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Three Theban Plays (Oedipus Cycle)

Three Theban Plays (Oedipus Cycle)

Author: Sophocles, trans. Robert Fagles
Rating: 8/10
Last Read: December 2012

Quick Summary:  One of my favorite classes in college traced the development of knowledge from ancient Greece through the middle ages.  One of the books we read was Robert Fagles's translation of the Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus.  Many are nominally familiar with the character of Oedipus, but the story is much more tragic than the "oedipal" nature that most of us recall.  Reading the plays firsthand was definitely enjoyable.  There are wise words and challenging thoughts about implicit rules, duty, and the hand of fate.

My Highlights

I mean you well. I give you sound advice. It’s best to learn from a good adviser when he speaks for your own good: it’s pure gain. --loc 1243

Believe me, when a man has squandered his true joys, he’s good as dead, I tell you, a living corpse. Pile up riches in your house, as much as you like— live like a king with a huge show of pomp, but if real delight is missing from the lot, I wouldn’t give you a wisp of smoke for it, not compared with joy. --loc 1318

Creon shows the world that of all the ills afflicting men the worst is lack of judgment. --loc 1356

That will come when it comes; we must deal with all that lies before us. The future rests with the ones who tend the future. --loc 1404

Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy, and reverence toward the gods must be safeguarded. The mighty words of the proud are paid in full with mighty blows of fate, and at long last those blows will teach us wisdom. --loc 1413

Sophocles’ play has served modern man and his haunted sense of being caught in a trap not only as a base for a psychoanalytic theory which dooms the male infant to guilt and anxiety from his mother’s breast, but also as the model for a modern drama that presents to us, using the ancient figures, our own terror of the unknown future which we fear we cannot control—our deep fear that every step we take forward on what we think is the road of progress may really be a step toward a foreordained rendezvous with disaster. --loc 1451

So far as the action is concerned, it is the most relentlessly secular of the Sophoclean tragedies. Destiny, fate and the will of the gods do indeed loom ominously behind the human action, but that action, far from suggesting primeval rituals and satanic divinities, reflects, at every point, contemporary realities familiar to the audience that first saw the play. --loc 1476

Sophocles was dealing with matters that had urgent contemporary significance; prophecy was one of the great controversial questions of the day. It was in fact the key question, for the rationalist critique of the whole archaic religious tradition had concentrated its fire on this particular sector. Far more than prophecy was involved. For if the case for divine foreknowledge could be successfully demolished, the whole traditional religious edifice went down with it. If the gods did not know the future, they did not know any more than man. --loc 1512

The priest in the opening scene appeals to Oedipus as “the man of experience”; experience is the result of constant action and this too—especially their experience in naval warfare—is a quality celebrated by Athens’ orators and feared by her enemies. --loc 1537

Oedipus is courageous, and it was characteristic of Athenian courage that it rose to its greatest heights when the situation seemed most desperate. This is exactly what we see in the play—Oedipus’ most defiant and optimistic statement comes when Jocasta, knowing the truth, has gone off to hang herself, and the audience waits for the appearance of the shepherd who, under duress, will reluctantly supply the last piece of evidence that identifies Oedipus as the son of Laius and Jocasta. --loc 1539

The riddle has sinister verbal connections with his fate (his name in Greek is Oidipous and dipous is the Greek word for “two-footed” in the riddle, not to mention the later prophecy of Tiresias that he would leave Thebes as a blind man, “a stick tapping before him step by step,” 519), but the answer he proposed to the riddle—“Man”—is appropriate for the optimistic picture of man’s achievement and potential that the figure of Oedipus represents. --loc 1550

And all these images, like the plot, like the hero, have what Aristotle called their peripeteia, their reversal. The hunter catches a dreadful prey, the seaman steers his ship into an unspeakable harbor—“one and the same wide harbor served you / son and father both” (1335-36)—the plowman sows and reaps a fearful harvest, the investigator finds the criminal and the judge convicts him—they are all the same man—the revealer turns into the thing revealed, the finder into the thing found, the calculator finds he is himself the solution of the equation and the physician discovers that he is the disease. The catastrophe of the tragic hero thus becomes the catastrophe of fifth-century man; all his furious energy and intellectual daring drive him on to this terrible discovery of his fundamental ignorance—he is not the measure of all things but the thing measured and found wanting. --loc 1606

