I Read the Oedipus Trilogy and Had Some Thoughts

I’ve read the first part of the Oedipus plays three or four times in the past, and I figured it was time I see what the other two had to offer.  Oedipus at Colonus tells of Oedipus’ arrival at Athens.  He is accompanied by the ever-distressed Antigone.  The play culminates in Oedipus’ death.  In Antigone, the play’s namesake goes back to Thebes to bury her brother, who died in an act of passive suicide.  Since Thebes’ King Creon has decreed that Polynices’ (Antigone’s brother’s) corpse should be left to rot, Antigone also commits passive suicide by ignoring the law (before she commits real suicide, like her mother, and like her fiancee, and like her fiancee’s mom–you get the point).   Everyone yells at everyone else throughout the plays, which is pretty much how all Greek literature seems to roll.  I don’t want to be one of those people who thinks that, if it’s not my culture, it’s an inferior culture.  But I always feel like I’m watching an unsupervised kindergarten class as I read Greek literature.  Take the Illiad….

AGAMEMNON: You’re poopy!!

ACHILLES: You’re poopy!!

AGAMEMNON: You’re poopy times infinity!!

ACHILLES:  [Sobbing]  MOOOOOMMMM!!!!!!!!

The Oedipus plays have a lot of this, too.  Something that struck me about Antigone, for instance, is that she has the same pick-a-fight mentality that most of the heroic men have.  When her sister points out that burying their brother could mean death, Antigone says, “Don’t make me hate you. I’ll disown you so fast.” (I probably don’t need to clarify that that’s my paraphrase, right?)  A pretty intense reaction, isn’t it?

Side note–The character of Antigone seems to confirm something I’d been thinking earlier.  I wonder if ancient Greek writers struggled to craft heroines.  They either make their woman character ragingly, self-righteously antagonistic like a man (Athena), make her pure, meek, and self sacrificing (Penelope), or make her an awkward combination of both (Antigone).  But I think there’s an argument to be made that Clytemnestra is an exception to this rule–she is a heroine character (arguable in itself, I know) who is both not an imitation of a man (also arguable) and not submissive (assuredly unarguable).  I could talk adoringly about Clytemnestra for hours.  But maybe another time. Back to Oedipus.

Oedipus, like Antigone, snaps furiously for no real reason that I can see.  Polynices, his son, has come to have a friendly interaction with his father, and Oedipus, in essence, says, “I hope you and your brother die.  In fact, may the gods have you two kill each other.”  Oedipus claims that Polynices kicked him out of his homeland, but I think Oedipus is a little senile or something–I read the first play, and I’m quite sure Oedipus insists on his own banishment.  I don’t even remember Polynices being named.  Perhaps I’m missing something.  But, even if I am, there’s more fury to be discussed…

Oedipus has snapped on someone before–those of you who remember the first play will see the same victimization played out in the third play, this time with Creon at the persecution helm.  Poor Tiresias!  He’s always been my favorite, and he seems like one of the only “adult” characters in the trilogy.  He isn’t governed by fury and indignation.  He’s the only one who sees things with perspective. (I’m not going to talk about the blindness-irony because it’s gotten enough “press,” in my opinion, and I’m not interested in rehashing tired ideas.)  And Tiresias is always being attacked for his ability to perceive.  Here, watch:

OEDIPUS/CREON: Tell me what you know

TIRESIAS: You’re not going to like it

OEDIPUS/CREON:  Tell me.

TIRESIAS: [Tells]

OEDIPUS/CREON: Who asked you to speak, you insolent, treasonous idiot?  You’ll pay for this!

TIRESIAS: [Sighs]

Most characters besides Tiresias are rather one-dimensional for my liking, but the character of Creon is actually quite interesting.  He, like Oedipus, does things that make him seem villainous, yet I find myself sympathizing with him.  Creon thinks that everyone around him is concerned only with profit and has decided it is up to him to weed out the corruption that greed causes.  It’s pretty sad when, like Oedipus again, his stubbornness and (figurative) blindness come back to haunt him.

Aristotle championed Sophocles as a master for a reason; all these plays are pretty excruciating.  I’m just glad I’m reading them and not watching them.  I saw a snippet of the first play on a You Tube video once, and it made me want to throw up.  No, someone put his eyes back in, augh!

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