The Three Theban Plays: Tragedy, Tragedy, and more Tragedy!

Image courtesy of Britannica.com/biography/Sophocles

Oh, Sophocles–the man, the myth, the legend. According to my English teacher, he’s arguably one of the greatest playwrights of all time (don’t worry, Shakespeare, we haven’t forgotten you either). But personally, I kind of…yeah, okay, I have to admit it…despise plays (insert drop the mic gifs here). I mean, reading about two people yammering on in verse to one another for three hundred pages, versus being immersed in a totally epic duel between Harry Potter and Voldemort? I think the choice is obvious here, but who knows, maybe it’s just me.

So how do you get an anti-play person to read one? Answer: assign it for English homework! Now, English Honors as a freshman is pretty fun; I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying it so far. Then, well, the tables turn big time when the teacher straight up announces, “Class, we’re going to reading Oedipus Rex from Sophocles’ Three Theban Plays!”

English took a pretty big plunge down the “Favorite Classes List” after I heard that one.

I’d started dreading going to class, and all because of one dumb play. When you start enjoying Honors Algebra 2 Trig more than English, you know you’ve run into a serious problem, because I was always sort of a bookworm (where are my Percy Jackson fans at? Just checking).

Anyways, we started doing some background learning about Greek plays, especially tragedies. The Greek part interested me a little, since I’m a total mythology fan, but the Theban Plays looked pretty boring to me. I’d never read tragedies before–again, the awesome sword-fighting stuff in fiction books literally kills me, no pun intended.

So anyway, I pretty much figured out (with a considerable lack of enthusiasm, may I add) that the main characters of the play were this guy named Oedipus, who’s king of Thebes, his wife Jocasta, a blind prophet named Tiresias, Jocasta’s brother Creon, a Shepherd, a Messenger, and friends. So yep, boring.

I figured Greek tragedies, how tragic can they get? Probably a lot of death and stuff, but super tragic, as in “oh nooo, what a poor guy!” sort of thing? No way.

Ha…ha…nevermind.

I’m not really going to go into detail about what exactly makes Oedipus Rex tragic, because it’s, um, really tragic. But if you do read it, whether for fun or for school, let this be a warning that this sort of tragedy is unexpected. You might expect to feel sad or something along those lines (at least, that was what I was anticipating), but I ended up being…disgusted. Revolted. The whole, “WHAT?!” moment.

I know this is infuriating, but no, I simply cannot tell you the crux of this tragedy. If you’ve already read this particular play, good for you! We can be mildly–or highly–disturbed together! Just a side note, though: I’d only recommend this play for older readers, as the content gets pretty icky as the play goes on.

So after this whole ordeal? I actually think the Theban Plays are a pretty good read (collective gasp). I think I was too stuck up on my own definition of tragedy–the whole cliche, feeling depressed afterward, stuff like that. Nah, Oedipus Rex was more, “WHAT NO WAY DID HE JUST–NO, EW, ARGH, THAT’S NOT POSSIBLE, HOW COULD–NO, STOP RIGHT NOW!”

But anyways, Sophocles himself wrote one rollercoaster of a play, which, yes, I would like to commend him on. The use of dramatic irony, keeping the audience in suspense as Oedipus’s life unravels and chaos falls upon the city of Thebes, is incredible. And, I have to admit, interesting.

Besides, Greek tragedies–despite all their horror–reveal important life lessons through the Chorus, our a group of singing, chanting men who represent the city’s citizens. Again, read the play for yourself to discover the ultimate moral; I’ll have to keep you in the dark again.

So if you do decide to read the Theban Plays, well, I wish you the best of luck. But for now, I’ve got a character analysis on Oedipus I’ve got to write, which I’m totally looking forward to…but anyways, happy reading!!!

-Katherine L

The works of Sophocles are available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.