This play illustrates the Greek conception of human impotence in the presence of destiny which may hurl a man, for no fault of his own, from the height of prosperity to a terrible misery. A striking feature of the play is the eagerness with which Oedipus himself pursues the inquiry that is to bring about his ruin. He learns from the Delphic oracle that a plague which has fallen on the city of Thebes is due to the presence there of the murderer of King Laius. Oedipus calls upon all those who have any knowledge of the matter to come forward. Teiresias, the blind prophet, is first summoned. He knows the dreadful truth but at first refuses to disclose it. Accused by Oedipus of plotting with Creon against him, he partly reveals the facts: it was Oedipus himself who murdered Laius. Still utterly unsuspicious of his own guilt, Oedipus next turns against Creon whom he charges with trying to oust him from the kingship. He is deeply disturbed by Jocasta’s description of the scene of Laius’s death and of the persons who were accompanying Laius at that time. Jocasta’s description tallies with the circumstances of a fight in which Oedipus had once killed a man. On one point light now comes to him: he is not, as he is supposed to be, the son of Polybus, the king of Corinth. A messenger comes from Corinth to announce the death of Polybus and the election of Oedipus to succeed him. Oedipus, dreading the oracle that he is to marry his own mother, shrinks from returning to Corinth but the messenger reveals that he himself had brought the infant Oedipus, given to him by a shepherd of Mt. Cithaeron, to Polybus and his queen Merope. Whose son then is he? An old shepherd, who has been sent for, as the only survivor present at the death of Laius, now completes the disclosure. It was he who had carried the infant Oedipus, son of Laius and Jocasta to Mt. Cithaeron and had from pity given it to the Corinthian. Oedipus rushes into the palace, to find that Jocasta has hanged herself, and he then blinds himself.
1. “OEBPIUS REX” (OR, “OEDIPUS TYRANNUS”)
Oedipus Rex, also called Oedipus Tyrannus, is regarded by many as Sophocles’s masterpiece. It was particularly admired by Aristotle in the Poetics. It deals with that portion of the story of Oedipus in which he is the king of Thebes and husband of Jocasta, when the discovery that he is the son and murderer of Laius and son of Jocasta leads him to blind himself, and Jocasta to take her own life.
The outstanding feature of this play is its skilful construction. From the very first scene the action moves straight and undistracted towards the catastrophe. The interest turns, not on what the characters do but on their finding out what they have done, and one of the most powerful scenes is made by the husband and the wife deliberately and painfully confessing to each other certain dark events of their lives which they had hitherto kept concealed. The plot has the immense advantage of providing a deed in the past—unintentional murder of the father and equally unintentional marriage with the mother—which explains the hero’s self-horror without making him lose our sympathies. And, as a matter of fact, the character of Oedipus, his determination to have the truth at any cost, his utter disregard of his own suffering, is heroic in itself and comes naturally from the plot. Jocasta was difficult to portray; the mere fact of her being twice as old as her husband was an awkwardness but there is a stately sadness, a power of quiet authority, and a certain stern outlook on life which seem to belong to a woman of hard experiences. Of course, there are glaring improbabilities about the original story but, as Aristotle points out, they fall outside the action of the play. In the action everything is natural except the very end. Why does Oedipus blind himself? Jocasta realises that she must die, and she hangs herself. Oedipus himself meant to kill her if she had not anticipated him. Why did he not follow her? Any free composition would have made him do so; but Sophocles was bound by the original story, and the original story required Oedipus to remain alive and blind a long time afterwards. As a mere piece of technique, this play deserves the position given to it by Aristotle as being a typical example of the highest Greek tragedy. There is deep truth of emotion and high thought. There is a wonderful grasp of character, and an equally wonderful imaginative power. For pure dramatic strength and skill, there are few things in any drama so profoundly tragic as the silent exit of Jocasta, when she alone sees the end that is coming.
2. “OEDIPUS AT COLONUS”
Oedipus, blind and banished, has wandered, attended by his daughter Antigone, to Colonus, a dominion of Attica. He is warned by the inhabitants to depart but, having learnt from an oracle that this is the spot where he is to die, refuses to go. An appeal is made to Theseus, King of Athens. The King assures Oedipus of his protection and of a burial-place on Attic soil; thereby his spirit will be a protection to Athens. Ismene joins Oedipus and tells him of the dispute between his sons Eteocles and Polynices for the throne of Thebes. The news makes Oedipus extremely angry with his sons. Creon arrives to seize Oedipus. Ismene and Antigone are carried off and Creon is about to seize Oedipus himself when Theseus intervenes, rescuing Oedipus and both the maidens, Ismene and Antigone. Meanwhile, Polynices has arrived and, with expressions of repentance, asks for his father’s favour in struggle with his brother Eteocles. Oedipus scolds him and invokes on his two sons the curse that they would die by each other’s hand. Peals of thunder warn Oedipus that his hour is at hand. He blesses his daughters; withdraws to a lonely spot; and, in the presence of Theseus alone, is borne away to the gods.
