Sophocles, a Greek playwright, wrote three plays about King Oedipus and his family, which are collectively known as the Theban plays. These plays are set in the city-state of Thebes, which was like a small independent country within Greece. The three Theban plays do not follow a chronological sequence of events and each play explores different themes.
The order in which the plays were written was Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus, but the actual chronological sequence of events in Oedipus’s life is Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. Sophocles wrote Antigone when he was a young man, Oedipus Rex when he was at the peak of his career, and Oedipus at Colonus when he was elderly. Although some characters reappear in the plays, their values and attitudes can change.
You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book review provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.
Let’s get started without further ado.
In this Romeo and Juliet book review, I’m going to cover the following topics:
Table of Contents
Oedipus Rex Book Summary
Thebes is suffering from a terrible plague. The crops and cattle are diseased and much of the population is dying. The citizens of Thebes ask Oedipus, their king, to save them. They trust him because years earlier he had saved the city from the monstrous Sphinx by answering her riddle.
The grateful Thebans were still in mourning over the murder of their king, Laius, when they made Oedipus king. Soon thereafter, he married Laius’s widow, Jocasta, with whom he eventually had four children.
When the play opens, Oedipus is telling the citizens that he has already sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to visit the shrine of the god Apollo in the hope that the god will tell them how Oedipus can save Thebes. When Creon returns, he reports that Thebes is suffering because Laius’s murderer is still in Thebes and has never been punished.
Oedipus vows that he will find the murderer and punish him in order to cleanse the city. The Elders of Thebes (the Chorus) respond by praying for help and deliverance from the plague.
Oedipus asks the people if anyone knows who killed Laius. When no one speaks up, he proclaims that whoever is shown to be the murderer will be forever scorned and banished from Thebes. After Oedipus speaks, the blind prophet of Apollo, Tiresias, is led in.
Oedipus had sent for him on the advice of Creon. Tiresias is reluctant to answer Oedipus’s questions, so Oedipus accuses him of taking part in the murder. With this, the angry prophet announces that Oedipus is the cause of the Theban plague—that Oedipus killed Laius and will discover this very day that his wife is also his mother.
Tiresias predicts that the now rich and mighty Oedipus will soon be a blind beggar, shunned and cast out from Thebes. Angered, Oedipus says the prophet is unable to make accurate predictions because he is blind and cannot see.
Oedipus accuses Creon of being a traitor, suspecting that Creon had asked Tiresias to make up the prophecies so that Creon could replace Oedipus as king. Creon insists that he does not want the responsibilities of kingship, but Oedipus will not listen.
Jocasta says she no longer believes in prophecies because Apollo’s oracles had once predicted that Laius’s own son would kill him, and everyone knows that Laius was killed by robbers at a place where three roads meet. Besides, her son (by Laius) was left on a hillside to die, his ankles tied together. Her speech makes Oedipus uneasy.
Several years earlier he had fled from his home in Corinth in order to avoid a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. While departing, he had angrily killed a white-haired man at a place where three roads came together.
It was shortly after this that he arrived in Thebes and answered the riddle of the Sphinx. What if he is the murderer of Laius, after all? But Jocasta says that several robbers were responsible for the murder. If the lone survivor will verify that several men indeed killed Laius, this would clear Oedipus. The Chorus sings of pride, fate, and the oracles mentioned by Jocasta.
A messenger arrives with news that Polybus, Oedipus’s father, has died. Oedipus and Jocasta feel relieved because they think Oedipus has now avoided fulfilling the prophecy about killing his father. But Oedipus is still anxious about returning to Corinth as long as his mother, Merope, remains alive.
The messenger tells Oedipus that he has nothing to fear because Polybus and Merope were not his natural parents. He explains to Oedipus that he (the messenger) used to be a shepherd in Thebes.
One day, another shepherd handed him a baby who had been found on a hillside. Because the king and queen of Corinth (Polybus, Merope) had no children, the messenger had given them the baby—and it was Oedipus. On hearing this, Jocasta turns pale.
