Philosophy Week 3: Sophocles – Oedipus the King / Antigone

Two of the most cogent themes throughout literature involve happiness and tragedy. These can each be used in a wide range of scenarios. To many people, each of these words can have a different meaning. However, everybody has a sense of what these words mean and understands that they have a different perspective on a binary, and one cannot remain happy and tragic at the same time. Shakespeare has many instances of both tragedy and happiness. Whether we discuss Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, we see a series of plays that end tragically. 

These dramas capture either tragedy or happiness, but it may be possible to live through tragedy and humour and happiness in life simultaneously. One of the most profound and fundamental aspects of human life is that tragedy can contribute to even the happiest of lives. In the two tragedies discussed this week, we see the stories of people who are royalty, and that should be on top of the world. Yet, as Sophocles demonstrates in this series of stories about a Royal family, the choice between alternatives can have us left in a position between a rock and a hard place where neither alternative will work out well.  

Despite not having a good choice, and maybe a necessity to choose between bad alternatives. In this, either the choices made will by choosing not to make a choice, a choice is forced. Moreover, this brings up the question of whether we can escape fate. Can individuals make choices, or are we truly windblown kites without options and following the will of the Fates? In both Oedipus and Antigone, the protagonists choose a path that leads to predestined fate and cannot be escaped. Once the choices have been made, the consequences of the choice become inevitable. 

If these individuals are not free to make a choice, to choose, can we not say that the catastrophe befalling them and others around them is not their fault or of their volition? In this, can we hold anyone to account or are they merely instruments of destiny? Every person has at some time experienced defeat. This bitter feeling may have resulted from seemingly having no alternative that is not equally bad, the frying pan or the fire. It may also be a consequence of earlier choices that each of us have made. This string of events that we see in both the stories of Oedipus and Antigone are ones that all people can empathise with and see in our own lives and the lives of those we are associated with. 


Sophocles lived between around 495 to his death in 406 B.C.E. Sophocles is a contemporary of Socrates (469 – 399 B.C.E) and was already a mature man when Socrates was born. On the other hand, he was already old when Plato was born (428 B.C.E). In Plato’s Republic, a text we covered in week two, Sophocles is mentioned in Book 1. Cephalus refers to him as “the aged poet Sophocles” in this work. 

As with Socrates, this poet’s life coincides with the ebb and flow of the power of Athens. His birth was shortly before the victory of the Spartans at Marathon against the Persian army (490 B.C.E). But, unlike Socrates, he died just prior to the Peloponnesian War and the ensuing disaster that struck his city (404 B.C.E). The disaster that Thucydides () noted in this war led to the collapse of the Athenian Empire and the end of the golden age. Through this age, the works of playwrights, artists and luminaries such as Sophocles developed and delivered the achievements that made the Athenian Golden age more than an age of Bronze coated in gilt. 

The Athenian League was powerful during his life, and the economy was strong (Kyriazis & Zouboulakis, 2004).). This influence and enlightened exploration led to great works of art and philosophical and scientific endeavours to change the world. Pericles boasted, in respect of Athens, that “as a city, we are the school of Hellas” (Tracy, 2009). 

It is believed that Sophocles wrote around 120 plays (Sommerstein, 2003). However, most of these have been lost, and only seven of the script survive. In Athens, at the time, there was a competition for tragedies offered to the best play annually. Sophocles bested this competition 118 of the thirty-two times he entered to compete. Oedipus the King represents one of the most magnificent surviving examples of Greek tragedy. In On Poetics, Aristotle (2006) references this work repeatedly. Antigone was considered so remarkable that Sophocles was elected general in 440 (Crane, 1989, p. 109). As Goheen (2017) demonstrates, the poetic imagery in Antigone captures the master themes and tropes. 

