The Ancient Greeks: Oedipus and his family
The Athenian tragedians of the 5th century BCE – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – wrote superb dramas about:
- the fates of King Oedipus of Thebes (the man who killed his father and married his mother, Jocasta) and his children, Antigone, Eteocles, Ismene and Polynices (Polyneices).
- the dynastic rivalry between the two sons, leading up to a disastrous war
- the unsuccessful attempts by their mother and sisters to reconcile the two brothers
- the intervention of the Athenian hero, Theseus, to ensure the decent burial of the warriors fallen in the war – at the earnest request of their grieving womenfolk.
In these plays, women are victims of strife and war – the ones who mourn openly, and the ones who insist upon the performance of the proper funeral rites for their menfolk.
In The Seven Against Thebes of Aeschylus, seven warriors (Polynices and his allies) arrive from Argos and lay siege to the city. The city is saved, but both Eteocles (current ruler of Thebes) and his exiled brother Polynices are killed.
Sophocles wrote three plays about the fate of Thebes and Oedipus and his family. Oedipus the King is perhaps the best known. Oedipus shows his determination to discover the truth about his history. By the time of Oedipus at Colonus, the war between Polynices and Eteocles is about to begin: both sides ask Oedipus for his support – he refuses. Antigone deals with the aftermath of the war. The besiegers’ corpses have been left unburied outside Thebes, on the orders of Creon, now the sole ruler, in contravention of religious law. Antigone defies Creon and (symbolically rather than thoroughly) covers the corpse of Polynices with soil. Antigone and Creon debate the conflict between a man-made law and a higher law.
In the Phoenician Women of Euripides, Jocasta tries to reconcile the two brothers (her sons) but fails. The war commences. In the end, the two brothers fight a duel and kill each other. Jocasta kills herself in grief. Creon (now the ruler) expels Oedipus from the city – Antigone goes with him. The body of Polynices remains unburied.
In the Suppliants of Euripides, set outside Thebes, after the war, the mothers of the fallen besiegers (abetted by their sons), Adrastus (King of Argos), and Theseus’s own mother, all beg Theseus to overcome Creon’s decree and to arrange the burial of the exposed warriors. When negotiations with Creon fail, Theseus launches a successful attack, and the mourners’ wishes are fulfilled.
Later adaptations – Latin
In the 1st century CE, Seneca writes the tragedies, Oedipus, based on Sophocles’s model, and Phoenissae, based on the two plays by Euripides mentioned above.
Later in the 1st century CE, Statius wrote his epic, the Thebaid, influenced by Greek and Latin models. Here, in contrast with the Greek plays, the conflict between Oedipus’s sons is inflamed by the direct intervention of supernatural figures – gods, a fury from hell, and the ghost of Oedipus’s own father. Indeed, both sons of Oedipus, and their allies, are doomed, as Jupiter himself makes plain:
manet haec ab origine mundi
fixa dies bello, populique in proelia nati. [Book III, lines 242f]
[This day has remained fixed for war, since the beginning of the world, and the peoples born for battles.]
The plot of the epic follows the thread of the Greek tradition, outlined above (points 1-4) – much elaborated, with vivid description of vehement speeches and violent acts. No gruesome, revolting aspect is spared the reader. (One incident – Tydeus’s gnawing the head of Melanippus [Book VIII] – is mentioned by Dante in Inferno, Canto XXXII.)
The aftermath of the war between the brothers is covered in Book XII. Here, Argia, widow of Poynices, and Antigone, his sister, meet on the battlefield, where the fallen warriors’ corpses still lie. The women now prepare the body of Polynices for his funeral – but when they place it on the still smouldering pyre of Eteocles, the latter’s body rejects it, to the extent that two separate fires break out from the pyre. The other widows go to Athens and plead with Theseus for help. Theseus accedes to their request, attacks Thebes, and kills Creon. The exposed corpses have their funeral.
The characters act as if they are exercising free will, but in fact they are following their destiny.
(Statius appears in Dante’s Purgatorio, Cantos XXI and XXII. Statius is ranked by Chaucer with Virgil, Ovid, Homer and Lucan, in Troilus and Criseyde, Book V; and he is listed among many great poets, in The House of Fame, Book III.)
Later adaptations – Western Europe
It was Latin literature, rather than Greek, that influenced the European vernacular literatures of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
The anonymous 12th century Old French epic, Le Roman de Thèbes, is based on the Thebaid, but it is much influenced by contemporary methods of warfare and the Crusades.
Il Teseida delle Nozze d’Emilia (the Story of Theseus and the Nuptials of Emilia) by Giovanni Boccaccio (14th century) shows the influence of Virgil’s Aeneid and Statius’s Thebaid. Here, Book I deals with the war of Teseo (Theseus) against the Amazons and his marriage to their queen, Ipolita (Hippolyta); Book II deals with Theseus’s war against the Thebans, to ensure the burial of warriors killed in the Theban civil war, at the request of their widows. (Compare Book XII of the Thebaid.)
