Oedipus the King and Antigone
Oedipus the King and Antigone were not written in chronological order of events within the stories; Antigone is actually the last play. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus has fathered four children with his wife who is also his mother. Oedipus has killed his father just as it was prophesized. Oedipus is banished from the city and Creon is now the ruler. In the beginning of Antigone, it is relayed that Antigone, along with her sister Ismene, are the sole surviving children of Oedipus. Their brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, have recently been killed in a battle where they fought on opposing sides. This essay will identify the binary oppositions within the two plays. According to Corey Marvin, binary oppositions simply describe a pair of theoretical opposites or thematic contrasts” (1). Binary oppositions are prevalent throughout the play including blindness versus sight, male versus female, and ignorance versus wisdom.
Sophocles was the second of three ancient Greek tragedians whose work has survived. The most famous of Sophocles” tragedies are Oedipus and Antigone, which are known as the Theban plays. Sophocles was a, “fifth -century Athenian prided himself on the fact that he was a fully responsible and active citizen” (Knox 25). Sophocles was greatly involved in political issues within his city. As a man, Sophocles was awarded this luxury; “woman however were excluded from the operations of democracy, and were not involved in any of the acknowledged fields of cultural productions” (Blundell 97). Women were not offered the same experiences as men within that time. Antigone written around the end of the Persian war, reflects the lack of status women had in the Greek society (Knox 27). Women’s opinions did not matter, especially in political affairs. They were viewed as a man’s possession. Blundell describes the role women had within the classical age: “Women, were excluded from the operations of democracy, and were not involved in any of the acknowledge fields of cultural production” (97). Greek society did not value women; they were not included in decisions or political issues.
Another play Sophocles wrote is Oedipus the King. Sophocles story of Oedipus is parallel to the Peloponnesian War. Oedipus a strong, intelligent man is ultimately his own destroyer (Knox 131). Oedipus and the Athens are parallel in a sense they both are their own destroyer. Oedipus persistence and Athens’ greed is what ultimately destroy both. Athens lost the Peloponnesian war to the Spartans. As Knox states, “Oedipus tracks down and identifies the criminal – who turns out to be himself (131). Oedipus and Athens persistence to knowledge and persistence to conquer is their demise.
The prominent binary opposition in Oedipus the King is blindness versus sight. Blindness versus sight in the play Oedipus the King is prevalent throughout the play. As Knox points out,
The voice of destiny in the play is the Oracle of Apollo.
Through his priest at Delphi, Apollo told Laius that he would be
killed by his own son, and later told Oedipus that he would kill his
his father and marry his mother. At the beginning of the play
Apollo tells Creon that Thebes will be saved from the plague only
when the murderer of Laius is found and expelled. This Delphic
oracle, which for modern poets- Yeats, for example-can con-
jure up mystic romantic visions, was, for Sophocles and his
audience, a fact of life, an institution as present and solid
as uncompromising (and sometimes infuriating) as the Vatican is for
This is the prophecy that Oedipus was given by the oracle. The oracle in those days was equivalent to the Holy See, the governing body of the Catholic church, consisting of the Pope and the Roman Curia. The Oracle is as important as the Pope is to Catholics.
Tiresias is a blind prophet that foretells the future. Oedipus who went to visit Tiresias to seek help for his city is told the sad news; he is the murderer he seeks (413) Oedipus who can see, is unable to recognize that he himself has fulfilled the prophecy that has caused the plague within the city. Oedipus does not put together that he in fact murdered his father and married his mother. Oedipus starts to criticize Tiresias and mock his blindness: “You lost your power stone-blind stone-deaf – senses, eyes blind as stone!” (420-422) Oedipus believes that Tiresias is not a true Oracle who can see the future. Oedipus continues to insult Tiresias for his blindness calling him a fraud. (443) Tiresias responds to Oedipus, “So you mock my blindness? Let me tell you this. You wish your precious eyes, you’re blind to the corruption of your life, to the house you live in. Those you live with- who are your parents? Do you know?” (468-473) Tiresias is telling Oedipus he does not know who he is, what he has done and who he is living with. Although Tiresias is blind, he sees the truth of Oedipus’ life. Oedipus who can see is ultimately blind to the truth.
Another binary opposition is man versus woman. Antigone, one of the surviving daughters of Oedipus, is a rebellious woman. Antigone does not fit the mold of what a woman should be in those days: “Women are expected to be domestic creatures, submissive, peaceful and instruments rather than the initiators of action” (Barlow 160). Antigone is not submissive; she challenges authority. She is not an instrument, she speaks her mind, and is a woman of action. Ismene, Antigone’s sister, Ismene reminds her, “Remember we are women, we’re not born to contend with men” (74-75). Antigone has no remorse for defying the roles of women. Antigone’s brothers died in a battle against each other and only one is given a burial. Eteocles has been given full military honors (28). “Polynices, who died miserably is left unwept, unburied, a lovely treasure for birds that scan the field and feast to their heart’s content” (31-35). One brother is buried while the other is left unburied and not honored. Antigone is not happy with this and vows to give her brother Polynices a burial. Her defiance is not what a woman is expected to do. Just as the Athenian woman, Antigone has no independent existence (Blundell 114). Antigone is not of value to Creon; he describes her as, “a worthless woman for his son” (644). Antigone is just a symbol of what her husband is; she is not seen as an individual but as a possession of a man.