Oedipus at Colonus is a play of the patriotic-archaeolgoical type. Oedipus learns after his long wanderings in the company of his daughter, Antigone, that his dead body will remain supernaturally pure and will be a divine protection for the country possessing it. Consequently, the Thebans intend to capture him, keep him close to their border till he dies, and then keep control of his grave. Oedipus has in the meantime reached Colonus, in Attica, where he knows that he is doomed to die. This is the only play in which Sophocles has practically dispensed with a plot, and the experiment produces some of his very highest work. However, a mere situation could not be made to fill a whole play. Sophocles had to insert the episodes of Creon and Polynices, and to make the first exciting by a futile attempt to kidnap the princesses, the second by the utterance of the father’s curse. The real appeal of the play is to the burning, half-desperate patriotism of the end of the war time. The glory of Athens, the beauty of the spring and the nightingales at Colonus, the holy Acropolis which can never be conquered, represent the modern ideals of that patriotism; the legendary root of it is given in the figure of Theseus, the law-abiding, humane, and religious King; in the eternal reward won by the bold generosity of Athens; in the rejection of Argos and the curse laid for ever on turbulent and cruel Thebes. The spiritual majesty of Oedipus at the end is among the great things of Greek poetry; and the rather harsh contrast, which it offers with the rage of the curse-scene, could perhaps be made grand by sympathetic acting. Though not one of the most characteristic of Sophocles’s plays, it is perhaps the most intimate and personal of them. Exquisite are the following lines of Oedipus to Theseus:
“Fair Aigeus’ son, only to gods in heaven
Comes no old age nor death of anything;
All else is turmoiled by our master Time.
The earth’s strength fades and manhood’s glory fades,
Faith dies, and unfaith blossoms like a flower.
And who shall find in the open streets of men
Or secret places of his own heart’s love
One wind blow true for ever?”
Creon, ruler of Thebes, has forbidden the burial of the body of Polynices. Anyone disobeying this command will suffer the penalty of death. Antigone makes up her mind to defy the outrageous command of the King and perform the funeral rites for her brother. She is caught doing this and brought before the indignant King. She defends her action as being in accordance with the higher laws of the gods. Creon, unrelenting, condemns her to be shut alive in a cave without food or water and allowed to die. Her sister, Ismene, who has refused to share in her defiant act, now claims a share in her guilt and in her penalty, but is treated by Creon as insane. Haemon, the son of Creon, who is betrothed to Antigone, pleads in vain with Creon. He goes out, warning his father that he will die with her. The prophet Teiresias threatens Creon with the fearful consequences of his violation of the divine laws. Creon, at last moved, sets out hurriedly for the cave where Antigone had been imprisoned. He finds Haemon clasping her dead body, for Antigone has hanged herself. Haemon attacks Creon with a sword but misses him and then kills himself. Creon returns to the palace to find that his wife Eurydice has taken her own life in despair.
Antigone is perhaps the most celebrated drama in Greek literature. The plot is built on the eternally interesting idea of martyrdom, the devotion to a higher unseen law, resulting in revolt against and destruction by the lower visible law. Apart from the beauty of detail, one of the marks of daring genius in this play is Antigone’s vagueness about the motive or principle of her action; it is because her guilty brother’s cause was just, or because death is enough to wipe away all offences, or because it is not her nature to join in hating though she is ready to join in loving, or because an unburied corpse offends the gods, or because her own heart is rally with the dead and she wishes to die. In one passage she explains, in a helpless and false way, that she only buried him because he was her brother and that she would not have buried her husband or son. Another wonderful touch is Antigone’s inability to see the glory of her death: she is only a weak girl cruelly punished for a thing which she was bound to do. She thinks that the almost religious admiration of the elders is mockery. Creon also is subtly drawn. He is not a monster though he has to act like one. He has staked his whole authority upon his command. Finding it disobeyed he has taken a position from which it is almost impossible to retreat. Then it appears that his niece Antigone is the culprit. It is hard for him to withdraw his command; and she gives him not the slightest excuse for doing so. She defies him openly and contemptuously. Ismene, bold in the face of a real crisis, joins her sister. Creon’s own son, Haemon, at first moderate, soon becomes insubordinate and violent. Creon seems to be searching for a loophole to escape. After Haemon leaves him, he cries in desperation that he would stick to his decision. Both sisters must die! “Both”! say the chorus, “You never spoke of Ismene!” “Did I not?” he answers with visible relief, “No, no, it was only Antigone!” And even on her he will not do the irreparable. With the obvious wish to get breathing time he orders her to be shut in a cave without food or water. When he repents, it is too late.
