The Greek book of the week – The Oedipus Cycle by Sophocles
The civilization of Ancient Greece continue to fascinate the modern mind. It’s remote in time, and yet still close to us. This is partly because we owe to the classical world so many of the values and ideas which shape our society, literature and art, partly because many of the important moral and political issues which continue to exercise twenty-first century man were first addressed in the ancient world.
The Oedipus Cycle by Sophocles (about 420 BC). (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone)
Sophocles wrote 123 plays but only seven have survived in their entirety. His most famous work is the story of the life of Oedipus (the Oedipus Cycle).
Oedipus arrives at Thebes a stranger and finds the town under the curse of the Sphinx, a monster who had been sent by the gods. The Sphinx will not free the city unless her riddle is answered. Oedipus solves the riddle and, since the king had recently been killed, becomes the king and marries the queen.
The Oedipus Cycle:
• Oedipus Rex: Prior to the start of the play, Oedipus has become the king of Thebes while unwittingly fulfilling a prophecy that he would kill his father, Laius (the previous king), and marry his mother, Jocasta (whom Oedipus took as his queen after solving the riddle of the Sphinx). The action of play concerns Oedipus’ search for the murderer of Laius in order to end a plague ravaging Thebes, unaware that the killer he is looking for is none other than himself. At the end of the play, after the truth finally comes to light, Jocasta hangs herself while Oedipus, horrified at his patricide and incest, proceeds to gouge out his own eyes in despair.
• Oedipus at Colonus: In the timeline of the plays, the events of Oedipus at Colonus occur after Oedipus Rex and before Antigone; however, it was the last of Sophocles’ three Theban plays to be written. The play describes the end of Oedipus’ tragic life. Legends differ as to the site of Oedipus’ death; Sophocles set the place at Colonus, a village near Athens and also Sophocles’ own birthplace, where the blinded Oedipus has come with his daughters Antigone and Ismene as suppliants of the Erinyes and of Theseus, the king of Athens.
• Antigone: Antigone is Oedipus’ sister/daughter. Prior to the beginning of the play, brothers Eteocles and Polyneices, leading opposite sides in Thebes’ civil war, died fighting each other for the throne. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, has decided that Eteocles will be honored and Polyneices will be in public shame and his body will not be sanctified by holy rites and will lie unburied on the battlefield – the harshest punishment at the time.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creon). Antigone ignores the king’s order and buries her brother.
In exploring the ancients we learn something about ourselves as well because the emotions generated and the dilemmas of judgment forced upon the characters are timeless and integral parts of the human condition.