The Theban Plays

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The Theban Plays

by Sophocles


Plays set in Thebes during the thirteenth century bce; written in Greek in the early 400s bce—Antigone c. 442 bce (or, some argue, the 430s bce), Oedipus the King probably 10 to 15 years later, and Oedipus at Colonus c, 405 bce.


In Oedipus the King, the mighty ruler of Thebes falls into staggering misfortune and misery. In Oedipus at Colonus, after wandering in exile for years, the former king is vindicated by the gods just before death, but his children go on to suffer a tragic fate in Antigone.

Events in History at the Time the Plays Take Place

The Plays in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Plays Were Written

For More Information

Sophocles was born at Colonus, just a mile outside Athens, in the year 496 bce. The son of a wealthy family, he was raised with every possible educational and social advantage. At age 16 he made his debut in the theater by performing in a chorus that celebrated an Athenian victory (at Salamis), and soon afterward he began com-posing original poems and songs. Sophocles entered his first dramatic competition at the age of 28, where he took the top prize over Aeschylus, who was then considered the reigning master of tragedy. Apart from his dramatic interests, Sophocles was quite civic minded; he held a variety of political and military offices in his lifetime. These included a term as president of Athens’ imperial treasury, one as an official of a religious organization, and appointments to various embassies. His military service included two generalships, one under Pericles and one under Nicias. Sophocles’ long life of 90 years spanned the Peloponnesian War and Athens’ corresponding rise and fall as a great empire. Unlike his fellow playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides, who often travelled to the courts of foreign kings and died abroad, Sophocles only left Athens in the service of the city and died at home. He is credited with the writing of 123 plays, only seven of which have survived intact. Of these, the Theban plays are widely considered perfectly structured dramatic masterpieces. Like Sophocles’ other tragedies, they question the unrelenting forces of fate that frustrate humanity’s best laid plans, and the justness of a cosmos that allows individuals and cities to experience undeserved reversals of fortune.

Events in History at the Time the Plays Take Place

The ancient city of Thebes

The myth of the House of Oedipus, upon which Sophocles’ plays are based, takes place in Thebes in the thirteenth century bee. At the time, Thebes was the dominant city of Boeotia (central Greece), located in that region’s eastern part. The city had its own acropolis, or fortress, which stood on a plateau overlooking the lower city, with portions of the rivers Dirce and Ismenus on either side.

Thebes had an especially rich mythology. It was said to have been founded by Cadmus, who arrived there from Phoenicia. According to the myth, he used dragon’s teeth to sow a harvest of splendid warriors, several of which were said to be the ancestors of the Theban aristocracy. The plays take place during the Bronze Age, at which time Thebes rivaled Mycenae as the dominant city in all of Greece. Thebes’ success during this period is attributed to the richness of its soil and its geographic location, which gave the city access to a variety of routes between Attica (Athens’ region) and central Greece. Archaeological evidence indicates, however, that by the end of the Bronze Age, the center of the city had been “sacked, burned, and abandoned,” and Thebes never regained its former glory (Grant, p. 643). Sophocles may have intended the setting to have particular resonance for his audience, who saw fifth-century Thebes as a frequent military enemy of Athens.

The Plays in Focus

Plot summaries

The Theban Plays are not considered a trilogy because they were not written or produced at the same time, in the way Aeschylus’ Oresteia was (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Sophocles wrote the plays over some 40-odd years, and the chronological order of their writing does not correspond to the sequential order of the stories. He wrote Antigone first, then Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Co/onus last. While many translations present the plays in sequential order, a few scholars argue that the plays should be presented in chronological order, so that each may be approached as an independent unit, as Sophocles intended.

Oedipus the King

As the play opens, Oedipus is talking to a priest who represents a group of Theban citizens begging for relief from a terrible plague. Trying to console them, Oedipus says he has already dispatched his brother-in-law, Creon, to ask the Oracle at Delphi how the city might be saved. Creon returns with the oracle’s pronouncement, which is that Thebes is suffering because the murderer of its former king, Laius, lives within its walls unpunished. Oedipus curses the killer and vows to save the city by searching him out and bringing him to justice. As Oedipus turns to go into the palace, the Chorus begins to chant a prayer for Thebes and its recovery but ominously worries about the effects of this investigation into the past. Oedipus is advised to send for Tiresias, the blind prophet, since “anyone searching for the truth … might learn it from the prophet, clear as day” (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, lines 324-325). Under questioning, Tiresias refuses to say much. He hints that he knows some awful truth but keeps insisting that it is better for everyone if he does not reveal it. His reticence proves too much for Oedipus to bear, and the king explodes in fury, accusing Tiresias of conspiring with Creon in a plot to overthrow him. After being pushed to the limits of his patience, Tiresias finally foretells a very dark prophecy indeed:

Blind who now has eyes, beggar who now is rich, he will grope his way toward a foreign soil, a stick tapping before him step by step. Revealed at last, brother and father both to the children he embraces, to his mother son and husband both—he sowed the loins his father sowed, he spilled his father’s blood!

