Sophocles’ Oedipus Trilogy
Oedipus the King is the most famous of Greek dramas. Its opening scene is impressive: a motley throng of men, women, boys, girls, and infants sit before the royal palace in Thebes, carrying boughs of laurel and olive as symbols of supplication. A plague has fallen upon the city, and the people have gathered to beg King Oedipus to offer some appeasing sacrifice to the gods. An oracle announces that the plague will leave Thebes with the unknown assassin of Laius, the former king. Oedipus lays a bitter curse upon the murderer, whomever he may be, whose crime has brought such misery to Thebes—a perfect instance of the method that Horace advised of plunging in medias res and letting explanations enter afterward. But the audience, of course, knew the story, for the tale of Laius, Oedipus, and the Sphinx was part of the folklore of the Greeks. Tradition said that a curse had been laid upon Laius and his children because he had introduced an unnatural vice into Hellas; the consequences of this sin, ruining generation after generation, formed a typical theme for Greek tragedy. Laius and his queen Jocasta, said an oracle, would have a son who would slay his father and marry his mother. For once in the world’s history two parents wanted a girl for their first child. But a son came; and to avoid fulfillment of the oracle he was exposed on the hills. A shepherd found him, called him Oedipus from his swollen feet, and gave him to the king and queen of Corinth, who reared him as their son. Grown to manhood, Oedipus learned, again from the oracle, that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Believing the king and queen of Corinth to be his parents, he fled from that city and took the road to Thebes. On the way he met an old man, quarreled with him, and slew him, not knowing that the old man was his father. Nearing Thebes, he encountered the Sphinx, a creature with the face of a woman, the tail of a lion, and the wings of a bird. To Oedipus the Sphinx presented its renowned riddle: “What is that which is four-footed, three-footed, and two-footed?” The Sphinx destroyed all who failed to answer correctly; and the terrified Thebans, longing to clear the highway of this monster, had vowed to have as their next king whoever should solve the riddle, for the Sphinx had agreed to commit suicide if anyone answered it. Oedipus replied: “Man; for as a child he crawls on four feet, as an adult he walks on two, and as an old man he adds a cane.” It was a lame answer, but the Sphinx accepted it, and loyally plunged to its death. The Thebans hailed Oedipus as their savior, and when Laius failed to return they made the newcomer king. Obeying the custom of the land, Oedipus married the queen, and had by her four children: Antigone, Polynices, Eteocles, and Ismene. In the second scene in Sophocles’ play—the most powerful scene in Greek drama—an old high priest, commanded by Oedipus to reveal, if he can, the identity of Laius’ murderer, names Oedipus himself. Nothing could be more tragic than the King’s reluctant and terrified realization that he is the slayer of his father and the mate of his mother. Jocasta refuses to believe it, and explains it away as a Freudian dream: “It has been the lot of many men in dreams,” she reassures Oedipus, “to think themselves partners of their mother’s bed; but he passes through life most easily to whom these things become trifles.” When the identification is complete, she hangs herself; and Oedipus, mad with remorse, gouges out his own eyes, and leaves Thebes as an exile, with only Antigone to help him.
In Oedipus at Colonus, the second play of an unintentional trilogy,* the former king is a white-haired outcast leaning upon his daughter’s arm and begging his bread from town to town. He comes in his wandering to shady Colonus, and Sophocles takes the opportunity to sing to his native village, and its faithful olive groves, an untranslatable song that ranks high in Greek poetry:
Stranger, where thy feet now rest
In this land of horse and rider,
Here is earth all earth excelling,
White Colonus here doth shine.
Oftenest here, and homing best
Where the close green coverts hide her,
Warbling her sweet mournful tale,
Sings the melodious nightingale . . .
Fresh with heavenly dews, and crowned
With earliest white in shining cluster,
Each new morn the young narcissus
Blooms. . . .
And a marvelous herb of the soil grows here,
Whose match I never had heard it sung
In the Dorian Isle of Pelops near
Or in Asia far hath sprung.
’Tis a plant that flourishes unsubdued,
To her armed foes’ dismay:
That never so fair but in this land bloomed,—
With the grey-blue silvery leaf soft-plumed,
Her nurturing Olive-Spray.
No force, no ravaging hand shall raze it,
In youth so rash or in age so wise,
For the orb of Zeus in heaven surveys it,
And blue-grey light of Athena’s eyes.
An oracle has foretold that Oedipus will die in the precincts of the Eumenides; and when he learns that he is now in their sacred grove at Colonus the old man, having found no loveliness in life, thinks that here it would be sweet to die. To Theseus, King of Athens, he speaks lines that sum up with clairvoyant insight the forces that were weakening Greece—the decay of the soil, of faith, of morals, and of men:
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 forever?
