Born in 496, died in 406, Sophocles wrote some 120 plays, won the first prize 18 times, 7 of his plays survive: "Antigone", "Oedipus", "Electra", "Ajax", "Trachiniae" (The Death of Heracles), "Philoc­tetes", and "Oedipus at Colonus".  While Aeschylus is deeply religious, Sophocles shows a human individual at the centre, choosing to act, then assuming the consequences of that choice.  The role of the Chorus is less developed than in Aeschylus, while the dialogue in Sophocles is more 'realistic' and 'psychological' than in Aeschylus; the plays offer more detailed psychology, although always of a heroic kind.  Antigone and Electra are noble female figures, gentle and full of courage.  Sophocles' dramas have great simplicity, all is reduced to its noblest human essence.  He was much admired by Racine, by Lessing; Shelley drowned with a book of his works in his pocket.  He is the most frequently acted of the three in modern times.



Oedipus the King  (c. 427 B.C.)


The play opens in front of the palace of Oedipus at Thebes.  Oedipus asks a priest and his supplicants what they want.  The priest thanks him for saving them from the Sphinx, but tells him that the city needs saving again from a plague that has descended.  Oedipus says that he has sent a messenger to Apollo's shrine to find out what he must do to save the city.  The messenger arrives and says that Apollo told him that the man who murdered former King Laius must be discovered and driven from the land.  Oedipus vows to do so. 

Oedipus asks anyone knowing the identity of the murderer to step forward without fear of harm.  He curses those who have knowledge and do not step forth.  The chorus says he should ask the prophet Teiresias.  Teiresias enters.  He says he knows something but refuses to speak.  Oedipus accuses Teiresias of having a part in the murder.  Teiresias accuses Oedipus of being the murderer: "the accursed polluter of this land is you."  Oedipus concludes that former king Creon must have put Teiresias up to making the accusations.  Teiresias tells Oedipus that his downfall will come when he learns the secret of his marriage, and asks him if he knows who his parents are.  Oedipus orders him out of the house.  Teiresias tells him that the murderer will be proved both father and brother to his children.  Teiresias and Oedipus leave separately.  The Chorus sings:



 That wise interpreter of prophecies
       stirs up my fears, unsettling dread.
       I cannot approve of what he said
       and I cannot deny it.
       I am confused. What shall I say?
       My hopes flutter here and there,
       with no clear glimpse of past or future.    
       I have never heard of any quarrelling,
       past or present, between those two,
       the house of Labdacus and Polybus’ son,
       which could give me evidence enough
       to undermine the fame of Oedipus,
       as he seeks vengeance for the unsolved murder
       for the family of Labdacus.

      Apollo and Zeus are truly wise—
      they understand what humans do.
       But there is no sure way to ascertain       
       if human prophets grasp things any more
       than I do, although in wisdom one man      
       may leave another far behind.
       But until I see the words confirmed,
       I will not approve of any man
       who censures Oedipus, for it was clear
       when that winged Sphinx went after him
       he was a wise man then. We witnessed it.
       He passed the test and endeared himself
       to all the city. So in my thinking now            
       he never will be guilty of a crime.

Creon enters, denying the allegations that he has heard Oedipus made.  Oedipus enters and accuses Creon of being the murderer and trying to take the throne.  Creon denies this.  Oedipus proposes to kill Creon.  Oedipus' wife,  Jocasta, enters.  Everyone, including Jocasta, begs Oedipus to spare Creon on the strength of Creon's oath that he is innocent.  Oedipus consents, but pledges to forever hate Creon.  Creon exits.

Oedipus tells Jocasta that Creon had sent the prophet to accuse him of the murder.


Jocasta  All right, forget about those things you’ve said.           850
       Listen to me, and ease your mind with this—
      no human being has skill in prophecy.
       I’ll show you why with this example.                                                   [710]
       King Laius once received a prophecy.
       I won’t say it came straight from Apollo,
       but it was from those who do assist the god.
       It said Laius was fated to be killed
       by a child conceived by him and me.
       Now, at least according to the story,
       one day Laius was killed by foreigners,                                      860
       by robbers, at a place where three roads meet.
       Besides, before our child was three days old,
       Laius fused his ankles tight together
       and ordered other men to throw him out
       on a mountain rock where no one ever goes.
       And so Apollo’s plan that he’d become                                               [720]
       the one who killed his father didn’t work,
       and Laius never suffered what he feared,
       that his own son would be his murderer,
       although that’s what the oracle had claimed.                             870
       So don’t concern yourself with prophecies.
       Whatever gods intend to bring about
       they themselves make known quite easily.

