“Laius,” she cried, and called her husband dead
Long, long ago; her thought was of that child
By him begot, the son by whom the sire
Was murdered and the mother left to breed
With her own seed, a monstrous progeny.
Then she bewailed the marriage bed whereon
Poor wretch, she had conceived a double brood,
Husband by husband, children by her child.”
Oedipus Rex, Sophocles ( trans. Robert Fagles)
Note: There are spoilers in my post as I assume that even if people have not read the texts, they would know that all three plays being Greek tragedies, would end on a tragic note.
Thanks to Freud, everyone knows about the Oedipus complex which can be traced back to the myth of Oedipus, an age old tale about incest and patricide. I was always curious about the original story from where Freud got his inspiration to form his theory of psychoanalysis. Over the holidays, I read the three tragedies of Sophocles –Oedipus Rex ( also known as Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus The King), Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone- written in the 400s bce and referred to collectively as the Theban plays as they are all set in the city-state of Thebes and form a single storyline in spite of being written as three distinct plays. During my college years, I had studied Antigone in an English translation and I had also read the French adaptation by Jean Anouilh. I read the other two for the first time.
Though the plays are about the same characters, they were written at different times and were not intended to be a trilogy. In terms of their chronology, Oedipus Rex is the first, followed by Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. But Sophocles did not write them in that order. I am glad I read them not just for their importance in the western literary canon but also for the realization that the mythological Oedipus did not suffer from the complex named after him.
Oedipus Rex- The Oracle of Delphi reveals to the King Laius of Thebes that he will have a child who will kill him and sleep with his wife Jocasta, in effect his own mother. Fearing the prophecy, the King and Queen abandon their newborn son on a mountainside to die. A shepherd finds the baby and takes him to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth who raise him as their own. When as a young man, Oedipus learns from an oracle that he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother, he leaves his home in Corinth to avert the prophecy. He kills Laius in a scuffle on the crossroads not knowing that it was his father. Ironically he returns to the very place he was driven away from during his infancy. He is offered the city’s crown and queen after he solves the Sphinx’s riddle and liberates the people of Thebes from its hold.
When a plague ravages Thebes, the only solution to bring an end to it, according to the oracle, is to bring the murderer of Thebes’ last king, Laius, to justice. Oedipus resolves to find the killer only to discover that he himself is the unfortunate man. The unbearable truth leads to the suicide of his wife-mother and as for Oedipus, overcome by guilt, he gouges out his own eyes in desperation.
Oedipus’ story is tragic as he was not aware of what he was doing. He, in fact, did the right thing by running away from his city and parents to escape the prophecies of the oracle but his destiny caught up with him. So if the prophesies were intended to come true, was Oedipus responsible for his actions? If it was ordained from the moment of his birth itself that he would to kill his father and marry his mother, was there any way he could have escaped his fate?
Is his suffering self inflicted? Was his downfall due to hubris in wishing to subvert the will of the Gods? He was a noble king who wanted to help his people and remove the curse of the plague. His ‘hamartia’ or fatal error to borrow a term from Aristotle’s Poetics is his desire for knowledge and it is this quest for the truth that ends up being self destructive. The prophet Tiresias and the shepherd who saved him as a baby want him to abandon his quest for they know the truth already and know that it will have disastrous consequences. If he hadn’t urged the shepherd boy to answer his questions, and if he had listened to Jocasta’s pleas to drop his search for the truth, he would have perhaps lived in blissful ignorance. Or perhaps not. His fate would have caught up with him one way or the other.
As you can see, the mythological Oedipus did not suffer from the complex named after him. Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, believed that the Oedipus complex was ‘Freud’s dream’. Freud believed that infantile impulses of desire for the opposite gender parent and jealousy towards the same gender parent remain active in our unconscious. However Oedipus was abandoned as as infant and consequently did not form an attachment with his mother during the phallic stage. Queen Merope is the woman who raised him during his childhood. Whether Freud’s theory in general is valid or not is a matter for another discussion, but it certainly does not hold water in the case of the character who inspired it as Oedipus was not a mama’s boy, but a mere marionette in the hands of fate.
