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:
ChorusThat wise interpreter of prophecies
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.
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 . . .
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?
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.