Oedipus the King and Antigone

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Corey Marvin defines binary oppositions as “simply a pair of theoretical opposites or thematic contrasts” (1). In Oedipus the King and Antigone by Sophocles, there are many binary oppositions, but the most important oppositions are the following: calm versus irascible, male versus female, blind versus sight, and polis (city) versus oikos (family). While calm versus irascible and blind versus sight are only in Oedipus the King, male versus female and polis versus oikos is in Antigone. The binary oppositions in these plays are significant because the playwright uses them to differentiate between the characters. In 430-29 B.C. in Athens, there was a war that caused a plague that killed half of the citizens which corresponded to Oedipus the King that also starts with a plague. And in Antigone, the play starts “before the outbreak of the disastrous war” which is the same in Athens (Knox 30).

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Sophocles was the playwright of Oedipus the King and Antigone, but he also played a big part in politics. Knox states, “[Sophocles] was deeply involved in public affairs throughout his long career” (25). Right before the Peloponnesian war, Sophocles was one of the generals that were sent to Samos to stop the revolt. Knox says, “Sophocles, as we know from a reliable contemporary source, was one of the nine generals elected … for campaign against the revolt of Samos in that year” (35). The Samians lost, but this made many of the cities revolt. Sparta is one of the city-states that revolted and caused the Peloponnesian War. At one point, Athens was cut off by Sparta who trapped the Athenians in the main city. In these conditions, a simple illness could kill and spread, which caused almost half of the Athenians to die, and at the end of the war, the Athenians lost about 200 ships and lost the war.

Calm versus irascible is a significant binary opposition in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. In Oedipus the King, Creon embodies calmness, but Oedipus represents irascible which is the complete opposite of Creon. Oedipus’ tragic flaw is that he is irascible where he almost kills the people he talks to. During most of Oedipus’ conversation with the others, Oedipus’ tragic flaw always takes over. For example, in a conversation between Oedipus and Creon, Creon is interested in finding the truth, yet Oedipus just wants Creon to die because he thinks that Creon is plotting to kill him. Oedipus says, “[y]ou plotting to kill me, kill the king — I see it all, the marauding thief himself scheming to steal my crown and power!” (596-8). Oedipus does not want a rational conversation with anyone because of his anger which causes him to fall. On the other hand, Creon is calm while trying to find out murdered king Laius. Creon tells Oedipus that “[n]ot if you see things calmly, rationally, as I do … No one with any sense of self-control” (653-7). Whenever Creon gives Oedipus an answer that he does not like, Oedipus thinks that Creon is against him and is planning to kill him. Another example of Oedipus’ irascibility is the discussion between Tiresias and Oedipus. Oedipus is happy that Tiresias came to tell Oedipus the truth. However, when Tiresias tells him that he is the pharmakos (cure and sickness at the same time) of the city, Oedipus responds with, “you scum of the earth, you’d enrage a heart of stone!” (381). Oedipus lacks self-restraint which causes him to insult Tiresias with harsh words. Lastly, the shepherd is brought to Oedipus because he knows about his birth. The shepherd resists revealing the truth of Oedipus’ birth because he realizes that it will make him angry. Shepherd says, “I wish to god I’d died that day … The more I tell, the worse the death I’ll die” (1271-3). Since the shepherd resists to tell Oedipus the truth about his birth, Oedipus tortures him. Oedipus says, “[s]o, you won’t talk willingly — then you’ll talk with pain … twist his arms back, quickly!” (Sophocles 1266-9). Oedipus’ actions are charged up by his anger, and his anger almost kills most of the men.

Male versus female is a consequential binary opposition in Antigone. Shirley A. Barlow is the author of “Stereotype and Reversal in Euripides’ Medea.” Barlow describes the stereotypical women and their limitations that have been set by Greek society. Barlow says, “women are restricted in their marriages, without rights of their own. Husbands have complete physical control of their wives” (159). Women are basically slaves during the 5th century B.C. In Antigone, Ismene is the perfect example of a stereotypical woman. She says, “[r]emember we are women, we’re not born to contend to men” (74-6). Ismene believes that a woman is a property and does not have any power. However, Antigone is a woman that reverses these roles by representing as a male. In a discussion between Antigone and Ismene, Antigone ends it by reversing the roles of male and female. Antigone says, “leave me to suffer this dreadful thing. I will suffer nothing as great as death without glory” (110-3).