OEDIPUS: Lady, as I listen to these words of yours,
       my soul is shaken, my mind confused . . .

JOCASTA: Why do you say that? What’s worrying you?

OEDIPUS: I thought I heard you say that Laius
       was murdered at a place where three roads meet.                                [730]

JOCASTA: That’s what was said and people still believe.

OEDIPUS: Where is this place? Where did it happen?                   880

JOCASTA: In a land called Phocis. Two roads lead there—
      one from Delphi and one from Daulia.

OEDIPUS: How long is it since these events took place?

JOCASTA: The story was reported in the city
       just before you took over royal power
       here in Thebes.

OEDIPUS:                   Oh Zeus, what have you done?
       What have you planned for me?

JOCASTA:                                                 What is it,
       Oedipus? Why is your spirit so troubled?

OEDIPUS:                                           Not yet,                                        [740]
       no questions yet. Tell me this—Laius,
       how tall was he? How old a man?                                              890

JOCASTA: He was big—his hair was turning white.
       In shape he was not all that unlike you.

OEDIPUS: The worse for me! I may have just set myself
       under a dreadful curse without my knowledge!

JOCASTA: What do you mean? As I look at you, my king,
       I start to tremble.

OEDIPUS:                               I am afraid,
       full of terrible fears the prophet sees.
       But you can reveal this better if you now
       will tell me one thing more.

JOCASTA:                                     I’m shaking,
       but if you ask me, I will answer you.                                         900

OEDIPUS: Did Laius have a small escort with him                                  [750]
       or a troop of soldiers, like a royal king?

JOCASTA: Five men, including a herald, went with him.
       A carriage carried Laius.

OEDIPUS:                                                   Alas! Alas!
       It’s all too clear! Lady, who told you this?

JOCASTA: A servant—the only one who got away.
       He came back here.

OEDIPUS:                         Is there any chance
       he’s in our household now?

JOCASTA:                                                    No.
       Once he returned and understood that you
       had now assumed the power of slaughtered Laius,                  
       he clasped my hands, begged me to send him off                          
       to where our animals graze out in the fields,
       so he could be as far away as possible
       from the sight of town. And so I sent him.
       He was a slave but he'd earned my gratitude.
       He deserved an even greater favour.

OEDIPUS: I’d like him to return back here to us,
       and quickly, too.

JOCASTA:                               That can be arranged—
      but why’s that something you would want to do?

OEDIPUS: Lady, I’m afraid I may have said too much.             
       That’s why I want to see him here in front of me.

JOCASTA: Then he will be here. But now, my lord,
       I deserve to learn why you are so distressed.                            

