It is very hard to know how to approach the Theban plays. They are, in a sense, incomprehensible, at least to me. They are in a dead language, which I do not know. So much is lost in that translation – the rhythms and rules of Greek poetry, even if they are followed by the translator, do not carry their import with them. And they are not prose, but plays, and I have not seen them staged, and something is lost in that. And so much also is lost without the context of their society – the meanings of things, the importance of things. And of course, Greek literature above all is dependent on its context – unlike most modern fiction, these tragedies were intended to be experienced by people who knew the plot and the characters and the details all in advance. This makes them very difficult – not to understand or to enjoy, but to really assess, with the confidence of somebody who knows what they are looking for.
There are three Theban plays – Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus. They are not a trilogy – they were written across a span of decades, with little attempt at continuity, and the earliest written is set the latest in the story. They are all parts of the same story but each stands alone – and this is possible because the audience knew the story already. This allows a great deal of foreshadowing of events outside of the plays – and allows other things to be glossed over. Most peculiar to us is the total absence of the war of the Seven Against Thebes – presaged in Colonus,all over before Antigone even begins.
Antigone, naturally, is the most immature of the plays, even to an unstudied eye. Here, Sophocles is rather fonder of high melodrama, of literary allusions (some now lost on us), of people going around shouting a lot, and of long and flowery speeches. I found it the hardest to read by far. At the same time, it is in some ways the most interesting.
I found myself, reading these, asking not what Sophocles did wrong, but simply: what is there in these plays of value to us now? What can we appreciate?
In Antigone, the first answer is characterisation. It is confusing, and it is sophisticated. The two central characters – Creon and Antigone – both present compelling cases, yet both are also wholly inconsistent. This is particularly true of Antigone, who justifies her actions many times over, but never the same way, and by the end seems almost to embrace their nihilistic motivelessness. She is deep and shifting and seems to stand out as a character of – almost absurdity, against the triviality of Creon’s paranoia. Haemon’s speech against his father presents a further ambiguity – as throughout these plays, it is never made clear how much is deceitful appearance and how much is genuine change of heart.
The other way Antigone still speaks to us is, of course, ideology. Antigone’s speeches are literally the first declaration of universal human rights in Western history; by having Antigone bury Polynices, Sophocles is putting her in the role of the Athenian state itself – one of the most cherished Athenian myths was the story of how Athens marched on Thebes not to conquer it but to compel the honorable burial of its enemies (the world’s first international humanitarian intervention). As liberals, as democrats, as believers in human rights, we can’t but side with Antigone, the voice of compassion, with her unwavering belief that even the worst criminal deserves kind treatment in death. Creon’s paranoia, his materialism, his vindictiveness, remind us of every modern dictator and supremacist.
And yet at the same time Creon is also the voice of reason. His voice is understandable – too quick in temper, yes, and too afraid, but still a reasonable man with understandable, and even admirable, objectives – even if, like Antigone, his actual motivations do not live up to his pronouncements. He is a pragmatist, and he cares about measurable things. Antigone meanwhile, whether we take her at her word or look for deeper and more consistent reasons, is by the standards of Creon simply mad. Hers is a familiar madness – the madness of religious fundamentalism. Her system of values cannot be comprehended by Creon – she is adament in following the law of the gods regardless of the consequences, and wholly callously. Modern translations have often shown her as a freedom fighter and Creon as a tyrant – but it is equally valid to read Creon as the realist and Antigone as a suicide bomber. True, she never murders anybody with her own hand, but she knows her actions have consequences and doesn’t seem to care in the slightest. Contrast the passion and concern shown by Haemon and Ismene toward her with her own attitude toward them. In her implacable universalism, her religious fanaticism, she is the most selfish character in the play.
It is these two factors – the irresoluble conflict between two different ideological perspectives, each of which both frightens and attracts us, and underneath that the fundamental insincerity of the advocates both both positions – that make Antigone a strikingly modern play, or at least a strikingly modern idea for a play. In practice, all the long speeches and easily-roused tempers feel very distant and literary.