Oedipus the King 

Sophocles’ play, Oedipus the King, is the longest play by Sophocles that survives. This tragedy may be shorter than many more contemporary theatre works, including Othello, Faust and Hamlet, which I’ve mentioned a few times, but equally delivers an incredibly in-depth message in a compact form. The economy of this play and the efficiency only add to its strength and power. Importantly, there is nothing superfluous or out of place; the play is aesthetically elegant in form. The lines of the actors all work towards the delivery in conclusion that the author sought to imbue upon his audience. 

The play is complete and not as bloated or overbuilt as some modern players have been. Because of this, it can be a challenge to isolate individual components of the play and separate these from either the plot or the theme and dissect individual aspects of the dialogue to isolate what the author was saying. The challenge results from listening to the play or watching it but rather analysing individual components and removing them from the resulting complexity. 

There are three separate forms of action throughout the play. In watching these, it is essential to review them in their correct order, or it becomes possible to lose track of many aspects of the plot. First, in delivering the dialogue, Sophocles recounts many events on stage that have occurred before the time of the play. These are told so that the audience can recount knowledge that they already will have obtained and also to aid the background of the players in the characters and put them in perspective. 

Interestingly, the events being told are often unknown to other players, including Oedipus. So while the audience is being told, the characters are being instructed to deliver a sense of understanding as if these are occurring right now on stage and that the characters are living the event. So, the recounting is not merely background but goes beyond informing the spectators and delivers a sense of immediacy. This recounting becomes one of the most crucial aspects of Sophocles tragedy and how the play is also an instruction manual. 

Oedipus is blind to the knowledge of his parents. In how the character interacts with other characters, Sophocles has Oedipus slowly have the truth unveiled before him as all of us would as we move through life and the world. This discovery of knowledge and the consequences that have occurred because of our own choices and actions are in part some of the core aspects of the tragedy and imbue the questions that the playwright is seeking to have us consider. 

Additionally, the Messenger from Corinth, both the other characters and the audience as to Polybus’ death and the method of how he received Oedipus as an infant imbues a sense of destiny. This event is reinforced through the telling of the herdsman’s tale. In this, it is confirmed that the child raised away from his family was indeed the son of Iocasta. Even the discourse of Oedipus himself creates a part of the necessary background. His intoxicated companion’s questioning in Corinth of Oedipus introduces a series of questions around Oedipus’ lineage. Prophetically, Oedipus travels to Thebes, leaving Corinth and fulfilling the prophecy. 

The stage has been set, and many actions reinforce the events in the play. The recounting of past events, how this impacts or affects the people on stage, and garnishing reactions are all part of the interwoven effect. For example, the conversations between Teiresias and Oedipus should be considered. As the blind soothsayer, Teiresias engages in conversation with Creon, his brother-in-law and Oedipus, we see the past served up before us. While, in many ways, these events seem to be designed merely to deliver Oedipus into the present on stage, they also inform the audience as to who he truly is. And from this, the audience immediately starts to understand his destiny.  

In these various engagements between the characters and the retelling of the story of how Oedipus was found and his birth, when coupled with the retelling of the prophecy, we start to see who he is and what type of man he is. As he reacts, we learn the true aspects of his personality and the types of responses we can expect him to make. Oedipus is passionate. There is a consummate passion within Oedipus that drives many of his actions. His pity for Thebes and its inhabitants and his hatred for Teiresias demonstrate some of his personality and character traits. This core of his personality is further exemplified in the scorn Oedipus holds for Creon. 

In the story, some events are both contemporaneous with the action on stage and those from the past that are implied and not shown to the audience. An example is the suicide of Iocasta. Whilst this is discussed and known, it is not demonstrated or shown, and the playwright stays away from gratuitous violence in some instances. Another example is when Oedipus mutilates himself in response to the knowledge of how he has killed his father and married and slept with his mother. 

