Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Theban Plays by Sophocles (4/5)

GoodReads says: One of the most famous poets from classical antiquity, Sophocles was one of three important ancient Greek tragedians, the others being Aeschylus and Euripides. Writing during the 5th century BC, Sophocles created some one hundred and twenty three plays during his lifetime, of which only seven have survived in their entirety. In this edition are included the three so-called Theban plays, as translated by Francis Storr, which are widely considered his most important works. These works include "Antigone" the story of its title character, a strong heroine whose complete commitment to familial duty brings her to challenge the will of her king; "Oedipus the King", the legend of Oedipus who is exiled as an infant by his royal father because of a prophesy of patricide and incest; and "Oedipus at Colonus", a drama which finds Oedipus at the end of his life caught between the warring kings of Athens and Thebes who each desire that Oedipus' final resting place be in their respective lands. These classic tragedies are essential reading and their influence on modern literature and drama is a profound one.

I say: I’m going to sort of write a review of all the three plays, and therefore it will contain spoilers, but since I am reading so many plays for my drama course, I can’t really be arsed find the energy to write full reviews of them after having dissected them for class.

So, despite that blurb above, the order of the plays is Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone.

I’m not sure how many people actually know the origin of the term Oedipus Complex – as coined by Sigmund Freud – but I’m thinking quite a few. I had heard of the term and its meaning, and we learned about Oedipus in grade school, but I had never read the play about him. Having done so, it’s clear the term becomes somewhat sketchy – but I’m not going to go into that here. In Oedipus the King Oedipus parents are foretold at his birth that he will murder his father and marry his mother, so they do what most parents would have done (sarcasm) and ask their servant to throw him off a cliff. The servant instead gives the child to a shepherd who raises him as his own. Later in life he murders his father on a road and then marries his mother – unknowingly, of course. They have three children. However, now being king himself he decrees that whoever it was that murdered the previous king will be expelled from Thebes. After a lot of hoopla it comes out that he is the murderer and his wife is his mother, so she commits suicide, he blinds himself and leaves Thebes.  

In Oedipus at Colonus we find out that he has left with his daughter Antigone and they are later joined by Ismene, the other daughter, at the town of Colonus.  His sons, Etyclene and Polyneices are fighting over who should run Thebes, and after Polyneices is run out of town he goes to visit his father. Oedipus, however, curses both his sons to die – which they do at battle – and thus ends this play.

In Antigone the two sisters go back to Thebes after burying their father, and Antigone tries to persuade her sister to bury Polyneices, who, since he died as an exile, is not allowed to have a proper burial. Ismene refuses to help and Antigone buries Polyneices herself. She is caught by her uncle, and now ruling king, and sentenced to die in a cave. Everyone tries to dissuade him from this decision, but he won’t listen to reason, and his son, who is in love with Antigone, hangs himself in the same cave as Antigone. His wife then commits suicide and its proper tragedy all over.

I really enjoyed the first and last plays. The second was ok, but it felt merely like a filler (it was also the last one Sophocles wrote). It was really nice to finally read the original plays about Oedipus, and there are so many different issues brought up; destiny (can we change it?), suicide, pride, beliefs, promises (are they worth it?), and so too much to mention here, and I have to say that I really enjoyed the discussions we had about these characters – just to see the different ways everyone had interpreted the plays.

The characters I connected with the most were Oedipus and Antigone; the first because he did the right thing and left Thebes after finding out what he’d done (with as much pride as he could muster still intact) and evern though I cannot condone him cursing his sons, I understand why he did it; and Antigone because she stood up for what she believed (and what she had promised) and didn’t even let the threat of death dissuade her.

I don’t know if I am, but I wish to have convictions that strong.

Aside, part the first: when I was eleven, my biggest dream was to die a martyr. But at eleven my biggest hero was Macbeth so maybe that point is rather moot.

Having said all that, I recommend everyone to read these plays. Not just because of Freud, but because they are interesting and they bring up a lot of issues (especially the one about honour killing in Antigone, which was a huge issue in Sweden a few years back) and I truly think we can all gain something from the plays.

Aside, part the second: I feel like Stephen Fry going on about how we can all learn from the Greeks. Yay!

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