The Three Theban Plays – Sophocles Translated by Robert Fagles with Notes on the Translation: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Robert Fagles’ translation conveys all of Sophocles’ lucidity and power: the cut The Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedip and millions of. In Meyer’s Bedford Introduction to Literature 8th editon, the Fagles translation, there are no marked or numbered scene breaks. See end of file for citing the play .

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It is very hard to know how to approach the Theban plays. They are, in a sense, incomprehensible, at least to me. They are in a dead language, which I do not know.

So much is lost in that translation — the rhythms b rules of Greek poetry, even if they are followed by the translator, do not carry their import with them. And they are not prose, but plays, and I have not seen them staged, and something is lost in that.

And so much also is lost without the context of their society — the meanings of things, the importance of things. And of course, Greek literature above all is dependent on its context — unlike most modern fiction, these tragedies were intended to be experienced by people who knew the plot and the characters and the details all in advance. This makes them very difficult — not to understand or to enjoy, but to really assess, with the confidence of somebody who knows what they are looking for.

They are not a trilogy robegt they were written across a span of decades, with little attempt at continuity, and the earliest written is set the latest in the story. Tranalated are all parts of the same story but each stands alone — and this is possible because the audience knew the story already. This allows a great deal of foreshadowing of events outside of the plays — and allows other things to be glossed over.

Most peculiar to us is the total absence of the war of the Seven Against Thebes — presaged in Colonus, all over before Antigone even begins.

The Three Theban Plays

Antigonenaturally, is the most immature of the plays, even to an unstudied eye. Here, Sophocles is rather fonder of high melodrama, of literary allusions some now lost on usof people going around shouting a lot, and of long and flowery speeches. I found it the hardest to read by far. At the same time, it is in some ways the most interesting. I found myself, reading these, asking not what Sophocles did wrong, but simply: What can we appreciate?

In Antigone, the first answer is characterisation. It is confusing, and it is sophisticated. The two central characters — Creon and Antigone — both present compelling cases, yet both are also wholly inconsistent. This is particularly true of Antigone, who justifies her actions many times over, but never the same way, and by the end seems almost to embrace their nihilistic motivelessness.

The other way Antigone still speaks to us is, of course, ideology.

And yet at the same time Creon is also translater voice of reason. His voice is understandable — too quick in temper, yes, and too afraid, but still a reasonable man with understandable, and even admirable, objectives — even if, like Antigone, his actual motivations do not live up to his pronouncements. He is a pragmatist, and he cares about measurable things. Antigone meanwhile, whether we take her at her word or look for deeper and more consistent reasons, is by the standards of Creon simply mad.

Hers is a familiar madness — the madness of religious fundamentalism. Her system of values cannot be comprehended by Creon — she is adament in following the law of the gods regardless of the consequences, and wholly callously. Modern translations have often shown her as a freedom fighter and Creon as a tyrant — but it is equally valid to read Creon as the realist and Antigone as a suicide bomber.

Contrast the passion and concern shown by Haemon and Ismene toward her with her own fagless toward them. In her implacable universalism, her religious fanaticism, she is the most selfish character in the play. It is these two factors — the irresoluble conflict between two different ideological perspectives, each of which both frightens and attracts us, and underneath that the fundamental insincerity of the advocates both both positions — that make Antigone a strikingly modern play, or at least a strikingly modern idea for a play.

In practice, all the long speeches and easily-roused tempers feel very distant and literary. Oedipus the King is probably the least interesting of the three but the most readable. Again, the plot is an unusual antgione — the main character gradually discovers that he has murdered his father and had children with his mother.


Sophocles’ Antigone

But this is not that sort of tragedy — nobody punishes Oedipus. His downfall is translafed through his worst features, but through his best — his reason, his dedication to the truth, his honesty. If he had been a worse man, his doom could have been avoided at any point.

That is the basic strangeness of the play — Oedipus falls because he is so good a man. His antiggone has no influence on things, and acts only to ironically highlight the tragedy that we know is coming. Nor does Oedipus even set in motion his own dagles, leaving the moral that human excellence will be punished — no, everything has been set in place long ago. It is only because Laius believes that if he has a son the son will kill him that he has Oedipus abandoned at birth — otherwise, there would have been no strife between them.

It is only because Laius is journeying in a small party to gain wisdom from an oracle that he meets, attacks, and is killed by Oedipus. It is only because Oedipus sends to, and then listens to, the oracle at Delphi, that he embarks on his investigation, the investigation that will end with his own exile and rohert.

The fates are implacable and merciless. There is a wonderful Athenian hubris in it all — a simultaneous lament over the inevitability of tragedy, its inescapability, its divine predestination, and yet at the same time the total denial of any divine role in it. Oedipus — and Athens — seem to revel in the self-caused nature of their downfall. Every step of the tragedy is made by humans acting from free will. But at the same time, the penalty is far greater — in Homer, Oedipus is distraught but he remains king, while in Sophocles he rips out his own eyes and has himself sent into exile unto death.

Oedipus is the criminal, the investigator, the prosecutor, the judge, and the executioner, and the punishment he inflicts on himself for failing translatwd abide by his own laws, even accidentally, is less merciful than translatde gods would have been. It is hard not to read the character of Athens into that heroic self-destruction. Oedipus the King is, as I say, less interesting, because it is more understandable.