Then there is a change of emphasis. Books III-XII cover the rivalry between the Theban cousins Palemone and Arcita over the beautiful Emilia, sister of Ipolita. The young cousins are Boccaccio’s creation. They fight over a lady rather than a city.
Pagan gods reappear: Arcita is depicted as a protégé of the god Mars, Palamone of the goddess Venus, and Emilia of the virgin goddess Diana.
To resolve the dispute, Teseo arranges a combat between Arcita and Palamone. The result is unexpected: it has features of the surprise elements or vicissitudes characteristic of romance. Behind the scenes, the gods interfere in the process. The humans have to make a “virtue of necessity”, as Teseo says:
far della necessitate
virtù, quando bisogna, è sapienza. [Book XII, stanza 11]
[To make a virtue of necessity, when the need arises, is wisdom.]
Is Il Teseida an epic or a romance or a bit of both? I think that, as regards medieval romance, the practice of chivalry can be combined with the pursuit of love (see, for example, Arthurian literature).
The Knight’s Tale (14th century) by Geoffrey Chaucer is a free adaptation of Boccaccio’s Il Teseida and is very much shorter. It concentrates on the rivalry between Palamon and Arcite, rather than the Amazonian and Theban wars.
In the Preface to his Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), John Dryden writes about what we know as The Knight’s Tale, as follows:
I prefer in our countryman, far above all his other stories, the noble poem of Palamon and Arcite, which is of the epic kind, and perhaps not much inferior to the Ilias [Iliad] or the Aeneis [Aeneid]: the story is more pleasing than either of them, the manners as perfect, the diction as poetical, the learning as deep and various, and the disposition as artful.
And indeed, Dryden includes his own somewhat free translation of The Knight’s Tale in The Fables. Dryden overstates the case, but The Knight’s Tale is magnificent – as a romance rather than an epic.
The influence of the Theban stories can be seen too, both in Anelida and Arcite (which appears unfinished) and in Troilus and Criseyde (Chaucer’s longest integrated story). The story of The Thebaid is summarized, indeed, in a passage in Book V of the latter. In Book II, Pandarus discovers Criseyde and her friends reading a book about Thebes – whether from The Thebaid or from Le Roman de Thèbes is open to interpretation. (What happened to Thebes foreshadows what will happen to Troy itself – but the Trojans fail to see this.)
In The Siege of Thebes (15th century), John Lydgate offers an addition to the Canterbury Tales in the form of a prequel to The Knight’s Tale, from the story of Oedipus to the intervention of Theseus at the end of the Theban war.
As its Prologue acknowledges, The Two Noble Kinsmen (circa 1613), by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, has as its primary source The Knight’s Tale.
In the Prologue, the playwrights express doubt as to how their own achievement measures up to Chaucer’s:
To say truth, it were an endless thing,
And too ambitious, to aspire to him.
They make a good point (see below).
(Act One resembles Euripides’s Suppliants, whether by accident or design.)
The surprise ending of the play resembles that of the source literature. The play can be classified as a tragi-comedy, as happy and unhappy outcomes are mingled. (Fletcher wrote, or co-wrote, several tragi-comedies himself.)
The play’s weaknesses are pointed out by its editors. In particular, is the cousins’ rivalry, over a lady they have barely spoken to, of much interest to the audiences and readers of today? In the Introduction to the Penguin edition (1977), N W Bawcutt states:
The theme of the main plot – two young men so equally noble that a girl cannot choose between them – is not one of the basic human situations with which an audience can readily identify itself, and presents artistic problems that the dramatists do not always overcome.
Arcite and Palamon take themselves, and their professions of love, very seriously – too seriously, perhaps. Chaucer, by comparison, shows his skill in his use of irony, which lends some distance between the narrator and his characters. (This is also the case in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, where the reader gets to know the main characters well, but also is enabled to look at them from more than one angle and thus both to feel both sympathy with them and to take a critical attitude towards them.)
Much of the play is taken up by the serious story of the (unnamed) daughter of the jailer. She falls in love with Palamon, herself. She recognises the implications of her own lowly status:
Why should I love this gentleman? ‘Tis odds
He never will affect me; I am base,
My father the mean keeper of his prison,
And he a prince. To marry him is hopeless;
To be his whore is witless. Out upon’t!
What pushes are we wenches driven to
When fifteen once has found us!
[Act II, Scene 3, lines 1-7 (Penguin edition)]
The daughter’s love is unrequited; she becomes mad or distracted, somewhat like Ophelia in Hamlet. However, she survives. She plays an important role: unlike the main characters, she is not inhibited from frankly expressing sexual desire (see above). She can be seen as more interesting and believable than the main plot characters, to present-day readers and playgoers.
Here, we have come a long way from the Greek dramas. The latter have stood the test of time. It is doubtful whether, on their own terms, they have ever been equalled, since.