The Ultimate Online Study Guide to Sophocles' Three Theban Plays

Sophocles

Without the work of Sophocles, who is one of the earliest known Greek dramatists, modern theatre might not look as it does. He introduced the third actor to the stage and his ideas not only inspired further plays by Shakespeare, but an entire genre of psychology. His works number 123 (though only seven survive) and are the oldest to have survived to this day and his plays are performed routinely even almost 2,500 years after his death around 406 BC. His first claim to fame occurred when his entry into the Dionysia theatre contest defeated Aeschylus’ entry. From that point forward, his plays were given funding for production, and Sophocles forever changed the course of drama through his work and innovations.

NOTE: The Theban plays were not written in chronological order. Think of it like Star Wars. Though the originals were written first, the prequels (with events taking place before the originals) were written after them. They were originally written for separate dramatic competitions and have some inconsistencies between them because they are not parts of a trilogy, in that they were not meant to be performed one after another. It is believed they are three parts of separate groups of plays which have not survived. For the purposes of this guide, however, they have been placed in order of dramatic events. 

Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King)

Though Oedipus Rex was the second of the three Theban plays to be written, it actually tells the first part of what is something like a three part story (see NOTE). The play takes place in Thebes (hence Theban) and is actually a story Greeks would have been roughly familiar with. What was appealing to them was how the events unfolded, like the reason people still watch films based on well-known history today. Think of it like this: You knew the Titanic would sink, right? Then why watch the movie? 

Oedipus Rex tells the story of Oedipus, king of Thebes, as a plague devastates Thebes. Oedipus finds out through Creon that the cause of the plague was, according to an oracle (fortune teller) the murder of Laius, the former king of Thebes. The oracle tells Creon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law who was sent to find out the cause of the plague, that the murderer is within the walls of Thebes and not until this man is apprehended and brought to justice will the plague end. 

Determined to find the killer and bring an end to the plague, Oedipus calls upon Tiresias, a blind prophet, for help. When Tiresias refuses to tell Oedipus who the killer is, suggesting instead that Oedipus gives up the search, Oedipus is furious. He accuses Tiresias of having been bribed by Creon to hide the fact that he, Creon, is the killer. 

Creon is brought to Oedipus to face his accusations, and Oedipus sentences him to death. The chorus, however, changes his mind and Creon is allowed to live. Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife shows up to comfort her husband, saying prophets cannot be trusted. She reassures him by saying that a prophet once told she and Laius that Laius would be killed by his own son, which turned out not to be true because, as everyone knew, Laius was killed by bandits on the way to see an oracle in Delphi.

Jocasta’s mention of the way in which Laius was killed worries Oedipus, as he now thinks that he may have, in fact, killed Laius, and he tells her the story of how it happened. He recounts to Jacosta how, years prior, when he was prince of Corinth, he heard at a banquet that he might not be his father’s son. Bothered by this, he heads off the consult the oracle at Delphi. The oracle does not answer his question, but does tell him that he will murder his own father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus takes the prophesy as fact and, to avoid his fate, takes off for Thebes. Oedipus then tells his wife how he did, in self-defense, kill a group of travellers at a crossroads which led to Delphi. 

As he finishes his story, a messenger comes in to tell Oedipus that his father, Polybus, king of Corinth is dead, and that the city wants him to return to rule as king. Jacosta is ecstatic, because this proves the prophesy wrong. Oedipus cannot kill his father if his father is already dead. Oedipus is still concerned, though, about the second half of the prophesy, that he would sleep with his mother. To put his new king’s heart at ease, the messenger from Corinth tells Oedipus not to worry because the king and queen of Corinth are not his real parents anyway. 

The messenger explains that many years ago, when he worked as a shepherd on Mount Cithaeron, he found a baby whose ankles were pinned together. The messenger had unpinned the baby’s ankle (the injury explains why Oedipus walks with a limp). The messenger continues, saying that the person who left Oedipus on the mountain was a servant of Laius. Jacosta, who has been listening intently, starts realizing something she had long since forgotten.

Despite Jacosta’s pleas to the contrary, Oedipus is just about to go on a search for his real parents when another character, who the Corinthian messenger identifies as the man who gave him Oedipus, enters. Oedipus demands to know who gave him the baby, and, after the threat of torture, Laius’ servant admits it was Laius, and that the baby was his, Laius’, child. Oedipus realizes he killed his father.

The chorus then enters after Oedipus flees into the palace to say that Jacosta has killed herself.  When Oedipus discovered her hanging in their bedroom, he, to punish himself for killing his father and marrying his mother, takes the pins from her robes and stabs out his eyes. 

To stop the public display, Creon, has reentered and forgiven Oedipus for his past accusations. Oedipus is excited for the opportunity and asks Creon to take care of his two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. He then apologizes to his girls, because he believes no man will want to marry the daughters of an incestuous relationship. Creon puts an end to the display, and the play ends with the chorus saying Oedipus has fallen, and the only relief he can hope for his death.

Oedipus at Colonus

Oedipus has been wandering for years after his exile by Creon. Antigone helps him walk and eventually they make it to Colonus and stop to rest. Someone comes up to them and says that the land on which they rest was not meant for mortals and they must leave. When Oedipus discovers that the gods which preside over the land are the Eumenides, or goddesses of fate, he sends the citizen of Colonus off to get the king, Theseus. He explains to his daughter that an oracle had once said he would die on a place presided over by the Eumenides.

The Chorus then enters and, convincing Oedipus and Antigone to move from the sacred spot on which they stand and subsequently discovering who Oedipus is, demands that he leave at once. Oedipus then convinces the chorus to allow Theseus to have the final say. 