Antigone is portraying the complete opposite of a stereotypical woman because she is independent and faces consequences on her own. Next, Barlow says, “Women are expected to be domestic creatures, submissive, peaceful, and instruments rather than the initiators of action” (160). The role of women is expected to abide by the stereotype of society. In a discussion between Creon and Antigone, Creon is telling Antigone that it is against the law to bury Polynices because Creon thinks that he is a traitor and should rot (490). Antigone answers Creon by saying, “I did it. I don’t deny a thing … well aware. How could I avoid it? It was public” (493-7). Antigone knew the law and tells Creon face-to-face that she buries Polynices’ body. This shows that she has the strength to do her thing. Antigone is not going to let the men overpower her which shows that she is reversing the role. lastly, Creon is a male that thinks women should not have the power to govern the city. Creon says, “[w]hile I’m alive, no woman is going to lord it over me” (592-3). Creon thinks that Antigone buried her brother only to refuse to obey him. Nonetheless, gender roles in Antigone are important because Athens also has a patriarchal society where men rule over women.

Blindness versus sight is one of the most important binary oppositions. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus is the king of Thebes who has physical sight, but he is unable to see the truth. Tiresias happens to be a blind prophet that is sent by the god Apollo to serve truth. At the start of the conversation between Tiresias and Oedipus, Oedipus praises Tiresias because Oedipus knows that Tiresias is a prophet who delivers that truth. However, as soon as Tiresias says, “to see the truth when the truth is only pain to him who sees! I knew it well, but I will put it from my mind, else I never would have come” (Sophocles 360-3), Oedipus is enraged and disagrees to everything Tiresias says. He responds with, “You’ve lost your power, stone-blind … eyes blind as stone” (422-3). Oedipus has normal sight compared to Tiresias.

However, Oedipus is ignorant and blind to the truth. Tiresias is a blind prophet, but he can see the truth which foreshadows Oedipus blinding himself since he thinks that blindness is the cure to his ignorance. Oedipus’ arrogance blinds him from the truth. Oedipus says, “I will speak now as a stranger to the story … if anyone knows the murderer is a stranger a man from alien soil, come, speak up” (248-63). Oedipus basically confesses that he killed King Laius, his father, but his arrogance blinds him from the truth. Similarly, Jocasta can physically see, but she now is blind to the truth. Even after knowing the truth, she deliberately rejects it. Towards the end, the messenger unravels the truth to Jocasta and Oedipus. Jocasta rejects the truth and instructs Oedipus to “[s]top in the name of god, if you love your own life! My suffering is enough … listen to me, I beg you, don’t do this” (1162-7). Jocasta shows willful blindness when the truth of her past with Oedipus is displayed.

Finally, polis versus oikos is one of the most important binary oppositions in Antigone. Antigone’s brother died and she is trying to bury him for her family’s sake. However, Creon’s city comes first over the family. Creon says, “whoever places a friend above the good of his own country, he is nothing” (203-4). Creon thinks that Polynices sacrificed his right to have a proper burial because he attacked the city of Thebes. When Polynices attacks the city, Creon believes that he is disloyal to the city and should rot. Another instance, even though Antigone is Haemon’s fiancee, Creon refuses to forgive Antigone for burying her brother. However, Antigone is fully devoted to her family’s tradition and loyalty over the city. Antigone says, “I have longer to please the dead than please the living here: in the kingdom down below I’ll lie forever” (88-90). She reckons that her loyalty to both her family and the gods counterbalance her loyalty to the city. Nevertheless, Knox explains the historical relation to burials in Athens. Knox says, “they would have no second thoughts about denying burial to the corpse of any Athenian who had fought on the Persian side” (40). Athenians believed that everyone deserves a burial even if that person is a traitor.

Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Antigone have a vast amount of binary oppositions, but some are only significant. Sophocles uses binary opposition to characterize one’s character. The most important binary oppositions are calm versus irascible, male versus female, blind versus sight, and polis versus oikos. Regardless, the history of Sophocles about politics and being one of the ten generals in Athens plays a huge role in creating these great plays.

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Oedipus the King and Antigone. (2021, Mar 23). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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