OEDIPUS: My forebodings now have grown so great
       I will not keep them from you, for who is there
       I should confide in rather than in you
       about such a twisted turn of fortune.
       My father was Polybus of Corinth,
       my mother Merope, a Dorian.
       There I was regarded as the finest man                      
       in all the city, until, as chance would have it,
       something really astonishing took place,
       though it was not worth what it caused me to do.
       At a dinner there a man who was quite drunk
       from too much wine began to shout at me,
       claiming I was not my father’s real son.                             
       That troubled me, but for a day at least
       I said nothing, though it was difficult.
       The next day I went to ask my parents,
       my father and my mother. They were angry                    
       at the man who had insulted them this way,
       so I was reassured. But nonetheless,
       the accusation always troubled me—
      the story had become well known all over.
       And so I went in secret off to Delphi.
       I didn’t tell my mother or my father.
       Apollo sent me back without an answer,
       so I didn’t learn what I had come to find.
       But when he spoke he uttered monstrous things,           
       strange terrors and horrific miseries—                             
       it was my fate to defile my mother’s bed,
       to bring forth to men a human family
       that people could not bear to look upon,
       to murder the father who engendered me.
       When I heard that, I ran away from Corinth.
       From then on I thought of it just as a place
       beneath the stars. I went to other lands,
       so I would never see that prophecy fulfilled,
       the abomination of my evil fate.
       In my travelling I came across that place                 
       in which you say your king was murdered.
       And now, lady, I will tell you the truth.                             
       As I was on the move, I passed close by
       a spot where three roads meet, and in that place
       I met a herald and a horse-drawn carriage.
       Inside there was a man like you described.
       The guide there tried to force me off the road—
      and the old man, too, got personally involved.
       In my rage, I lashed out at the driver,
       who was shoving me aside. The old man,                          
       seeing me walking past him in the carriage,
       kept his eye on me, and with his double whip
       struck me on my head, right here on top.
       Well, I retaliated in good measure—                                          
       I hit him a quick blow with the staff I held
       and knocked him from his carriage to the road.
       He lay there on his back. Then I killed them all.
       If that stranger was somehow linked to Laius,
       who is now more unfortunate than me?
       What man could be more hateful to the gods?                    
       No stranger and no citizen can welcome him
       into their lives or speak to him. Instead,
       they must keep him from their doors, a curse
       I laid upon myself. With these hands of mine,                               
       these killer’s hands, I now contaminate
       the dead man’s bed. Am I not depraved?
       Am I not utterly abhorrent?
       Now I must fly into exile and there,
       a fugitive, never see my people,
       never set foot in my native land again—                           
       or else I must get married to my mother
       and kill my father, Polybus, who raised me,
       the man who gave me life. If anyone
       claimed this came from some malevolent god,
       would he not be right? O you gods,
       you pure, blessed gods, may I not see that day!                              
       Let me rather vanish from the sight of men,
       before I see a fate like that roll over me.

CHORUS LEADER: My lord, to us these things are ominous.
       But you must sustain your hope until you hear                     
       the servant who was present at the time.

OEDIPUS: I do have some hope left, at least enough
       to wait for the man we’ve summoned from the fields.

JOCASTA: Once he comes, what do you hope to hear?

OEDIPUS: I’ll tell you. If we discover what he says
       matches what you say, then I’ll escape disaster.                               

JOCASTA: What was so remarkable in what I said?

OEDIPUS: You said that in his story the man claimed
       Laius was murdered by a band of thieves.
       If he still says that there were several men,                             
       then I was not the killer, since one man
       could never be mistaken for a crowd.
       But if he says it was a single man,
       then I’m the one responsible for this.

JOCASTA: Well, that’s certainly what he reported then.
       He cannot now withdraw what he once said.
       The whole city heard him, not just me alone.                                   
       But even if he changes that old news,
       he cannot ever demonstrate, my lord,
       that Laius’ murder fits the prophecy.                                       
       For Apollo clearly said the man would die
       at the hands of an infant born from me.
       Now, how did that unhappy son of ours
       kill Laius, when he’d perished long before?
       So as far as these oracular sayings go,
       I would not look for confirmation anywhere.

OEDIPUS: You’re right in what you say. But nonetheless,
       send for that peasant. Don’t fail to do that.                               

JOCASTA: I’ll call him here as quickly as I can.


           A messenger arrives and tells Jocasta that Oedipus' father Polybus has died and the Corinthians want Oedipus as their king now.  Jocasta sends for Oedipus and tells him the good news ‑‑ his father is dead, and it is not at Oedipus' hand.  Oedipus is comforted, but he is still afraid that he is fated to sleep with Polybus' wife.  He tells the messenger his fear.  The messenger tells him not to worry, that he has no blood-tie with his 'parents'.  The messenger had received Oedipus from a shepherd as an abandoned baby and had given him to them. The chorus believes the messenger is referring to the shepherd that Oedipus wanted to see.  Jocasta begs Oedipus not to seek the truth.  Oedipus sends for the shepherd. 

OEDIPUS: [to Chorus] Go, one of you, and bring that shepherd here.
       Leave the lady to enjoy her noble family.                                       

JOCASTA: Alas, you poor miserable man!
       There’s nothing more that I can say to you.
       And now I’ll never speak again.

