers say that they must banish the individual who killed the former ruler of Thebes, King Laius,in order to bring the plague to an end. Oedipus is committed to rooting out the culprit: he must know the truth regarding the murder of the former King and this sets him on a collision course with his destiny, a destiny which had been prophesied from his birth. The other world view involved here is represented by Jocasta. She does not believe in prophecies. She sees the future as open and subject to human intervention. You might even compare her mindset with modern science and technology: if a plague were to start now, science would respond by looking for a cure, using human ingenuity to move past a momentary hurdle. Oedipus is committed to understanding the truth—with a capital T—and this commitment pushes past a simple direct approach, which accepts that humans can simply use ingenuity to fix all problems.

The old world, the one permeated by religion, which offered a way of knowing life through the gods, has been infected by the scientific, democratic world of Classical Athens, and Oedipus is the Christ figure who must suffer the change-over to a new world (along with his family), one that is forever different from what was before. He pursues the truth and discovers that he has violated all the worst taboos: incest and murder. The truth spills over him and he blinds himself.

In Oedipus at Colonus, however, we find Oedipus much older, having spent years in exile wandering Greece. In the interim, he has come to a different view of his fate. He realizes that he had no choice in his destiny, that it has been set out for him by the gods, and that he must now choose whether to fulfil his destiny. This represents a powerful synthesis of opposing forces and worldviews, this act to fulfil his destiny. He is now free because he accepts the life that has been set out for him, but does so out of reason and responsibility to an understanding of the good. He makes his way to Colonus just outside of Athens, where he meets Theseus, the enlightened ruler of Athens.

This play was written at the tail end of the Peloponnesian War, a bloody war that had lasted some thirty years. Sophocles died before the end of the war and did not live to see Oedipus at Colonus produced; the play was finally put on in 401 BCE, after the end of the war and the brutal transition to the rule of the 30 tyrants. Some meaning needed to be made out of all this struggle, and I’m sure this was on Sophocles’ mind when he wrote the play. Athens was a citadel of rule by law, of reason and respect for the sovereignty of the people. But there was still the mystery of all the past traditions lurking out there in the immensity of the world—the reality of greater forces than what could be readily comprehended. Oedipus, as the figure picked out to suffer for the synthesis of the old and the new, bears the final message: that of wise respect for laws and traditions and traditional ways of life, and also for the need of freedom to give substance to the existence of civilization.

This is undoubtedly one of the greatest stories ever told, one that follows from the founding saga of Aeschylus’ Orestia, where justice emerges from the transmutation of the furies into the guardians of law and reason, the Eumenides (Oedipus stops in Colonus because that is where there's a sacred wood of the Furies/Eumenides). We take for granted the existence of rule by law now, and don’t always appreciate what was defeated when it came into existence: arbitrary power and rule. At the same time, in ushering in the new we forget about ‘ways of life’ that have taken shape over thousands of years which gave people sharpened instincts and intuitions about how to live and which worked for very long periods of time; to cast aside those ways of life without deep critical engagement, Sophocles seems to say, is disastrous.

Of course, there is much more going on in these plays, but, as I finished Oedipus at Colonus, it suddenly struck me what Oedipus was meant to represent: a new freedom built upon the grounding of traditions. Had Fagles and Knox not pointed out the chronological order of the plays, I probably would never have drawn the same conclusions.

What with the high poetry of the writing, the universality of the plots, and the astonishing vision of humanity they represent—these plays are all three inimitable and timeless, and should never be far from our consciousness of life on this planet.
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