Oedipus at Colonus– The least well known play in the trilogy has a calmer and more meditative tone. The exiled and blind Oedipus is reduced to a life of wandering with his daughter Antigone by his side. They arrive at the town of Colonus, close to Athens and are at first viewed with distrust by the citizens and the members comprising the Chorus who know about Oedipus’ past but King Theseus offers them his unconditional support. The oracles had also prophesied that Oedipus would die in a place sacred to the Furies.
Meanwhile his daughter Ismene arrives and informs him that his two sons are fighting for control of Thebes. Polynices has been banished by his younger brother Eteocles but has raised an army in Argos and is preparing to attack Thebes. In a dramatic twist of fate, the leaders of Thebes want Oedipus back because they believe his presence would bless the city. Spurned in the past, he is sought after now. Oedipus refuses as he is still upset with his sons for not having prevented his exile. Creon, his brother -in-law and the King of Thebes, forcibly tries to take Antigone and Ismene as hostages but King Thesus comes to their rescue. Oedipus dies and is buried at Colonus and his tomb protects the people of Athens and brings them good fortune thereafter as predicted by the Oracle.
This play is Important as it is Oedipus’ chance to defend himself and restore his tarnished reputation. He is finally granted dignity in death. Oedipus knows he killed his father unknowingly in self-defense and that he unwittingly slept with his mother. Whereas he was consumed with guilt and shame before, he feels indignation now at the way he was unfairly treated. He is despondent but refrains from self- flagellation. He has forgiven himself and is forgiven by others. He has become a more humble person and the relationship between the old feeble man and his devoted daughters is very touching. When Oedipus had his sight, he was in the dark because he didn’t know the truth about his life. Interestingly, when Oedipus becomes blind, his vision opens up and he finally acquires wisdom.
Antigone- Both Eteocles and Polyneices are dead. The former gets a proper burial but the latter is considered a traitor by Creon and is refused a burial. Antigone tries to convince her sister to help her defy Creon’s edict and bury the body. Ismene agrees with her sister’s views but cannot muster up the courage to act and remains passive. Antigone is now completely on her own but still as steadfastly dedicated to her cause and gives her brother the burial he deserves. Creon and Antigone resemble each other in that they are both headstrong and unflinchingly devoted to their principles. After all they have the same blood coursing through their veins. She is imprisoned and sentenced to be buried alive but the Chorus, Teiresias and Creon’s son Haemon who is Antigone’s fiancé, plead with Creon to release her. He eventually has a change of heart but it is too late. Antigone has hanged herself and her heartbroken fiancé follows her in death which results in his mother Eurydice taking her life too, leaving Creon bereft and defeated. The ending though heartbreaking is befitting of a Greek tragedy. What else could we expect for the entire accursed bloodline of Oedipus?
Antigone is my favorite play of the trilogy for two reasons. Firstly, it raises questions that are still relevant today in depicting the conflict between the individual and the state. She commits an act of civil disobedience in defying the edict of the King, analogous to the clash between authoritarianism and democracy we encounter in current times. The second reason I liked the play is that it is way ahead of its time in its feminist undertones. In refusing to kowtow to the wishes of an unjust man, Antigone rejects the traditional role of women. Ancient Greece was a patriarchal society where women were considered inferior and not consulted in matters of law or politics. Antigone stands up against tyranny in support of her moral obligations. No doubt her act is motivated by her filial love and loyalty to the men of the family, but by refusing to let herself be dominated by a man, she challenges the gender power dynamic. Interestingly, the play is named after her and not after Creon, the King.
The main theme underlying all three plays is that of destiny and how we have to succumb to its inexorable ways. Even if you attempt to avoid the prophecies, your actions end up causing them to come about and they become what we refer to as self-fulfilling prophecies. So then we have to ask ourselves if everything is preordained, can we be fully responsible for our actions? And what is even the point of life and living if you pay a heavy price for exercising your free will?
I think the purpose of the plays was to emphasize that life is full of suffering and grief over which we have no control and all we can do is to cope with the cards dealt to us. You cannot control your fate but you can control how you respond to it. The plays were performed at the spring festival In Dionysus and were intended to be cathartic – to be a collective experience of shared grief which fostered compassion in the audience and enabled the release of their own emotions from the safe distance of their seats. The effect is the same on modern readers. The plays enhance our understanding of the human condition and of human nature and evoke the quality of empathy.
If ever we have a bad day, all we have to do is to think about poor ill-fated Oedipus and thank our stars!