Abrahamus's Reviews > Sophocles I: Oedipus The King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone

Sophocles I by Sophocles
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Apr 14, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: classic-literature
Read in March, 2012

This trilogy of Sophocles (Oedipus Rex in particular) is overwhelmingly regarded as the greatest of the Greek tragedies, and with good reason. It is the stuff that our worst nightmares are made of. Oedipus, the King of Thebes, seems to be living a charmed life, until it becomes horrifyingly clear that he has unwittingly (despite multiple prophetic warnings) slain his own father and married his own mother. His mother/wife hangs herself, Oedipus gouges his own eyes out, and then wanders, disgraced and destitute, throughout Greece, accompanied by his two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, while his two sons feud with and eventually kill each other over the right to rule Thebes.

Many of the same themes that Aeschylus set forth in his Oresteia trilogy are further explored here. The gods are at their cruelest. The fact that they divinely predestine the fate of mortals is not so much the problem. (Being a Calvinist myself, I would argue that divine foreknowledge and even predetermination are incontrovertible realities.) Rather, it is the way in which they coldly toy with their subjects, using the prophecies themselves as bait and ruling out any possibility that those who are pre-condemned can avoid the sinful actions that have been decreed for them, despite their evident desire to do so, that is the nadir of mercilessness. Moreover, it is with great irony that the gods would punish Oedipus for two crimes (patricide and incest) which, as anyone familiar with Greek mythology knows, are primordially associated with the gods' own origins. At any rate, the reader of any appreciable amount of ancient literature quickly learns that such and similar themes - the unavoidable nature of fate, the self-fulfilling prophecy, and the mechanism whereby attempted avoidance actually brings about that which is decreed, the manner in which prophecies are often fulfilled in unexpected ways, etc. - are favored not only by the Greek dramatists, but also by historians (Herodotus, most notably) and other writers of antiquity, including, with some very important distinctions, the writers of Scripture.

Antigone also sets forth an interesting and early example of the recognized tension between two potentially antithetical duties: an individual's duty to loved ones and to the decrees of his or her own conscience versus their duty to obey the decrees of the state. A clear warning is sounded against cruelty and unyielding rigidness on the state's part, though again, this is somewhat schizophrenic, given the epistemological difficulties noted above.

And as a final aside, it's delightful to note, in the character of the Sentry in Antigone, the original comical archetype for so many flustering, blundering, and language-marring officials in Shakespeare's plays (Constable Dogberry, Constable Dull, Sir Oliver Martext, etc.)


(Note: I first read Oedipus Rex years ago, in college, but this was my first reading of the entire trilogy.)
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