(Oedipus the King, lines 517-523)

Later, when Creon meets with the king to try to defend himself against the charge of treason leveled at him by Oedipus, he begs his brother-in-law not to jump to conclusions but to carefully consider the facts of the case. Oedipus refuses to believe Creon and announces that he does not want Creon merely banished, but dead. The Chorus begs Oedipus to reconsider, and Creon warns him that “sullen in yielding, brutal


Stories, statues, and pictures of the sphinx existed in ancient Greece, Egypt, Assyria, and Phoenicia. A mythological creature, its name stems from a Creek word meaning “squeezer,” and its gender in Greek mythology seems to have been female. The sphinx referred to in Sophocles’ Oedipus was believed to have lived on a high rock outside Thebes. Creeks pictured the sphinx as a winged creature with the body of a Won and the head of a woman. As was common in many versions of the myth of the sphinx, she posed a particular danger to men, whom she carried off and devoured if they were not able to answer her riddle correctly. As Oedipus was passing the sphinx on his way to Thebes he was able to solve the riddle, thereby causing her to hurl herself off the rock manger and plunge to her death. Although not repeated verbatim in the play, the riddle that the sphinx supposedly asked was, “What has one voice and walks with four feet in the morning, two feet in the afternoon, and three feet in the evening?” The correct answer was “man, who crawls as a baby, walks erect as an adult, and needs a cane in his twilight years.” Oedipus himself can be seen as the subject of the riddle, for, according to some, though he is a young man, he must use a cane due to an injury he suffered as an infant on Mount Cithaeron (Segal, pp. 36-37).

The sphinx is not the only supernatural element in the play-Much of the drama in the play is brought about by an “oracle,” a term used by the ancient Greeks to refer to a shrine where people would come and pray to the gods for guidance. The gods were thought to communicate through select individuals known as priests, or prophets, who could reveal the will of the gods and predict the future. Sophocles presents an interesting juxtaposition between the riddle of the sphinx, which Oedipus can solve, and the riddles of the oracles, which are not as easy for him to decipher. When Oedipus questions the prophet Tiresias, instead of answers, the prophet supplies “riddles, murk and darkness” (Oedipus the King, line 500). Tiresias taunts Oedipus, saying, “Ah, but aren’t you the best man alive at solving riddles?” and at the end of his prophecy challenges him to “go in and reflect on that, solve that” (Oedipus the King, lines 501, 523), The irony is that Oedipus ultimately discovers the truth and solves the mystery of his identity but, in so doing, brings about his own downfall and destruction.

in your rage—you will go too far. It’s perfect justice: natures like yours are hardest on themselves” (Oedipus the King, lines 746-749).

At this point, Jocasta the queen, who has come to make peace between her brother Creon and her husband, Oedipus, insists on being told what has happened. Upon hearing that the source of the controversy was Tiresias’ prophecy, Jocasta seeks to console her husband by relating to him a years-old prophecy that never came to pass. Apparently Laius, Jocasta’s first husband and former Theban King, had been told that he would suffer his death at the hands of his own son. Tortured by this prophecy, Laius and Jocasta gave their infant son to a servant, who tied his ankles and left him to die of exposure on the side of a mountain. And as Jocasta reminds Oedipus, Laius was actually killed years later, not by his son, but by “strangers, thieves, at a place where three roads meet” (Oedipus the King, lines 789-790).

Oedipus, startled, questions his wife about the precise location and time of Laius’ murder, also asking her for a physical description of the slain king. Hearing that there was one witness to the crime, a shepherd, Oedipus asks that he be sent for and pours out his fears to his wife. He recounts to her how he traveled to Delphi from his native Corinth in order to consult the oracle regarding his parentage after being called a foundling at a party. Instead of answering his


Sources agree that although attitudes toward sexual practices were quite liberal in ancient Greece, this freedom existed only for mates. Married men were expected to keep their wives happy enough so that they would produce and rear as many healthy children as possible. As long as this was accomplished, the men were free to engage in sexual relations outside marriage, including consorting with female prostitutes known as courtesans, and engaging in relationships (often emotional as well as sexual) with young boys.

Liberal attitudes to men’s sexual practices did not extend to incest. Sexual relationships between parents and their children such as the one between Oedipus and, his mother Jocasta, were strictly forbidden (although the ancient Greeks did not consider relations with more distant relatives incest; cousins could marry), Other literary references to incest portrayed the incestuous unions as resulting in the birth of hideous monsters such as the sphinx (Hesiod’s Theogony), or depicted incest as a deplorable practice accepted only by barbarians or “non-Greeks”(in Euripides’ Andromache). Plato’s Republic provides additional insight into what the ancient Greek attitudes toward incest were, in his famous treatise on the most ideal organization of the state, Plato introduces the idea of communism of women and children. Private families will be abolished, as men and women will simply pair off according to lots that they draw for the sake of procreation. But precautions are taken to insure that this does not result in incestuous relations (for example, individuals who are conceived the same year will all consider each other siblings, and will not be paired off by the state). Once “Individuals are beyond the age of procreation,”according to Plato, they are “left to have intercourse with whomsoever they wish, except with a daughter a mother, the children of their daughters, and the ancestors of their mother, a son, a father, the children of their sons” and so on (Plato, p. 1 40),

question about his parents, the oracle informed Oedipus that he would one day kill his father and sleep with his mother. Assuming that the people who raised him, King Polybus and his wife Merope, were his biological parents, Oedipus fled Corinth for Thebes to insure that this awful prophecy would never come to pass. On his way, he encountered a group of men traveling by wagon who haughtily tried to force him off the road, and in his anger, Oedipus killed all of them. Oedipus recalls that this occurred at Phocis, where the three roads meet, exactly where Laius was killed. As the audience has already been informed, after killing Laius, Oedipus proceeded to Thebes, stopping just outside the city to destroy the sphinx, an awful creature who was terrorizing the Thebans. For this courageous act, they rewarded him with the hand in marriage of their newly widowed queen and with the position of king.

Oedipus holds out one hope, however … according to the eyewitness who reported the murder, it was thieves who killed the king, and since “one can’t equal many,” Oedipus could not have been the killer (Oedipus the King, line 934). He begs Jocasta to send for the shepherd immediately, to confirm that it was several men who killed Laius.

