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The Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus…

The Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus (edition 1984)

by Sophocles (Translated by Robert Fagles), Robert Fagles (Translator), Bernard Knox (Introduction)

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Title:The Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus
Authors:Sophocles (Translated by Robert Fagles)
Other authors:Robert Fagles (Translator), Bernard Knox (Introduction)
Info:Penguin Classics (2000), Edition: 1st, Paperback, 430 pages
Collections:Read but unowned
Tags:Play, Historical Texts, Mythology

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Antigone / Oedipus at Colonus / Oedipus Rex by Sophocles


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42. Sophocles I : Oedipus The King; Oedipus at Colonus; Antigone (The Complete Greek Tragedies)
published: 1954 (my copy is a 33rd printing from 1989)
format: 206 page Paperback
acquired: May 30 from a Half-Price Books
read: July 3-4
rating: 4½

Each play had a different translator

Oedipus The King (circa 429 bce) - translated by David Grene c1942
Oedipus at Colonus (written by 406 bce, performed 401 bce) - translated by Robert Fitzgerald c1941
Antigone (by 441 bce) - translated by Elizabeth Wyckoff c1954

Greek tragedy can fun. After all those rigid Aeschylus plays, that is the lesson of Sophocles. The drama within the dialogue is always dynamic, and sometimes really terrific. I had to really get in the mood to enjoy reading a play by Aeschylus, otherwise I might be bored by the long dull choral dialogues. These three plays are all different and all from different points in Sophocles career, but they each drew me on their own.

Although they are all on the same story line, they were not written together, or in story order. Antigone was first, and was written when Sophocles was still trying to make a name for himself (vs Aeschylus). Oedipus the King came next, when Sophocles was well established. Oedipus at Colonus was apparently written just before Sophocles death, at about age 90. It wasn't performed until several years after his death. All this seems to show in the plays. Antigone having the sense of an author trying to make a striking impression. [Oedipus the King] carrying the sense of a master playwright with it's dramatic set ups. Oedipus at Colonus is slower, and more reflective. And two of the main characters are elderly.

Oedipus the King

This is simply a striking play, from the opening lines. In line 8, Oedipus characterizes himself to children suppliants as "I Oedipus who all men call the Great." It shows his confidence, but, as Thebes is in the midst of a suffering famine, it also shows outrageous arrogance - it's the only clear sing of this in the play. He is otherwise a noble character throughout. Of course he doesn't know what's coming. In the course of the play he will learn, slowly, his own tragic story - that a man he had killed in a highway fight was his father, and that his wife, and mother of his four children is also his own mother. As each person resists giving him yet another dreadful piece of information, he gets angry at them, threatening them in disbelief at their hesitancy. His denial lasts longer than that of Jocasta, his mother/wife, who leaves the play in dramatic fashion herself, first trying to stop the information flow, and then giving Oedipus a cryptic goodbye. And even as his awareness gets worse and worse, he cannot step out of character, the show-off i-do-everything-right ruler, but must continue to pursue the truth to it bitter fullness.

Oedipus at Colonus

A mature play in many ways. It's slow, thoughtful, has much ambiguity, and has many touching moments. The opening scene is memorable, where a blind Oedipus moves through the wilderness only with the close guidance of his daughter, Antigone.


Who will be kind to Oedipus this evening
And give the wanderer charity?

Though he ask little and receive still less,
It is sufficient:

                                          ​Suffering and time,
Vast time, have been instructors in contentment,
Which kingliness teaches too.

                                          ​But now, child,
If you can see a place we might rest,


It's interesting to see Creon, Jocasta's brother, turn bad. But it's more interesting to see Oedipus have a bitter side to him. He maintains his noble character, and that is the point of the play—he is hero because he never did anything bad intentionally, and yet he bears full punishment. But he also makes some interesting calls, essentially setting up a future war between his Thebes and Athens. And, Antigone is striking too. She saves Oedipus critically several times through her advice or her speech. While sacrificing herself and maintaining real affection for Oedipus, she is also shrewd, stepping forward boldly and changing the atmosphere.


This play takes place immediately after what [[Aeschylus]] covered in [Seven Against Thebes]. Polyneices has attacked Thebes with his Argive army, and been repulsed by his brother Eteocles. Both are sons of Oedipus and they have killed each other in the battle. Creon is now ruler. He is a stiff ruler. Despite much warning, he refuses to listen to popular opinion, instead threatening it to silence (a clear political point is being made). But the problems start when he refuses to give his attacker Polyneices a proper burial. He threatens death on anyone who does try to bury him. Antigone openly defies this rule, setting up the play's drama. It's an extreme tragedy with a hamlet-like ending where practically everyone dies. I felt there was less here than in the other two plays, but yet there is still a lot. And it's still fun.


