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Sophocles used his plays to encourage Athenians to take responsibility for their own actions. In the fifth century B.C., Greece was experiencing an era of military exploration, political turmoil and social revolution, including women’s empowerment. Sophocles included all of these elements in plays, especially in Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Despite his upper class upbringing, Sophocles became a kind of “man of the people” who was very concerned with social matters. For this reason, Sophocles created heroes unlike those of earlier mythology and used their flaws to emphasize the importance of personal accountability.
Oedipus’ pride is the first example of the flawed hero. He refuses to recognize the signs of the prophecy that foretold he would kill his father and marry his mother; at the same time, he is eager to uncover the truth. As more and more evidence is presented to him in favor of the prophecy, he tries to find a way around it and calls another witness. Referring to a slave that he wants to question, he tells Jocasta: “There may be things, my wife, that I have said best left unsaid, which makes me want him here” (Sophocles 43).
Through this dialogue, one can tell that Oedipus is suppressing the knowledge that the prophecy is slowly unraveling and proving itself true. His flaw of pride not only suppresses his acceptance of the truth, but also leads him to fulfill the prophecy. He unknowingly kills Laius, his father, for insulting him as he made his passage into Thebes. None but a prideful man would kill over a simple insult. Eventually he begins to realize that the man he killed may have been his father: “‘Laius was killed – I thought I caught the words – where three highways meet?’ ‘So they said. That is how the story goes.’ ‘The place? Where did the mishap fall?’”(Sophocles 41). When he eventually learns the truth, he knows he must face the grim consequences.
The chorus is used extensively as both a voice of reason and to convey emotions to the audience. In the third choral ode, the chorus doubts Oedipus and notes his pride. “But what if a brazen man parade in word or deed, impiety and brash disdain of principalities and canons? Then dog him and pay him pride wages for his haughty greed, his sacrilege and folly. What shield is there for such a man against all heaven’s arrows? Could I celebrate such wantonness and celebrate the dance?” (Sophocles 48). This antistrophe illustrates the chorus’ distrust in Oedipus towards the end of the story and foreshadows his eventual downfall.
The climax and falling action probably are the best examples of Oedipus taking responsibility for his own actions. Once Oedipus has learned that his wife has hung herself, he realizes what must be done. Oedipus then performs the perfect act of symbolic retribution. Blinding himself with her brooch pins, he cries: “‘Wicked, wicked eyes, you shall not see me nor my crime, not see my present shame. Go dark for all time blind to what you never should have seen, and blind to the love this heart has cried to see” (Sophocles 70). He thereby takes the ultimate responsibility for his actions and fulfills Teiresias’ prophecy that he would enter the city seeing and leave it blind (Sophocles 16).
The play Antigone addresses many of the same themes, but there is an exceptional difference between this play and Oedipus Rex. Antigone, whom we already know is ill fated due to her father’s sin, is virtuous and does not have her father’s prideful nature or any other major flaws to speak of. Her story is about doing what she knows is right, standing up to oppression, and taking responsibility for her own actions.
In this story, no time is wasted in arriving at the conflict. Antigone’s character is shown at the very beginning of the story when she speaks to her sister, Ismene, of the need to bury her beloved brother, Polyneices. “He is my brother still, and yours; though you would have it otherwise, but I shall not abandon him” (Sophocles 201). She continues trying to persuade Ismene, but it is no use and she does the deed alone and unflinching.
When Antigone is brought to trial, there is a great debate over the power of state. However, Creon was interested in anything but the interests of the state and is a despot rather than a voice of the people. In the end, the side of both the Gods and the people lie with Antigone, who knew she was right. Creon, the tyrant, sides with the State and shows his desire for power over the greater good. Antigone could have argued her case to Creon that she was not guilty of the crime; instead, she takes total responsibility for her actions and admits all her law-breaking actions. Her admirable – if damning – morality is precisely the quality that Sophocles tries to promote. He wants to show Athenians that to be a morally good person, she must take responsibility for her actions.
At first the chorus in Antigone sides with Creon, as they do not believe in divine justice over state justice; as the story concludes, however, they are swayed to side with Antigone, whose devotion and compassion has changed their minds. In the fourth choral ode the chorus attempts to comfort Antigone by recalling similar fateful situations, showing they have begun to side with her. Because the chorus represents the collective people of Greece, its change of heart shows that Antigone is intended to represent the people
One common theme between the two plays is the concept of women taking control of their own fates. Jocasta hangs herself in shame and Antigone takes her own life before she can be executed. This was very unusual in Sophocles’ time and culture. Suicide was a private fate that was more often done by men than women of the time. In this way, Sophocles challenges the barrier of gender expectations. By taking control of their own deaths, Jocasta and Antigone had accepted responsibility for their own actions. In the case of Antigone, she was ready to receive whatever her consequence might be in the afterlife, whether good or bad. She had nothing to fear because she knew that she had done the right thing. The main characters in Oedipus Rex and Antigone are flawed in different ways, but they share a common and admirable trait – they take total responsibility for all of their actions.
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