While they await the shepherd’s arrival, a messenger arrives with the news that King Polybus is dead and that the people of Corinth want to make Oedipus their king. Oedipus is actually relieved to hear that the man he believed to be his father is dead, so tormented was he by the oracle’s prediction that he would kill his own father. Jocasta is relieved too and points out to Oedipus that the first part of the prophecy that he so feared turned out to be “nothing, worthless” (Oedipus the King, line 1064). Jocasta urges him to forget the second part as well, claiming that many men have dreamed of sharing their mother’s bed, but that it means nothing. Oedipus, however, feels that as long as his erstwhile mother, Queen Merope lives, he still must live


The messenger’s description of Oedipus’ self-blinding can aptly be described as gruesome, as the audience is told how Oedipus plunges the pins into his eyes again and again, while “at each stroke blood spurts from the roots, splashing his beard, a swirl of it, nerves and clots—black hail of blood pulsing, gushing down” (Oedipus the King, lines 1412-1414).

The vivid description features a punishment quite unparalleled in the Greek literary tradition. Moreover, Athenian laws do not indicate that such a punishment was the norm in Sophocles’ time. In fact, the laws regarding homicide allow for the perpetrator to be exiled or, if a surviving relative of the victim agreed, pardoned altogether. Previous versions of the Oedipus story had ended on a much different note. In Homer’s lliad, for example, Oedipus dies on the battlefield, and in the Odyssey, he continues his rule of Thebes. Even Aeschylus’ version in Seven Against Thebes, which ends with Oedipus’ self-blinding, is quite different, in that the king is portrayed as one possessed by madness. Sophocles’ Oedipus is fully sane and aware of what he is doing. The theatrical blinding serves two purposes in Sophocles’ play. First it attests to Oedipus’ free will and freedom of choice, a key issue for Sophocles, Second, it demonstrates a heroic element in Oedipus’ character, his courage to endure extraordinary pain and suffering.

in fear of the second part of the prophecy coming to pass. The messenger, upon hearing this exchange and wishing to put his mind at ease once and for all, reveals to Oedipus that he was an abandoned infant, a foundling. The messenger turns out to be a shepherd, who rescued Oedipus as an infant and gave him to Polybus and his wife, a childless couple who were desperate for a baby of their own. When Oedipus asks the shepherd for more details about where and how he was found, the man replies that it was not he, but another shepherd who actually discovered the infant, with his ankles fastened, left to die on the side of Mount Cithaeron. Frantic, Oedipus asks if this second shepherd still lives and where he can be found, and is told by his advisor that the man is already on his way to the palace. The second shepherd and the eyewitness to Laius’ murder are one and the same.

Jocasta, coming to realize Oedipus’ true identity, begs him to “stop—in the name of god, if you love your own life, call off this search!” (Oedipus the King, line 1162). But Oedipus refuses to listen, insisting that he “must know it all, must see the truth at last” (Oedipus the King, lines 1168-1169). Jocasta, shrieking, yells at Oedipus that he is doomed and then runs from the palace. The second shepherd finally arrives and admits that he disobeyed Laius, who gave orders to have the baby killed because of the awful prophecy he had received. Taking pity on the infant boy, the shepherd gave him away, hoping his new caretaker would take him far away from Thebes and give the baby another life. Oedipus did have the chance for a new life in Corinth, but in an ironic twist, for which Sophocles is famous, his consultation with the Oracle at Delphi as a young man actually brought him back to Thebes, which resulted in the oracle’s prophecy coming to pass. Oedipus, crying out that he is “revealed at last,” rushes through the doors (Oedipus the King, line 1308). After the Chorus sings a song about the cruel nature of fate, a messenger enters to relate the news of Jocasta’s suicide and describes Oedipus’ frenzied grief and guilt at the sight of her hanging in the noose. The messenger relays a graphic account Of Oedipus’ self-inflicted punishment, the gouging out of his own eyes with Jocasta’s brooches.

Next we see Oedipus, a blind man being led by attendants, cursing himself and his fate and begging Creon, the new Theban king, for banishment from the city. Creon says that he has sent a messenger to the Oracle at Delphi in order to discover what the gods wish him to do.

Taking pity on Oedipus, Creon sends for his two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. After a tearful goodbye and the extraction of a promise


A staple notion in Greek tragedy is the belief that all human actions are guided or determined by “fate.” This unseen force may refer to the gods and their plans or to some other unfathomable workings of the universe, but to refuse to submit to it was considered hubris, a sin of pride and arrogance. Sophocles’ treatment of fate presents an interesting contrast to that of other playwrights in his day. Some scholars argue that in the plays of Aeschylus, the characters seem compelled to act in certain ways as a result of the gods’ power and influence. Aeschylus creates an Oedipus who blinds himself because a divine spirit or dai mon drove him to it (Segal, pp. 54, 134). In Sophocles’ drama, all the characters are portrayed as having the freedom to act. At each stage of Oedipus the King, the characters make choices. True, the choices end up making the gods’ prophecy come to pass; still they are, in Sophocles’ view, to some degree a function of man’s free will, of his own passions and desires. It is because Oedipus, for example, lets his temper get the better of him at the cross-roads that he kills an entire wagonful of people, fulfilling the first part of the prophecy.

