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The Theban Plays by Sophocles (thoughts)

February 13, 2012

I’ve read my first book for Jean’s Greek Classics Challenge (as an aside, if you haven’t visited Jean’s blog, Howling Frog Books, yet, you’re missing out! I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit, so if you enjoy the kinds of books I blog about, I’m willing to bet you’ll love her blog)! Reading Sophocles’ Theban Plays was quite an interesting experience; thanks to Freud, everyone in the Western world knows the basic idea behind Oedipus the King, and thanks to a French lit class in college I’d read Jean Anouilh’s version of Antigone. So the only one of the plays I came to tabula rasa was Oedipus at Colonus. I was also confused at first because I had thought this would be a trilogy a la Aeschylus’ Oresteia, so putting Antigone at the start seemed an odd editorial choice. Fortunately, some quick googling set me straight (no, I didn’t read the included introduction, because they often include lots of plot details/summaries, so I save them until after I’ve read the text): Sophocles wrote a variety of plays with Thebes themes, and these three are the only ones that have survived. So although they’re often published together, they’re not a trilogy.

Once I got all of my preconceptions out of the way, I quite enjoyed these. Sophocles has an excellent sense of drama, particularly in his chorus, and a few scenes sent shivers down my spine. I’m also fond of themes such as fate, free-will, and duty, so that was a good fit. It’s fascinating how cultures approach such universal problems from such different angles; for instance, Oedipus’ complete lack of knowledge that he was committing his crimes is never even really brought up, certainly not as a possible excuse. That being said, there were unwelcome reminders of just how misogynistic ancient Greek culture was. *sigh* While Antigone (Oedipus’ daughter) is certainly portrayed as the most dutiful of his children, and compared favourably with his sons, there are also frequent references to Oedipus’ mother/wife and her womb which left me cringing. Not that I would discount the book entirely because of this, but I felt it needed to be mentioned; as a woman reader, I definitely did not feel like Sophocles’ intended audience (of course, this wasn’t exactly a surprise due to my previous knowledge of ancient Greece’s gender relations).

All in all, this was a rich read, one full of dramatic moments and thought-provoking ideas. The characters all face epic problems, and the gods and their human spokesmen are regularly invoked. In other words, it’s an excellent example of ancient Greek drama and one I’d highly recommend. I’m sure I’ll be rereading it one of these days, although Sophocles hasn’t dislodged Aeschylus from his perch as my favourite Greek playwright. ;)

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2012 9:13 am

    I always save the introductions, too, for the same reason you’ve described, but I often, then, feel as though I want/need to re-read afterwards because they really do add so much to the experience of the narrative. Rock, hard place.

  2. February 13, 2012 10:38 am

    I enjoyed this when I read it. I recommend the Bertolt Brecht version as well.

  3. February 13, 2012 12:43 pm

    Of these I have only read Oedipus the King. I do want to read the other two one day. They are on my list.

  4. February 13, 2012 3:05 pm

    I had thought these were a trilogy as well–I think a high school English teacher might even have said as much when we read Oedipus the King. Or, I could just be remembering badly! At any rate, I’m hoping to (re)read these later this year. I know nothing about Oedipus at Colonus either, so it will be fun to read that for the first time!

  5. February 13, 2012 6:37 pm

    Yay Fagles! I assume you read the Fagles translation since we love Fagles. FAGLES. (PS I once had a dream that I found a place called Fagles’ Bagels, where they had lots of different kinds of breakfast food and it was Greek drama and epic poetry themed inside.) I always think it’s sort of a shame that kids don’t read the whole Theban plays cycle in school. We only read Oedipus Rex. It would have been better with the two accompanying plays. :/

  6. February 14, 2012 3:47 pm

    Hooray, the Theban plays! (And thanks! :)) They are still on my shelf, as you can tell from my comatose blog. I’m supposed to be sewing pioneer dresses and stuff instead.

  7. February 15, 2012 7:49 am

    I read the whole works in the univeristy, in the Teathre Arts class. I love Oedipus, just as I love Julius Casaer and Corolanus. I think my prefernce may have something to do with the defintion of tragedy by Aristotle that was later used by Shakespeare for his tragedies. Anyway, Oedipus fell because of hubris, pride against the gods as much as a result of destiny.

    Once the gods had ordained that he will kill his father and marry his mother, there was no running away.

    Then again, another theme explored by Sophocles is the definition of man. What is man, that he should boast and dare to be hubristic? What is the end of man, born so high up, rise so high up, attain so high up, achieve so high up, master over all he surveys, only to fall down becasue of a major flaw in his character. According to Sphocles, the fallibiity or infallibility of man depends on the one flaw in his character that is likely to bring him down. Vanity or vanities, all is vanity.

    Arthur Miller, the 20th Century American playwirght contrasted Aritotle’s definition of tragedy in his classic play Death of a Salesman when he opines the tragedy of the Common Man as opposed to tragedy relating to a man of high of brith..

  8. February 18, 2012 12:34 pm

    Along the misogynistic side : the Pandora’s myth states that women and men don’t belong to the same species, contrary to all the other animals. The women came from Pandora (the look of a goddess, the heart of a bitch) as a punishment, the men, well, I seem to remember they were already there, feasting with the gods.
    I guess Creon’s reactions to Antigone’s behavior aren’t so surprising in that light!

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