Oedipus the King is probably the least interesting of the three but the most readable. Again, the plot is an unusual one – the main character gradually discovers that he has murdered his father and had children with his mother. From the start, it is clear what Oedipus’ ‘tragic flaw’ will be: hubris. He places himself almost beside the gods, and his wife/mother Jocasta explicitly denies their powers of prediction. But this is not that sort of tragedy – nobody punishes Oedipus. His downfall is not through his worst features, but through his best – his reason, his dedication to the truth, his honesty. If he had been a worse man, his doom could have been avoided at any point. That is the basic strangeness of the play – Oedipus falls because he is so good a man. His hubris has no influence on things, and acts only to ironically highlight the tragedy that we know is coming. Nor does Oedipus even set in motion his own downfall, leaving the moral that human excellence will be punished – no, everything has been set in place long ago. It is the prophecies of the gods that bring disaster – but people are not punished for ignoring them, they’re punished for believing them! It is only because Laius believes that if he has a son the son will kill him that he has Oedipus abandoned at birth – otherwise, there would have been no strife between them. It is only because Laius is journeying in a small party to gain wisdom from an oracle that he meets, attacks, and is killed by Oedipus. It is only because Oedipus sends to, and then listens to, the oracle at Delphi, that he embarks on his investigation, the investigation that will end with his own exile and blinding. The fates are implacable and merciless. Perhaps we should see in Oedipus – so much the mirror of the Athenian self-image – the anger and confusion of a city-state that at the time of the play’s creation was being lead toward destruction without, as they saw it, having done anything wrong. Certainly the dreadful plague afflicting Thebes must have intentionally summoned the ghost of the worst plague of all, the Plague of Athens, that had decimated the audience only a year or two before the play’s production. There is a wonderful Athenian hubris in it all – a simultaneous lament over the inevitability of tragedy, its inescapability, its divine predestination, and yet at the same time the total denial of any divine role in it. Oedipus – and Athens – seem to revel in the self-caused nature of their downfall. Every step of the tragedy is made by humans acting from free will. This is a Sophoclean innovation – in all earlier versions (in Homer, for instance), Oedipus’ crimes are revealed by the gods, but in Sophocles they are revealed by Oedipus, by himself, to himself, for himself, because of himself. But at the same time, the penalty is far greater – in Homer, Oedipus is distraught but he remains king, while in Sophocles he rips out his own eyes and has himself sent into exile unto death. Oedipus is the criminal, the investigator, the prosecutor, the judge, and the executioner, and the punishment he inflicts on himself for failing to abide by his own laws, even accidentally, is less merciful than the gods would have been. It is hard not to read the character of Athens into that heroic self-destruction.
Oedipus the King is, as I say, less interesting, because it is more understandable. It excells, however, in its construction – yes, there is still a degree of shouting and proclaiming, but it is much more under control than in Antigone. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of the action, which procedes mercilessly and breathlessly toward its foreknown conclusion. If that conclusion has a flaw, it is that the crimes related no longer seem so horrific as they did to Sophocles, and thus the punishment seems less merited.
This is even more the case at Oedipus at Colonus, where pages at a time are wasted in lamenting the unutterable abomination of incest. OK, a modern reader might say, get over it. Yes, it’s a bit icky, but not a reason to act like a leper and refuse to let anyone ‘uncontaminated’ touch you. It’s very unpleasant, so shut up about it.
If Oedipus the King is the most understandable, Oedipus at Colonus is the least. The entire plot is mysterious to us – the mystical power that will be gained by the corpse of Oedipus once it is buried, and the importance of burying it in one place or another. It is a striking reminder of the breadth of sanity, that the same writer who could express the humanitarianism of Antigone, the cold rationalism of Creon and the sensible, heroic, intellectual Oedipus could still treat in such matters as the magic powers of the corpses of heroes as though it were an everyday concept, beyond discussion. In the earlier two plays, people doubt the gods – nobody does in the third.