Likewise, Oedipus’ tragic downfall from a heroic king to a blind and exiled beggar is a function of his own action. Contrary to advice from Tiresias and Jocasta, who at several points urge caution, restraint, and the abandonment of his investigation into the past, Oedipus relentlessly forges ahead, a man of action fixated on solving this old mystery. Of course, Oedipus has noble motives; he begins his quest for the killer out of civic mindedness, to purge Thebes of its guilt and the resultant plague. Moreover, there is something admirable and heroic about his single-minded pursuit of the truth at any cost. Nonetheless, had Oedipus chosen to simply let the matter rest, his sins would never have been discovered and his life could have continued undisturbed. After his self-blinding, Oedipus laments his actions: “I’ve stripped myself” he admits. “I gave the command myself” (Oedipus the King, p. 243).

from Creon that he will look after Oedipus’ sons, Oedipus is led away by the guards. The play closes with his fate being left uncertain.

Oedipus at Colonus

The second play in the saga occurs some years after Oedipus’ exile from Thebes. Antigone and Oedipus are wandering; exhausted, they sit at a grove to rest. A man appears and orders them to leave the spot, for it is holy ground and guarded by divinities known as the furies. Upon hearing this, Oedipus declares that this is his “refuge,” “the sign, the pact that seals my fate,” and that he will never leave this spot (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, lines 53, 55). He is informed by the stranger that this spot is part of the rich lands called Colonus, after the horseman who is their founding father, and that they are part of Athens, under King Theseus’ rule. Oedipus begs the man to dispatch a messenger so that the king may come and speak to him. In Oedipus’ ensuing speech, the importance of this resting place is revealed:

When the god cried out those lifelong prophecies of doom he spoke of this as well, my promised rest after hard years weathered—I will reach my goal, he said, my haven where I find the grounds of the awesome goddesses and make their home my home. There I will round the last turn in the torment of my life: a blessing to the hosts I live among, a disaster to those who drove me out!

(Oedipus at Colonus, lines 105-116)

Next the Chorus happens upon Oedipus. They immediately try to expel him when they discover that he is the infamous, “wretched, suffering Oedipus” (Oedipus at Colonus, line 237). Antigone intervenes on his behalf, and Oedipus makes the first of several self-defense speeches, pointing out to the Chorus that he knew nothing of his actions, so how could he be called “guilty, how by nature?” (Oedipus at Colonus, line 289).

Antigone’s sister Ismene arrives to warn Oedipus that his sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, are feuding. Polyneices was driven out of Thebes to Argos by Creon and Eteocles, and is now planning an attack on Thebes. Creon is also aware of the prophecy and is coming to bring Oedipus back to Thebes in order to insure victory for his side. Oedipus rails at this, remembering that when he had first learned of his transgressions, he wanted public execution, or at the very least, exile. Once he calmed down, however, he wanted to be allowed to remain in Thebes. But Creon marched Oedipus out of the city, and Oedipus’ own sons refused to help him: “For want of one small word from those two princes I was rooted out, a beggar, an outcast, fugitive forever” (Oedipus at Colonus, lines 495-497). The Chorus, whose members have now become sym-pathetic toward Oedipus, urge him to pour out his story. With their prodding, he recounts his sins, stressing again that he is “innocent! Pure in the eyes of the law,” since he committed the crimes of patricide and incest “blind, unknowing” (Oedipus at Colonus, lines 615, 617).

Next Theseus appears. He is wary of Oedipus at first, but then agrees to grant him protection and to allow Oedipus to carry out his last wish. Theseus leaves just prior to Creon’s arrival. Al-though he pities Oedipus at first, Creon becomes enraged when Oedipus refuses to return to Thebes and accuses Creon of “brazen gall” and “brutality” (Oedipus at Colonus, lines 865, 883). Creon takes Ismene and Antigone captive. And he is about to lay hands on Oedipus when Theseus returns and dispatches troops to save Oedipus’ daughters from Creon’s attempted kidnapping. Oedipus speaks again in his own defense, referring to his “unwilling crimes” and claiming that he was led on by the gods (Oedipus at Colonus, line 1102).

The next person who comes to visit Oedipus is his son Polyneices. After expressing pity at his father’s haggard appearance, the son appeals to his father for help in the war against Thebes. In reply, Oedipus reminds his son of his disloyalty years before and places a curse upon him: “You’ll fall first, red with your brother’s blood and he stained with yours—equals, twins in blood” (Oedipus at Colonus, lines 155-156). While Antigone tries to dissuade her brother from going to war and rushing out to his death, Polyneices says it is his duty to meet his fate, even if that fate is the end of his life. Before departing, he asks his sisters to make sure that he receives a proper burial.

Suddenly a storm breaks out; there are loud explosions of thunder and lightning. Knowing from the prophecy that this heralds his death, Oedipus cries out for Theseus, who arrives at his side shortly. Oedipus imparts his blessing to the king, and then Hermes and Persephone, the godly escort of the dead and queen of the dead, appear to him. He follows them accompanied by his daughters and Theseus. During their absence, the Chorus prays for Oedipus.

A messenger appears to announce that Oedipus has passed away; after being attended to by his daughters, anointed with spring water, and dressed in fine robes, he was called by the gods to move further on, where only Theseus accompanied him to witness the mystery. A moment later, when the others came upon him, Theseus was standing alone, with “his hands spread out against his face as if some terrible wonder flashed before his eyes and he could not bear to look” (Oedipus at Colonus, lines 1873-1875). Antigone and Ismene are in mourning for their father. As the play closes, they plan to return to Thebes and try to stop the impending deadly battles between their brothers.


Again, although this play is last in the saga, Antigone was written first. Some critics argue that Sophocles introduces a theme in it that comes to full fruition in the two Oedipus plays, written years later. This is the notion that an individual believes he or she is acting justly but is actually guilty of breaking divine law, not intentionally but because of ignorance of it.

