Sophocles: Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone

We continue off from the review of the first, and most famous play of the Oedipus trilogy, Oedipus the KingThe final two plays in the trilogy are not nearly as famous nor well-known, but they each explore different issues that are insightful in their own right.

Oedipus at Colonus

This play is an interesting “suppliant play” in the vein of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant MaidensOedipus, blinded and in self-exile, wanders to Colonus, a deme of Athens, led by his faithful daughter Antigone. He sits down at a place that Antigone describes as “surely holy ground//A wilderness of laurel, olive, vine”. A stranger approaches and confirms to him that the site is indeed dedicated to Poseidon. Oedipus refuses to leave his resting spot, believing that it is his fate to stay there. Eventually he meets Theseus, the local king, who immediately comes over after learning who has arrived in his land.

In contrast to in Oedipus the King, where the great, royal Oedipus experiences a psychological and political downfall as he discovers the secrets of his past, in Oedipus at Colonus he starts as a blind, wandering stranger and beggar who improbably manages to convince a foreign king to give him protection. Despite his humble condition, Oedipus seems to have an inner conviction that he is innocent, based on the conviction that none of his actions were committed in malice, something that he emphasizes repeatedly throughout the play. For example, in dialogue with the chorus:

OEDIPUS
I slew who else would me have slain;
I slew without intent,
A wretch, but innocent
In the law’s eye, I stand, without a stain.

What law is he referring to here? Is it the absolute law of the gods? Or purely human law? I was expecting that in the fantastical, mythical world of Greek drama, “absolute” divine law does not take into account the intention of the wrongdoer: if something is polluted, it is polluted, and atonement must be given. An example is in Aeschylus The Suppliant Maidens, where they threaten to hang themselves on the statues of gods, and the king of Argos is worried that such an act would pollute and desecrate his land, despite him not being responsible for it. In the first play itself, Thebes itself was described as blighted due to Oedipus’ past accidental crimes. Maybe Oedipus is referring to a different law, distinct even from that of the gods.

When Oedipus meets Theseus, he argues his case with boldness and dignity. He offers himself as a gift, describing that the benefits will come to Theseus after he is dead and buried. The nature of this benefit is mysterious, even to the end. But he also offers more practical reasons. Despite the current good relations between Theseus and Thebes, Oedipus argues that no bonds of friendship can last forever, and sooner or later he might find himself at war with Thebes, at which time Oedipus would be a valuable ally. Incredibly, this is enough to completely convince Theseus to offer him hospitality and even citizenship. How does this makes sense? It seems that Theseus already had a sympathy towards Oedipus from the beginning. When he met him, he already mentioned that “I too was reared,//Like thee, in exile, and in foreign lands//Wrestled with many perils, no man more.”

Theseus’ promise is tested in a dramatic, action-packed scene (in contrast to the staticity of Oedipus the King) where the two daughters of Oedipus are at first kidnapped by Creon’s henchmen, then rescued again by Theseus. These series of scenes are interesting because the kidnapping occurs when the chorus is on stage but Theseus is not. Despite their numbers, the chorus threatens Creon but is powerless to actually stop him. Only when Theseus arrives does the situation reverse. This shows the significance of the protagonist or the King – “great” men can only be balanced by other “great” men.

The ending of Oedipus at Colonus is heartbreaking, as Oedipus, relieved at having his daughters back, feels that the end of his life is near. Theseus is called again to finally reap the mysterious benefit that Oedipus promised. When he questions why Oedipus feels he is about to die, Oedipus answers that “The gods themselves are heralds of my fate//Of their appointed warnings nothing fails”, which once again highlights the major role of Fate in directing the events of the world. Oedipus promises Theseus that the “gift” that he will give is “a treasure age cannot corrupt,” and more useful than any other weapons for facing his enemies. At his request, Theseus accompanies Oedipus to his dying place alone. In typical Greek fashion, Oedipus’ last moments are not acted on stage but related by a messenger who accompanied the party (including his daughters). We are not told of how Oedipus died or what was the “gift” that he promised Theseus, but it is implied that he was snatched up to heaven (like Enoch or Elijah in the Old Testament).

(MESSENGER)
After brief space we looked again, and lo
The man was gone, evanished from our eyes;
Only the king we saw with upraised hand
Shading his eyes as from some awful sight,
That no man might endure to look upon.
A moment later, and we saw him bend
In prayer to Earth and prayer to Heaven at once.
But by what doom the stranger met his end
No man save Theseus knoweth. For there fell
No fiery bold that reft him in that hour,
Nor whirlwind from the sea, but he was taken.
It was a messenger from heaven, or else
Some gentle, painless cleaving of earth’s base;
For without wailing or disease or pain
He passed away — and end most marvelous.