[JOCASTA runs into the palace] 

CHORUS LEADER: Why has the queen rushed off, Oedipus,
       so full of grief? I fear a disastrous storm                             
       will soon break through her silence.

OEDIPUS:                                           Then let it break,
       whatever it is. As for myself,
       no matter how base born my family,
       I wish to know the seed from where I came.
       Perhaps my queen is now ashamed of me
       and of my insignificant origin—
      she likes to play the noble lady.
       But I will never feel myself dishonoured.                                     
       I see myself as a child of fortune—
      and she is generous, that mother of mine                             
       from whom I spring, and the months, my siblings,
       have seen me by turns both small and great.
       That’s how I was born. I cannot change
       to someone else, nor can I ever cease
       from seeking out the facts of my own birth.

CHORUS: If I have any power of prophecy
       or skill in knowing things,
       then, by the Olympian deities,
       you, Cithaeron, at tomorrow’s moon                                        
       will surely know that Oedipus                                              
       pays tribute to you as his native land
       both as his mother and his nurse,
       and that our choral dance and song
       acknowledge you because you are
       so pleasing to our king.
       O Phoebus, we cry out to you—
      may our song fill you with delight!

      Who gave birth to you, my child?
       Which one of the immortal gods
       bore you to your father Pan,                                             
       who roams the mountainsides?
       Was it some daughter of Apollo,
       the god who loves all country fields?
       Perhaps Cyllene’s royal king?
       Or was it the Bacchanalian god
       dwelling on the mountain tops
       who took you as a new-born joy
       from maiden nymphs of Helicon
       with whom he often romps and plays?*

OEDIPUS: [looking out away from the palace]
       You elders, although I’ve never seen the man                
       we’ve been looking for a long time now,
       if I had to guess, I think I see him.
       He’s coming here. He looks very old—
      as is appropriate, if he’s the one.
       And I know the people coming with him,
       servants of mine. But if you’ve seen him before,
       you’ll recognize him better than I will.

CHORUS LEADER: Yes, I recognize the man. There’s no doubt.
       He worked for Laius—a trusty shepherd.

[Enter SERVANT, an old shepherd] 

OEDIPUS: Stranger from Corinth, let me first ask you—         
       is this the man you mentioned?

MESSENGER:                                                 Yes, he is—
      he’s the man you see in front of you.                                              

OEDIPUS: You, old man, over here. Look at me.
       Now answer what I ask. Some time ago
       did you work for Laius?

SERVANT:                                           Yes, as a slave.
       But I was not bought. I grew up in his house.

OEDIPUS: How did you live? What was the work you did?

SERVANT: Most of my life I’ve spent looking after sheep.

OEDIPUS: Where? In what particular areas?

SERVANT: On Cithaeron or the neighbouring lands.               

OEDIPUS: Do you know if you came across this man
       anywhere up there?

SERVANT:                                     Doing what?
       What man do you mean?

OEDIPUS:                         The man over here—
      this one. Have you ever run into him?                                            

SERVANT: Right now I can’t say I remember him.

MESSENGER: My lord, that’s surely not surprising.
       Let me refresh his failing memory.
       I think he will remember all too well
       the time we spent around Cithaeron.
       He had two flocks of sheep and I had one.                              
       I was with him there for six months at a stretch,
       from early spring until the autumn season.
       In winter I’d drive my sheep down to my folds,
       and he’d take his to pens that Laius owned.
       Isn’t that what happened—what I’ve just said?                                

SERVANT: You spoke the truth. But it was long ago.

MESSENGER: All right, then. Now, tell me if you recall
       how you gave me a child, an infant boy,
       for me to raise as my own foster son.

SERVANT: What? Why ask about that?

MESSENGER:                   This man here, my friend,             
       was that young child back then.

SERVANT:                                     Damn you!
       Can’t you keep quiet about it!

OEDIPUS:                               Hold on, old man.
       Don’t criticize him. What you have said
       is more objectionable than his account.

SERVANT: My noble master, what have I done wrong?

OEDIPUS: You did not tell us of that infant boy,                              
       the one he asked about.