Ismene enters and, after some exposition revealing that Ismene had left them to gather information from an oracle, reveals that back in Thebes, Eteocles, Oedipus’ younger son, has overthrown his elder son, Polynices for the throne. Furthermore, Polynices has brought together troops to fight against Eteocles and Creon, who is ruling with him. Finally, the news from the oracle is that the kingdom in which Oedipus is buried will be looked on favorably by the gods. Both sons are aware of the prophecy and Creon is on the way to bring him back to Thebes so that Thebes can be blessed. Oedipus says he will support neither son because they did not step in to stop his exile.

Eventually Creon shows up in Colonus and tries to convince Oedipus to come back to Thebes. Oedipus refuses, saying he knows the real reason Creon wants him home is not because his wandering brings shame to Thebes but because of what the Oracle said. Upon Oedipus’ refusal, Creon orders his guards to take Antigone and Ismene, which they are allowed to do the Chorus.

Creon is just about the take Oedipus as well when Theseus enters and demands to know what is going on. Oedipus explains and Theseus sends soldiers to get Antigone and Ismene from the men who took them. He says he is going to protect Oedipus from Creon, and Creon vows revenge.

In the next scene, Theseus returns Oedipus’ daughters with news that there is a stranger from Argos who would like to speak with him. Knowing that the stranger is Polynices, Oedipus begs Theseus to banish him but Theseus and Antigone convince him to listen to what his son has to say. Oedipus agrees to see Polynices so long as Theseus agrees to protect him from abduction, which Theseus does. 

When Polynices and Oedipus meet, the former informs the latter that he never wanted his father exiled. He claims his brother bribed the people of Thebes to turn against him, but that he has plans to retake his throne by force. Oedipus states that he placed a curse on the men when he was exiled, that they would die by one another’s hands. Polynices then looks to his sisters for support, but they simply ask him to call off the attack. He says he will not, and although the girls declare their love for their brother, he says his life is in the hands of the gods now.

The weather then takes a turn for the worse and Oedipus tells Theseus that the thunder is a signal of his death. He tells Theseus in private that, if Colonus wants the blessing that comes with being his burying place, only he, Theseus, can know where Oedipus is buried. He can then tell the place to his heir and in that way the descendants of Theseus will rule over a blessed Colonus forever. After Antigone and Ismene dress him in linen, Oedipus takes Theseus to the place he is to die. When Theseus returns, the girls want to know where their father has been buried, but he informs them that it is their father’s wish that they not know. They ask then for safe passage to Thebes, where they hope to stop their brothers from fighting. Theseus allows this, and they head for Thebes.

Antigone

Antigone picks up after the struggle between Polynices and Eteocles, who have died at each other’s hands, and Creon now rules Thebes. Creon has declared that anyone who tries to give burial rites to Polynices will be put to death, which upsets Antigone. Ismene says that they cannot change the king’s mind and therefore must not bury Polynices, but Antigone disagrees and leaves her sister. 

Creon enters to tell the citizens of Thebes that order has been restored. He also says that Polynices will not be given a proper burial while Eteocles will receive a hero’s ceremony. A messenger enters to tell Creon that someone has given Polynices a proper burial but no one knows who. He says that perhaps the gods themselves did it, but Creon blames the sentries meant to guard the body. He blames the only sentry present and threatens him with death if no one is found to have done it. The sentry flees Thebes.

The Chorus then finds the Sentry leading Antigone back to Thebes. He says that as they were digging Polynices back up, a dust cloud blinded them, and when their sight returned, they saw Antigone reburying her brother. Creon asks Antigone if she knew of his command and she said she did and broke it willingly. 

Creon then sends for Ismene and condemns both sisters to death. Antigone welcomes the punishment, because she believes that both brothers deserved burial rites and to do so for Polynices will bring her glory in death. She says that Creon’s subjects side with her but are afraid of Creon. Ismene weepily accepts the punishment too, but asks Creon to consider the feelings of his son Haemon, who is engaged to marry Antigone. Creon says he would never allow his son to marry a traitor and declares both women insane. 

After condemning the daughters of Oedipus, Creon asks Haemon how he feels. He says that no woman is as important to him as his father, but that the people of Thebes do not think Antigone deserves such a punishment. This incites an argument between father and son and when Creon sends for Antigone to be killed in front of Haemon, Haemon leaves. In his son’s absence, Creon decides not to kill Ismene, but to enclose Antigone in a tomb. 

Antigone is then taken to the tomb, but on the way is stopped by the Chorus, to whom she says her death will be noble. The Chorus says that her confidence is pride and that she is like her father, Oedipus. Antigone vehemently disagrees and Creon exits the palace to tell the guards to get Antigone to her tomb. Antigone tells him she would not have given burial rites to her brother if he had been a husband or child, because she could have had another. She also tells the Chorus that Thebes is run by someone who would kill her for obeying the gods. 

Tiresias, the blind soothsayer from Oedipus Rex, is led into Thebes. Tiresias tells Creon that his refusal to properly bury Polynices will curse Thebes. Creon tells Tiresias that he is a false prophet but, after sending him away, admits that the prophesy has frightened him and that he will do whatever is asked of him by the people, who immediately state that he should free Antigone. He reluctantly agrees. 

When Creon exits, a messenger enters to tell everyone that Haemon has committed suicide. He says that just as Creon’s men were burying Polynices in the proper manner, they heard Haemon yelling from Antigone’s tomb, in which Antigone hangs by a noose. He takes his father’s sword and attempts to kill him. Missing, he turns the sword on himself and dies holding Antigone. 

Creon then enters the palace weeping, carrying the body of his dead son. A messenger enters to tell him his wife, Eurydice, has committed suicide, overcome with grief at the death of her son. He says Eurydice called out curses on her husband, which causes Creon to kneel and pray for death. The Chorus speaks about how the prideful are brought down by the gods.

Further Reading

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