When Oedipus demands that someone find the other shepherd, Jocasta begs him, for the sake of his own happiness, to stop his search. Oedipus thinks that Jocasta is afraid he will find out he is not of royal birth, so he sends for the shepherd.
The shepherd arrives and reveals that the baby he had given to the messenger was indeed the son of Laius and Jocasta. There had been a warning that the baby would grow up to kill his father, so Jocasta had given the infant to the shepherd to leave on the hillside.
The shepherd had felt sorry for the baby and had given him to the messenger. And since the messenger has identified Oedipus as the baby, Oedipus now knows that the prophecies have been fulfilled. Horrified, he runs into the palace, and the stunned Elders sing about the shortlived nature of human fame and fortune.
A palace official announces that Jocasta has hanged herself. Oedipus found her, then plunged the brooches from her dress into his eyes. With blood streaming from his eyes, Oedipus staggers from the palace.
He accepts responsibility for blinding himself, but says it was Apollo’s prophecies that caused him such pain. He tells the people present that he blinded himself because he could no longer face his friends or children, nor could he kill himself and face his parents in the underworld. Creon appears and Oedipus begs to be banished from Thebes.
But Creon will not take action until he has consulted the gods. He promises, however, to bury Jocasta and look after Oedipus’s daughters, Antigone and Ismene.
Oedipus is led into the palace and the Chorus warns the Theban citizens that humans should not consider themselves happy until they have experienced all that life has to offer. One never knows what the next day will bring.
Oedipus at Colonus Book Summary
And old and frail Oedipus, accompanied only by his daughter, Antigone, has been banished from Thebes and has wandered around Greece for years. Shortly after he comes to Colonus, a village near Athens, his other daughter, Ismene, arrives and explains that his sons have been fighting over the throne of Thebes, presently held by Oedipus’s brother-in-law, Creon.
Oedipus’s elder son, Polynices, has been exiled by his younger, more powerful son Eteocles, and is raising an army to fight for the throne. The oracle predicted that, whenever Oedipus dies, good fortune will come to the place where he is buried.
His sons, along with Creon, want him to come to Thebes so that he may be buried there.
Oedipus is angry that his sons and brother-in-law deserted him in his time of need; he asks Theseus, the king of Athens, to allow him to die at Colonus. Theseus agrees, though Oedipus warns him it will cause a conflict between Thebes and Athens.
Creon arrives at Colonus with an army. When Oedipus refuses to go with him, Creon takes Antigone and Ismene as hostages. Theseus sends an army after him and returns Oedipus’s daughters. Polynices comes to see Oedipus and expresses shame at the way he has treated his father; he asks Oedipus to accompany him to Thebes and to help him fight Eteocles.
The oracle has said that whomever Oedipus helps will win the battle; that without Oedipus’s help, Polynices will die. An angry Oedipus refuses to help his son and predicts that both brothers will die. Thunder and lightning signal that Oedipus’s death is near.
He explains to Theseus that his burial site—protected by gods—is to be a secret passed down from one Athenian king to another. After Theseus promises to take care of Antigone and Ismene, Oedipus dies.
Antigone Book Summary
After Oedipus’s death, his sons battle for the throne of Thebes. Both are killed in battle. The morning after the battle, Creon orders that since Polynices died fighting Thebes as a traitor, his body should not be buried.
Antigone defies Creon’s command and buries her brother, since the gods and family honor demand it. Creon argues with her over the priorities of civil and divine law, insisting that Polynices’ body be “unburied.”
He men send Antigone away to be punished. Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé, asks his father to rethink the decision to punish Antigone. Creon stubbornly refuses and orders Antigone to be sealed up in a cave outside the city.
Tiresias, the blind prophet, tells Creon that the gods are angered by his treatment of Polynices’ body—and that if Antigone dies, Haemon, too, will die and Thebes will be punished. Fearing the predictions, Creon hurries to rebury Polynices and free Antigone.
But he is too late: she has already killed herself. Haemon, weeping over Antigone’s body, attacks Creon with a sword, then stabs himself. A messenger announces that Creon’s wife, Queen Eurydice, has committed suicide.
