The three plays can be studied together or individually. Each is complete in itself, and ancient audiences knew the rough outlines of the plot from long oral traditions that preceded formal theatrical productions of these stories.
Antigone flowed first from Sophocles’ hand, and was seen first by ancient audiences, but it comes last in the lives of the characters, wrapping up the final disasters of their histories.
The first play in the characters’ lives is Oedipus the King, which is the story of a man unwittingly moving ever closer to the unhappy fate he is struggling mightily to avoid.
The child Oedipus is born to the royal couple, Laius and Jocasta, but a grim prophecy hangs over the Theban palace. The old king is warned that his son will kill him. In order to thwart fate, Laius and Jocasta abandon the infant Oedipus, with his feet bound, to starve on a barren mountainside.
Rescued by the shepherd who was supposed to leave the baby to starve, and delivered to the royal palace at Corinth by a Messenger, Oedipus is raised as the son of the royal house. Life there is good, until Oedipus learns that a prophecy has named him as the murderer of his father and the husband of his mother. Determined to outwit fate, the young man flees the only home—and the only father—he has known.
Soon, the wandering Oedipus meets and kills a stranger at a crossroads, and part of the oracle’s prophecy is fulfilled. Oedipus doesn’t know it, but the murdered stranger is Laius, his real father. The wanderer has committed one of the very acts he fled Corinth to avoid.
Continuing his journey, Oedipus enters Thebes—his forgotten first home—as a hero, having solved the riddle of the murderous Sphinx. The evil creature murdered travelers who could not solve its riddle; “What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs at night?” Oedipus is the first person to figure out the answer: As crawling infants, people travel on four limbs in the mornings of their lives. As adults, they travel upright on two limbs in the bright middays of their lives. As frail and elderly people tapping canes before them, they travel on three limbs in the twilights of their days.
Oedipus’ reward for solving the riddle is marriage to Jocasta, the Queen of Thebes. She is the widow of the recently murdered king, Laius, whose slaying is an unsolved crime at the time. Unfortunately, Jocasta doesn’t recognize Oedipus as her abandoned son, and this ill-fated marriage goes forward.
This much of the plot is background, which is revealed in pieces later in the story. The history was well-known to ancient Greek audiences, and the story was part of their canon of stories and legends.
The action of Oedipus the King begins during a time of plague in Thebes. The gods demand vengeance for the death of Laius as the price of lifting the city’s punishment. Oedipus, who has been a wise and just ruler of the people who made him their king, is determined to seek justice. Through his efforts, he discovers that he is the murderer of Laius.
Before this search for the truth is complete, Jocasta figures out the secret and kills herself. When he discovers her body, Oedipus puts out his own eyes. The play closes with Oedipus mourning the destruction of his family, apologizing to his daughters, and begging Creon, the new king and Jocasta’s brother, for banishment. His wish is granted. The girls become their uncle Creon’s wards, but their ill-fated brothers are left to look out for themselves.
The storyline continues in Oedipus at Colonus, which features the blind former king as a shattered old man. His daughter, Antigone, is his loyal companion. Wandering together, they come upon a sacred grove that is protected by the Furies, who are also known as the Eumenides—the protectors of Athens.
When he discovers where he is, Oedipus realizes that the last piece of the prophecy foretelling his life is about to be fulfilled. If he is granted shelter there and dies there, on Athenian soil, his body will draw the blood of the enemy—in this case, the invading force of Thebes, his former home.
Before that happens, other curses and prophesies are cast and fulfilled. Back home in Thebes, his two sons are quarreling over the throne Oedipus abandoned, and one comes to him seeking help. Oedipus greets his son, Polynices, with the curse of mutual fratricidal murder.
When the play ends, that curse has been fulfilled. Polynices and Eteocles have killed each other in battle. The final tragedy of the family cycle will unwind in Antigone, when their doomed sister meets her own fate.
Antigone, the play that wraps together the final events of these characters’ sad lives, begins in Thebes. After her father’s death, Antigone has returned to the royal palace where she was raised. Her family’s tragedies have been compounded by her brothers Eteocles and Polynices, who have killed each other in war, as foretold by their father.
The ruling king, Creon, gives an honorable burial to one of his nephews, Eteocles, but there is no such mercy for Polynices. Declaring him a traitor, Creon forbids burial of his corpse and promises death to anyone who disobeys this order.
Grief-stricken and defiant, Antigone performs burial rites for her brother, saying that the gods demand no less of her. Her sister, Ismene, tries to prevent yet another tragedy, without success. Creon upholds his decree, and condemns Antigone to be buried alive. Creon later rescinds this order, but his second thoughts come too late. Antigone has already committed suicide by the time Creon changes his mind and decides that sentencing her to death was wrong. Haemon, her lover, who is Creon’s son, takes his own life when he discovers that he can only join his would-be bride in the kingdom of the dead.
The destruction of the two royal families is now concluded.
Estimated Reading Time
The three plays are not very long, but they are written in detailed prose that demands and rewards careful attention. Each play can be read in about three hours.
The reading sessions are best broken up into intervals of about 40 minutes. By following the line-and-section markings in this Enotes guide, the student can absorb each play in logically divided portions. Each portion ends with review questions and answers to help you gauge your understanding, plus essay questions.