The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Alas, alas, what misery to be wise when wisdom profits nothing!

Great books do not reveal themselves all at once. Old classics must be revisited from time to time, at different stages of life, in order to experience the many resonant frequencies of the work. This time around I chose to listen to these Theban plays as an audiobook, with a full cast; and it was far preferable to the mute page.

Reading, listening to, or watching the Greek plays may be the nearest we get to time travel. The works immerse us in a foreign world. What struck me most was the Greek attitude towards freedom and fate. Shakespearean tragedy is reliant on human choice. As A.C. Bradley notes, the tragedy is always specific to the individual, to the extent that the tragedy of one play would be impossible for the protagonist of another. Put Hamlet in Othello’s place, or vice versa, and he would make short work of the play’s problem. The tragedy in a Greek play is, by contrast, inevitable and universal. By the time that the curtain is raised in Oedipus Rex, he has long ago sealed his doom.

There is nothing special about Oedipus that marks him for a tragic fate. His tragedy could have befallen a Hamlet or an Othello just as readily as an Oedipus. This changes the entire emotional atmosphere. Whereas in a Shakespearean tragedy we feel a certain amount of dramatic tension as the protagonists attempt to avert crisis, in Greek tragedy there is instead a feeling of being swept along by an invisible, inexorable force—divine and mysterious. It is animated by a far more pessimistic philosophy: that honest, noble, and wise people who do nothing wrong can be dragged into the pit of misery by an inscrutable destiny.

As a result, the plays can sometimes engender a feeling of mystery or even of vague mysticism, as we consider ourselves to be the mere playthings of forces beyond all control and understanding. Characters rise to power in such a way that we credit their virtues for their success; and yet their precipitate fall shows that there are other forces at play. Life can certainly feel this way at times, as we are buffeted about, lifted up, and cast down in a way that seems little connected to our own actions. For this reason, I think that the fatalistic pessimism of these plays is both moving and, at times, even consoling.

Of the three, the most artistically perfect is Oedipus Rex, which Sophocles wrote at the height of his career. Antigone, the last play, was actually written first; and Oedipus at Colonus was written over thirty years, at the very end of Sophocles’ life.

Though arguably the worst of the three, Antigone is the most thematically interesting. It pits two ethical concepts against one another with intense force, specifically different sorts of loyalty. Is it better to be loyal to one’s family, to the gods, to the state, or to the ruler? Creon’s interdiction, though vengeful and petty, is understandable when one remembers that Polynices is a traitor responsible for an attack on his homeland that doubtless cost many citizens’ lives. Creon could have justified his decree as a discouragement of future disloyalty. Antigone believes that duty to family transcends the duty of a citizen, and the events justify this belief.

It must be admitted, however, that this ethical question is muddled by the religious nature of central issue. Few people nowadays can believe that burial rites are important enough to merit self-sacrifice and civil disobedience. When the superstitious element is removed, Antigone’s ethical superiority seems questionable at best. Certainly there are many cases when loyalty to the family can be distinctly unethical. If a sister sheltered a brother who just escaped imprisonment for murder, I think this would be an unequivocally immoral act. But since burial does not involve help or harm to anyone, the ethical question becomes largely symbolic—if no less interesting.

Even if the emotional import of these plays has been somewhat dulled by the passing years, they remain amazingly alive and direct. The power of these plays is such that, even now, when the Greek gods have passed into harmless myth, here we can still feel the sense of awe and terror in the face of a divine order that passes beyond understanding. It would take a long time for theater to again reach such heights.

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