Sophocles is one of those ancient Greeks you hear a lot about but probably have never read. Building on the story of Oedipus, the first play in the Theban trilogy, is Oedipus Tyrannos, or Oedipus Rex in Latin, or Oedipus the King in English. Oedipus is now the king of Thebes, having unknowingly killed his father and bedded his mother. Desiring to help his subjects beat the plague, he sends for a prophet, who advises Oedipus to drop his inquiries, since no good can come of them. However, Oedipus gets to the bottom of the tale and horrifies with what he has learnt, rushes into the palace to kill himself. He comes upon the body of his mother who has just killed herself and in an extreme fury, blinds himself. The play ends with Oedipus exiling himself.
In the second play, Oedipus at Kolonos, he wanders Greece with his daughter Antigone, and ends up at Kolonos, ruled by Theseus, who is soon to be embroiled in a struggle with the Thebans. Originally reviled by the Kolonians, they relent when he tells them he is someone sacred. Meanwhile, Oedipus’ sons have started a bloody war, inadvertently setting off down the road to fulfilling their father’s prophecy that his sons would die by each other’s hand. Since the outcome of their battle depends on where Oedipus is buried, Oedipus exhorts Theseus to never reveal the location of his dying place to any mortal. Theseus accepts and Oedipus is reclaimed by Zeus.
In the final part of the trilogy, Antigone, the battle has been fought between the sons of Oedipus and Eteocles has killed Polyneikes. Kreon decides to have Polyneikes’ body left unburied, for the worms and vultures to consume, as the ultimate punishment for disobedience. Antigone is not pleased by this disrespect being shown to her brother’s corpse and under the cover of night, she erects a tomb for Polyneikes. Kreon is furious when he finds out and orders Polyneikes exhumed and Antigone buried instead. Tiresias, the blind prophet decrees that Kreon’s actions will cause him to lose his own son. Kreon is too angry to care but finally relents after the Chorus makes its displeasure with Kreon’s edict known. However, it is too late to change his mind, since Antigone has already killed herself. Haimon, the son of Kreon, who had initially taken Antigone’s side, sees this and kills himself as well. In the wake of this, Kreon’s wife, Eurydike also kills herself. The plays end with the Chorus reminding us that those who puff themselves up with big words are soon seen to by the Gods, with a terrible judgement swiftly meted out.
These plays really have to be read to be believed. Written around 450 B.C., these 2500 year old plays have lost none of their vigour and impact. Sophocles is a master playwright who conveys emotion tersely, without a single excess word. Using all the classical Greek techniques, he gives us a glimpse into a raw world, a world that had brutality, but also immense beauty. To not read these plays would be truly tragic indeed.