SERVANT:                               That’s what he says,
       but he knows nothing—a useless busybody.

OEDIPUS: If you won’t tell us of your own free will,
       once we start to hurt you, you will talk.                               

SERVANT: By all the gods, don’t torture an old man!

OEDIPUS: One of you there, tie up this fellow’s hands.

SERVANT: Why are you doing this? It’s too much for me!
       What is it you want to know?

OEDIPUS:                               That child he mentioned—
      did you give it to him?

SERVANT:                                     I did. How I wish
       I’d died that day!

OEDIPUS:                   Well, you’re going to die
       if you don’t speak the truth.

SERVANT:                                           And if I do,
       there’s an even greater chance that I’ll be killed.

OEDIPUS: It seems to me the man is trying to stall.                    

SERVANT: No, no, I’m not. I’ve already told you—                   
       I did give him the child.

OEDIPUS:                               Where did you get it?
       Did it come from your home or somewhere else?

SERVANT: It was not mine—I got it from someone.

OEDIPUS: Which of our citizens? Whose home was it?

SERVANT: In the name of the gods, my lord, don’t ask!
       Please, no more questions!

OEDIPUS:                         If I have to ask again,
       then you will die.

SERVANT:                   The child was born in Laius’ house.

OEDIPUS: From a slave or from some relative of his?

SERVANT: Alas, what I’m about to say now . . .
       it’s horrible.

OEDIPUS:                   And I’m about to hear it.                     
       But nonetheless I have to know this.

SERVANT: If you must know, they said the child was his.
       But your wife inside the palace is the one
       who could best tell you what was going on.

OEDIPUS: You mean she gave the child to you?

SERVANT:                                                 Yes, my lord.

OEDIPUS: Why did she do that?

SERVANT:                                     So I would kill it.

OEDIPUS: That wretched woman was the mother?

SERVANT:                                                             Yes.
       She was afraid of dreadful prophecies.

OEDIPUS: What sort of prophecies?

SERVANT:                                           The story went
       that he would kill his father.

OEDIPUS:                                     If that was true,                  
       why did you give the child to this old man?

SERVANT: I pitied the boy, master, and I thought
       he’d take the child off to a foreign land
       where he was from. But he rescued him,
       only to save him for the greatest grief of all.                             
       For if you’re the one this man says you are                                      
       you know your birth carried an awful fate.

OEDIPUS: Ah, so it all came true. It’s so clear now.
       O light, let me look at you one final time,
       a man who stands revealed as cursed by birth,                    
       cursed by my own family, and cursed
       by murder where I should not kill.

[OEDIPUS moves into the palace] 

CHORUS: O generations of mortal men,
       how I count your life as scarcely living.
       What man is there, what human being,
       who attains a greater happiness                                                    
       than mere appearances, a joy
       which seems to fade away to nothing?
       Poor wretched Oedipus, your fate
       stands here to demonstrate for me                                    
       how no mortal man is ever blessed.

      Here was a man who fired his arrows well—
      his skill was matchless—and he won
       the highest happiness in everything.
       For, Zeus, he slaughtered the hook-taloned Sphinx
       and stilled her cryptic song. For our state,
       he stood there like a tower against death,                                  
       and from that moment, Oedipus,
       we have called you our king
       and honoured you above all other men,                            
       the one who rules in mighty Thebes.

      But now who is there whose story
       is more terrible to hear? Whose life
       has been so changed by trouble,
       by such ferocious agonies?
       Alas, for celebrated Oedipus,
       the same spacious place of refuge
       served you both as child and father,
       the place you entered as a new bridegroom.                               
       How could the furrow where your father planted,                   
       poor wretched man, have tolerated you
       in such silence for so long?

      Time, which watches everything
       and uncovered you against your will,
       now sits in judgment of that fatal marriage,
       where child and parent have been joined so long.
       O child of Laius, how I wish
       I’d never seen you—now I wail
       like one whose mouth pours forth laments.                              
       To tell it right, it was through you                                          
       I found my life and breathed again,
       and then through you my eyesight failed.