I don't imagine citizens of Thebes liked these plays. There is an unspoken sense of noble Athen poking fun its neighbor throughout. But, as it's not Athens, they give the playwright freedom to work in otherwise dangerous political points - and those are clearly there. But, mostly, these were fun plays. They don't need to be read as a trilogy. They were not meant that way, despite the plot-consistency. Each is independent. There are four more plays by Sophocles. I'm actually going to save them and start Euripides next. Because I think Sophocles is something to look forward to and that might push me through the next bunch. ( )
1 vote dchaikin | Jul 5, 2016 |
  CPI | May 2, 2016 |
A few years ago I had read the Storrs translation of these plays (the one most commonly found in the free public domain ebook editions) which were disappointingly poor. This translation by Robert Fagles is much much better!!

I cannot speak to the introductory material, as I skipped that part but there was a substantial amount of it. ( )
  leslie.98 | May 2, 2016 |
I discovered the work of Robert Fagles a few years ago, when deciding which translation of the Iliad to read. Then I read his translation of the Odyssey. And now I have completed his translation of three plays by Sophocles. I am so hooked.

The story of Oedipus has a such a rich cultural history, and this text is a great introduction to the story. As Bernard Knox's beautiful introduction explains, Sophocles was working from a well-known mythological archetype -- his audience knew the basics of the story, and it was his job as a playwright to sculpt the drama in new and engaging ways. This was especially interesting to me as I read this book at the time of the release of 'Batman v Superman', and was amused that many people in my social circles explained the victories and failures of the film in reference to their preexisting understanding of the 'true' stories' canons and precedents. All this is to say, visiting Sophocles world is in many ways not much unlike the engaging with the archetypes of today. ( )
1 vote jamesshelley | Apr 6, 2016 |
There's something rotten in the city-state of Thebes.

I read this "trilogy" of plays over several years from the end of high school to the end of university. I studied "Antigone" in Grade 12, then "Oedipus the King" as part of a classics English course and "Oedipus at Colonus" as part of a Philosophy and Literature course. I have always employed the story of "Oedipus the King" and some of Aristotle's commentary on it as part of my teaching about Shakespearean tragedy.

So, I was delighted to learn that Fullhouse Productions is presenting this favourite of mine next May in Hamilton, New Zealand
(https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Fullhouse-Productions/229418790406995. It's given me a great excuse to re-read this brilliant play, a prototype for so many features of Shakespeare's tragedies.

Although the audience already knows the back-story, it reads like a tremendous mystery as Oedipus relentlessly seeks to solve the problem presented by Cadmus and the oracle. Even on the page, the drama plays tersely yet with great suspense and I really felt for Oedipus and his family as they discover the truth of his origins and Laius' death.

I loved seeing figures and situations that are so familiar from Shakespeare's dramas: the initial corrupt nature of Thebes like that of Hamlet's Denmark; blind Oedipus appearing on stage like blind Gloucester; Oedipus and Jocasta unknowingly living a life like Claudius and Gertrude; Oedipus rejecting Cadmus like Lear rejecting Kent.

Of course, Sophocles' masterpiece is more than a prototype - it is a complete play in itself and I look forward to seeing it performed next year.

Antony Millen is the author of "Redeeming Brother Murrihy: The River To Hiruharama"
[b:Redeeming Brother Murrihy: The River To Hiruharama|18067949|Redeeming Brother Murrihy The River To Hiruharama|Antony Millen|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1370951913s/18067949.jpg|25269951] ( )
This review has been flagged by multiple users as abuse of the terms of service and is no longer displayed (show).
  Antony_Millen | Jul 7, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (294 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sophoclesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Banks, Theodore HowardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fagles, RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fitzgerald, RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grene, DavidTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grene, DavidEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Knox, BernardNotessecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lattimore, RichmondEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roche, PaulTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Watling, E. F.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wyckoff, ElizabethTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0140444254, Paperback)

Aristotle called "Oedipus The King," the second-written of the three Theban plays written by Sophocles, the masterpiece of the whole of Greek theater. Today, nearly 2,500 years after Sophocles wrote, scholars and audiences still consider it one of the most powerful dramatic works ever made. Freud sure did. The three plays--"Antigone," "Oedipus the King," and "Oedipus at Colonus"--are not strictly a trilogy, but all are based on the Theban myths that were old even in Sophocles' time. This particular edition was rendered by Robert Fagles, perhaps the best translator of the Greek classics into English.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:26 -0400)

(see all 9 descriptions)

Aristotle called "Oedipus The King," the second-written of the three Theban plays written by Sophocles, the masterpiece of the whole of Greek theater. Today, nearly 2,500 years after Sophocles wrote, scholars and audiences still consider it one of the most powerful dramatic works ever made. Freud sure did. The three plays--"Antigone," "Oedipus the King," and "Oedipus at Colonus"--Are not strictly a trilogy, but all are based on the Theban myths that were old even in Sophocles' time. This particular edition was rendered by Robert Fagles, perhaps the best translator of the Greek classics into English.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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