But the negative implication of this and many similar passages is clear: that a man is responsible for those actions which are not performed under constraint, which are the expression of his free will. The question of Oedipus’ responsibility for what happens (and what has happened) is, as we shall see, posed in the play; it is also discussed much later, in Oedipus at Colonus, which deals with Oedipus’ old age and death. --loc 1634

But it is the function of great art to purge and give meaning to human suffering, and so we expect that if the hero is indeed crushed by a bulldozer in Act II there will be some reason for it, and not just some reason but a good one, one which makes sense in terms of the hero’s personality and action. In fact, we expect to be shown that he is in some way responsible for what happens to him. --loc 1710

If so, the hero obviously cannot be “fated,” predestined or determined to act as he does. And, to get back finally to the Oedipus of Sophocles, Oedipus in the play is a free agent, and he is responsible for the catastrophe. For the plot of the play consists not of the actions which Oedipus was “fated” to perform, or rather, which were predicted; the plot of the play consists of his discovery that he has already fulfilled the prediction. And this discovery is entirely due to his action. --loc 1713

The existence of human freedom, dramatically represented in the action of Oedipus in the play, seems to be a mockery. The discovery to which it led is a catastrophe out of all proportion to the situation. --loc 1733

He chose to blind himself, he tells the chorus, because he could not bear to see the faces of his children and his fellow-citizens. But his action has, in the context of this play, an impressive rightness; the man who, proud of his far-seeing intelligence, taunted Tiresias with his blindness now realizes that all his life long he has himself been blind to the dreadful realities of his identity and action. --loc 1750

For a man to help others with all his gifts and native strength: that is the noblest work. --loc 1962

How terrible—to see the truth when the truth is only pain to him who sees! --loc 1963

TIRESIAS: I pity you, flinging at me the very insults each man here will fling at you so soon. --loc 2007

You are the king no doubt, but in one respect, at least, I am your equal: the right to reply. I claim that privilege too. I am not your slave. I serve Apollo. --loc 2027

TIRESIAS: I will go, once I have said what I came here to say. I will never shrink from the anger in your eyes— you can’t destroy me. Listen to me closely: the man you’ve sought so long, proclaiming, cursing up and down, the murderer of Laius— he is here. A stranger, you may think, who lives among you, he soon will be revealed a native Theban but he will take no joy in the revelation. 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. OEDIPUS enters the palace. 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! Go in and reflect on that, solve that. And if you find I’ve lied from this day onward call the prophet blind. TIRESIAS and the boy exit to the side. --loc 2054

CHORUS: My king, I’ve said it once, I’ll say it time and again— I’d be insane, you know it, senseless, ever to turn my back on you. You who set our beloved land-storm-tossed, shattered— straight on course. Now again, good helmsman, steer us through the storm! --loc 2206

JOCASTA: A prophet? Well then, free yourself of every charge! Listen to me and learn some peace of mind: no skill in the world, nothing human can penetrate the future. Here is proof, quick and to the point. An oracle came to Laius one fine day (I won’t say from Apollo himself but his underlings his priests) and it declared that doom would strike him down at the hands of a son, our son, to be born of our own flesh and blood. But Laius, so the report goes at least, was killed by strangers, thieves, at a place where three roads meet ... my son— he wasn’t three days old and the boy’s father fastened his ankles, had a henchman fling him away on a barren, trackless mountain. There, you see? Apollo brought neither thing to pass. My baby no more murdered his father than Laius suffered— his wildest fear—death at his own son’s hands. That’s how the seers and all their revelations mapped out the future. Brush them from your mind. Whatever the god needs and seeks he’ll bring to light himself, with ease. --loc 2218

