Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Oedipus Cycle

I should SO be reading this article I have to review (actual due date tomorrow, but extended until Monday), but I feel a need to at least summarize before moving on to The Gravedigger's Cottage.

I'm on this kick of reading what I think are "good classics". By that, I mean those books we had to read in high school that I didn't actually read when I was in high school because I was slow or busy and could get away with not reading them and still get an A in English. Actually, most of them I didn't read because they were crappy books. I swear, I hated The Grapes of Wrath so much... flames... flames, at the side of my face...

But seriously, folks. I made this list of books I enjoyed reading, most of them are actual literature, and I decided I should own them. So I went to the Hamden Friends of the Library sale and bought most them (Catcher in the Rye, Pygmalion, Memoirs of a Geisha, Shopgirl, etc.) used for about 50 cents each. I also borrowed a couple that I hadn't read, but wanted to try (The Giver, Siddhartha). I'm always looking for more books (actual literature, not romance, scifi, or mysteries--unless it's Agatha Christie) to read, so feel free to leave some recommendations.

I read Antigone in Mr. Thompson's class and liked it. So it went on my list, and I wanted to try the other Oedipus plays as well. It actually took me a few pages to realize that I knew the plot already.

Oedipus Rex
Oedipus is the king, but there's all sorts of suckiness going on in his land (famine?), so he sends someone to ask Apollo what to do about it. (I'm thinking, yeah, good luck with that. He's going to tell you to "be a good person" or something. But apparently Greek gods are a little different from Judeo-Christian ones.) Amazingly, the god answers, "Figure out who killed the last king, Laios." Anvils drop left and right, including a blind seer's prophesy, foreshadowing the realization: Oedipus killed Laios, who was his father, and then married Laios's wife, Iocaste, who is also his mother.

What surprised me was that all this time, when I heard the story, "Oedipus killed his father and married his mother," I thought he was conscious of it the whole time. But he had no idea. He was just walking along (he heard the prophesy that he was destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother, and he was so disgusted by it that he left his adopted town in order to preclude it), and Laios comes along, threatens him, and in self-defense, Oedipus kills Laios. He had no idea that Laios was the king, let alone his father. So then he keeps going and somehow becomes king in place of Laios, and "inherits" the queen, and has lots of sex and babies. Eeww.

So when Oedipus realizes all this is true, he's so disgusted that he pokes his eyes out and exiles himself. And here's my favorite quote, spoken by Creon, former "friend" of Oedipus, future king:

Think no longer that you are in command here, but rather think how, when you were, you served your own destruction.

Oedipus at Colonus
I didn't really get this one. Oedipus is traveling along with his daughters, Antigone and Ismene, and they get to Colonus, and find a holy ground and want to camp out. The locals tell them, "Dude, this is our holy ground, get lost!" But Oedipus convinces them to let him stay and protect him, because it was really an accident that he killed his father and slept with his mother, but his sons and Creon are after him to bring him back and kill him (I think). Eventually, Oedipus is ready to die, so he takes some people with him and goes and dies, apparently he was struck by the lightning of Zeus (and this is respectable). But before he dies, he gives this soliloquy, part of which is directed to his daughters:

... one word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love. Never shall you have more from any man than you have had from me. Then he adds, And now you must spend the rest of your life without me. Thanks, Dad.

Arguably the best, and what I liked about it was the messenger. Creon gets some bad news and actually threatens to kill the messenger. Is this where that saying came from? Hah.

Well, after Oedipus dies, his sons fight over something and end up killing each other, and now Creon is king. Apparently he liked one of the sons a little better than the other, so he gives that one a hero's burial, and orders the other one to be laid out to be picked at by vultures. Antigone isn't to happy to hear this, and decides to give her black sheep brother a proper burial, even though king Creon threatens to kill anyone who does this. Antigone's sister, Ismene, is too chickenshit to help out. (We cannot fight with men, Antigone! ... I think it is dangerous business to be always meddling.)

So blah-de-blah, Antigone sortakinda buries her bro, the messenger finds the body, and tells Creon about it in a very comical scene, and Creon blows up. When he finds out that it was Antigone, he orders her buried alive, and I think he has Ismene killed for keeping the secret. (Gentlemen, I beg you to observe these girls: One has just now lost her mind; the other, it seems, has never had a mind at all.)

But then the blind seer, Teiresias, comes and warns Creon that he's being a jerk and he should let Antigone live, or else all sorts of horrible things will happen. In contrast to the last two kings, Creon decides to listen to Teiresias, and he goes to try to undo what he did. But it's too late: Antigone has hung herself in her tomb, and her lover, Creon's son, has killed himself out of love for her. Creon's pretty torn up about this, but it gets worse: when he returns home, he finds that his wife has also killed herself, because she was so mad at Creon for killing their son.

And the moral of the story is this:
There is no happiness where there is no wisdom;
No wisdom but in submission to the gods.
Big words are always punished,
And proud men in old age learn to be wise.

1 comment:

  1. E,

    I love the Oedipus Cycle -- but yeah, Oedipus at Colonus really suffers from middle-child syndrome. Have you read any Aeschylus, or Euripedes? I wish you could have been with my in my Theatre Studies class in junior college. You would have really enjoyed my teacher.

    P.S. I love your book posts. No spoilers on the Gravedigger's Cottage, please! I always leave Rumpus books till the last minute.