Nor is it really a tragedy. Yes, Oedipus dies, but this seems to improve his standing and power dramatically – and beside, although they speak of his corpse being buried, it seems that in the end Oedipus simply ascends into heaven.
I do use that word advisedly – but I use it because, despite its pagan credentials, this is a play with very Christian parallels. Oedipus is, frankly, Jesus by this point. He is born a man, he suffers through no fault of his own, he ascends bodily into heaven and becomes one with the gods; but more importantly, the whole Theban myth is put into soteriological terms when it is declared that the suffering of one man (Oedipus and/or Jesus) is sufficient to save the whole human race. Oedipus, like Jesus, is the scapegoat who takes all the sins of man with him into the afterlife – his life is tragic, but he is compensated by the powers of a demigod after death.
Oedipus, however, is quite a different man from Jesus, and his powers will be used differently: his corpse will drag the blood of his kinsmen down into the earth when Thebes and Athens fight a future battle on that ground. As Oedipus dies in the play, so too does the Athens of the audience – as it was being written (when Sophocles, like Oedipus, could see his own death approaching), the city was engaged in the final existential struggle against Sparta (in which the Athenians, with Oedipal hubris, refused to accept the surrender of Sparta even at the verge of their own destruction), and by the time the audience could see the play performed, Athens had surrendered, its walls, fleet, port and empire destroyed, and was entirely dependant on the continued mercy of the Spartans. The idea of an Athenian army defeating a Theban one by the gift of Oedipus must have been a very dear dream at the time – Thebes had fought against Athens in the war, and argued strongly for its complete, punitive, annihilation in the peace, with only Sparta graciously allowing their sworn enemies to survive.
But Oedipus is still not a benign figure. It is Oedipus’ curse upon his sons that will lead to the deaths of both (and eventually that of Antigone) – and this is the tragedy of the play, for all that it occurs off screen. Nor is it a curse of academic value only: after thirty year of fratricidal warfare that had brought the whole of Greece to the brink of destruction, the myth of the Seven Against Thebes, the coalition of heroes fighting against the dominant superpower, all dying, only for the next generation to triumph, must have been seen as a mythic foretelling of the Pelopennesian Wars themselves, and the climax of the war, the death of the two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, each upon the other’s sword, must have seemed symbolic of the desolate futility of the entire conflict. It is striking to note the sheer fatalism of Polynices in this play – as so many characters, he is confronted with a prophesy of his own demise, but he carries on regardless, not because he does not believe it, but because he sees no alternative. Laius and Oedipus vainly sought to escape their dooms, and so brought them on themselves, but Polynices walks toward his knowing that his death is unavoidable. It is a moment but frustrating and impressive – as echoed by Antigone (on whom it evidently left a lasting impression, as Polynices will be the cause of her own death also, as she almost imitates his suicidal determination). Granted Oedipus’ vision, Polynices comes to resemble that other hero of the Seven, Amphiarus the seer, who prophesied the failure of the war before he embarked upon it. Sophocles brings the ancient myths into his own age with a terrible acuity.
Are we meant to understand why Oedipus curses his sons? I’m not sure. I don’t, at least. Like Antigone in the earlier play, Oedipus offers several explanations and none content me – perhaps, indeed, that is the point. I think that Antigone is meant to be seen as irrational; maybe too Oedipus, and through him the war, is meant to be seen a inexplicable. The argument that they should not have exiled him from Thebes seems weak – he commanded them to do so, and in any case the gods had demanded his exile as the price of the end of the plague. To have Oedipus rage against his sons on that account, as though he could have stayed in the royal palace after abdicating, seems to undo the fatal progression of the earlier play; in any case, I’m not sure they had that power, as Creon was placed as his successor, and the boys do not appear in the earlier play, suggesting they are still children. Perhaps Oedipus is not meant to be seen as wholly rational at this point. The argument that they should have followed him into exile is rather stronger, but still seems incongruous – this Oedipus, this Oedipus who spends the play forcefully asserting his innocence, the injustice of his punishment for actions that were not his fault, that were decided before his birth, seems a strange match to an Oedipus who curses his sons to death for not allowing that punishment to extend another generation. Maybe it is simply because both children lie, and both attempt to use their father at the end. An interesting interpretation would emphasis Oedipus’ anger that his daughters were forced to take the role of sons due to their brothers’ absence – a view that concords perhaps with the view of Creon that Antigone (in the earlier play) is more man than woman. It is an interesting type of misogyny where failure to follow gender roles brings untold tragedy, but the blame is placed not on the women but on the men who failed to protect them. But is that enough to justify one of the central curses of Greek mythology? I don’t know.