Then, seeming to hear the call of a god, Oedipus bids a tender farewell to Antigone and Ismene, and walks into the dark grove, Theseus alone accompanying him.
A little space we turned. And lo, we saw
The man no more; but he, the King,* was there,
Holding a hand to shade his eyes, as one
To whom there comes a vision drear and dread
He may not bear to look upon. . . .
What form of death
He died, knows no man but our Theseus only. . . .
But either some one whom the gods had sent
To guide his steps, or else the abyss of earth
In friendly mood had opened wide its jaws
Without one pang. And so the man was led
With naught to mourn for—did not leave the world
As worn with pain and sickness; but his end,
If any ever was, was wonderful.
The last play in the sequence, but apparently the first of the three to be composed, carries the faithful Antigone to her grave. Hearing that her brothers Polynices and Eteocles are warring for the kingdom, she hurries back to Thebes in the hope of bringing peace. But she is ignored, and the brothers fight to their death. Creon, ally of Eteocles, seizes the throne, and, as punishment for Polynices’ rebellion, forbids his burial. Antigone, sharing the Greek belief that the spirit of the dead is tortured so long as the corpse is not interred, violates the edict and buries Polynices. Meanwhile the chorus sings one of the most renowned of Sophocles’ odes:
Many wonders there be, but naught more wondrous than man.
Over the surging sea, with a whitening south wind wan,
Through the foam of the firth man makes his perilous way;
And the eldest of deities, Earth that knows not toil or decay,
Ever he furrows and scores, as his team, year in year out,
With breed of the yoked horse the ploughshare turneth about.
The light-witted birds of the air, the beasts of the weald and the wood,
He traps with his woven snare, and the brood of the briny flood.
Master of cunning he: the savage bull, and the hart
Who roams the mountain free, are tamed by his infinite art;
And the shaggy rough-maned steed is broken to bear the bit.
Speech, and the wind-swift speed of counsel and civic wit,
He hath learned for himself all these; and the arrowy rain to fly,
And the nipping airs that freeze, ’neath the open winter sky.
He hath provision for all; fell plague he hath learned to endure;
Safe whate’er may befall: yet for death he hath found no cure.
Creon condemned Antigone to be buried alive. Creon’s son Haemon protests against the awful sentence, and, being repulsed swears to his father “thou shalt never more set eyes upon my face.” Here for a moment love plays a part in a Sophoclean tragedy and the poet intones to Eros a hymn long remembered in antiquity:
Love resistless in fight, all yield at a glance of thine eye;
Love who pillowed all night on a maiden’s cheek doth lie;
Over the upland folds thou roamest, and the trackless sea.
Love the gods captive holds; shall mortals not yield to thee?
Haemon disappears; and in search for him Creon orders his soldiers to open the cave in which Antigone has been entombed. There they find Antigone dead and beside her Haemon, resolved to die.
We looked, and in the cavern’s vaulted gloom
I saw the maiden lying strangled there,
A noose of linen twined about her neck;
And hard beside her, clasping her cold form,
Her lover lay bewailing his dead bride . . .
When the King saw him, with a terrible groan
He moved towards him, crying, “O my son,
What hast thou done? What ailed thee? What mischance
Has reft thee of thy reason? Oh, come forth,
Come forth, my son; thy father supplicates.”
But the son glared at him with tiger eyes,
Spat in his face, and then, without a word,
Drew his two-hilted sword and smote, but
Missed his father flying backwards. Then the boy,
Wroth with himself, poor wretch, incontinent,
Fell on his sword and drove it through his side
Home; but, yet breathing, clasped in his lax arms
The maid, her pallid cheek incarnadined
With his expiring gasps. So there they lay
Two corpses, one in death.
The dominant qualities of these plays, surviving time and translation, are beauty of style and mastery of technique. Here is the typically “classic” form of utterance: polished, placid, and serene; vigorous but restrained, dignified but graceful, with the strength of Pheidias and the smooth delicacy of Praxiteles. Classic too is the structure; every line is relevant, and moves towards that moment in which the action finds its climax and its significance. Each of these plays is built like a temple, wherein every part is carefully finished in detail, but has its proper and subordinate place in the whole. Here, as in Aeschylus, the drama moves upward towards the hubris of some crowning insolence (as in Oedipus’ bitter curse upon the unknown murderer); turns around some anagnorisis or sudden recognition, some peripeteia or reversal of fortune; and moves downward toward the nemesis of inevitable punishment. Aristotle, when he wished to illustrate perfection of dramatic structure, always referred to Oedipus the King, and the two plays that deal with Oedipus illustrate well the Aristotelian definition of tragedy as a purging of pity and terror through their objective presentation. The characters are more clearly drawn than in Aeschylus, though not as realistically as in Euripides. “I draw men as they ought to be drawn,” said Sophocles, “Euripides draws them as they are”—as if to say that drama should admit some idealization, and that art should not be photography. But the influence of Euripides appears in the argumentativeness of the dialogue and the occasional exploitation of sentiment; so Oedipus wrangles unroyally with Teiresias, and, blinded, gropes about touchingly to feel the faces of his daughters. Aeschylus, contemplating the same situation, would have forgotten the daughters and thought of some eternal law.
