"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

06 January 2015

The Phoenician Women, by Euripides

Chorus: All around this city
            Gleaming shields mass like a dense cloud,
            A signal of bloody battle;
            This Ares shall soon learn
            When he brings fulfillment to the Furies’ curse
            On the two sons of Oedipus.
            O Pelasgian Argos,
            I tremble before your fierce strength
            And before the hand of heaven;
            For he arms himself in a just cause
            Who fights to recover his home.

Iocasta: Some immortal power is bent
To destroy the house of Oedipus. At the beginning
I bore the son I was forbidden to bear; this son,
Your father, sinned in marrying; you, in being born.
What help in saying this? The gods’ will must be endured.

Iocasta: Justice does not consort with haste.
Slow speech most often achieves wisdom.

Eteocles: If men all shared one judgment of what’s noble and wise,
All wordy quarrelling would vanish from the earth.
But as it is, there’s no such thing as ‘equal right.
Or ‘justice.’ These are words – in fact, they don’t exist.

Teiresias: To practice divination by burnt sacrifice
Is folly. Offer unwelcome words, and those for whom
You practice hate you. If you speak falsely, in compassion
For your inquirers, you offend the gods. Phoebus
Fears no one: he should speak his oracles himself.

Hegel’s theory of Attic tragedy revolves around the idea of the agon—a conflict between two more or less even ethical positions. Few plays directly embody the agon as well as EuripidesPhoenician Women. Set during the war between Thebes and Argos, this story is part of the Oedipus myth, which also forms the basis for plays like SophoclesTheban cycle, AeschylusSeven Against Thebes, and Euripides’ Suppliant Women. This particular play roughly corresponds to the section of the myth covered by the Seven Against Thebes, the combat between Eteokles and Polyneikes for the throne of Thebes. However, unlike in the more well known Sophoclean version, Oedipus and Jokasta remain alive at the beginning of The Phoenician Women. Unlike Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus hasn’t yet been exiled and died near Athens; and unlike Oedipus Rex, Jokasta did not commit suicide after learning that Oedipus was her son/husband.

But in terms of the agon, this play is very much structured around a direct conflict between the two sides, embodied in the two brothers Eteokles and Polyneikes. There is even a lengthy parley scene during which the two brothers state their purposes and ethical positions, providing perhaps a model of the policy debates that might have taken place in the Athenian agora. Polyneikes appeals to values like justice and honesty—things the Greeks definitely valued—in trying to enforce the bargain he made with his brother to divide rulership of Thebes. On the other hand, Eteokles is much more pragmatic and sweeps aside any ethical concerns to take the simple stance that he has the crown and it would be stupid to give it up unless compelled to do so. Jokasta tries to mediate between the two sons, pointing out shortcomings, flaws, and contradictions in each argument, and arguing that if Thebes is destroyed neither will be able to rule with honor and the gods will not forgive the destruction.

This agon is again repeated in the fight to the death between the brothers. After the initial Argive assault on Thebes, Eteokles challenges Polyneikes to single combat for the Theban crown. This parallels in combat the rhetorical violence of the truce scene, with each brother landing blows until they finally kill one another. Simultaneously, Jokasta has been summoned and she implores her two sons not to fight one another, so she remains the third term in the agon, the one proposing an alternative to either of the ethical positions represented by the sons.

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