The Oedipus Plays
Analysis of Major Characters
Oedipus is a man of swift action and great insight. At the opening of Oedipus the King, we see that these qualities make him an excellent ruler who anticipates his subjects’ needs. When the citizens of Thebes beg him to do something about the plague, for example, Oedipus is one step ahead of them—he has already sent Creon to the oracle at Delphi for advice. But later, we see that Oedipus’s habit of acting swiftly has a dangerous side. When he tells the story of killing the band of travelers who attempted to shove him off the three-way crossroads, Oedipus shows that he has the capacity to behave rashly.
At the beginning of Oedipus the King, Oedipus is hugely confident, and with good reason. He has saved Thebes from the curse of the Sphinx and become king virtually overnight. He proclaims his name proudly as though it were itself a healing charm: “Here I am myself— / you all know me, the world knows my fame: / I am Oedipus” (7–9). By the end of this tragedy, however, Oedipus’s name will have become a curse, so much so that, in Oedipus at Colonus, the Leader of the Chorus is terrified even to hear it and cries: “You, you’re that man?” (238).
Oedipus’s swiftness and confidence continue to the very end of Oedipus the King. We see him interrogate Creon, call for Tiresias, threaten to banish Tiresias and Creon, call for the servant who escaped the attack on Laius, call for the shepherd who brought him to Corinth, rush into the palace to stab out his own eyes, and then demand to be exiled. He is constantly in motion, seemingly trying to keep pace with his fate, even as it goes well beyond his reach. In Oedipus at Colonus, however, Oedipus seems to have begun to accept that much of his life is out of his control. He spends most of his time sitting rather than acting. Most poignant are lines 825–960, where Oedipus gropes blindly and helplessly as Creon takes his children from him. In order to get them back, Oedipus must rely wholly on Theseus.
Once he has given his trust to Theseus, Oedipus seems ready to find peace. At Colonus, he has at last forged a bond with someone, found a kind of home after many years of exile. The single most significant action in Oedipus at Colonus is Oedipus’s deliberate move offstage to die. The final scene of the play has the haste and drive of the beginning of Oedipus the King, but this haste, for Oedipus at least, is toward peace rather than horror.
Antigone is very much her father’s daughter, and she begins her play with the same swift decisiveness with which Oedipus began his. Within the first fifty lines, she is planning to defy Creon’s order and bury Polynices. Unlike her father, however, Antigone possesses a remarkable ability to remember the past. Whereas Oedipus defies Tiresias, the prophet who has helped him so many times, and whereas he seems almost to have forgotten his encounter with Laius at the three-way crossroads, Antigone begins her play by talking about the many griefs that her father handed down to his children. Because of her acute awareness of her own history, Antigone is much more dangerous than Oedipus, especially to Creon. Aware of the kind of fate her family has been allotted, Antigone feels she has nothing to lose. The thought of death at Creon’s hands that so terrifies Ismene does not even faze Antigone, who looks forward to the glory of dying for her brother. Yet even in her expression of this noble sentiment, we see the way in which Antigone continues to be haunted by the perversion that has destroyed her family. Speaking about being killed for burying Polynices, she says that she will lie with the one she loves, loved by him, and it is difficult not to hear at least the hint of sexual overtones, as though the self-destructive impulses of the Oedipus family always tend toward the incestuous.
Antigone draws attention to the difference between divine law and human law. More than any other character in the three plays, she casts serious doubt on Creon’s authority. When she points out that his edicts cannot override the will of the gods or the unshakable traditions of men, she places Creon’s edict against Polynices’ burial in a perspective that makes it seem shameful and ridiculous. Creon sees her words as merely a passionate, wild outburst, but he will ultimately be swayed by the words of Tiresias, which echo those of Antigone. It is important to note, however, that Antigone’s motivation for burying Polynices is more complicated than simply reverence for the dead or for tradition. She says that she would never have taken upon herself the responsibility of defying the edict for the sake of a husband or children, for husbands and children can be replaced; brothers, once the parents are dead, cannot. In Antigone we see a woman so in need of familial connection that she is desperate to maintain the connections she has even in death.
Creon spends more time onstage in these three plays than any other character except the Chorus. His presence is so constant and his words so crucial to many parts of the plays that he cannot be dismissed as simply the bureaucratic fool he sometimes seems to be. Rather, he represents the very real power of human law and of the human need for an orderly, stable society. When we first see Creon in Oedipus the King, Creon is shown to be separate from the citizens of Thebes. He tells Oedipus that he has brought news from the oracle and suggests that Oedipus hear it inside. Creon has the secretive, businesslike air of a politician, which stands in sharp contrast to Oedipus, who tells him to speak out in front of everybody. While Oedipus insists on hearing Creon’s news in public and builds his power as a political leader by espousing a rhetoric of openness, Creon is a master of manipulation. While Oedipus is intent on saying what he means and on hearing the truth—even when Jocasta begs and pleads with him not to—Creon is happy to dissemble and equivocate.
