TOP 500 REVIEWERon September 16, 2011
I first read Oedipus the King when I was in high school, which was, well, more than a few years ago. I had never read the other two plays in this volume, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. So, there was the "perspective" read of "the King" after forty some years, and the two sequel plays. What happened to the principal characters after the terrible fate of Oedipus is revealed, and he undertakes his initial response of blinding himself? Colonus and Antigone provide the tragic answers.
Needless to say, some of the very first plays extant in Western civilization are long out of "copyright." There are some different versions of the play itself available, as well as varying translations, and introductory material. I have a Penguin Classic version, with an introduction (and translation) by E. F. Watling, which dates from 1947, and was renewed in 1974(and is also available at Amazon). The translation seems to "flow" very well. In the introduction, Watling presents succinctly the difficulties of doing a proper translation. No problem with words like "sea," or "mountain"; considerably more problems with "democracy," "king" et al. For me, the ultimate example of the translation difficulties is money. How much is one of their units of currency really worth? A consideration must be given to what it will buy, in other words, the overall economic context, and Watling says that his translation is aimed at that objective. For example, he uses the expression, in regards to thunder and lighting, "God's artillery," at a time when virtually no artillery existed, certainly in the modern sense.
Oedipus is one of those essential cultural references that one must know to be considered "educated." Freud famously made him into a "complex." The King killed his father, and married his mother; both acts he did unknowingly. The play is also symbolic for its hubris. The Greeks used the "Chorus" as a wise and sometimes all-seeing audience. Like the cuckolded husband, everyone else seems to know what occured, long before Oedipus. Even Jocasta, the mother/wife of Oedipus, realizes the horror of what has transpired while Oedipus is still "blind" to it. Sophocles also uses wise, all-seeing, and usually blind prophets, like Teiresias, to foretell the events, past and future, to a metaphorically blind King. Vision and sight are one of the themes woven throughout the plays. And I had forgotten the ending, well worth recalling: "And none can be called happy until that day when he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace." Yes, much can go wrong in life.
As though the first play was not tragic enough, it continues downhill from there (yes, Oedipus is not in his grave yet.) He has four children (who, at least physically, seem to be "normal") despite the ultimate in incest. He has two boys and two girls. Only the one daughter, Antigone, is truly devoted to him, leading him around in exile. And it is a combination of his ex-brother-in-law, and his two sons, who have forced him out of his native Thebes. Colonus is just outside Athens, and he seeks refuge there. Both Creon, Jocasta's brother, as well as Polynices, his son, who tries the "return of the prodigal son" gamut, seek Oedipus out at Colonus. Alas, both have entirely selfish interests. Polynices' only interest is to gain his father's support in the ongoing war for the fate of Thebes, against his brother, Ethocles. Oedipus curses both, and places his fate in King Theseus of Athens hands. He decides to "shake off his mortal coil" and trusts Theseus not to reveal the location of his body; that was sound judgment finally. Also in "Colonus" Oedipus presents a good argument on why he should be so cursed, when he did not KNOW he was killing his father, and marrying his mother. In fact, he took steps to avoid that fate. For me, it resonated, since I'd always felt the doctrine of the Catholic Church that unbaptized babies when to "limbo," since it was not the babies fault. At least that particular doctrine has been abolished.
Antigone is truly the "dutiful daughter," as well as sibling. First, she sacrifices her own life, for her father, and then her decision, in the last play, to properly bury her brother, Polynices, who fell in battle trying to seize Thebes, leads to her condemnation to death by Creon. At least in this case, she was aware of the penalty before she consciously undertook the act. Of all the characters, Antigone is the most "sympathetic," and when she gives the classic anti-war argument to her brothers, on p. 114 of my edition, she gains even more. Wise, devoted, possessing integrity, all from the very beginning of recorded Western civilization. An essential read, or re-read. 5-stars.