It is hard to recognize in this broken man the vigorous, confident figure of the earlier play, the man who answered the riddle of the Sphinx, who was “crowned ... with honors ... towering over all—/ mighty king of the seven gates of Thebes” (1329-30). But the news that he is in the grove of the Eumenides brings the old Oedipus to life in this tired old man: the same confident assertiveness—“I shall never leave my place in this new land” (53)—the same sense of his own worth—“whatever I say, there will be great vision / in every word I say” (89- 90). --loc 2840

Oh Theseus, dear friend, only the gods can never age, the gods can never die. All else in the world almighty Time obliterates, crushes all to nothing. (685-89) --loc 2927

Nothing mortal can resist the changes Time brings: not bodily strength, not friendship between man and man, still less between city and city. No man can be confident of the future; human confidence is based on total ignorance. It is the lesson Oedipus himself learned long ago in Thebes, and he reads it to Theseus now with all the authority of his empty eye sockets and dreadful name. --loc 2929

And the actions that were predicted were committed in ignorance; he killed his father “blind to whom I killed” (1115) and married his mother, both of them unwitting—“I knew nothing. she knew nothing” (1123). He places the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the gods: “And the gods led me on” (1140). This defense is not contested, by Creon or anyone else; Oedipus stands cleared, in his own eyes and those of Athens, of any moral guilt. --loc 2996

the first two stanzas of the song with which they close this scene are a melancholy descant on the miseries of extreme old age. “Not to be born is best / when all is reckoned in ...” (1388-89); this is a familiar Greek saying (it is found in almost this exact form in the sixth-century poet Theognis), --loc 3028

Acceptance—that is the great lesson suffering teaches, suffering and the long years, my close companions, yes, and nobility too, my royal birthright. --loc 3118

CHORUS: Fate will never punish a man for returning harm first done to him. Deceit matched by deceit, the tables turned: treachery pays you back in pain, not kindness. You—out of this place of rest, away, faster! Off and gone from the land—before you fix some greater penalty on our city. --loc 3277

Then what’s the good of glory, magnificent renown, if in its flow it streams away to nothing? --loc 3289

Tell me all. Your story, your fortunes would have to be grim indeed to make me turn my back on you. I too, I remember well, was reared in exile just like you, and in strange lands, like no man else on earth, I grappled dangers pressing for my life. Never, I tell you, I will never shrink from a stranger, lost as you are now, or fail to lend a hand and save a life. I am only a man, well I know, and I have no more power over tomorrow, Oedipus, than you. --loc 3509

Men have threatened for ages, blustered their threats to nothing in their rage. But once a man regains his self-control, all threats are gone. --loc 3587

LEADER: Nothing to fear, you have our promise. I may be old but the power of my country never ages. --loc 3616

Tell me, which of us suffers more from this tirade? Whom are you hurting more, me or you? --loc 3650

A man’s anger can never age and fade away, not until he dies. The dead alone feel no pain. --loc 3779

Come, tell me: if, by an oracle of the gods, some doom were hanging over my father’s head that he should die at the hands of his own son, how, with any justice, could you blame me? I wasn’t born yet, no father implanted me, no mother carried me in her womb— I didn’t even exist, not then! And if, once I’d come to the world of pain, as come I did, I fell to blows with my father, cut him down in blood— blind to what I was doing, blind to whom I killed— how could you condemn that involuntary act with any sense of justice? --loc 3785

It isn’t good for men with a decent cause to beg too long, or a man to receive help, then fail to treat a fellow-victim kindly. --loc 3913

Not to be born is best when all is reckoned in, but once a man has seen the light the next best thing, by far, is to go back back where he came from, quickly as he can. --loc 3925

The good leader repeats the good news, keeps the worst to himself. --loc 4024

0 light of the sun, no light to me! Once you were mine, I think... now for the last time I feel you warm my flesh, now I go to hide the last breath of life in the long house of Death. --loc 4105

Best of children, sisters arm-in-arm, we must bear what the gods give us to bear— don’t fire up your hearts with so much grief. No reason to blame the pass you’ve come to now. --loc 4176

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