At lines 651–690, Creon argues that he has no desire to usurp Oedipus as king because he, Jocasta, and Oedipus rule the kingdom with equal power—Oedipus is merely the king in name. This argument may seem convincing, partly because at this moment in the play we are disposed to be sympathetic toward Creon, since Oedipus has just ordered Creon’s banishment. In response to Oedipus’s hotheaded foolishness, Creon sounds like the voice of reason. Only in the final scene of Oedipus the King, when Creon’s short lines demonstrate his eagerness to exile Oedipus and separate him from his children, do we see that the title of king is what Creon desires above all.
Creon is at his most dissembling in Oedipus at Colonus, where he once again needs something from Oedipus. His honey-tongued speeches to Oedipus and Theseus are made all the more ugly by his cowardly attempt to kidnap Antigone and Ismene. In Antigone, we at last see Creon comfortable in the place of power. Eteocles and Polynices, like their father, are dead, and Creon holds the same unquestioned supremacy that Oedipus once held. Of course, once Creon achieves the stability and power that he sought and Oedipus possessed, he begins to echo Oedipus’s mistakes. Creon denounces Tiresias, for example (1144–1180), obviously echoing Oedipus’s denunciation in Oedipus the King (366–507). And, of course, Creon’s penitent wailings in the final lines of Antigone echo those of Oedipus at the end of Oedipus the King. What can perhaps most be said most in favor of Creon is that in his final lines he also begins to sound like Antigone, waiting for whatever new disaster fate will bring him. He cries out that he is “nothing,” “no one,” but it is his suffering that makes him seem human in the end.
The Chorus reacts to events as they happen, generally in a predictable, though not consistent, way. It generally expresses a longing for calm and stability. For example, in Oedipus the King, it asks Oedipus not to banish Creon (725–733); fearing a curse, it attempts to send Oedipus out of Colonus in Oedipus at Colonus (242–251); and it questions the wisdom of Antigone’s actions in Antigone (909–962). In moments like these, the Chorus seeks to maintain the status quo, which is generally seen to be the wrong thing. The Chorus is not cowardly so much as nervous and complacent—above all, it hopes to prevent upheaval.
The Chorus is given the last word in each of the three Theban plays, and perhaps the best way of understanding the different ways in which the Chorus can work is to look at each of these three speeches briefly. At the end of Oedipus the King, the Chorus conflates the people of “Thebes” with the audience in the theater. The message of the play, delivered directly to that audience, is one of complete despair: “count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last” (1684). Because the Chorus, and not one of the individual characters, delivers this message, the play ends by giving the audience a false sense of closure. That is, the Chorus makes it sound like Oedipus is dead, and their final line suggests there might be some relief. But the audience must immediately realize, of course, that Oedipus is not dead. He wanders, blind and miserable, somewhere outside of Thebes. The audience, like Oedipus, does not know what the future holds in store. The play’s ability to universalize, to make the audience feel implicated in the emotions of the Chorus as well as those of the protagonist, is what makes it a particularly harrowing tragedy, an archetypal story in Western culture.
The Chorus at the end of Oedipus at Colonus seems genuinely to express the thought that there is nothing left to say, because everything rests in the hands of the gods. As with Oedipus’s death, the Chorus expresses no great struggle here, only a willing resignation that makes the play seem hopeful—if ambivalently so—rather than despairing. Oedipus’s wandering has, it seems, done some good. The final chorus of Antigone, on the other hand, seems on the surface much more hopeful than either of the other two but is actually much more ominous and ambivalent. Antigone ends with a hope for knowledge—specifically the knowledge that comes out of suffering. This ending is quite different from the endings of the other two plays, from a mere truism about death or the fact that fate lies outside human control. The audience can agree with and believe in a statement like “Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy,” and perhaps feel that Creon has learned from his suffering, like Antigone seemingly did at the beginning of the play.
While the Chorus may believe that people learn through suffering, Sophocles may have felt differently. Antigone represents the last events in a series begun by Oedipus the King, but it was written before either of the other two Oedipus plays. And in the two subsequent plays, we see very little evidence in Antigone that suffering teaches anyone anything except how to perpetuate it.
by KajuKoa, January 31, 2013
Creon is not the one who comes to Oedipus first, it is actually the blind seer, Tiresias, who can "see" future, past, and present.
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