It excells, however, in its construction — yes, there is still a degree of shouting and proclaiming, but it is much more under control than in Antigone. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of the action, which procedes mercilessly and breathlessly toward its foreknown conclusion.

If that conclusion has a flaw, it is that the crimes related no longer seem so horrific as they did to Sophocles, and thus the punishment seems less merited. This is even more the case at Oedipus at Colonus, where pages at a time are wasted in lamenting the unutterable abomination of incest. OK, a modern reader might say, get over it. If Oedipus the King is the most understandable, Oedipus at Antigonee is the least.

The entire plot is mysterious to us — the mystical power that will be gained by the corpse of Oedipus once it is buried, and the importance of burying it in one place or another. It is a striking reminder of the breadth of sanity, that the same writer who could express the humanitarianism of Antigone, the cold rationalism of Creon and the sensible, heroic, intellectual Oedipus could still treat in such matters as the magic powers of the corpses of heroes as though it were an everyday concept, beyond discussion.

In the earlier two plays, people doubt the gods — antigonee does in the third. Nor is it really a tragedy.

Yes, Oedipus dies, but this seems to improve his standing and power dramatically — and beside, although they speak of his corpse being buried, it seems that in the end Oedipus simply ascends into heaven. I do use that word advisedly — but I use it because, despite its pagan credentials, this is a play with rohert Christian parallels. Oedipus is, frankly, Jesus by this point. Oedipus, like Jesus, is the scapegoat who takes all the sins of man with him into the afterlife — his life is tragic, but he is compensated by the powers of a demigod after death.

Oedipus, however, is quite a different man from Jesus, and his powers will be used differently: As Oedipus dies in the play, so too antigonw the Athens of the audience — as it was being written when Sophocles, like Oedipus, could see his own death approachingthe city was engaged in the final existential struggle against Sparta in which the Athenians, with Oedipal hubris, refused to accept the surrender rpbert Sparta even at the verge of their own destructionand by the time the audience could see the play performed, Athens had surrendered, its walls, fleet, port and empire destroyed, and was entirely dependant on the continued mercy of the Spartans.


The idea of an Athenian army defeating a Theban one by the gift of Oedipus must have been a very dear dream at the time — Thebes had fought against Athens in the war, and argued strongly for its complete, punitive, annihilation in the peace, with only Sparta graciously allowing their sworn enemies to survive.

But Oedipus is still not a benign figure. Nor is it a curse of academic value only: It is striking to note the sheer fatalism of Polynices in this play — as so many characters, he is confronted with a prophesy of his own demise, but he carries on regardless, not because he does not believe it, but because he sees no alternative.

Laius and Oedipus vainly sought to escape their dooms, and so brought them on themselves, but Polynices walks toward his knowing that his death is unavoidable. It is a moment but faglfs and impressive — as echoed by Antigone on whom it evidently left a lasting impression, as Polynices will be the cause of her own death also, as she almost imitates his suicidal determination.

Sophocles brings the ancient myths into his own age with a terrible acuity.

The Three Theban Plays by Sophocles | : Books

Are we meant to understand why Oedipus curses his sons? Like Antigone in the earlier play, Oedipus offers several explanations and none content me — perhaps, indeed, that is the point. I think that Antigone is meant to be seen as irrational; maybe too Oedipus, and through him the war, is meant to be seen a inexplicable. The argument that they should not have exiled him from Thebes seems weak — he commanded them to do so, and in any case the gods had demanded his exile as the price of the end of the plague.

Perhaps Oedipus is not meant to be seen as wholly rational at this point.

The argument that they should have followed him into exile is rather stronger, but still seems incongruous — this Oedipus, this Oedipus who spends the play rbert asserting his innocence, the injustice of his punishment for actions that were not his fault, that were decided before his birth, seems a strange match to an Oedipus who curses his sons to death for not allowing that punishment to extend another generation. Maybe it is simply because both children lie, and both attempt to use their father at the end.

It is an interesting type of misogyny where failure to follow gender roles brings untold tragedy, but the blame is placed not on the women but on the men who failed to protect them.

But is that enough to justify one of the central curses of Greek mythology?

Sophocles can hint at something, with a gesture that bears the full weight of his civilisation… and two and a half thousand years later, the hint remains, but the weight is gone, like a tranalated poem surviving to a point where all the rules of poetry atigone followed have become unknown.

How do we value it? In the earlier two plays, this was frustrating; here, it rises to be the central characteristic of our impression of the play. This mystical, transcendental play becomes more mystical by its unfathomableness, gains greater power by the extent of darkness that supports it and is hidden by it.

It has a frightening absurdity to it. It is hard to know what to make translatex it. People come, and people go, around the immobile Oedipus, and there seems little sense to it all, but the mystery adds to the awe; and at the heart of it, a man approaches antigome death. Two last things to say.

Second, the notes, by Bernard Knox — these are good, and very rohert in providing some context and depth though they sometimes get carried away. Slowed down by over-long speeches, but the choral structure ensures that there is never any break, and just enough pause to raise the heartbeat of impatience. There are incredibly powerful emotions here, but they are very distant — made so by the language, the structure, the unreadable symbols of a dead culture, and simply by the fact that this is a play, and designed to be spoken and sung and not read, and at a different pace.

I decline to judge. The translation of a poetry form alien to me into modern verse for a play, read on the page? Even the prose is unjudgeable, and that leaves alone all the traditions and tropes of the form and the content that are unrecoverable to me.