The play begins right after Oedipus’ death and the death of his two sons, who have killed each other in battle just as their father foretold. Creon, the new king, has issued a decree that Polyneices cannot receive a proper burial but his carcass must rather be left exposed, for animals to feed on. Creon feels justified in his action be-cause Polyneices is a traitor, the worst of men, guilty of betraying his state in a grab for power. But the lack of proper mourning and burial rituals is a terrible sin against the gods, so, although Ismene is too afraid to get involved, Antigone resolves to give her brother a proper burial. She will ignore the civil law of the political world that her uncle represents and follow what she believes to be a higher authority, divine law.

Despite the fact that Creon has posted someone to guard the body, Antigone manages to bury her brother in secret. When the guard comes to tell Creon what has happened, he is furious and accuses the guard of succumbing to bribery and burying the enemy himself. Like Creon, who was unjustly accused of treason in Oedipus the King, the guard maintains his innocence and resents Creon’s accusations. The guards soon discover that Antigone is guilty of burying the corpse. When Creon questions her, Antigone claims that the edict of Creon, “a mere mortal,” cannot override “the great unwritten, unshakable traditions” of the gods (Sophocles, Antigone, lines 504-505). Creon responds by sentencing Antigone to death; if she loves the dead so much, he says, she should go to Hades her-self to be with them. Ismene intervenes on her sister’s behalf, reminding Creon that Antigone is the betrothed of his own son, Haemon. This does not sway Creon in the least. Next Haemon him-self comes to plead for Antigone’s release, hinting that public opinion is turning against Creon. Father and son argue, and Creon mandates that Antigone will die by being left to starve in a hollow cave. As Antigone is led away to the cave, she sings a dirge in her own honor, asserting once again that she was right to respect both the family bond and divine law over political law.

The prophet Tiresias enters and tells Creon that the city of Thebes is suffering because of his stubbornness. Creon has sent a blight upon Thebes, in much the same way Oedipus had in the first play: “The public altars and sacred baths are fouled, one and all, by birds and dogs with carrion torn from the corpse, the doom struck son of Oedipus! And so the gods are deaf to our prayers, they spurn the offerings in our hands, the flame of holy flesh” (Antigone, lines 1124-1128). Tiresias urges Creon to reconsider, as Ismene and Haemon had, but Creon flies into a rage, and accuses the prophet of treason. Finally Tiresias warns Creon that soon he will have to sacrifice his own child to atone for these corpses. This frightens Creon, and he hurries off to re-lease Antigone. Soon Creon’s wife Eurydice receives shocking news. A messenger informs her that upon entering Antigone’s tomb, he and his companions found her dead. She had committed suicide by fashioning a noose from her own clothing and hanging herself. Haemon was there with her, crying in pain, but when Creon asked him to come out of the tomb, Haemon rushed at his father with his sword, and when he missed, turned the sword on himself. He died embracing Antigone, as his blood covered her white cheek. Creon returns to the palace with Haemon’s body, but his suffering does not end here. He is told by a messenger that his wife, Eurydice, has killed herself. With her dying breath, the messenger informs Creon, she “called down torments on your head—you killed her sons” (Antigone, lines 1430-1431). Creon, claiming that he now is nothing, begs to be sent away, but the Chorus reminds him that no human can escape his fate and reminds the audience that happiness depends on wisdom.

Prophecy, the gods, and divine law

The writings of the ancient historians, particularly Herodotus (c. 484-c. 424 bce; see The Histories, also in Classical Literature and Its Times) indicate that oracles played a major role in Greek political and military affairs. As the means, it was believed, through which the gods make their will known to humans, oracles were routinely consulted. Statesmen and governments sought out oracles prior to any major policy decision, and individuals traveled to consult with them on questions of a smaller scale as well.

The Oracle at Delphi plays a prominent role in all three plays, as does the prophet Tiresias, whose sometimes ambiguous messages are meant to warn individuals that they are straying from the will of the gods. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus has a less-than-pious attitude toward religion. Haughtily he states to the citizens of Thebes, “You pray to the gods? Let me grant your prayers. Come, listen to me—” (Oedipus the King,


Delphi was a village located on Mount Parnassus on the northern side of the Gulf of Corinth. It owed its fame to the fact that it was home to the most renowned temple of Apollo. Through ancient Greek history, the Oracle at Delphi was the most respected of the oracles. People traveled far to consult it—not just Greeks but others from Egypt, Asia Minor, and Italy. Their donations to the city of Delphi contributed to the region ’s booming economy. The Greek city-states made frequent and generous contributions, and many of them (including Athens, Thebes, Syracuse, and Siphnos) established small buildings at Delphi where they placed offerings to Apollo, god of prophecy. The belief was that Apollo spoke through the oracle, using a priestess named Pythia as his mouthpiece. The priestess engaged in mysterious rituals (which included sacrifice, ceremonial bathing, and the inhalation of vapors) prior to answering a supplicant’s question, and her predictions were often phrased in a very vague and general way. This encouraged misinterpretation. The most famous example is that of Croseus, the king of Lydia, who in 550 BC asked the oracle if he should attack Persia. The response came back that if Croseus crossed a river, he would indeed destroy a great empire. Confident in his impending victory, he proceeded into battle only to have all of his forces decimated. When he accused the oracle’s prophecy of being false, Pythia replied that her prediction had proven true. Croseus had, in fact, destroyed a great empire … his own.

