It is a commonplace that the dramas of the ancient Greeks display an historical progression, away from society living under the thrall of the gods and toward a society of free-thinking men. An early shadow of the European Enlightenment, if you will. Sophocles, for example, is the playwright who demonstrates a hero openly defying the will of the gods. I have been reading Sophocles all weekend, and I am here to tell you that this defiance of the gods is not to be found within the text of Sophocles' plays.
But if a man conducts himselfSophocles consistently states the goodness of the gods, openly shows his respectful attitude toward his religion and gives us characters who sincerely appeal to the gods for help, all of this without the least drop of irony. The people of the Theban plays are not shown to be misguided in seeking the aid of the gods, nor does anyone blame the gods for the fate of man. Sophocles was a fatalist, like all ancient Greeks, to be sure. The Enlightenment attempts to teach us moderns to not be fatalists, and so we read Sophocles as if he were an Enlightenment thinker, but he was not. The drama of Sophocles' plays is varied and centered on humans rather than gods, but that, I think, can be explained as a development of the art of dramatic writing and not a reflection of a grand social movement going on in Athens in the fifth century B.C.
disdainfully in what he says and does,
and manifests no fear of righteousness,
no reverence for the statues of the gods,
may miserable fate seize such a man
for his disastrous arrogance,
if he does not behave with justice
when he strives to benefit himself,
appropriates all things impiously,
and, like a fool, profanes the sacred.
What man is there who does such things
who can still claim he will ward off
the arrow of the gods aimed at his heart?
If such actions are considered worthy,
why should we dance to honour god?
In "Oedipus Rex," the drama is twofold:
1. A man who believes in his own superiority learns that upon close examination he is something he despises, and this knowledge is so great that he literally cannot look upon the sullied world he himself has inadvertently created in Thebes, so he blinds himself.
2. A man's tragic fate is foretold and made known to him, and so he goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid that fate, failing of course, because his fate is set. As Aeschylus says in "Prometheus Bound," fate is inescapable even for Zeus. The heroism of Oedipus is his striving to overcome his fate; the tragedy is that he will fail, like each of us.
Oedipus relies on and puts full faith in the oracles. He seeks the help of the gods, he invokes Zeus when he places a curse upon the murderer of Laius, and is in all ways a faithful servant of the gods, even as he is being driven to exile at the end of the play.
OEDIPUSIn "Oedipus at Colonus," Oedipus is (as is the entire world of the play) even more reverent, making all due fuss at the sacred grove of the Eumenides, praying with a pure heart to Zeus, giving credence to the oracles, etc.
Will you then be making a request
on my behalf when I am so depraved?
I will. For even you must now trust in the gods.
Yes, I do.
O pay not a lip service to the godsAt the end of the play, Zeus himself calls out to Oedipus to come home, and Oedipus is carried to the underworld by the hands of the god himself. Oedipus is a true and faithful servant of Zeus, and the dramatic conflict with the boys back in Thebes has to do with the sons of Oedipus showing too little reverence for the will of the gods. Sophocles was not a revolutionary.
And wrong them of their dues. Bethink ye well,
The eye of Heaven beholds the just of men,
And the unjust, nor ever in this world
Has one sole godless sinner found escape.
Stand then on Heaven's side
My somewhat scattershot survey of the literature surrounding the Theban plays makes it clear that there is no real consensus about the meaning of these (or any of the ancient Greek) plays, which is pleasing, because they are sophisticated dramatic machines that move in more than one direction at once. But still, as I come to the plays merely to see what's in them, I am not finding what I was told I'd find. Which is excellent, because the plays, every one of them that I've read of late, are so much better than I thought they'd be, so much more alien, so much more alive and kicking.