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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


Oedipus the King has one setting, the exterior of Oedipus' palace at Thebes. Oedipus at Colonus is set "in the open air," just outside Colonus (near Athens). And Antigone's set is the exterior of Creon's palace at Thebes.

As far as sets or scenery go, there was none to speak of. The exterior palace scenes would have had three doors through which characters entered and exited the stage, as well as an altar. Oedipus at Colonus would have given hints-a statue of Colonus to indicate the general location, a rock here, a shrub there. Several steps down led to the orchestra, where the Chorus was located.

There was no curtain to drop between scenes; the passage of time had to be indicated in the play's dialogue, and actors carried torches if it was necessary to show that it was night. (Plays were performed outdoors, in daylight.) There were no special effects; since the Greeks felt that their scripts were sacred, spectacular visual effects would have seemed sacrilegious. The simplicity of the staging and acting was meant to encourage the audience to pay serious attention, using its imagination to fill out the dramatic reality.



The plays trace the downfall of Oedipus from a position of wealth and power to a position of despair and sorrow to a position of inner peace. In the beginning Oedipus seems to be a child of fortune who gained a kingdom by solving the riddle of the Sphinx. In the middle he appears to have been irrevocably doomed by a prophecy before he was even born. And by the end he has found a sort of contentment as he dies with his beloved daughter Antigone by his side. Oedipus' unforeseen reversal of fortune suggests we cannot accurately predict our future-or escape our past.


The exact nature of fate, the uncontrollable forces that influence us, is clearly shown in the role that the gods play in revealing the truth of the oracle's prophecies to Oedipus. Although he does all he can to live honestly and avoid the crimes prophesied for him, Oedipus can't escape the relentless fate that pursues him. Creon tries to manipulate fate in his favor, but he fails. Inevitably the oracle's prophecies are fulfilled.


Oedipus' downfall symbolizes the spiritual bankruptcy of the state. Sophocles meant this to pertain not just to the Thebes of the play, but also to his contemporary Athens. The plague that begins the play is viewed as a punishment from the gods, and only when the sins of Oedipus have been punished and purged is Thebes restored-for a time-to spiritual harmony. The loss of the city's spiritual faith is seen in Oedipus' denial of Teiresias' power to predict the future, and in Iocaste's refusal to believe in the ability of prophets to speak for the gods.


Oedipus and Creon share the same tragic flaw. They refuse to compromise or to humble themselves before others. They stubbornly refuse other characters the right to express opinions different from their own, and they abuse their power to force others to accept their points of view. Oedipus is so arrogant and self-confident that he even challenges the will of the gods. This leads directly to his downfall, and he is harshly punished.


All the characters in the plays search for a final truth of some kind to guide their lives. The most obvious search for truth is Oedipus', but even the minor characters are looking for answers to the meaning of life. The herdsman, for example, has waited many years to reveal the truth of Laios' murder, and is finally given the chance to tell his story when Oedipus summons him to Thebes. Even Iocaste is given the opportunity to discover the truth of Oedipus' early years before he became king of Thebes. The Chorus, too, is searching for a truth-the moral lesson to be learned from Oedipus' tragedy. Teiresias alone stands as a figure who can see truths hidden from all but the gods.


Several characters are willing to sacrifice themselves to save Thebes from destruction or for what they believe is right and just. Creon, for example, is ready to die in order to save the city. Teiresias offers to have himself killed when Oedipus suspects him of betraying the trust of the sacred city of Delphi. Iocaste hangs herself to save her honor. Oedipus blinds himself for murdering his father and marrying his mother, but will not die until he has paid for his sins, to save the city. Antigone dies because she insists on giving her brother Polyneices a proper burial.


Another theme is that suffering leads to wisdom and self-knowledge. Although the ways of the gods are sometimes harsh and cruel, Oedipus finally recognizes and accepts the oracle's prophecy as it was predicted at his birth. You hear the wisdom he gained from his suffering when he prays to the gods for forgiveness and humbly asks for mercy at the conclusion of Oedipus the King.

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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