Plutarch (c 46-c. 120), a high priest of the temple, is one of several ancients who said that the Pythia’s state was induced by vapors, or gases, which erupted from a chasm at the site and inspired the trance in which she was possessed by the gods. When subsequent investigations failed to find a chasm or any other geological feature that would produce vapors, the ancients were discredited and other explanations were sought for her trance-like state (including a self-induced trance via potassium cyanide from laurel leaves that were chewed during the ritual). Scientific discovery, however, has proven the ancients right. A team of scientists found fault lines at the site of the oracle and confirmed that in the waters of a spring nearby there were gases with narcotic/euphoric effects, gases such as ethane, methane, and ethylene. The emissions (produced by the bituminous limestone) resemble the vapors described by Plutarch and explain the Pythia’s “trance.” In the words of these later scientists, “our research has confirmed the validity of the ancient sources in virtually every detail” (de Boer, p. 710).

line 245). Throughout the play Oedipus and Jocasta question and challenge the veracity of the oracles, while the Chorus warns that “They are dying, the old oracles sent to Laius, now our masters strike them off the rolls. Nowhere Apollo’s golden glory now—the gods, the gods go down” (Oedipus the King, lines 995-997). Of course, by the end of the play, Oedipus is chastened, as the divine prophecy indeed comes to pass. As the saga proceeds, in Oedipus at Colonus, we see an Oedipus with a different attitude toward divine prophecy. He struggles to insure that his death and burial are in accordance with divine will. Finally, in Antigone, Creon ultimately comes to see that he ignored divine will at his own peril, much like Oedipus in the first play.

At the time Sophocles made the notion of divine law and its revelation to mortals such significant themes in The Theban Plays there was an intellectual revolution of sorts going on in Athens. The famous philosopher Socrates (c. 470-399 bce) was engaging in a rationalist critique of many things, especially Athens’ religious tradition. Also other “philosophers,” known as the sophists, who prided themselves on being able to win any argument, were subjecting conventional beliefs and practices to increased scrutiny. These intellectual forces, along with the suspicion aroused by charlatans trying to pass themselves off as prophets for hire, began to make the Athenians wary of even the most time-honored oracles. The questions surrounding the notion of prophecy—whether or not the gods existed, whether they were the creators and care-takers of an orderly cosmos, and whether they made their will known through oracles—were very controversial in Sophocles’ day. If divine knowledge and foreknowledge were discredited, the entire religious tradition would be thrown into doubt. How could the gods exist yet not know the future?

Sources and literary context

The source for Sophocles’ plays was the storehouse of myths and legends that circulated among the ancient Greeks. The story of Oedipus, like that of other myths, was already well known to the Athenians and had been treated by other playwrights prior to Sophocles. Thus, the audience was familiar with the characters and the basic plot. What the playwright offered was a new perspective and a fresh presentation of the myth. He may also have offered an original twist; some scholars argue that Oedipus’ end at Athens is Sophocles’ invention.

Sophocles’ dramas, including Oedipus the King, were innovative for their time. Among his legacies to the world of drama are the various technical improvements Sophocles made to the theater, which were well received by the ancient Greeks. These included the enlargement of the chorus and the addition of painted scenery. By far the most significant improvement was the addition of a third actor to drama. This crucial development in the history of the theater greatly enlarged dramatic possibilities.

Events in History at the Time the Plays Were Written

Athenian theater in Sophocles’ day

Sophocles’ dramas and those of his fellow playwrights were performed at festivals for the god Dionysus. They took place twice a year, in the spring and winter, and lasted several days. Plays began as simple religious rituals, wherein the Chorus presented songs. In the year 534 bce the poet Thespis introduced an actor (hypokrites, meaning answerer or interpreter), who could deliver speeches of his own and interact with the Chorus. State holidays, these festivals included religious rites such as prayer and the sacrifice of a goat or lamb. Attendance was not an optional matter; it was considered an important civic responsibility.

The ancient Athenians mixed religious and civic affairs. The state, in fact, subsidized performances by giving citizens the money to purchase their tickets, after obliging wealthy citizens to make contributions that would finance the performances. In addition to the important religious rites, there were political components to the festivals, such as the presentation of children orphaned by war and brought up at Athens’ expense, or the display of silver tribute paid to Athens. The state bestowed various honors and distinctions on individuals during the festival. And in keeping with Athens’ democratic principles, the state opened the festivals to all citizens. Some scholars say women, though not considered citizens, could attend; certainly slaves were excluded. Even those in jail were granted bail to attend. Three playwrights presented their plays on three consecutive days and won either first, second, or third prize. Athens’ democratic structure was evident in the way in which the com-petition was organized. The citizenry at large selected ten judges to decide which plays would be awarded prizes, and the judges, it seems, took their cues from the reactions of the audience. So theater in Sophocles’ Athens is imbued with a political significance: “Drama was special to Athens as an intrinsic and key institution of the democratic city of the later fifth century…. Audiences sat through the day from first light on, expected to reflect and concentrate, as part of their role as citizens of Athens” (Beard, p. 88). In the case of The Theban Plays, the performance might cause audiences to reflect on the reliability of prophecy and its appropriate role in society, or on the ideal ruler.

The Peloponnesian War and the plague

Athenians in the fifth century bce had witnessed their city’s ascension to economic, military, intellectual, and social dominance in Greece under the leadership of the controversial but talented statesman Pericles. During Sophocles’ lifetime, however, Athens’ fortune would change dramatically. War broke out with Sparta in 431 bce, sometime before the staging of Oedipus the King, and it continued for almost three decades. Sophocles, who did not live to witness the de-feat of his beloved Athens by Sparta, was prob-ably writing Oedipus at Co/onus during the last days of the war. It ended very shortly after his death. Initially Athens was the most powerful of the city-states, but by the debut of Oedipus the King, the war had begun to take a grim toll. Athenians had gathered together behind the walls of the city during an invasion by Sparta and war refugees had poured into Athens from outlying areas, such as Attica, resulting in tremendous overcrowding. When the plague broke out, the conditions behind the walls of the city encour-aged it to spread very quickly. Lasting for several years, the disease claimed a quarter of Athens’ population. How appropriate, then, that the first scene of Oedipus the King consists of Oedipus comforting citizens who have come to him for relief from the terrible sickness that holds their city in its deathly grip!

