The Phoenician Women

by Euripides

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 705

A Chorus of young women

A Chorus of young women, maidens from Phoenicia dedicated to the service of Apollo. They have stopped in Thebes and have been detained by the war of the Seven against Thebes. They provide the historical perspective necessary to see the duel between the two sons of Oedipus as the last link in a long chain of Theban misfortunes.


Eteocles (ee-TEE-oh-kleez), the king of Thebes, the son of Jocasta and Oedipus. He and his brother Polynices had agreed to rule the city of Thebes in turn, but Eteocles has refused to give up the throne and Polynices has appeared with an Argive army to claim his right. Jocasta tries to reconcile the two brothers, but without success. Eteocles believes that might is right and will fight rather than give up his power. He is, as he admits, the typical dictator; at the same time he is young, rash, and ignorant in warfare. Creon, Jocasta’s brother, helps him plan the defense of the city. In that defense he fights bravely, challenging his brother to single combat. The brothers kill each other. Eteocles’ only affection, his love for his mother, is expressed in his dying moments.


Polynices (pol-ih-NI-seez), the exiled brother of Eteocles who, when Eteocles refuses to allow him his period of rule, marches against Thebes. He has justice on his side, as the Thebans and even Eteocles recognize, but he has allowed his wrongs to lead him to the unpardonable sin of attack on his homeland. Speaking to Jocasta before her attempted reconciliation between the brothers, he reveals that he still loves his country; his mother, sister, and father; and even his brother. He accepts Eteocles’ challenge to single combat and is killed. Creon, following Eteocles’ order, refuses burial for his body.


Jocasta (joh-KAS-tuh), the wife and mother of Oedipus. She tries unsuccessfully to reconcile her two sons by Oedipus. When she hears of their individual challenge, she calls her daughter Antigone from the house and the two leave, determined to make one last effort to prevent the conflict between brothers. She arrives in time to hear their final words; then, lamenting, she stabs herself and dies with them. Her actions and speeches are marked by restraint, except for her joy at the return of Polynices.


Antigone (an-TIHG-uh-nee), the daughter of Oedipus. She appears, accompanied by an old pedagogue, as a girl eager to observe the Argive forces assembled outside Thebes. Later, she views with Jocasta the combat between her brothers. She returns after her mother’s death, rejects the proposed marriage with Creon’s son, and willingly accompanies Oedipus into exile. She also swears to perform burial rites for Polynices.


Oedipus (EHD-ih-puhs), the son and later the husband of Jocasta. Although he appears only in the final scene, his presence dominates the play. Because they deposed and shut him up, he has pronounced on his sons a curse that is carried out in the action of the play. Antigone calls him forth and informs him of the death of his sons and of Jocasta. Creon, now the ruler of Thebes, orders him into exile because Tiresias has said that Thebes will not know prosperity as long as Oedipus remains within its walls. Oedipus’ final speech is a lament of his fate.


Creon (KREE -on), the brother of Jocasta. He aids Eteocles in setting up the defense of Thebes and is told that he is to rule if Eteocles should be killed. When Tiresias informs him that Menoeceus, his son, must...

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be sacrificed to ensure victory for Thebes, he tries to save his heir. At the end of the play, he appears to order Oedipus into exile and to carry out Eteocles’ command that Polynices be denied funeral rites.


Menoeceus (meh-NEE-sews), the son of Creon. He hears Tiresias’ prophecy that he must die to save Thebes, pretends to agree with his father’s plan for his escape, and then states his intention to sacrifice himself for the city. He is the type of pure youth.


Tiresias (ti-REE-see-uhs), the Theban prophet who foresees the deaths of Polynices and Eteocles and the sacrifice of Menoeceus. He is the conventional prophetic figure but is realistically drawn.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 231

Collard, Christopher. Euripides. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1981. A short overview of textual and critical scholarship of Euripides’ work, with the emphasis on directing attention to bibliographical resources in each area; written for high school students.

Euripides. The Phoenician Women. Edited with translation and commentary by Elizabeth Craik. Warminster, Wiltshire, England: Aris & Phillips, 1988. The most recent edition of Euripides’ play contains the Greek text, a literal English translation on facing pages, more than one hundred pages of detailed textual commentary, and an excellent, up-to-date introductory essay.

Melchinger, Siegfried. Euripides. Translated by Samuel R. Rosebaum. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. A clearly written introduction to Euripides’ work. Includes brief summaries and interpretations of all the extant plays.

Vellacott, Philip. Ironic Drama: A Study of Euripides’ Method and Meaning. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1975. This important study of Euripidean drama as veiled social criticism deals with all the extant plays and offers interpretations of them in the context of Athenian civic and military history from approximately 438 b.c.e. to the posthumous production of The Bacchae in 405 b.c.e.

Webster, T. B. L. The Tragedies of Euripides. New York: Methuen, 1967. A study of the development of Euripides’ career as an artist through a detailed study of the complete plays and of the existing fragments. The most complete work of its kind. Summaries and interpretations of every piece of Euripidean text that has survived.




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