The play spans around two decades. It covers many locations and a variety of cities throughout the Greek world. Through this, Sophocles integrates the action throughout the play delivering a sense of empathy and simultaneously immediacy spanning all of this time while containing it within around two hours. Moreover, the difficulty of displaying so many locations and scenes in one playhouse simultaneously exemplifies the playwright’s skill. If Sophocles needed to chronicle the entire life of Oedipus over the twenty years, this would hardly be possible. Rather, a selected series of events that capture the theme in the play is selected for their economy. 

The key events selected by Sophocles document how Oedipus discovers himself, lineage, and the hubris displayed by the character. In this process, Oedipus learns what type of man he truly is. He does this along with the spectators. At the start of the play, he has formed a good opinion of himself and believes himself to be a good man. In addressing the chorus of Theban elders, he expresses himself by declaring, “I, Oedipus renowned of all”. This failing is not only pride but hubris. And throughout Greek literature, hubris is traditionally punished by the gods. 

In having solved the riddle of the Sphinx, Oedipus believes himself above all other men. Because of this achievement, the Thebans chose Oedipus to be King, and he ascended to the throne. The legend and riddle of the Sphinx is a well-known one now. The question is presented as “what is four-footed in the morning, two-footed in the afternoon and three-footed in the evening?” Unfortunately, each Theban who had been presented with this riddle failed. The punishment and consequence of that failure was that the Sphinx would carry the man off to be eaten and devoured later.  

Oedipus, however, guessed the answer correctly that the riddle referred to a man. He reasoned that the child starts as an infant crawling on all fours. Then, as the individual matures, he becomes an adult who walks upright upon two legs. Finally, in age and decrepitude, an old man finds walking difficult and needs to support himself using a walking stick. When this riddle was correctly answered, the Sphinx threw herself down, dashing herself upon the rocks under the mountain where she had her lair. Oedipus has his achievement recorded by the chorus as follows: 

Dwellers in our native Thebes, behold, this is Oedipus, who knew that famed riddle and was a man most mighty; on whose fortunes what citizen did not gaze with envy? Yet, behold into what a stormy sea of dread trouble he hath come! 

Therefore, while our eyes wait to see the destined final day, we must call no one happy who is of the mortal race until he has crossed life’s border, free from pain. 

Aristotle on Tragedy 

Aristotle documented many aspects of tragedy (Adkins, 1966). We can find some of these cited in his work and tell that he has been well acquainted with the play Oedipus the King. Aristotle tells us: 

We assume that for the finest form of tragedy, the plot must not be simple but complex; further, it must imitate actions arousing fear and pity… 

Three forms of plot are to be avoided: 

  1. A good man must not be seen passing from happiness to misery, or 
  1. A bad man from misery to happiness. The first situation is not fear-inspiring or piteous but simply odious to us. The second is a most un-tragic that can be, nor should, 
  1. An extremely bad man be seen falling from happiness into misery. 

Such a story may arouse the human feeling in us, but it will not move us to either pity or fear. Pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune and fear by that of one like ourselves; so that there will be nothing either piteous or fear-inspiring in the situation. There remains then the intermediate kind of personage a man brought upon him not by advice or depravity but by some error in judgement of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity such as Oedipus, Thyestes and men of note of similar families 

Further, Aristotle also noted that: 

The plot, in fact, should be so framed that even without seeing the things take place, he who simply he is the account of them shall be filled with horror and pity at the incidents, which is just the effect that the mere recital of the story of Oedipus would have on one. 

While Aristotle expressly notes Oedipus, he would have been well-versed in Antigone and likely come to many of the same conclusions (Belfiore, 1985). 


While a comparison of the two works of Sophocles does neither Justice, there are clear overlaps in the story between both Oedipus the King and Antigone. The two plays are each complete in their own right. Each play is aesthetically pleasing and delivers its individual yet separate sequence of morals and sentiments. However, Antigone does not have the same economy and unified structure displayed throughout Oedipus the King. This difference is partly because it has more complexity than the former play. 