Our city—look around you, see with your own eyes—our ship pitches wildly, cannot lift her head from the depths, the red waves of death…. Thebes is dying. A blight on the fresh crops and the rich pastures, cattle sicken and die, and the women die in labor, children stillborn, and the plague, the fiery god of fever hurls down on the city, his lightning slashing through us … plague in all its vengeance, devastating the house of Cadmus!

(Oedipus the King, lines 27-37)

The ancient historian Thucydides describes Athens’ suffering during the plague in very similar terms:

Not many days after their [refugees] arrival in Attica the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians…. A pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service … but they died themselves … ; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.

(Thycidides, p. 94)

Sophocles obviously also had the war on his mind while writing Oedipus at Co/onus. Oedipus was exiled by Thebes, and his final resting place turns out to be in Athens, under the rule of King Theseus, who receives Oedipus and allows him to die in fulfillment of the prophecy. When Theseus asks Oedipus if this action will cause conflict between the cities, Oedipus assures him that should there ever be trouble between Athens and Thebes, the Athenians, by accepting Oedipus’ body, will insure their victory.

At this time Thebes was in fact an enemy of Athens. The Peloponnesian War began when Thebes attacked Platea in 431 bce. Platea was the only Greek city that helped Athens during the Battle of Marathon, and now Athens rushed to Platea’s defense. Sparta rose up to protect its ally—Thebes—and the war began, with all the Greek city-states choosing sides. By the time Sophocles was writing Oedipus at Co/onus, Athenian fortunes had dwindled and Athens’ defeat was imminent. By the time the play was performed, Athens had admitted defeat and accepted the peace terms offered by Sparta. The great walls of Athens were torn down and the Athenian Empire


A mass grave was discovered in Athens in 1995 during excavations prior to construction of a subway station. The mass grave was located near the surface, and skeletons were found helter-skelter, with no soil between them, The team who excavated the site found cheap, unadorned burial vessels. The members of the team could tell the bodies had been piled into the pit within a day or two. AH the evidence suggested a panicky mass burial, the result, perhaps, of a plague. They dated the grave to 430-42 & bce, which is consistent with the dates of the plague Athens suffered during the Pelonnesian War.

dissolved. Thebes and Corinth wanted nothing less than the total destruction of Athens, but Sparta, fearing the void in power this would cause, opted instead for the installation of a dictatorship known as the Thirty Tyrants.

The question of tyranny

Other translations of the title “Oedipus the King” include “Oedipus Tyrannus,” or “Oedipus the Tyrant.” According to most scholars, the term tyrant was at first almost interchangeable with king and did not have the negative sense in Sophocles’ day that it would start to acquire near the end of the 400s bce. Still, there has been vigorous debate about whether or not Oedipus is a tyrant in the negative sense of the term, that is, whether he is a harsh, overbearing, oppressive ruler. Some argue that he epitomizes the Athenian ideal of the Golden Age. Oedipus is intelligent, confident, courageous, energetic, and assertive, all qualities lauded by Pericles in a speech recounted in Thucydides’ history The Peloponnesian War (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Known as the Funeral Oration because its occasion is a memorial service for those men who died in the first year of battle, Pericles recounts these virtues as qualities that Athens and the Athenians possess in comparison to their enemy, Sparta. According to one view, Oedipus as portrayed by Sophocles is the fulfillment of Pericles’ idealized vision. Others disagree. They point to Oedipus’ frequent outbursts of temper, his seeming inability to moderate his emotions, and his relentless suspicion of those around him (bordering on paranoia) as evidence that Sophocles in-tended to portray him as a tyrant. In fact, at one point the Chorus, usually quite favorable toward Oedipus, chides him with a warning:

Pride breeds the tyrant—violent pride, gorging, crammed to bursting with all that is overripe and rich with ruin—clawing up to the heights, headlong pride crashes down the abyss—sheer doom! No footing helps, all foothold lost and gone.

(Oedipus the King, lines 963-969)

There is no debate about another character. Although Sophocles’ Creon opens the play Antigone with an eloquent and temperate speech about the importance of citizen loyalty, he quickly deterio-rates into a tyrant as his niece refuses to accede to his will. He disregards the advice of the prophet Tiresias and of his own family, and he blasphemously dismisses the gods in his unwillingness to be defeated by a woman. “No woman,” Creon fumes, “is going to lord it over me” (Antigone, p. 86). The ultimate expression of his tyrannical bent comes when his son Haemon says the citizens of Thebes are turning against Creon and siding with Antigone. A defiant Creon asks, “Is Thebes about to tell me how to rule? … Am I to rule this land for others—or myself?” (Antigone, lines 821, 823). When Haemon reminds him that the city is not “owned” by one man alone, Creon responds by asserting “The city is the king’s—that’s the law” (Antigone, lines 824-825).