Men are held to be adventurous, dominant, and to be agents of action (Barlow 160). Haemon, Antigone’s husband is being told by his father, Creon, that his wife is a worthless woman. Haemon will not listen to his father and is fighting for his bride. Haemon is now viewed as a, “woman’s slave” (848) by his father Creon. Antigone and her husband Haemon do not fit the mold of what a woman and a man are in Ancient Greek society.
Ignorance versus wisdom in Oedipus the King is another recognizable binary opposition. In the beginning of the play, Oedipus is viewed as having wisdom. Oedipus is able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx. Oedipus claim, “the flight of my own intelligence hit the mark” (453), he says, as he recalls his solution of the riddle of the Sphinx.” (Knox 139) Oedipus views himself as an intelligent man who has wisdom. As the play continues Oedipus down fall is his persistence to find Laius’s murderer. Oedipus is ignorant to the fact he is the murderer. He proceeds to curse the murder, “Whoever he is, a lone man unknow in his crime or one among many, let that man drag out his life in agony.” (280) Oedipus has just cursed his self as well as his family. Creon in this play, is seen as having wisdom. Creon hints to Oedipus, “this matter should be kept under wraps, to send for Tiresias, to pronounce the curse and sentence of banishment on the murderer of Laius.” (Knox 140) Creon having the insight that Oedipus so blindly can not see is trying to advice the once intelligent king on what he should do. Oedipus learns of his ignorance when he realizes he has full filled the prophecy, “murdering his father and marring his mother.” (470-480) Tiresias may be blind but Apollo has gifted him with the power to see internally. Tiresias tells Oedipus the prophecy he foresees but Oedipus is too ignorant to listen. As Knox describes Oedipus as a persistent, courageous, and a hero of the play is thus his own destroyer. (131) Oedipus who the reader view as having wisdom is overcome by his arrogance and cockiness is essentially his own worse enemy.
As we read Antigone the binary opposition of wisdom versus ignorance is seen within Creon, Tiresias, and Haemon. Creon is depicted as ignorant, which is the opposite of how he was portrayed in the play Oedipus the King. Haemon who is Creon’s son is depicted as having wisdom. Haemon advises his father, “only the gods endow a man with reason. The finest of all their gifts, a treasure. Who ever thinks that he alone possesses intelligence the gift of eloquences, he an no one else and character too… such men, its no disgrace for a man, even a wise man to learn many things and not to be too rigid.” (765-796) Haemon is trying to tell his father Creon that it is not frowned upon to learn new things, and to admit he may have made a hasty decision and reverse it. Haemon desperately wants his father Creon to grow as a leader. Creon, a stubborn, king sees his son’s words of wisdom as a challenge of his leadership and role as a king. Creon states, “the city is the king’s—that’s the law! (825) Creon is asserting his dominance over Haemon. Haemon quickly reminds his father a king needs a city to rule. At the end of the play the King’s stubbornness and will to insert his dominance has lost his family. Creon was ignorant to think his actions would have no repercussions with his family. Although Haemon was viewed as just a boy, he had the ability to see what was best for the city giving him the wisdom as equivalent to an older man. Creon once viewed as a wise king, “shows the world that of all the ills afflicting men the worst is lack of judgement.” (123. 1371-1372) Creon’s son Haemon has committed suicide by falling unto his blade for the killing of his soon to be bride Antigone. Creon’s lack of judgement ultimately leads to the death of his son and his wife.
Oedipus the King and Antigone are two Sophocles surviving plays of the Theban sage. Binary oppositions are prevalent throughout the play including blindness versus sight, male versus female and ignorance versus wisdom. Antigone reflects male versus female role within the play. Antigone is not a typical Greek woman and rebels against the stereotype of what a woman should be. Oedipus the King highlights the binary opposition of blindness versus sight. Oedipus a man who can physically see, is blind to the destruction he has created in his life. Tiresias, who is physically blind can see the truth of Oedipus life. Antigone and Oedipus the King both contain the binary oppositions of ignorance versus wisdom. In conclusion both plays possess binary oppositions within.
Barlow, Shirley A “Stereotype and Reversal in Euripides’ Medea.” Greece & Rome, second
series, vol 36, no 2, 1989, pp. 158-171.
Blundell, Sue Women in Ancient Greece UP, 1995.
Knox Bernard. “Greece and the Theater.” The Three Theban Plays. Antigone, Oedipus the King Oedipus at Colonus. By Sophocles, translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin,1984, pp 13-30
Marvin, Corey. “Understanding Binary Oppositions in Literature”, Class handout: English 102. Cerro Coso Community College, 2018. Print.
Sophocles, Antigone The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus,
Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin,1989, pp. 59-128