Political Power in the Three Theban Plays

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Throughout all of the Theban Plays, there is an elemental connection that plays a role of politics in Ancient Greece. In the Theban Plays, there is an emphasis on how a democracy is important, rather than a dictatorship. The idea is brought up that one person does not have the authority to rule a country or nation individually. It is seen throughout the plays that two minds are better than one, which means that a democracy can make better decisions than a dictator. Sophocles is trying to emphasize that a dictator can make decisions to benefit himself; considering that, a democracy will typically decide for the benefit and interest for the population.

The Thebans illustrated in the play, take an extraordinary deal of honor in their city-state. Most Greek males would have been a part of the military at some time in their lives. Ancient Greece provided the support of a democratic society. It is momentous and significant that there is tension and pressure in Antigone, regarding a ruler who tries to enact laws that his citizens find inequitable. In a true democracy, the people agree upon the laws that they obey, and a leader does not have the ultimate power over the people.

In Antigone, there are political connotations when Creon, the ruler of Thebes, declares that no one is allowed to agonize Polynices, who is Antigone’s brother. Once Antigone, who is Creon’s niece, defies this law, Antigone is then banished for disregarding the law of the land. Creon askes Antigone, “And yet you still had the gull to break the law” (Fagles, 81)? Antigone responds by stating, “Of course I did. It wasn’t Zeus, not in the least, who made this proclamation – not to me. Nor did that Justice, dwelling with the gods beneath the earth, ordain such laws for men” (Fagles, 82). Antigone challenges Creon’s moral and legal authority by elevating religious rights above his worldly law. With this statement made, Sophocles wants it to be known that the king’s law rules the land, much more than blood. However, the idea that Sophocles is trying to emphasize is that the people are the main ruling force in Greece. When the city is said to be cursed by the Gods, the majority rule they want Creon to free Antigone to save the city. This forces Creon to go against his own declaration to save the city. Although Creon has the ultimate power, the people can leverage his decisions for the welfare of the city. The reader can interpret that the welfare of the city is above any one person, which includes the king.

In Oedipus the King, it is shown that the well-being of the state outpaces any one person. Oedipus shows to the people that he is a candid and honorable ruler. Oedipus states, “But my spirit grieves for the city, for myself and all of you to learn What I might do or say to save our city” (Fagles, 162). Although Oedipus was a fair and equitable ruler, exposing the accurate identity of his past is what will save the city. Once Oedipus comes to realize he is the infection upon the city, he accepts his own declaration. Oedipus forces Creon to drive him from the city. It is shown in this play that even the best rulers have committed terrible actions in the past, which will come back to haunt them. The idea is that one little mistake can be the collapse of any man. This is why no one man should be the solitary ruler of any country.

Throughout the plays, the Chorus gets involved with political power in terms of who is in charge. The Chorus talk to the people of Thebes by stating, “People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus. He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance, he rose to power, a man beyond all power. Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him” (Fagles, 251). Odepius solving the famous riddle is an irrefutable fact, as in the claim that he rises to power, to an enviable greatness. The Chorus seems to suggest a spontaneous association between Oedipus’s rise and fall. Oedipus fell because he rose too high, since in his pride he inspired others to envy. The statement from the Chorus has a ring of hollow and terrifying truth to them, because the comfort an audience expects is moral, is absent.

In Oedipus at Colonus, it is shown that keeping a promise is extremely important, as well as being just. In this play, Theseus comes into account. Theseus, often known as “child of Aegeus,” is the ruler of Athens. This includes Colonus, the sacred grove where Oedipus has come to die. He is a pretty reasonable guy, and because of his reasonable response to the cursed wanderer, taking up residence in his town, he gains Oedipus’s grave. By keeping his promise to protect Oedipus, Theseus successfully saves his city from the destruction of the gods. It can be inferred that Sophocles is displaying the entire city is more important that just one individual. Also, he attempts to show that war is never the answer. Oedipus states, “Oh dear friend, give my children the binding pledge of your right hand, and children, give him yours. And swear that you will never forsake the, not if you can help it” (Fagles, 380). There is peace that is trying to be kept between Thebes and Colonus. Sophocles shows there is a democracy that is least likely to begin a war than one ruler because war does nothing for the community except eliminate them.

In the years between these play’s composition, Athens underwent many changes. Defeated by the Spartans, the city was placed under the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, and the citizens who opposed their rule were either exiled or executed. This certainly affected the way that early audiences reacted to the play, just as the invasion of Athens and its weakened power. This had to have affected Sophocles when he wrote these plays, specifically Oedipus at Colonus. The last play Oedipus at Colonus, contrasts the cities of Athens and Thebes utterly clearly. Thebes is often used in Athenian dramas as a city in which appropriate frontiers and identities are not sustained. This allows the playwright to explore theme such as incest, murder, and audacity in a safe setting. This play clearly shows that a democracy is run in the city of Athens and Thebes.

After reading and interpreting all three plays, it can come to conclusion that Sophocles is stating how important a democracy can be. Sophocles understands that ruling a country is an extremely difficult task for only man to do by himself. He is showing people that just one person can lose control of what is really important and just far easier than a council or assembly. Overall, there is an emphasis on the idea that Ancient Greece is run on the system of a democracy, not a dictatorship. Throughout the plays, it was noticeable how multiple minds work much more efficiently than one mind when running an ancient city. Since a democracy is ruled by the people, the people make decisions for the better of the city.

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Political Power in The Three Theban Plays. (2021, Mar 23). Retrieved December 1, 2023 , from

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