Even if we assume that through Oedipus and Creon, Sophocles intended to warn others about the dangers of tyrannical rule, it is uncertain whom he might have regarded as the real-life tyrant. One possible interpretation is that the tyrant represents the city of Athens itself, which at the height of its power ruled its “allies” quite ruthlessly. The alliance among the various Greek city-states that united against Persia, their common enemy, was called the Delian League. Over time, the League was criticized as existing simply for other city-states to funnel tribute money to Athens. Also Athens violently and brutally quashed revolts in city-states that clamored for more independence and refused to pay Athens, such as Melos and Mytilene. Another possibility is that the tyrant represents the city of Sparta, the closed, militaristic, autocratic regime with which Athens was at war.

More likely, however, is that the tyrant represents Pericles, who came to power as general of Athens in 460 bce and ruled for 29 years. Many were critical of his use of power. Thucydides wrote that although Pericles’ Athens was a democracy in name, it was in effect ruled by one man. And while there is no doubt that Pericles ruled during Athens’ Golden Age and conducted an unprecedented amount of public building projects on a grand scale (such as all of the structures of the Acropolis, including the Parthenon), questions were raised regarding the source of the funds. It was no secret that the tribute paid by other states was used by Pericles to fund not only building projects, but public plays and other amusements, and that some of the public funds were even dispersed to the poorer citizens. Several critics went so far as to call this embezzlement, arguing that Athens’ allies meant for the funds to be used for the common defense of the Greeks against the Persians. Indeed, a public charge was brought against Pericles accusing him of misappropriation of public funds, and the citizens passed a decree stating that he would have to give a full accounting to a jury. Pericles was even removed from power because of the public distrust, but then quickly reinstated be-cause of panic over the war against Sparta.

Once the war started, Pericles’ popularity began to decline. Pericles had urged the Assembly to de-clare war on Sparta, claiming Athens would win because of its superior intelligence and planning. Pericles ordered walls to be built around the city to protect the road to Piraeus, Athens’ port. He argued that Athenians should abandon all surrounding land and prepare for a long siege within the city’s walls. His strategy for defeating Sparta consisted of avoiding land battles in favor of fighting at sea, since the Athenian naval fleet was invincible. Pericles’ plan for the defeat of Sparta seemed to have ac-counted for everything; in addition to a huge fleet of ships, Athens boasted 13,000 infantrymen, 1,200 cavalry, and 16,000 reserves. At first everything went according to Pericles’ plan. Early in the war, the Athenians were so confident that Pericles’ main problem was restraining them from starting land battles, which were not part of his strategy. But there was one thing that Pericles could not foresee: the plague, carried to Athens on the grain boats, which arrived to feed the city. The disease spread like wildfire through the overcrowded city.

Clearly Pericles shares some traits with Sophocles’ Creon and Oedipus. Despite the fact that both fictional characters are dedicated kings who


A famous modem reference to the play Oedipus the King is its use as the cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory by Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s. According to Freud, childhood and family relationships are driven primarily by the sexual urges of children for their parents, (n the “Oedipus complex,” the young boy and his parents form an erotic triangle in which the child feels hostility toward his father and erotic desire for his mother. (The young girl’s equivalent, taken from the myth of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, is called the “Electra complex,”)

ultimately have the best interests of the city at heart, their arrogance causes them to ignore other opinions and plans, and ultimately leads to their downfall. Scholar Donald Kagan has made a similar argument about Pericles himself, claiming that it was the general’s superhuman confidence and the hubris of his inordinate faith in reason that played an important part in not only his own downfall, but also that of Athens.

Reception and impact

Sophocles’ drama was praised by audiences in his own day. Out of the 120 plays that he authored, 96 won prizes at festivals. While Oedipus the King only won second prize at the festival in which it was performed, posterity has proven a more favorable judge. About a century after the debut of Oedipus the King, Aristotle’s Poetics repeatedly referred to the play as a masterpiece of tragedy and cited it as a model for all playwrights to follow. Athens had two leading institutions of learning, the Academy and the Lyceum; their headmasters both agreed that Sophocles’ work surpassed that of his con-temporaries Aeschylus and Euripides, singling out Oedipus the King as the finest of Sophocles’ plays. Later, under Roman rule, Oedipus the King reappeared in versions written and/or produced by Julius Caesar, Nero, and Seneca. Thereafter, the works of the tragedians seem to have faded from popularity until the 1500s, when the manuscripts of Greek tragedies began circulating again in Italy. Of these manuscripts, Sophocles’ were the first to be reprinted.

Antigone has been one of Sophocles’ most popular plays. By the fourth century bee, some 60 years after Sophocles’ death, it was already considered a classic. In fact, the statesman Demosthenes had a court clerk publicly read Creon’s speech on the responsibilities and loyal-ties of the citizen. Two famous modern adaptations of the play are Jean Anouilh’s in Paris in 1944 and Bertolt Brecht’s in Switzerland in 1945. In the first, Antigone is meant to represent the French resistance to the Nazi occupation; in the second, Antigone symbolizes the hope of a German resistance rising up against Hitler, a resistance that never actually occurred.

—Despina Korovessis

For More Information

Axarlis, Nikos. “Plague Victims Found: Mass Burial in Athens.” Archaeology, April 15, 1998.

Beard, Mary, and John Henderson. Classics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Bower, Bruce. The Oedipus Complex: A Theory under Fire. In Readings on Sophocles. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1997.

De Boer, J. Z., J. R. Hale, and J. Chanton. “New Evidence for the Geological Origins of the Ancient Delphic Oracle (Greece).” Geology 29, no. 8 (August 2001): 707-710.

Demand, Nancy. Birth, Death, and Motherhood in Classical Greece. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Grant, Michael. A Guide to the Ancient World: A Dictionary of Classical Place Names. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1986.

Kagan, Donald. Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Alan Bloom. New York: Basic, 1968.

Segal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Richard Crawley. London: Orion, 1993.

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The Theban Plays

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