My own flesh and blood—dear sister, dear Ismene, how many griefs our father Oedipus handed down! Do you know one, I ask you, one grief that Zeus will not perfect for the two of us while we still live and breathe? There’s nothing, no pain—our lives are pain—no private shame, no public disgrace, nothing I haven’t seen in your grief and mine. (Antigone, 1–8)
Antigone’s first words in Antigone, “My own flesh and blood,” vividly emphasize the play’s concern with familial relationships. Antigone is a play about the legacy of incest and about a sister’s love for her brother. Flesh and blood have been destined to couple unnaturally—in sex, violence, or both—since Oedipus’s rash and unwitting slaying of his father. Antigone says that griefs are “handed down” in Oedipus’s family, implicitly comparing grief to a family heirloom.
In her first speech, Antigone seems a dangerous woman, well on her way to going over the edge. She knows she has nothing to lose, telling Ismene, “Do you know one, I ask you, one grief / that Zeus will not perfect for the two of us / while we still live and breathe?” Before we even have time to imagine what the next grief might be, Antigone reveals it: Creon will not allow her brother Polynices to be buried. Ismene, on the other hand, like the audience, is one step behind. From the outset, Antigone is the only one who sees what is really going on, the only one willing to speak up and point out the truth.
Anarchy—show me a greater crime in all the earth! She, she destroys cities, rips up houses, breaks the ranks of spearmen into headlong rout. But the ones who last it out, the great mass of them owe their lives to discipline. Therefore we must defend the men who live by law, never let some woman triumph over us. Better to fall from power, if fall we must, at the hands of a man—never be rated inferior to a woman, never. (Antigone, 751–761)
This is one of Creon’s speeches to the Chorus. The word “anarchy” (in Greek, anarchia) literally means “without a leader.” The Greek word is feminine and can be represented by a feminine pronoun, which is why Creon, speaking of anarchy, says, “She, she destroys cities, rips up houses. . . .” Because Creon uses the feminine pronoun, he sounds as if he might be talking about Antigone, and maintaining order is certainly connected, in his mind, with keeping women in their place. Creon sees anarchy as the inevitable consequence when disobedience of the law is left unpunished. For Creon, the law, on whatever scale, must be absolute. His insistence on the gender of the city’s ruler (“the man”) is significant, since masculine political authority is opposed to uncontrolled feminine disobedience. Creon sees this feminine disobedience as something that upsets the order of civilization on every possible level—the political (“destroys cities”), the domestic (“rips up houses”), and the military (“breaks the ranks of spearmen”). The only way to fight this disorder is through discipline; therefore, says Creon, “we must defend the men who live by law, [we must] never let some woman triumph over us” (758).
Fear? What should a man fear? It’s all chance, chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through the dark. Better to live at random, best we can. And as for this marriage with your mother—have no fear. Many a man before you, in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed. Take such things for shadows, nothing at all— Live, Oedipus, as if there’s no tomorrow! (Oedipus the King, 1068–1078)
The audience, familiar with the Oedipus story, almost does not want to listen to these self-assured lines, spoken by Jocasta, wherein she treats incest with a startling lightness that will come back to haunt her. What makes these lines tragic is that Jocasta has no reason to know that what she says is foolish, ironic, or, simply, wrong. The audience’s sense of the work of “fate” in this play has almost entirely to do with the fact that the Oedipus story was an ancient myth even in fifth-century b.c. Athens. The audience’s position is thus most like that of Tiresias—full of the knowledge that continues to bring it, and others, pain.
At the same time, it is important to note that at least part of the irony of the passage does depend on the play, and the audience, faulting Jocasta for her blindness. Her claim that “chance rules our lives” and that Oedipus should live “as if there’s no tomorrow” seems to fly in the face of the beliefs of more or less everyone in the play, including Jocasta herself. Oedipus would not have sent Creon to the oracle if he believed events were determined randomly. Nor would he have fled Corinth after hearing the prophecy of the oracle that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother; nor would Jocasta have bound her baby’s ankles and abandoned him in the mountains. Again and again this play, and the other Theban plays, returns to the fact that prophecies do come true and that the words of the gods must be obeyed. What we see in Jocasta is a willingness to believe oracles only as it suits her: the oracle prophesied that her son would kill Laius and so she abandoned her son in the mountains; when Laius was not, as she thinks, killed by his son, she claims to find the words of the oracle worthless. Now she sees Oedipus heading for some potentially horrible revelation and seeks to curb his fear by claiming that everything a person does is random.
People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus. He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance, he rose to power, a man beyond all power. Who could behold his greatness without envy? Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him. Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.
(Oedipus the King, 1678–1684)
These words, spoken by the Chorus, form the conclusion of Oedipus the King. That Oedipus “solved the famous riddle [of the Sphinx] with his brilliance” is an indisputable fact, as is the claim that he “rose to power,” to an enviable greatness. In underscoring these facts, the Chorus seems to suggest a causal link between Oedipus’s rise and his fall—that is, Oedipus fell because he rose too high, because in his pride he inspired others to “envy.” But the causal relationship is never actually established, and ultimately all the Chorus demonstrates is a progression of time: “he rose to power, a man beyond all power. / . . . / Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him.” These lines have a ring of hollow and terrifying truth to them, because the comfort an audience expects in a moral is absent (in essence, they say “Oedipus fell for this reason; now you know how not to fall”).
Stop, my children, weep no more. Here where the dark forces store up kindness both for living and the dead, there is no room for grieving here—it might bring down the anger of the gods.
(Oedipus at Colonus, 1970–1974)
Theseus’s short speech from the end of Oedipus at Colonus argues that grieving might not be a good thing—a sentiment unusual in the Theban plays. Sophocles’ audience would have seen, before this speech, the most extreme consequences of excessive grief: Antigone’s death, Haemon’s death, Eurydice’s death, Jocasta’s death, Oedipus’s blinding, Oedipus’s self-exile. The rash actions of the grief-stricken possess both a horror and a sense of inevitability or rightness. Jocasta kills herself because she cannot go on living as both wife and mother to her son; Oedipus blinds himself in order to punish himself for his blindness to his identity; Eurydice can no longer live as the wife of the man who killed her children. Theseus’s speech calls attention to the fact that the violence that arises from this grieving only leads to the perpetuation of violence.
At the end of Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone and Ismene beg to be allowed to see their father’s tomb, to complete the process of their grieving at that spot. But Theseus insists on maintaining the secret as Oedipus wished. Unlike the other two Theban plays, death is in this play a point of rest, a point at which lamentation must stop rather than begin.