The Oedipus Plays

by: Sophocles

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Suicide

Almost every character who dies in the three Theban plays does so at his or her own hand (or own will, as is the case in Oedipus at Colonus). Jocasta hangs herself in Oedipus the King and Antigone hangs herself in Antigone. Eurydice and Haemon stab themselves at the end of Antigone. Oedipus inflicts horrible violence on himself at the end of his first play, and willingly goes to his own mysterious death at the end of his second. Polynices and Eteocles die in battle with one another, and it could be argued that Polynices’ death at least is self-inflicted in that he has heard his father’s curse and knows that his cause is doomed. Incest motivates or indirectly brings about all of the deaths in these plays.

Sight and Blindness

References to eyesight and vision, both literal and metaphorical, are very frequent in all three of the Theban plays. Quite often, the image of clear vision is used as a metaphor for knowledge and insight. In fact, this metaphor is so much a part of the Greek way of thinking that it is almost not a metaphor at all, just as in modern English: to say “I see the truth” or “I see the way things are” is a perfectly ordinary use of language. However, the references to eyesight and insight in these plays form a meaningful pattern in combination with the references to literal and metaphorical blindness. Oedipus is famed for his clear-sightedness and quick comprehension, but he discovers that he has been blind to the truth for many years, and then he blinds himself so as not to have to look on his own children/siblings. Creon is prone to a similar blindness to the truth in Antigone. Though blind, the aging Oedipus finally acquires a limited prophetic vision. Tiresias is blind, yet he sees farther than others. Overall, the plays seem to say that human beings can demonstrate remarkable powers of intellectual penetration and insight, and that they have a great capacity for knowledge, but that even the smartest human being is liable to error, that the human capability for knowledge is ultimately quite limited and unreliable.

Graves and Tombs

The plots of Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus both revolve around burials, and beliefs about burial are important in Oedipus the King as well. Polynices is kept above ground after his death, denied a grave, and his rotting body offends the gods, his relatives, and ancient traditions. Antigone is entombed alive, to the horror of everyone who watches. At the end of Oedipus the King, Oedipus cannot remain in Thebes or be buried within its territory, because his very person is polluted and offensive to the sight of gods and men. Nevertheless, his choice, in Oedipus at Colonus, to be buried at Colonus confers a great and mystical gift on all of Athens, promising that nation victory over future attackers. In Ancient Greece, traitors and people who murder their own relatives could not be buried within their city’s territory, but their relatives still had an obligation to bury them. As one of the basic, inescapable duties that people owe their relatives, burials represent the obligations that come from kinship, as well as the conflicts that can arise between one’s duty to family and to the city-state.