Sophocles, over the period of a lifetime, wrote many plays, of them, his Oedipus mythology is perhaps the most interpreted due to its continuing story line and archetypal plot lines. The plays themselves, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, were written years apart which shows the very profound immersion that Sophocles had in the Oedipus story and dramatic themes involving the redemption of sin from patricide and incest—a story which he demonstrates over the arch of the three Theban plays.
With that said, a close look will be taken into the Oedipus arch throughout the three plays, with an emphasis on the character of Oedipus, to analyze how the fallen king finds redemption from his sins. To begin with, Sophocles, in his attempt to tell the story of Oedipus, did not write the plays in the order that most anthologies present. As Grene notes, “as far as the legend is concerned, the story runs in sequence: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone” (p.
i). In fact, as David Grene notes, they were written and conceived in the order Antigone, Oedipus the King, and then Oedipus at Colonus (p. i), which presents a few inaccuracies within the story itself (mainly with the character Creon), but, all things considered, having written them over a period of some forty or more years, Sophocles did the best he could in an attempt to tell the story he wanted to tell while highlighting the themes that he wanted to present.
With that said, the most profound theme, throughout the plays, is that of the path to redemption of Oedipus piloted by the will of the gods. Indeed, Oedipus’ story was doomed from its inception as, in their attempt to avoid the fateful prophecy, Oedipus’ parents, Jocasta and Laius, set into motion events that would lead to its very fulfillment. As these events are revealed throughout the play, Oedipus learns that he was the child of the prophecy and inadvertently killed his father and married and had children with his mother.
At the end of the play, Oedipus exiles himself, as he had promised would be the fate of the man who murdered Laius, and even blinds himself in attempt to find redemption for his unforgivable sins. The story of Oedipus then continues in Oedipus in Colonus, even though a great deal of time has passed for Oedipus, in which his daughters, Antigone and Ismene, take him to the village of Colonus, which, as Oedipus learned from the oracle in Oedipus the King, would be the place of his death.
In his last moments, Oedipus refuses to allow his daughters to see his final resting place with a promise that in keeping the secret, Theseus and his land will be forever in peace. In this play, Sophocles’ theme finds Oedipus realizing that, because he did not commit either patricide or incest willingly, that perhaps, he wasn’t truly guilty after all. And, despite all he has faced, and because he has repented by blinding and exiling himself, Zeus forgives Oedipus of his sins and Oedipus passes into the afterlife. In Antigone, Oedipus is, really, not even present at all.
His only plot line is due to his exile from Thebes in Oedipus the King, which follows his own prediction that his two sons, Eteocles, and Polyneices, would go to war and kill each other over who would next become king. After the few beginning lines, the story of Antigone focuses solely the events transpiring between Antigone and Creon, and Oedipus is never mentioned again. For this reason, perhaps, most anthologies place Antigone last in the order of the Oedipus mythology, even though the timeline would, as Sophocles thought in writing them, place Oedipus at Colonus last, due to the play’s detailing of the last days of Oedipus’ life.
Indeed, in looking at the events that transpired in Oedipus’ life, Sophocles’ theme that the gods have the divine right to tamper in the lives of mortals and to go against them is the greatest sin of all. The acts of his parents sets Oedipus on a life-long path of redemption to save his soul in the afterlife for the sins he unwittingly committed. It is in this, however, that Oedipus is absolved by the gods. For, in living a life of guilt, Oedipus eventually comes to the understanding that he had little to do with the path he had been placed on, that fate did with him what it would—and that he only acted in ignorance.
And, it is in this understanding, in the final few moments of his tragic life, that Oedipus finds peace. Overall, for his part, Oedipus was the child of fate and never had a chance to avoid the fateful prophecy that forever tarnished his life. However, once he learned of his unwitting actions, Oedipus took full responsibility for his sins, even literally blinding himself and exiling himself from his crown city of Thebes. At the close of Oedipus the King, it was clear that Oedipus would struggle and repent until the last of his days for his sins.
As the events of Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone follow, Oedipus remains figuratively incarcerated by his sins and is not redeemed until, in the last moments of his life, Oedipus realizes that he had committed them in ignorance, and Zeus absolves him of wrongdoing. And it is in these three Theban plays that Sophocles, having spent some forty years pondering the fate of Oedipus, makes his theme apparent with the archetypal, arching plotlines of king Oedipus. Works Cited. Grene, David. The Complete Greek Tragedies, Vol II. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1959.
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