A second messenger enters and announces that Jocasta has hanged herself.  When Oedipus came upon the body, he tore her brooches off and gouged them into his own eyes, crying that they will never see the crime he has committed.  The messenger says that Oedipus wants to show himself to the people of Thebes, and then leave the city forever.  The doors open, and blind Oedipus enters.  The chorus expresses their pity.  Oedipus cries out about his evil deeds and asks the chorus to lead him away from the city or kill him. 

Creon enters.  Oedipus asks Creon to drive him from the city.  Creon wants to wait for the gods to tell him what to do.  Oedipus tells Creon to bury his wife, to let him live on the mountain where he was left as a child, and to take care of Oedipus' daughters.  Oedipus' two daughters enter.  Oedipus laments the difficult life they will lead now that their ancestry is revealed.  Oedipus says that the gods hate him.  Creon and Oedipus leave together.



          You residents of Thebes, our native land,
       look on this man, this Oedipus, the one
       who understood that celebrated riddle.
       He was the most powerful of men.
       All citizens who witnessed this man’s wealth
       were envious. Now what a surging tide                            
       of terrible disaster sweeps around him.
       So while we wait to see that final day,
       we cannot call a mortal being happy
       before he’s passed beyond life free from pain.     



Antigone  (c. 441 B.C.)


The play opens in Thebes, before the royal palace.  Antigone and her sister Ismene, the daughters of Oedipus, enter.  They are distraught over the recent death in battle of their brothers at each other's hands.  Antigone tells Ismene that king Creon has decreed that their brother Eteocles will be buried and honoured in death, while their brother Polyneices will be left unburied.  Antigone tries to convince Ismene to help her bury Polyneices against Creon's orders.  Ismene refuses to break the law, but says that she won't tell. 

Creon announces to the people his plans for the brothers.  He explains that Eteocles died defending the city, while Polyneices died attempting to destroy it.  He commands the Chorus not to take sides with any who may disobey his order.  The Chorus agrees that it would be foolish to do so.  A very human guard enters and tells Creon that someone has managed to bury the body of Polyneices. Creon sends him to uncover the body. Soon after, the guard returns, having caught Antigone re-burying the corpse.

        Antigone says that she was following the law of the gods, not Creon's law.  Creon calls for Ismene because he believes she helped plan the crime.  Guards bring Ismene out.  She says she is guilty if Antigone says she is.  Antigone says Ismene had no part.

Creon's son Haemon (who was to marry Antigone) tells his father that he supports him.  Creon explains that he must kill Antigone to set an example for others who might disobey his laws.  Haemon tells Creon that the feeling among the citizens is that the girl was wrongly condemned.  He asks Creon to reconsider his decree.  The two then quarrel about the justness of the decree.  Creon calls to bring her out so that he may kill her in front of Haemon.  Haemon leaves before she is brought out.  Creon tells the chorus that he plans to leave Antigone in a cave and let her starve to death.

Antigone is led away to her death. Teiresias the blind prophet enters and tells Creon that as a result of Creon's decision, sacrificial fires will not burn, and rites cannot be performed.  Creon holds to his decision. Teiresias tells him that he will be cursed by the gods for his acts and that his son will die as a result.  Teiresias leaves.  Creon is torn.  He knows that Teiresias is always accurate in his prophesies.  The chorus convinces Creon to change his mind.  Creon hurries off to free Antigone.

A messenger enters and tells the chorus that Creon's son Haemon has killed himself and that it is Creon's fault.  Creon's wife Eurydice enters from the palace.  She has overheard the news.  The messenger tells of how Creon and his party discovered that Haemon had come before them to the cave and that he was crying over the lifeless body of Antigone, who had hanged herself.  Haemon then spat in Creon's face and leaned on his own sword to kill himself.  Eurydice goes back inside in silence.  Creon and his men enter, carrying Haemon's body.  Creon laments that he has learned justice too late. 

The messenger re‑enters and announces that Eurydice  has taken her own life.  Creon cries for his servants to take him away.  He wishes for his own death.  Creon and his men enter the palace.  The chorus comments that the gods control our destiny, that we can only be happy through wisdom, and that men of pride must often suffer greatly to earn wisdom.

6 Greek Drama & Poetry