Orestes arrives at Mycenae, with Pylades and an aged attendant, to avenge the death of his father, in obedience to the Pythian oracle. The attendant is sent on to inform Clytemnestra that Orestes has been killed in a chariot race, and Orestes and Pylades prepare to follow disguised, carrying an urn supposed to contain the ashes of Orestes. Meanwhile Clytemnestra, warned by an ominous dream, has sent her daughter Chrysothemis to pour libations on the tomb of Agamemnon. Electra, who is living a wretched life, bullied by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus on account of her loyalty to her father, meets Chrysothemis and persuades her to substitute for the offerings of Clytemnestra, others more acceptable to their father’s tomb. Clytemnestra appears and scolds Electra, but is interrupted by the arrival of the messenger and learns with ill-concealed joy the news of the death of Orestes. Electra, on the other hand, is plunged in despair. The announcement of Chrysothemis that she has found a lock of hair, probably that of Orestes, on Agamemnon’s tomb seems only to mock her sorrow. She determines, now that the expected help of Orestes is lost, to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus herself. The more prudent and plaint Chrysothemis refuses to share in the deed. Orestes and Pylades now approach, and Orestes gradually reveals himself to Electra. He and Pylades enter the palace. The death-shriek of Clytemnestra is heard. Aegisthus then approaches. He is lured into the palace to see what he supposes to be the dead body of Orestes, but finds it to be that of Clytemnestra. He is driven at the point of his sword to the room where Agamemnon was slain, and there killed. The chorus of Mycenean women rejoice at the passing of the curse which has rested on the house of Atreus.
Electra shows skill in the plot and a clear characterization. There is, however, a certain artificiality in the messenger’s speech where the dramatist inserts a lengthy and undramatic description of the Pythian Games, while all that was wanted was a false report of Orestes’s death. This play is also “stern”, to use Sophocles’s own word. Electra and Orestes show no sense of horror of the deed they feel called upon to perform. The play closes, too, with an expression of entire satisfaction. It is this spirit that makes this play, brilliant as it is, so typically uncharming. The explanation, perhaps, lies in some natural taste for severity and dislike of sentiment in Sophocles. It seems certainly also to be connected with his archaism (both as regards his language and his conceptions).
Trachiniai deals with the death of Heracles. Heracles has been absent from his home for fifteen months. He had told his wife Deianira that at the end of this period the crisis of his life would come and that he would either perish or have rest from all his troubles. Deianira sends Hyllus, their son, in search of his father. As she reflects over her anxious lot, a messenger announces the arrival of Heracles in Euboea nearby. This is soon confirmed by the report of a herald who brings with him a train of captive women taken by Heracles when he sacked the city of his enemy Eurytus. Deianira discovers that her husband Heracles has transferred his love to one of these, namely Iole, daughter of Eurytus. The centaur Nessus, when dying, has left her a love-charm. With this she decides to win back the love of Heracles, and smears with it the robe of honour that she sends to him. Too late she discovers that the charm is in fact a deadly poison. Hyllus returns, describes the agony of Heracles tortured by the robe, and denounces his mother as a murderess. Deianira goes out in silence, and presently her old nurse appears to say that she has taken her own life. Dying Heracles is brought home and bids Hyllus to carry him to Mt. Oeta and there burns him on a pyre before the agony returns. Thereafter Hyllus is to marry Iole. Hyllus reluctantly consents, bitterly reproaching the gods for their pitiless treatment of his father. (The scene is laid at Trachis and the title of the play is taken from the chorus of Trachinian maidens).
Like Philoctetes, this play shows the influence of Euripides. There are some definite imitations, in this play, of Euripides’s Heracles, apart from the Euripidean prologue and subtly dramatic situation between Deianira and her husband’s unwilling mistress. The Dorian hero, a common figure in satyr-plays, had never been admitted to tragedy till Euripides’s Heracles, where he appears as the lusty, conquering warrior, jovial and impulsive, with little nobleness of soul to fall back upon. There could also be some connection between the writing of Trachiniai and the history contained in Antipptone’s speech on poisoning.