Despite his horrific downfall in the first play, Oedipus finally finds peace and dies peacefully – he has achieved a final redemption.

Antigone

The last play in the trilogy deals with the aftermath of the war between Oedipus’ two sons, Polyneices and Eteacles, who fought over control of the city of Thebes. A colorful rundown of the actual battle itself can be found in Aeschylus’ The Seven Against Thebes, which ends with Thebes being successfully defended by Eteacles, but both princes die fighting each other. This unfortunate tragedy is not without cause or foreshadowing – in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus refused to bless Polyneices’ attempt to besiege Thebes and instead cursed both brothers. But the focus of Antigone is on his daughter, who defies the orders of Creon (who by now has established himself as a full-blown villain) to not bury the corpse of Polyneices, because he is regarded as a traitor to the city.

So similar to the issues of justice versus kin loyalty explored in the Electra plays, here we have an exploration of the legitimacy of the law. Antigone is caught by Creon’s guards red-handed in trying to tend to her brother’s body. She does not deny that she did it, nor that it was illegal to do so. However, she makes a distinction between the fallible human laws decreed by Creon and the “immutable laws of heaven”:

ANTIGONE
Yea, for these laws were not ordained of Zeus,
And she who sits enthroned with gods below,
Justice, enacted not these human laws.
Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man,
Could’st by a breath annul and override
The immutable unwritten laws of Heaven.

The other interesting even that happens in the play is the behavior of Ismene, Antigone’s sister. Since the second play, Antigone has been protrayed as the more loyal, pure and idealistic of the two sisters. When initially asked by Antigone to help her in burying their brother, Ismene argues at length that defying Creon was reckless and futile – an exact mirror of pragmatic Chrysothemis replying to Electra in Sophocles’ Electra:

ISMENE
If in defiance of the law we cross
A monarch’s will?— weak women, think of that,
Not framed by nature to contend with men.
Remember this too that the stronger rules;
We must obey his orders, these or worse.
Therefore I plead compulsion and entreat

Bizarrely, when Antigone gets caught, Ismene makes a fake confession to Creon that she was part of the conspiracy, despite her earlier refusal to have anything to do with it. Her reason seems to be that she now feels pity for her sister, who has been condemned to death. Antigone denies Ismene’s involvement, and Creon doesn’t believe it either – he laughs at her mad behavior, and that is the end of Ismene’s involvement in the play. It’s unclear what Sophocles is trying to say here. Perhaps this is a common trope in Sophocles to pit the pragmatic against the idealist, and imply that pragmatism doesn’t achieve anything – it’s safe but inert, in contrast to Antigone’s noble sacrifice.

Antigone is condemend to die by being starved to death in a rock, and Haemon, Creon’s son and her fiance, surprisingly goes against his father and tries to defend her. Creon refuses, and Antigone is led to the place of her death. Suddenly blind Teiresias enters (remember him from Oedipus the King?). He tries to convince Creon to repent of his actions, which are offensive to the gods – he argues that Creon is usurping a power which is not his by deciding that Polyneices’ body shall not be buried. At first Creon refuses to agree, but after Teiresias leaves, he becomes worried. He decides to cancel the execution, but it is too late – both Antigone and Haemon are dead. Once again, in typical Greek (or perhaps simply Sophocles’) fashion, these dramatic events are related through a messenger talking to Creon’s wife, Eurydice. Hearing of these events leads Eurydice to leave the room and commit suicide, further amplifying the tragedy when Creon finally arrives home to find his wife also dead. It’s a masterful display of dramatic craftsmanship that explains why the work is considered a classic.

Creon’s failed effort to stop the execution of Antigone brings echoes of the final scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear, where the dying Edmund tries to cancel his order to execute the faithful, pure Cordelia, but is also too late – leading to the famous tragic scene where Lear carries the dead Cordelia in his arms, howling with grief. One can draw direct link between Antigone and Cordelia: both adore and love their fathers, and are concerned with genuine sentiments expressed through actions instead of just words: in Cordelia’s case, it is displaying her love for her father, and in Antigone’s case it is displaying her love for her brother. In both cases it is shown that beyond fallible human laws, it is nobler to forgo pragmatic standards of behavior and be faithful to the “true immutable laws of the gods”: true loyalty, true love, true faithfulness. I think it’s remarkable to see this connection between authors almost two thousand years apart. It’s perhaps the most notable example so far of the Great Conversation truly happening in real time across millennia of Western literature. I remain excited for more to come.

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