Antigone meets all of the requirements and numerator by Aristotle concerning tragedy (Kelly, 1993). Yet, in Antigone, it is difficult to isolate the protagonist, with both Antigone and Creon presented as tragic heroes in their own right. Each is Regal and of noble birth, and each character has a seriously flawed aspect to their persona. Antigone is similar to her father in exhibiting a single-mindedness and focus on achieving a goal than a purpose that becomes what may only be called stubbornness. There is simultaneously aspects of the character that are admirable and dangerous, being beneficial and threatening to the individual holding them. In this way, the vices and virtues of the character can both aid them if they are wielded correctly.  

In the play, the chorus describes Antigone as a “passionate child of passionate sire” and notes she “knows not how to bend before troubles”. This passion expresses itself both in her devotion to duty and her scorn for a sister. Antigone sister Ismene is explored in a paper by myself presented with this week’s study. As is documented in the additional study material, Ismene can be seen as having a softer temperament and will act more judiciously throughout the play. The character of Ismene is in itself able to be debated further. As the other paper notes, many authors have taken a different perspective on her character traits. 

In Antigone’s view, the duty to her brother involves bearing his body. While she is not allowed to bury Polyneices due to a proscription against this act, she believes it is essential, and the gods require it. Polyneices was killed in a war against Thebes. Eteocles is the brother of both Polyneices and Antigone. Their uncle is Creon, who is the King of Thebes. Creon has forbidden the burial of Polyneices declaring him a traitor. Because he is a traitor, the act of giving him an honourable burial as Eteocles received is forbidden. 

Antigone is stubborn and appeals to divine law, saying that Creon is wrong and that his edict should not be applied. Creon is not acting against the law in this matter. His relative, Polyneices, acted against Thebes. Polyneices tried to sack the city and attacked the place of his birth. In this, Creon applies the law equally even to those related to him, something we take for granted under the rule of law today. So, Antigone is herself transgressing the law in bearing her brother. She argues that the law is unjust, and the gods disapprove of it. But remember, last week we covered Plato and his work Crito. 

To Socrates, the laws of the country you live in must be obeyed where you are a citizen. Socrates notes that innate obligation and every citizen can oppose the law as he did in court; they need to remember that it is binding on them as a citizen. There is a long speech within the play where the chorus actively praises man in his works; “wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man… When he honours the laws of the land … Proudly stands his city no city has he who for his rashness dwells with sin”. In this, we see that laws in any society must be obeyed. Yet, it is also possible to stand against unjust laws, but whether it is better to do so openly or in defiance? 

Creon is unlike Oedipus and Antigone in several ways. Most importantly, he has realised that he has created a problem and acted incorrectly. Once he realises this, he tries to fix what he has done. However, even at this point, his action is far too late, and at the end of the tragedy, we see a complete work that is just as dire as we see in Oedipus the King

The Crisis of Oedipus 

According to Aristotle, tragedy must inspire both a sense of pity and fear and trepidation. In On Poetics, Aristotle produces a commentary concerning the two sections of the plot that tend to inspire emotion. Firstly, the protagonist having a reversal of fortune and going from wealth or fame or maybe prosperity and then towards suffering and loss is something that most people know and understand. Secondly, there is the path of discovery. When the protagonist discovers an important part of themselves that relates to the individual changing in character or produces the changes caused, we see the sense of enlightenment that can be viewed upon the audience. 

The simultaneous interaction of both the aspect of reversal of fortune and the discovery of character are connected, and Aristotle notes that “the finest form of discovery is one attended by Peripeties [reversals] like that which goes with the discovery in Oedipus” (Lyytikäinen, 2012). In the simultaneous change of fortune and the awakening to new knowledge, Oedipus represents the pinnacle of tragedy. 