Who was Heracles?
Heracles, more commonly known as Hercules, was one of the most famous of Greek heroes. He was noted for his strength, courage, endurance, good nature, and compassion; he was also known for his good appetite and lust. A large number of campaigns, combats, and miscellaneous undertakings are attributed to him, among them the “Twelve Labours” that were imposed upon him by Eurystheus.
Ajax was the son of Telamon, King of Salamis. He was the leader of the Salaminians at the siege of Troy, and is depicted by Homer as a man obstinate in his bravery to the point of stupidity. After the death of Achilles, Ajax and Odysseus contended for the hero’s arms. When these were awarded to Odysseus, Ajax was maddened by resentment and slaughtered a flock of sheep in the belief that they were his enemies. Afterwards, from shame, he took his own life. The play by Sophocles centres round these incidents.
Ajax, the son of Telamon, demented by resentment because the arms of Achilles have been awarded to Odysseus, has given vent to his wrath by slaughtering a flock of sheep, taking them for his enemies. He is first seen in his madness, then after his recovery, stricken with grief and shame, while his slave, Tecmessa, and the chorus of Salaminian sailors try to soothe him. He calls for his son Eurysaces, gives him his shield, and leaves his last instructions for his brother Teucer. He then takes his sword, to bury it, as he says, and goes to purge himself of his guilt by the sea. Teucer has now returned from a foray and has learnt from the seer Calchas that, to avert calamity, Ajax, who has annoyed the gods by his arrogance must be kept within his tent for that day. But it is too late. Ajax is found killed by his own sword. Menelaus forbids his burial, as an enemy to the Greeks, and Agamemnon confirms the decision, but is persuaded by Odysseus to relent, and Ajax is carried to his grave.
Ajax is a stiff and very early play. It is only in the prologue and in the last scene that it has three actors and it does not only really know how to use them, as they are used, for instance, in Electra and Antigone. The last five hundred lines are occupied with the question of the burial of Ajax, his great enemy Odysseus being eventually the man who prevails on the angry generals to do him honour. The finest things in the play are the hero’s speeches in his disgrace and the portrayal of his mistress, the enslaved Princess Tecmessa whom he despises and who is really superior to him in courage and strength of character, as well as in unselfishness.
Philoctetes is living wretchedly on Lemnos, suffering from his wound, supporting himself by shooting birds with his beloved bow of Heracles. Odysseus and Neoptolemus arrive to carry him to the siege of Troy. Odysseus reveals to Neoptolemus his plan; Neoptolemus is to pretend that he has quarrelled with the leaders of the Greek Army and is on his way home; he is to heap abuse on Odysseus and to try to possess himself of the bow. Neoptolemus, though at first unwilling to lead himself to the deceit, consents. He meets Philoctetes and tells his story. Philoctetes makes a pathetic appeal to him to take him to Greece, and Neoptolemus agrees. But Philoctetes is seized with a fit of pain after which he is likely to fall asleep. He entrusts his bow to Neoptolemus. When he wakes up, Neoptolemus, feeling ashamed of his conduct, confesses the plot. He is on the point of returning the bow when Odysseus intervenes. Odysseus and Neoptolemus depart to the ship, carrying off the bow. Philoctetes is left lamenting his loss while the chorus of sailors try to persuade him to join them. They are about to leave him when Neoptolemus returns, determined to give back the bow but pursued by Odysseus. Philoctetes having regained the bow seeks to shoot Odysseus but is prevented by Neoptolemus who again tries to persuade Philoctetes to accompany them to Troy. He fails, and reluctantly decides to fulfil his promise of carrying Philoctetes home. At this point Heracles appears in a vision; he bids Philoctetes to go to Troy, and Philoctetes yields to the voice of one whom he cannot disobey.
The play presents a profoundly tragic situation, and it ends in Euripidean style with Heracles appearing as a divine reconciler ex machina.
[Who was Philoctetes?
Philoctetes was the man to whom Heracles or Hercules had given his bow and arrow as a compensation for agreeing to light the pyre on which Heracles wanted to be burnt to death. In course of the expedition to Troy, Philoctetes was bitten in the foot by a serpent, and this produced so painful a wound and his cries were so terrible that the Greeks landed him on the uninhabited island of Lemnos. Sophocles’s play begins some time after this incident.]