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MonkeyNotes-Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles
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Notes

When Oedipus embraces his two daughters he calls them, ironically, "Ah, children .... sisters!" Ismene and Antigone are not only sisters to each other but also to Oedipus; all three of them are children of the same mother, Jocasta. When Ismene greets her father, she sheds tears of joy and pity. Bereft of sight, Oedipus can only be linked to his girls by the more intimate bonds of touching and holding each other. This moment of reunion is full of joy and pathos for both father and child. The joy is short-lived as news of the civil strife arrives and Oedipus makes his terrible curse on his two sons.

Ismene seems the more fashionable of the two sisters. She wears the sophisticated clothes that befit a lady from the Theban court and sports a Thessalian bonnet to protect her from the sun. Contrasted to her, Antigone is dressed almost in rags, covered with the dust and grime of her long wanderings with Oedipus. Yet, despite these differences, the two girls are morally and spiritually linked to each other through their common love and concern for their father. In this respect, both are sharply contrasted to their two self-centered, power-crazy brothers.

Thirty-five years earlier, Sophocles had written a play called Antigone dealing with events in the family after Oedipus' death. Antigone is there shown to be the high-spirited sister who attempts to give her brother Polyneices a proper burial; but such a burial challenges Creon's' law expressly forbidding burial to the traitor who attacked his own country. In contrast, Ismene is not obsessed with the desire for martyrdom that impels Antigone's act of defiance. She seems a normal, even demure, young lady with a desire for life and not death. The two sisters are also contrasted when Antigone takes on the more difficult task of accompanying Oedipus into exile and protecting him from the ardor of a vagrant life; Ismene, at the same time, remains in the comfort of the court, leaving only to bring Oedipus occasional news from Thebes/Delphi.


It is interesting to note how Oedipus upbraids his two sons for not coming to his defense. On the other hand, his praise for Antigone is warm as he talks of the sacrifices she has made in forsaking the comforts of court and home life while braving the pangs and miseries of an itinerant life with her blind and age-worn father. However, he also compliments Ismene for her courage in bringing him news from the oracles from time to time, while risking the ire of the Cadmeans at Thebes who have forbidden any contact with Oedipus.

Ismene's detailed account of the Theban civil war between her two brothers is both graphic and concise. It serves an expository function and brings the audience and Oedipus up-to date on the latest events in Thebes. Ismene correctly forebodes that this bitter strife between her two blood brothers is bound to prove disastrous to Thebes and add to Oedipus' woes. She instinctively fears they are doomed to shed one another's blood, a point that is reiterated a little later in the scene when Oedipus lays his terrible curse on his two sons.

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