Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1035
After the ruin and exile of Oedipus, the king of Thebes, his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, fall into dispute, each brother claiming supreme authority in the city. The quarrel leads to a bloody civil war in which Eteocles is victorious. Banished from Thebes, Polynices goes to Argos. There he musters an army, led by six famous Argive heroes, for the purpose of returning and recapturing the city, which is restless under his brother’s rule.
Thebes is besieged by the Argive warriors camped about its walls. Eteocles, consulting a seer, learns that his brother’s army is planning to make a surprise night attack and, under cover of darkness, to scale the walls and overwhelm the defenders. Eteocles exhorts all Theban men, young and old, to stand bravely at their posts and to repel the attackers.
While he speaks, a spy reports to Eteocles that Polynices and his Argives have sworn to raze the city, their vows made with clasps of hands stained by blood dripping from the head of an ox sacrificed in solemn ritual. The spy also brings word that Polynices and the six Argive heroes drew lots to determine the city gates against which each of the seven would lead his band of attackers.
Upon hearing the spy’s report, the Theban women call upon the gods and goddesses to protect Cadmus’s sacred city from the onslaught of the besiegers. Eteocles rebukes the frightened women and declares that they are wasting their time with appeals to the gods at a time of imminent peril. He asserts that the Thebans must depend on their own courage and strength, not upon the unpredictable gods. Angrily he dismisses the women to attend to their children and weaving; they are to leave all other matters to their husbands and fathers.
Eteocles then chooses the six outstanding warriors of Thebes who will, with himself, defend the seven gates of the city against the seven Achaean warriors who swear each to take a gate of the city by storm. The king chooses the defending heroes carefully. Theban Melanippus will oppose Argive Tydeus; Polyphontes, Capaneus; Megareus, Eteocles of Argos; Hyperbius, Hippomedon; Actor, Parthenopaeus; and Lasthenes, Amphiaraus. Polynices is to be the seventh hero leading the attack against the seventh gate, so Eteocles announces that he will stand as his brother’s opponent. Their combat, prince against prince, brother against brother, will determine the destiny of their ill-fated house.
Hearing his words, the Theban women again begin their wailing lament and warn him against the sin of fratricide. Eteocles, well aware of the blood bath that his family already suffered because of the curse of Pelops on Laius, his grandfather, ignores the city matrons. Defying the fickle gods, he declares that he is determined to remain the king of Thebes, even if his brother’s death must be the price of his crown.
At Eteocles’ mention of the curse upon his house, the Theban women deplore the sad story of Laius. Already cursed by Pelops, whose hospitality he desecrated, Laius was warned by Apollo that he would prosper only if he sired no child. In spite of the warning, however, he fathered a son, Oedipus. Later the child was abandoned in the wilderness, where he was saved from death by the intervention of an old household servant and reared to manhood by a good shepherd. Oedipus, in turn, defied prophecies of disaster and doom when he, unaware of his true identity, murdered Laius, his father, and subsequently married Jocasta, his mother. Two of the children of their ill-starred union were Eteocles and Polynices, whose rivalry caused untold suffering in Thebes. The women weep when they recall the years of strife and trouble brought upon their city by the doomed line of Cadmus.
Meanwhile the brazen clamor of arms and the shouts of men sound in the distance; the attack begins. While the women wait to learn the outcome of the assault, a messenger brings word that the defenders beat back the Argive warriors at six of the seven gates. The city is saved, he announces, but in the fighting at the seventh gate Eteocles and Polynices are both slain.
At the height of the attack, when the battle was fiercest, the brothers killed each other, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Oedipus that his sons would share glory by iron, that is to say, by the sword, not by gold. The only land over which they will rule will be the grave, and the soil that called them masters is now red with their blood.
The bodies of Eteocles and Polynices are carried into the city in preparation for their burial. Antigone and Ismene, sisters of the dead princes, mourn their violent deaths, while the Theban women sing a mournful dirge for the tragic ending of a great family, cursed by the gods but defiant of the doom forecast years before and then unhappily fulfilled.
In the middle of their laments, a herald appears to announce the decision of the Theban senate. Eteocles, the city fathers decree, was his country’s friend; as such, his body is to receive final burial rites and to be interred within the royal tomb. Men will remember him as his city’s champion and savior. Polynices, on the other hand, sowed dissension and civil strife. Demanding fit punishment for his crimes against the state, the senate proclaimed that his body should be thrown outside the city gates, where dogs and ravens can feast upon his flesh.
Antigone imperiously defies the city fathers. If no one else will give her brother a burial befitting his rank, she declares, she herself will bury him. It is her opinion, since he is the older son and therefore rightful heir to the throne, that he was no more right and no more wrong than Eteocles was in his beliefs and deeds.
Her brave defiance brings many sympathizing citizens to her side. Some declare that laws often change and what is one day right is often wrong tomorrow. The others, surrounding the corpse of Eteocles, maintain that they will obey the decree of the senate. In that division of public opinion more troubles are forecast for the unhappy city.
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