Sophocles’s cycle of Oedipus Plays—Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone—explores themes associated with the tragic conflict arising from a paradox in human nature: a desire for freedom and power coupled with an awareness of fate (or the will of the gods). Throughout the plays, clear vision serves as a metaphor for insight into the human condition, although that insight is oftentimes limited. The plays suggest that humility should govern human understanding, attitudes, and even the behavior of the state, because error and disaster can befall anyone; human beings are powerless before the will of the gods.
Oedipus the King, perhaps the best known of the works, examines the tragic ironies of truth-seeking and attempts to control fate. In the inciting incident, Thebes has been struck with a plague, and its citizens beseech their king, Oedipus—whose name “swollen foot” foreshadows the discovery of his identity—to help. Creon, Oedipus’s brother-in-law, returns from the oracle at Delphi to report that the plague will end when the murderer of the late king, Laius, is caught and expelled. Laius had been slain where three roads meet, and this crossroad serves as a symbol for when Oedipus began fulfilling the prophecy he, ironically, had been trying to escape.
As the action unfolds, a prideful Oedipus works to solve the mystery of Laius’s murder. He questions the blind prophet Tiresias, who reluctantly tells him that he is the killer. Oedipus denies this. Though physically blind, Tiresias can see the truth, underscoring the dramatic irony that pervades the play. Oedipus can see, yet he cannot apprehend the truth, establishing the main conflict. Oedipus denies that he is subject to fate, and this metaphorical blindness leads to his eventual ruin.
As the rising action continues, Oedipus learns that Polybus, his assumed father, has died in Corinth. Believing that his own flight from Corinth and Polybus’s death disprove a prophecy in which he was to kill his father, Oedipus concludes that he has transcended fate. He rejoices with Jocasta, and she agrees, saying that prophecies are worthless; chance guides the world. The chorus, in contrast, maintains that without fate, there is no order on earth or in the heavens.
Events confirm the chorus’s perspective. A messenger reveals that Oedipus was brought to Corinth as an orphan, leading Jocasta to suspect the truth. She and Laius had heard the prophecy and had tried to escape it themselves. She begs Oedipus to stop seeking answers. He persists, and, at the play’s climax, he discovers the truth about his identity and the king’s killer. He has had little authority over his own existence, his pursuit of the truth has led to that epiphany, and Jocasta hangs herself. Oedipus, now possessed with tragic insight, blinds himself, and, in the play’s resolution, he emerges from the palace begging to be exiled. Creon becomes king of Thebes.
Oedipus at Colonus serves as a transition between the first and final plays, dealing with the significance of ceremony, the reckonings of war, and the strength of nature. The play opens with Oedipus in a grove outside of Athens after wandering in exile for many years. He is completely dependent on his two daughters: Antigone acts as his eyes and Ismene as his ears. The action begins when Creon demands that Oedipus return to Thebes, as both of his sons are waging war against each other and Creon for control. Oedipus vows that he will not help either son.
The king of Athens, Theseus, agrees to harbor Oedipus, despite his exiled status. In return, Oedipus tells him that the city can be kept safe by keeping knowledge of his burial place secret, passing that knowledge down through his sons alone. Unlike the struggles in Thebes, for Athens, it is language that will protect the city over time. Oedipus moves off stage to die in peace, and, at the play’s climax, a messenger appears saying that Oedipus’s death has seemed like a disappearance. The play resolves as Antigone and Ismene weep and head for Thebes. The chorus tell them that all rests in the hands of the gods.
The concluding tragedy, Antigone, examines whether there are moral and religious callings that transcend the demands of the state. The familial duty of burying the dead is a particularly human one, and it is not necessarily tied to citizenship or state. Moral duties, such as burial rites, are part of unwritten law and tradition, and the play’s protagonist, Antigone, seeks to uphold those duties.
In the play’s inciting incident, Antigone questions Creon’s decree that her brother, Polynices, be refused proper burial rites. Emboldened by knowledge of her own family and unafraid of death, she defies the state, revealing the main conflict: she does not believe in the validity of a law that dismisses familial duty. Creon, in contrast, prioritizes the public good over private ties, focusing on government and law as the supreme authority. They are both steadfast and prideful in their beliefs, with no room for debate.
As the rising action unfolds, a sentry catches Antigone in the act of reburying her brother and freely confesses to Creon, proclaiming that he is defying the will of the gods. Creon pardons Ismene, but vows to wall Antigone up alive in a tomb, a metaphor for the fate that traps us all. Tiresias arrives and advises Creon to allow Polynices to be buried, but the king refuses.
At the play’s climactic moment, Creon acquiesces, recognizing the authority of the gods over the state. Tiresias has predicted that the gods will rain curses on Thebes, and Creon concedes. In the falling action, however, events prove that Creon’s change of heart is too late. He has failed to acknowledge the limits of human intelligence and has not donned a posture of humble reverence for the gods. Disaster follows. Antigone hangs herself in the tomb, her betrothed, Haemon, Creon’s son, turns his sword against himself, and Creon’s wife, Eurydice, has stabbed herself and dies. In the play’s resolution, Creon prays for his own death, subject to the pain of existence in the hands of the gods.