The Theban Plays by Sophocles (thoughts)
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. ;)