Friday, November 26, 2010

Reading Thoughts: Electra, Oedipus, & Antigone by Sophocles

With the rush into the holiday season this year, I found myself wanting something philosophical to read; I felt like I needed a pen in hand to get the most out of my reading.  As with every year around October I teach the play Oedipus to my juniors.  The language is thick with irony, metaphor, and foreshadowing, and yet the mystery in the play keeps my students eagerly engaged.  It's actually a lot of fun to read together as a class. 

Because of this in-class reading, I really wanted to try out some of Sophocles other plays.  There is so much one can learn from these earliest plays that have survived over time to be read today.  I'm sure too that my own obsession with Greece and visit to one of the amphitheaters at Epidaurus that Sophocles was said to have performed his plays helped in this fascination!  Here are a couple of pictures of Epidaurus.  Ignore my silly pose.  I couldn't help sitting in these hand-carved seats near the front of the amphitheater.  Amazing.  Simply amazing!

How does one really "review" a playwright who has successfully captures our attention and recognition for thousands of years?  Obviously, I'm not going to attempt to rate his work, as I think he's brilliant no matter how you look at it!  My reviews can be nothing but glowing, so I'd rather take a moment to share what these plays are about, basically, and share a few amazing quotes that have been translated from them.

Electra:  The basic premise of this play is that Electra's father has been killed by his mother in revenge for killing her sister as a sacrifice.  Since that time, her mother has remarried and her only brother has left the city.  Both brother and sister separately plan the revenge, proclaiming the evil nature of their mother for her part in the murder. 

Thoughts and Quotes:  This play seems an interesting comparison to Shakespeare's Hamlet in the revenge department.  Both main characters have lost their fathers, both mothers have remarried, and both children feel ultimately betrayed by their mother.  Interestingly, Electra fed the famous theory by Sigmund Freud, coupled with is Oedipal Theory, or children desiring their opposite sex parent.  These theories have since been proven a bit extreme, but the ideas behind them  are also explained.   One of the quotes that grabbed me was,
"Do not got too far in hatred with those you hate,
Nor be forgetful of him.
Time has power to heal all wounds."
I can't say that I knew that this particular adage came from Sophocles, but it seems that the translated message is that "time heals all wounds" and not to act too rashly.

Oedipus:  What's to say about this famous play that hasn't been said in a million cultural references and jokes?  In this most famous of all plays written by Sophocles, Oedipus is made king of Thebes after solving the Sphinx's riddle who was holding the city captive.  Thebes had recently lost their king to murder, and Oedipus was running from his home in Corinth after a prophecy was stated that he would kill his father to be with his mother.  As the play begins, Oedipus learns that the city is under a blight or plague because the city is harboring the murderer of the king and must be found.  From this intriguing beginning, the mystery unfolds into a most tragic ending!

Thoughts and Quotes:  I don't wish to give away everything that happens in the play, but will say that it is quite memorable.  Since I started teaching this play, I've noticed cultural references in too many shows to even list.  (If you're interested, there is a really funny reference in Desperate Housewives, Season 5 Episode 2.)  Some of my favorite quotes include:
"To spurn a loyal friend, that is no better
Than to destroy the life to which we cling."
This quote was said by Oedipus's good friend and brother-in-law Creon, who he has accused of setting him up as the murderer of the former king.  This is a great quote and one that I have my students explore.  I have them consider how throwing away one's friends could be like destroying one's own life.  Interesting thought.  Adding to this idea is a piece of advice handed down by the chorus:
"Look upon that last day always,
Count no mortal happy till he has passed
the final limit of his life secure from pain."
I really like the idea of this quote, no matter how pessimistic it might be.  The realism of this idea, that we should never consider ourselves outside the parameters of pain until we have passed through this life.  In other words, no man can ensure that he will be free of pain and should not be so arrogant as to think so.

Antigone:  As the follow-up play to Oedipus, the play centers on the shamed children of Oedipus.  Antigone is seeking out an honorable burial for her brother.  Throughout the play she argues with her uncle and new king Creon for the respect she feels her brother deserves.

Thoughts and Quotes:  After reading both Oedipus and Antigone, I can't help but admire Antigone for her bravery in the face of adversity.  Nothing that she has faced has been caused by her own actions, but she faces them nonetheless.  Some of my favorite quotes include:
"This is the law: that in Man's
Life every success brings with it some disaster."
Yes, a pretty pessimistic sort of view of life, but one that seems realistic and filled with a sense of bold acceptance.  Maybe as a nice adage and piece of advice to follow this up, is the next quote:
"I would say that he does best who has
Most understanding; second best, the man
Who profits from the wisdom of another."
Yet another great piece of advice passed along by Sophocles, and in this case, in the power of listening to wise counsel.

The roles of tragedy, the gods, and of loyalty fill the pages in the plays written by Sophocles.  Amazing to me is the fact that they have survived throughout generations of readers and viewers.  How these philosophies shape us today is an interesting thing to consider, which is probably why I find myself drawn to Sophocles.

As mentioned earlier in my post, have you seen cultural references to these plays or have a favorite quote of your own? 


  1. We read Oedipus the King in high school, too! I expected it to be totally boring and irrelevant to my life (I was a teenager), but it was actually really good. I don't remember much else about it, except I was kind of annoyed by the whole Freudian thing--Oedipus didn't know he was marrying his mother or killing his father. I think he can be forgiven for that and it's kind of rude to name a psychological complex after him! :P

    A few weeks ago I was thinking about tragedies and how what makes a good one is every step of the way, you're like, "Ooooh, if only they'd done such-and-such!" It's hard to keep people involved in a story that they know is going to turn out badly, but at the same time there's something comforting in seeing how the characters made the wrong choices--which we don't tend to see in real life.

  2. I love Oedipus and Antigone, but haven't read Electra. I'm going to have to do that. I have these sitting on my shelf waiting to be read again, and I may have to get to them sooner rather than later.

  3. Becky - I am ashamed to say that I have not read these classic works of literature. Some day I will be brave enough to tackle them on my own --- pen and paper in hand :)

    I wanted to stop by and encourage you in these final weeks of grading. I just made a calendar of all the grading I have in the next three weeks and while it is somewhat overwhelming, I have vowed to stick to the schedule so that I can properly pace myself. I'll let you know how I do!