As Creon acknowledges his role in the deaths of his wife and son, the Chorus sings that humans who do not act out of pride and stubbornness are wise people.
Oedipus: Powerful king of Thebes. Respected, intelligent, self-confident, makes decisions quickly, pursues them to the end. Compassionate, fatherly toward citizens of Thebes, but arrogant, easily angered. Name means “swollen foot,” which refers to his feet having been bound as infant.
Jocasta: Mother and wife of Oedipus; guesses the truth about Oedipus before he does. Tries to discourage his search for the truth because she fears he will discover that she is his mother.
Tiresias: Blind prophet of Apollo; sees more than those who have sight.
Creon: Uncle of Oedipus, but also his brother-in-law after Oedipus’s marriage to Jocasta. Calm, rational, does not make hasty decisions.
The Greeks believed that one’s future was determined by “fate” or destiny; they saw fate as a succession of events over which they had no control. Prophets predicted what destiny would bring to people and it was useless to try to change or run away from fate, since eventually it would become a reality.
Oedipus and others try to outsmart fate (Oedipus leaves Corinth; Jocasta leaves her baby to die), but destiny is fulfilled anyway.
2. Gods vs. Humans
Oedipus learns to be humble and abandon his arrogance when he realizes that he isn’t godlike. In the Greek worldview,
humans can respect the power of the universe, but only the gods can trul understand it. Because Oedipus has great power, he thinks he understands the world. He learns, however, that he does not. Because Oedipus is human, he cannot see beyond his own circumstances. He has no control over his destiny.
The major question of the play changes from “Who killed Laius?” to “Who am I?” Oedipus, at the expense of his own happiness, gains wisdom at the end of the play, discovers the circumstances of his birth, and finally recognizes his human limitations. He comes to realize that (a) he doesn’t have omniscient (all-knowing) vision; (b) he is not a god; (c) he is bound by the limited time of his own life.
4. Appearance vs. Reality
Oedipus, the savior of Thebes, is also the cause of the Thebans’ suffering. What appears to be good fortune (answering Sphinx’s riddle; gaining the throne) is actually misfortune. Oedipus thinks he is the son of Polybus and Merope, but he is the son of Laius and Jocasta. He appears to be a model man, but has committed horrible crimes. Sophocles’ message is that appearances may hide a reality too horrible to contemplate.
5. Suspense About the Past
Oedipus hunts for the murderer, but ironically ends up looking for himself: In pronouncing the curse on Laius’s murderer, he curses himself. Each time someone tries to reduce Oedipus’s anxiety, new questions arise.
Sophocles’ audience would have known his outcome from the beginning of the play, since the Oedipus theme was common in their day. For them, suspense lay in how and when Oedipus would find out about his crimes.
6. Tragic Flaw
The Greeks believed that success led to hubris (excessive pride), which led to folly, arrogance, and mistakes in behavior. The gods responded to this folly with nemesis (punishment). Oedipus considers himself unrivaled and unbeatable as king—on a par with the gods. This arrogant attitude leads to folly: when Tiresias informs him of his murderous, incestuous deeds, the angry and arrogant Oedipus ridicules the blind Tiresias for being unable to see accurately.
He unjustly accuses Creon of treason (the overthrow of government) and unknowingly puts a curse on himself. Oedipus’s tragic flaw is pride, and he soon meets his nemesis.
7. Oedipus Complex
No discussion of this play is complete without reference to the famous “Oedipus complex,” a term coined by the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who believed that infant males had a secret wish to kill their fathers so they could sexually possess their mothers.
According to Freud, this wish is so horrifying to the infant male’s conscious mind that it is repressed (i.e., excluded from consciousness) and stored in his unconscious mind. The unresolved Oedipus complex is important as a cause of emotional disturbances and neuroses that often develop later in life.
Freud felt it important to free the psyche (mind/spirit/soul) from the Oedipus conflict; he found plays such as Oedipus Rex useful in helping the audience release repressed desires. The major theme of the play is the classic example of the Oedipus complex in which the fantasy has been acted out.
