The Theban Plays by the Greek philosopher Sophocles tell the story of the rise and fall of Oedipus and his house through three different plays, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus andAntigone. Oedipus was already a legend in Sophocles’ times, comparable to the modern Arthurian saga. Originally, only the story of Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter, was written in 442 B.C. (aye, B.C., these plays are older than the very religion our society is based on), who defied the new king of Thebes, Creon, by attempting to bury her brother against Creon’s will, having to ultimately choose between defiance – which would result in the death of her body, knowing though that justice had prevailed – or submission – the death of her soul, as she would have to deny what she knows to be right.
This inner conflict is mirrored in the depiction of Antigone and her sister Ismene, who initially refuses to help Antigone in her plan. However, when accused of complicity by Creon, she is willing to admit to it, if Antigone allows her to do so. To a certain extent, Ismene is the most underrated character in the plays. She describes her heart as frozen, whereas Antigone’s burns. One could argue that the sisters stand for the mechanisms that allow society to work. Antigone is the burning torch of moral absolutism that can only exist in the ignorance and arrogance of youth; she is willing to rather pay even the highest price than not follow her heart and morals. Eventually, this must destroy her, as society cannot function if what is good and right is valued higher than the good of the people as a whole (yes, this is worded correctly).
Ismene, on the other hand, who advocates moderation, understanding and capitulation to male superiority and also happens to be the more beautiful of the sisters, submits to the morally wrong and subsequently survives. She is the only member of Oedipus’ family that is neither killed nor slayed by their own hand. She stands for the survivors of the human race, those that choose life over righteousness and Sophocles manages beautifully to describe the pain, the fear and the guilt that comes with that decision, for more often than not choosing life is the more difficult, more painful option.
In Oedipus Rex, we learn of the eponymous prince of Corinth, who has to learn that he is prophesized to kill his father and bed his mother. To avoid this, he leaves home and travels to Thebes, where he saves the city after defeating a sphinx and becomes king by marrying Jocasta. After years of peaceful reign, a plague befalls Thebes and only if the murderer of the old king is found and banished the city will recover. Thus, Oedipus swears to find and exile the assassin, unbeknownst that the quest of unravelling this murder will destroy his life. Finally, written just before Sophocles’ death and first performed posthumous, Oedipus at Colonus tells the story of Oedipus’ death and how even his death will influence the future, as well as setting up Antigone.
The plays address the power as well as the danger of knowledge, especially foreknowledge. However, in a cruel twist, showcasing Sophocles’ skills as a writer, knowledge is also the one thing that could have saved the entire family. The story relies on the initial prophesy that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother, and his subsequent attempt to avert the fulfilment of this prophesy. But the only reason that prophesy is fulfilled is because it had been made in the first place. If that would not have happened, Oedipus would have never been cast out by his biological parents; he would have never left his adopted parents to save them from this fate, never travelled and thus met and killed his real father and never entered Thebes and met and bed his real mother. However, and here comes the twist, would he have known that he was adopted, he presumably would have never left his home and none of the above would have happened. Thus, knowledge can be a weapon used for doom and rise alike, and it is the wrong knowledge that one needs to be afraid of. Clearly, in The Thebes Plays the knowledge of one’s future kills, whereas the knowledge of one’s past is imperative to survival.
The power and importance of knowledge is constantly mentioned through the use of sight as metaphor for it.
If all this sounds rather confusing, fear not, theatre was a way to pay homage to Dionysus, the God of drama, who also happened to be the God of wine, which is why the threat of having to deal with a wasted audience might or might not have been the reason that classic plays have a chorus (o.k., the reasons are actually much more serious and professional, but I like my explanation better). The chorus delivers a framing narrative for the story told and ensures that the audience understands what is happening on stage, why it is happening and, even more importantly, all the interesting bits and pieces that are not shown. For example, no death in The Theban Plays is executed on stage, the audience is told about most of them by the chorus. In other words, the chorus is used to move the story forwards, all the while making sure that everyone still knows what is happening.
This is only a small insight into The Theban Plays. Even after more than two millennia, the plays are still well worth reading. It does not matter if one starts reading them because of the language, the story or to find out how many other books you can think of that were inspired by the plays. The Theban Plays are not just some of the oldest fiction still read, but also some of the best.