The Fates and Misfortune 

There is an underlying aspect to tragedy based on the inability to choose. By creating a prophesied event, the protagonist in the tragedy seems to be set up such that they will always be destined to an end, not of their choosing. In a way, this can be problematic and undermine the concept of human agency. Moreover, some would argue that removing choice removes the ability for the protagonist to interact (Miller, 1999) validly. If a choice does not exist, it could be argued that the level of moral and ethical if the actions taken by Oedipus cannot be avoided, how can responsibility be justified? Should punishment and Justice be considered valid responses if there is no responsibility? 

We need to consider what Oedipus was truly destined to do in questioning this. The Oracle noted that Oedipus would murder his father and marry and sleep with his mother. However, the place start after these events have occurred. As each predestined event has already been fulfilled, it could be argued that all the events in the play and due to choice and human agency. If the events have already occurred, the question is whether any further choice can exist. Looking back to week two, we need to ask now the earlier question presented from Hamlet of whether human agency could have been involved. 

Moreover, we need to consider whether other alternatives are worth exploring. For example, if Oedipus had not followed up on the murderer of Laius, the predestined consequences of the dire events may not have occurred. Yet, in considering whether Oedipus should not have investigated the murder, are we not questioning whether he should forgo virtue? The Oracle had stated that the murderer needed to be found if the plague ravaging Thebes was to be removed. As King of Thebes, it is easily arguable that it is Oedipus’s duty to ensure that the enquiry into a murder is conducted, especially when it impacts the health and prosperity of his kingdom. In this, it can be seen that there are multiple options with either fate being a causal agency or that there is something as another necessity that drives the protagonist to their destined end. 

To Be a Not to Be, Are Alternative Choices Possible? 

Oedipus, Antigone, Pericles, Hamlet are all famous yet doomed. In an analysis by McIvor (2012), there is an analysis of the democratic aspects of mourning. In these plays and even King Lear, we see classic examples of tragedy that hold contemporary relevance. As Harvey (1977) notes, the decision by Hamlet not killing Claudius while praying mirrors some of the aspects of Orestes and Antigone. While this loyalty of Antigone to the dead differs from Hamlet’s inability to kill his uncle while in prayer, each represents a perspective of human law versus divine law. This can be interpreted as a response to religion or rejection of the same (Harrison, 1977). 

The inability of a seer to see and hence to be unseeing is not new to Sophocles. In placing Teiresias in a traditional role, Sophocles uses a standard trope enabling the contrast to Oedipus. At first, Oedipus has sight and can seemingly see but is blind to the fate that befalls him. Yet conversely, Teiresias is blind to the world yet sees the fate that is about to happen. There is an open question at the end of the play. In blinding himself, does Oedipus now see? 

In Antigone, the Oracle is not mentioned. As such, can we argue that Antigone maintained alternative courses of action and failed to act on them? In this play, the choices open to Antigone would seem to be between disobedience to the laws of her country or disobedience to what she sees as natural and divine law. In this, the question is whether it is possible to choose and, if so, what must be chosen. It is always possible that we will come up against difficult choices throughout life, including between evils and lesser evils. Neither option would seem to be a good choice. 

Such a choice could even be associated with war or in political circles with actions that could cause innocent individuals to die. In investigating such a question, we need to ask whether this means that it will always be that we must live a life that is not wholly good. Alternatively, in a Machiavellian (Masters, 1996) sense, it is possible to do evil or make wrong choices to seek a good outcome? 

Creating and Upholding Justice 

The question that can be posed is to ask who is more just, Antigone or Creon? As Antigone responds to Creon when he asks, “and thou didst indeed dare to transgress that law?” 

Antigone: yes for it was not Zeus that had published me that edict not such are the laws set amongst men by the Justice who dwells with the gods below nor deemed that your decrees were of such force that mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven stop for their life is not of today or yesterday but from all time. No man knows when they were first put forth. 

Not through dread of any human pride could I answer to the gods for breaking these. Die I must – I knew that well (how could I not?) – Even without the mandates. But if I am to die before my time, I count that a gain: for when anyone lives as I do from past about with evils can such a one find and ought but gain in death? 

