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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles-Online Book Summary
Table of Contents | Oedipus the King Message Board | Oedipus at Colonus Message Board | Antigone Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version

THE CHARACTERS - LIST OF CHARACTERS

Sophocles doesn't mention his characters' ages or describe their appearances, so you need to imagine what they look and sound like. Only occasional hints in the dialogue and action describe character traits or mannerisms. Think of a tone of voice that might fit their lines of dialogue. Visualize them moving around on stage. Think of an appropriate costume that might suggest their character. If it helps, visualize modern people-actors you've seen or people you know-who could play these characters the way you think they should be played.

OEDIPUS

Try to visualize Oedipus as a forceful, powerful ruler who begins the trilogy in absolute control of the situation. As the story progresses, however, Oedipus' power and pride are broken down. How do you see him at the end of Oedipus the King? Some readers imagine a broken, pitiful old man who's been crushed by the avenging gods. Others see him as a wiser, soberer man, rising majestically above his misfortunes. How do you see him just before his death at the end of Oedipus at Colonus?

Although Oedipus is the title character of the first two plays, you don't know his exact age or his physical traits. Some readers believe that Sophocles left out these essential character details because he was more concerned with developing Oedipus' inner nature-his moral and ethical qualities-than in developing a character for performance by an actor. Other readers point out that the lack of details is characteristic of Sophocles' economical writing style. (Athenians would probably have already had a mental picture of the legendary Oedipus, anyway.)


Oedipus isn't given a lot of physical action, either. He enters, exits, kneels, prays, shouts, struts, weeps, yells, and dies. His most significant action is blinding himself, but that takes place offstage. Why does Sophocles omit physical movement for Oedipus? Perhaps Oedipus must seem stately and regal, so he will stand as a symbol of Thebes' political order, or as a symbol of political authority in general. Perhaps his restrained, grand actions emphasize his heroic, almost superhuman qualities. Consider these possible meanings when Oedipus first appears. Then, as the trilogy progresses, notice how he changes. As Oedipus loses his noble posture, he gradually becomes more like any other human.

From the information given in the script, you can sketch the following portrait of Oedipus. He is apparently handsome and well built. He is described as a "tower of strength," and has a penetrating way of looking at people. He is quick-tempered, and often acts impulsively and violently. His followers love him, and consider him a brilliant ruler because he solved the riddle of the Sphinx and brought prosperity to the city of Thebes.

When Oedipus the King begins, Oedipus exhibits wisdom, love for his children and his subjects, and a reputation for high moral standards. He has a passion for truth, and shows courage in the face of disaster or conflict. These same noble qualities, however, also lead to his inevitable tragic downfall. His wisdom becomes self-righteousness, and he refuses to believe anyone who doesn't agree with him. His love for his children becomes obsessive, and he refuses to see that he's married his own mother. His passion for the truth and high moral standards lead him in a fatal quest for the murderer of Laios.

The one trait of Oedipus that doesn't change in the course of the plays is his strength and courage in the face of disaster. As the net of guilt tightens on him with each revelation about the truth of the prophecy, Oedipus remains strong and resolved. Every step he takes to solve the mystery of Laios' murder brings him closer to self-exposure, yet he never hesitates to pursue that truth. When the last piece of the puzzle falls into place, Oedipus the detective has become Oedipus the criminal. But his courage and strength help him endure the pain and suffering that come with knowledge of what he has done.

Oedipus' search for the truth leads him to the discovery that he isn't a "child of luck," but a "man of misfortune." His fate was determined years before his birth, as proven by the prophecy of the oracles. All he can do is live out his destiny, but he does this with such dignity and heroism that he shows there is nobility even in suffering and despair. At the end of Oedipus at Colonus you may respect Oedipus for pursuing the truth to its horrible conclusion. Having blinded himself, Oedipus is a broken and shaken man. But he also becomes a model for you to imitate. He has shown what it means to endure in the face of certain defeat.

He has shown what it takes to survive in a world that is ruled by unpredictable fate. He has shown the true meaning of suffering and despair. He earns your respect and sympathy when he chooses to live rather than die, and to make his life an example to others of how guilt and pride may lead to self-knowledge. When you think of Oedipus, remember that he suffers for all of us, so that all of us can know the truth about ourselves in a world that will always be hostile and cruel.

TEIRESIAS (TIRESIAS)

Teiresias is a wise, old man who has supernatural powers to interpret the past and predict the future. Think of him being like a modern psychic, gifted in the art of foretelling things to come. The fact that Teiresias is blind makes his visionary abilities even more mysterious. This may also lead Oedipus to deny Teiresias' ability to "see" the truth. He rarely volunteers information unless asked to do so, and speaks in a soft, whispering tone. At first Teiresias refuses to answer Oedipus' questions about the prophecy. He consents to reveal what the oracles have foretold about Oedipus' future only when he is threatened with death.

It was thought in Greek legends that Teiresias became a holy man when he was chosen by the gods to interpret their signs and symbols for all to understand. He appears as a character in many of the classical plays, and is always a spokesman for the gods. Therefore, when Oedipus insults Teiresias in the first scene of Oedipus the King, and accuses him of being a false prophet, he is also attacking the gods and is in danger of blasphemy. Oedipus is sealing his own doom when he dares to insult the holy man, and the Chorus is quick to point that out to him.

Although his appearance in the plays is brief, Teiresias sets the tone of the moral and religious beliefs of the gods. As their spokesman, Teiresias speaks in riddles and slogans. His sometimes puzzling predictions are intended to make men think about themselves and their actions. He does this extremely well in the first meeting with Oedipus, asking him to consider himself the murderer of Laios.

Teiresias acts as "ideal spectator." He observes the scene and comments when characters need guidance or direction. Teiresias can look into the hearts and souls of people, like he does when he defends Creon's innocence at the beginning of Oedipus the King.

CREON

Creon is Oedipus' brother-in-law and a trusted adviser to the king. He is also third-in-command of Thebes as a political leader. The Chorus mentions that he is an honest man who is reliable, trustworthy, and sensible. The Chorus also defends Creon against Oedipus' charge of conspiracy.

When you first meet Creon he has just returned from the oracles at Delphi. He is honorable and conscientious in his duty to Oedipus and to Thebes. He can't understand why Oedipus accuses him of conspiring with Teiresias to seize power. But honor is important to him-he is quick to defend his reputation and protest his innocence. He even suggests to the audience that he be put to death if Oedipus questions his loyalty.

You should feel alarm and outrage when Creon is exiled from Thebes. He is an innocent man whose common sense and sense of fair play could have been valuable to Oedipus. When he returns to Thebes at the end of Oedipus the King, however, what is he like? Some readers believe that when Creon replaces Oedipus as king he should appear more aggressive and forceful than when he left the city. He should seem arrogant and self-confident-much like Oedipus was at the beginning of the play. These readers go on to explain that even good and kind men like Creon become corrupted and cold when placed in positions of power. It's certainly true that in Oedipus at Colonus and especially in Antigone, Creon appears as a tyrant. But he does return at the end of Oedipus the King as a stabilizing force to help Thebes regain prosperity now that Oedipus' sin has been purged.

Which theme seems most important to you: the dangerous effects of power, or the need for a nation to reform itself? In all three plays you are repeatedly asked if Creon is a cruel or a fair ruler, a cruel or a fair human being.

Table of Contents | Oedipus the King Message Board | Oedipus at Colonus Message Board | Antigone Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles-Study Guide
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