8. Passion for Truth
Oedipus’s search for knowledge creates two major conflicts: (1) his tension with Creon (accusation of treason), and (2) the problem with Jocasta (her insistence that he forget about the past).
Oedipus curses those who remain silent about Laius’s murder, and is impatient with Tiresias, Jocasta, and the shepherd when they suggest he would be happier to give up his questioning. His need for truth leads him to greater suffering, even though he was happier while ignorant of his past.
He is doomed no matter what he does. If he does not act, Thebes will be ruined by the plague. If he saves the city by hunting Laius’s murderer, he destroys himself and his family.
Oedipus has not knowingly committed a crime, yet incest and patricide (murder of one’s father) are two of the worst things a person could do in the family-oriented society of ancient Greece.
He has offended the laws of humans and gods (i.e., he has disturbed the cosmic moral order), and the gods’ justice is both cruel and unpredictable. Apollo, the god of healing and wisdom, brings suffering to Oedipus and Thebes. Human justice is no less severe: The disgusted Thebans will banish Oedipus, even though he did not knowingly do any wrong.
The Greeks believed that drama could arouse the same emotions in an audience as the spectators felt about personal crises in their own lives, and that plays gave them a chance to emotionally cleanse themselves without going through the same horrors as the characters on stage.
1. The Tragic Storyline
The Oedipus cycle is a classic example of Greek tragedy. The storyline is complex and emotionally charged, with Oedipus’s discovery of his crimes leading to a sequence of events that ultimately ends in tragedy. The themes of fate and free will, the consequences of hubris, and the search for truth are all woven together in a masterful way. The play achieves catharsis, leaving a powerful impact on the reader.
2. The Formal Structure
The formal structure of the plays is highly ritualized, reflecting the earliest Western theatre practices. The use of choral odes to punctuate the action, along with the offstage action related by messengers, adds to the sense of grandeur and poetry. The inclusion of low comedy and dark humor is also a testament to Sophocles’s skill in weaving different tones together. The plays are structured in a way that achieves a sense of completion, both as a cycle and individually.
1. Incestuous and Violent Themes
The story of Oedipus is famously tragic and revolves around the theme of incest, which can make some readers uncomfortable. Additionally, there are instances of violence and brutality throughout the play, including the blinding of Oedipus and the suicide of several characters. These themes may be disturbing for some readers, and could be a potential drawback of the book.
2. Challenging Language
While the translation of the play is praised for its beauty, the language used can be quite challenging for some readers. The formal structure and poetic language can make the play difficult to follow at times, and readers who are not familiar with ancient Greek literature may find it hard to connect with the text.
3. Lack of Diversity
As an ancient Greek play, “Oedipus” reflects the cultural values and perspectives of its time, which may not be representative of contemporary attitudes. The play is focused on a small, insular community of aristocratic characters, and does not feature diverse voices or perspectives. This could be a potential drawback for readers who are looking for more inclusive or representative literature.
Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy is a timeless masterpiece that has endured for over two-thousand years. Through the myth of Oedipus, Sophocles delves into complex themes such as fate, guilt, the relationship of the individual to the state, and the morality of the state. It is evident that these plays have touched the lives of people across time and continue to do so. Overall, I highly recommend reading the Theban plays to gain a deeper understanding of the human experience and appreciate the artistic genius of Sophocles.
Sophocles was an ancient Greek playwright born around 496-06 B.C. He was a talented writer and won many awards for his new plays in Athens, surpassing even the other great playwrights of his time.
Although he wrote 125 plays, only seven have survived to this day. His most famous works are the Theban plays, which include Antigone, Oedipus Rex (also known as Oedipus the King and Oedipus Tyrannus), and Oedipus at Colonus.
Sophocles’ plays are known for their gripping plots, well-organized structure, excellent writing style, realistic depictions of tragic women and conflicts, and profound insights into the workings of the world.
Buy The Book: Oedipus
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