The consequences that we must question and decide what constitutes justice. Each individual will have their own ideas, but equally, underlying aspects of justice tie the concept together. 

Is There Pleasure and Tragedy And What Is Tragedy? 

There is a paradox and tragedy. Watching the tragic events that befall others makes it possible to gain pleasure. Yet, this does not need to represent a sadistic representation of humanity, but rather we see the possibility of enjoying being frightened and taught a lesson. In the same vein as watching horror movies, people can enjoy the tragedy of others even when they know it’s true. Aristotle, however, says the tragedy should lead to a sense of fear and pity in the audience. Thus, why does something tragic and demonstrating a great evil befalling another create pleasure? While this is a pleasure, it is not something such as eating good food or feeling a pleasant breeze. 

What is the Fascination for A Tragic Hero 

There have been many tragedies throughout the ages. These have been displayed in plays or movies, and the heroes are quite commonly not royalty but ordinary people. In considering tragedy, we also need to think about whether tragic heroes differ when the magnitude of their role in society changes and whether those tragedies associated with royalty and demigods who come to a tragic end can compare to tragedies of the common person. Looking at many Greek plays and later plays in Shakespearean England, we need to look at why the protagonist has been selected and consider the different fascination and desire that we find in the downfall of a great hero versus the downfall of a common individual.  

As we consider this, we need to think about what Aristotle said regarding how the tragedy should evoke both fear and trepidation and pity within the audience. Can the viewer identify with royalty, or is the ability to understand the tragedy against a commoner more likely to aid the spectator in identifying themselves and feeling pity and fear? 

In the work on Crito, Plato’s representation of Socrates’death can only be considered as a tragedy. But the question remains is death always a tragedy? Additionally, can we consider the death suffered by Oedipus is worse than another? For example, is the death of a child or baby comparable to the death of an old man? Moreover, is the death of a hero saving the lives of others in itself tragic? From this, we can also consider alternatives such as the loss of Fortune, dignity or friends. Can we even ask whether these are more or less tragic than death, or can there be something worse? When considering these questions, it is wise to also consider the work by Aristotle in his Poetics in the discussion of tragedy and life against tragic poetry and to remember that Aristotle was discussing poetry (Rorty, 1991). 

Questions and Reflections 

In order to best understand and comprehend the work, we must question it and think about our understanding by challenging ourselves. Through this, we can learn how to question our own comprehension and whether we have been thorough in understanding what we have read. 

  • Teiresias answers a question about the person who killed  Laius posed by Oedipus. Why? 
  • What defence is presented by Creon against the charges brought by Oedipus? 
  • Describe the deaths of Haemon and Antigone. 
  • In Antigone detail whether or not Creon takes the advice of Teiresias. 
  • Describe the actions of Ismene and Antigone and whether Ismene condones her sister’s actions. 
  • A Corinthian messenger received Oedipus when he was a child. How and why? 
  • Oedipus has a dread of marrying his mother because of the prophecy. What does a Iocasta do to assuage this feeling? 


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Lyytikäinen, P. (2012). Iterative Narration and Other Forms of Resistance to Peripeties in Modernist Writing. Turning Points: Concepts and Narratives of Change in Literature and Other Media, 33, 73.  

Masters, R. D. (1996). Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the science of power. University of Notre Dame Pess. 

McIvor, D. (2012). Antigone, Pericles, Orestes: Ambivalence and the Democratic Politics of Mourning. In APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper. 

Miller, E. P. (1999). Harnessing Dionysos: Nietzsche on rhythm, time, and restraint. Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 1-32.  

Rorty, A. O. (1991). The psychology of Aristotelian tragedy. Midwest Studies In Philosophy, 16, 53-72. 

Sommerstein, A. H. (2003). Greek drama and dramatists. Routledge. 

Tracy, S. V. (2009). Pericles: a sourcebook and reader. University of California Press. 

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