Sophocles, too, is a philosopher and a preacher, but his counsels rely less than those of Aeschylus do upon the sanctions of the gods. The spirit of the Sophists has touched him, and though he maintains a prosperous orthodoxy, he reveals himself as one who might have been Euripides had he not been so fortunate. But he has too much of the poet’s sensitivity to excuse the suffering that comes so often undeserved to men. Says Lyllus, over Heracles’ writhing body:
We are blameless, but confess
That the gods are pitiless.
Children they beget, and claim
Worship in a father’s name,
Yet with apathetic eye
Look upon such agony.*
He makes Jocasta laugh at oracles, though his plays tum upon them creakingly; Creon denounces the prophets as “all a money-getting tribe”; and his Philoctetes asks the old question, “How justify the ways of Heaven, finding Heaven unjust?” Sophocles answers hopefully that though the moral order of the world may be too subtle for us to understand it, it is there, and right will triumph in the end. Following Aeschylus, he identifies Zeus with this moral order, and comes even more closely to monotheism. Like a good Victorian, he is uncertain of his theology, but strong in his moral faith; the highest wisdom is to find that law which is Zeus, the moral compass of the world, and follow it.
Oh, may my constant feet not fail,
Walking in paths of righteousness.
Sinless in word and deed,
True to those eternal laws
That scale forever the high steep
Of heaven’s pure ether, whence they sprang:
For only in Olympus is their home,
Nor mortal wisdom gave them birth;
And howsoe’er men may forget,
They will not sleep.
It is the pen of Sophocles, but the voice of Aeschylus, faith making the last stand against unbelief. In this piety and resignation we see the figure of Job repentant and reconciled; but between the lines we catch premonitions of Euripides.
Like Solon, Sophocles counts that man most blessed who has never been born, and him next happiest who dies in infancy. A modern pessimist has taken pleasure in translating the somber lines of the chorus on the death of Oedipus, lines that reflect a world-weariness brought on by old age, and the bitter fratricide of the Peloponnesian War:
What man is he that yearneth
For length unmeasured of days?
Folly mine eye discerneth
Encompassing all his ways.
For years over-running the measure
Shall change thee in evil wise:
Grief draweth nigh thee; and pleasure,
Behold it is hid from thine eyes.
This to their wage have they
Which overlive their day. . . .
Thy portion esteem I highest
Who wast not ever begot;
Thine next, being born, who diest
And straightway again art not.
With follies light as the feather
Doth Youth to man befall;
Then evils gather together,
There wants not one of them all—
Wrath, envy, discord, strife,
The sword that seeketh life.
And sealing the sum of trouble
Doth tottering Age draw nigh,
Whom friends and kinsfolk fly;
Age, upon whom redouble
All sorrows under the sky. . . .
And he that looseth from labor
Doth one with other befriend,
Whom bride nor bridesmen attend,
Song, nor sound of the tabor,
Death that maketh an end.
Every scholastic gossip knows that Sophocles consoled his old age with the hetaira Theoris, and had offspring by her. His legitimate son Iophon, fearing, perhaps, that the poet would bequeath his wealth to Theoris’ child, brought his father to court on a charge of financial incompetence. Sophocles read to the jury, as evidence of his mental clarity, certain choruses from the play that he was writing, probably the Oedipus at Colonus; whereupon the judges not only acquitted him, but also escorted him to his home. Born many years before Euripides, he lived to put on mourning for him; and then, in that same year 406 B.C., he too died. Legend tells how, as the Spartans besieged Athens, Dionysus, god of the drama, appeared to Lysander and obtained a safe conduct for the friends of Sophocles, who wished to bury him in the sepulcher of his fathers at Deceleia. The Greeks rendered him divine honors, and the poet Simmias composed for him a quiet epitaph:
Creep gently, ivy, ever gently creep,
Where Sophocles sleeps on in calm repose;
Thy pale green tresses o’er the marble sweep,
While all around shall bloom the purple rose.
There let the vine with rich full clusters hang,
Its fair young tendrils flung around the stone;
Due meed for that sweet wisdom which he sang,
By Muses and by Graces called their own.
* Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone were produced separately.
* From his Trachinian Women, 1265ff.