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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 (continued)

IOCASTE (JOCASTA)

Sophocles gives very little detail about Iocaste. You learn that she married Oedipus because he solved the riddle of the Sphinx and was made king of Thebes as a reward by the gods. Early in Oedipus the King you see her trying to mediate between Oedipus and Creon when they quarrel: She appears to be a kind, gracious, and caring wife.

It's important to remember that Iocaste is an older woman, one who was once beautiful and charming. She fell on difficult times when her first husband, Laios, was murdered. Left alone to rule Thebes, she was lost and confused in political matters. She asked her brother, Creon, to share her rule of Thebes, and was obviously happy when Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx and became her second husband. Some readers see her as a weak, dependent woman, but others see her as a tragic figure who fell in love only to learn, too late, that her husband was her son.

When Oedipus demands to see the shepherd who witnessed the murder of Laios, Iocaste agrees without hesitation. Innocently, she has no reason to suspect that Oedipus is her son until the truth is revealed by the herdsman. Although she is a queen, Iocaste doesn't exercise her right to rule. She prefers to let Oedipus make decisions, and she never questions his judgment. But she obviously has a great deal of influence on Oedipus, and he looks to her whenever he needs advice or moral support.


When Iocaste commits suicide at the end of Oedipus the King, she does so calmly and without regret. Her suicide is stoical; she welcomes death as a just punishment for having married her own son. You may feel pity and sorrow for Iocaste in spite of her abandonment of and subsequent marriage to Oedipus. But some readers also see her death as a warning not to question the truth of prophecy and the oracles, the messages of the gods. Does Iocaste refuse to believe the oracles because she's foolish or because she's blinded by her love for Oedipus? You decide which interpretation you think fits the theme of the play.

ANTIGONE

The women in the Oedipus trilogy are almost background figures. They react to events, but do not cause events to happen. (This is not true of Greek drama in general, or of all of Sophocles' other plays.) The women have feelings, but they are predictable feelings appropriate to their time and place.

Antigone is something of an exception to this rule. As befits her, she is a loving and loyal daughter and sister. And it is precisely this loyalty that makes her an active rather than a static figure-and, indeed, makes it possible for an entire play to revolve around her. She insists that sometimes justice is more important than law. Creon is perfectly within his rights to forbid burial for Polyneices, but she simply cannot stand by and allow this to happen. No matter what he has done, he is her brother. (She is consistent: she never abandoned Oedipus either.) She arranges for him to be buried, knowing full well the consequences of her actions. In this sense, she is as much a heroic figure as any of the men.

MESSENGERS

The Greek playwrights used messengers to tell the audience what happened offstage. These traditional carriers of news usually told of the murder, violence, or catastrophe that the audience hadn't seen during the play. For example, it is from the messengers that we learn of Polybos' death, Iocaste's suicide, and Oedipus' blinding. In the Greek plays messengers generally were anonymous characters who related facts without offering judgments.

Messengers were usually young men who came running on stage, like marathon runners, to speak long monologues directly to the audience. They were a favorite character of the Athenians because they heightened the tension of the play and provided dramatic spectacle. You need to think of the messengers as "general delivery" men, bringing messages to present to the characters on stage. The fact that Sophocles uses two messengers in Oedipus the King is rather unusual. You should keep in mind, however, that the first messenger comes from Corinth with news of Polybos' death, and the second messenger comes from the palace to inform us of Iocaste's suicide and Oedipus' blinding. It would not have been reasonable for one messenger to come from Corinth and also be part of Oedipus' household. The second messenger from the palace was needed to give us an intimate look at Iocaste's suicide and the blinding of Oedipus. The long account of events happening offstage gives the second messenger an opportunity to describe horrible deeds that the playwright didn't want to show the audience, and also adds to the tragic appearance of Oedipus when he stumbles from the palace later.

In Oedipus at Colonus, there is only one messenger, as usual. Although Oedipus announces onstage his impending death, it occurs offstage, so you know that it has actually happened only when the messenger appears with the announcement.

In Antigone Sophocles again employs only one messenger, this time to tell everyone about the deaths of Antigone, Creon's son Haimon, and Creon's wife Eurydice.

CHORUS

Like Teiresias, the Chorus acts as "ideal spectator." Think of the Chorus as a jury. It is a group of twelve or fifteen wise and honest men ("elders") who listen to the facts presented. When the verdict is reached at the end of Oedipus the King, it is presented as objective truth, based on the evidence the Chorus has seen or heard. The Chorus is expected to express opinions, question the characters, and to offer advice when requested. (In this sense the Chorus has the opposite function of the messengers.) It speaks in a solemn, dignified tone, and moves in circular patterns while chanting or singing. As a general rule, the Chorus rarely disagrees with the views expressed by the leading characters.

The Chorus is an important part of any Greek tragedy; listen carefully to what it says. Its speeches set the tone of the play, and it never leaves the stage (reminding you that Oedipus' private tragedy has public dimensions). As the plays develop, the Chorus directs audience attention to important ideas expressed. It also warns and reminds characters of the consequences of their actions. The classical Chorus observes what is said and done and then interprets the meaning for the audience. In particular, you should accept its comments as objective truth. The Chorus doesn't judge Oedipus until all of the evidence has been presented.

Pay special attention to the changing moods and attitudes of the Chorus. When it speaks directly to the audience, it is presenting moral and ethical issues. Its judgments represent the basic standards and principles against which all people, including Oedipus, Creon, and Antigone, should be judged. Notice also the odes sung by the Chorus. These lyrical songs help to summarize the plot, comment on the action, and build the play to a climax. The choral odes further help to set the mood of the play, and help the audience understand the emotions of the characters.

Table of Contents | Oedipus the King Message Board | Oedipus at Colonus Message Board | Antigone Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
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