That’s the problem with these plays. Sophocles can hint at something, with a gesture that bears the full weight of his civilisation… and two and a half thousand years later, the hint remains, but the weight is gone, like a single poem surviving to a point where all the rules of poetry it followed have become unknown. How do we value it?
In the earlier two plays, this was frustrating; here, it rises to be the central characteristic of our impression of the play. This mystical, transcendental play becomes more mystical by its unfathomableness, gains greater power by the extent of darkness that supports it and is hidden by it. It has a frightening absurdity to it. It is hard to know what to make of it. People come, and people go, around the immobile Oedipus, and there seems little sense to it all, but the mystery adds to the awe; and at the heart of it, a man approaches his death.
Two last things to say. First, the translation. I’m told it’s one of the best, but what is a good translation? I don’t know how close to the exact meaning of the Greek this is; and I didn’t bother to count out the measures in the stasimons, since I wouldn’t have known what the cultural significance of anapaests or dochmaics would have been anyway. I don’t think it’s a good translation to the extent that the language does not flow mellifluously in English; but this could have been low down the man’s list of priorities. It’s not ungrammatical or anything, or syntactically weird – it’s just that the rhythm of it all isn’t a natural English rhythm. Second, the notes, by Bernard Knox – these are good, and very useful in providing some context and depth (though they sometimes get carried away). They’re placed before the plays they discuss (there are also endnotes at the back of the book on more specific, technical points in the text), and as this is mythic narrative there’s no need to worry about spoilers – the spoiler is NOT knowing the ending in advance.
Adrenaline: 3/5. Surprisingly exciting. Slowed down by over-long speeches, but the choral structure ensures that there is never any break, and just enough pause to raise the heartbeat of impatience.
Emotion: 2/5. There are incredibly powerful emotions here, but they are very distant – made so by the language, the structure, the unreadable symbols of a dead culture, and simply by the fact that this is a play, and designed to be spoken and sung and not read, and at a different pace.
Thought: 4/5. There’s not enough to grip hold of for a full exploration of ideas, but as I hope the above shows there’s more than enough for hors d’oeuvres.
Craft: 3/5*. I decline to judge. The translation of a poetry form alien to me into modern verse for a play, read on the page? Even the prose is unjudgeable, and that leaves alone all the traditions and tropes of the form and the content that are unrecoverable to me.
Beauty: 2/5. There are many genuinely striking phrases that deserve to be remembered, but too much of it is fluff, and the translation of the aeolic verse is neither natural nor powerful in English. They are great works to quote, but less good to read.
Endearingness: 3/5. Striking and memorable, both for the good lines and for the themes and characters – but too distant to really endear themselves.
Originality: 5/5. The content, of course, is familiar, but it’s hard to imagine any modern author writing something like these three – even Oedipus the King, the most accessible of the three, is still nothing like modern fiction. Reading these was a totally different experience for me.
Overall: 5/7*. Good*. Good, but I caveat all this assessment with large asterisks – both the antiquity of works and the fact they are plays and not prose put them beyond the remit of these reviews, and this review should be read less as a review and more as an attempt to imagine what the review would be like if reviewing them were possible. As it were. If you see what I mean, sort of.