The Phoenician Women
THE PHOENICIAN WOMEN
4th-century producers have edited and augmented this Euripides play named for the Chorus of young women commenting on the Theban material (after the blinding of Oedipus). The play begins with Jocasta, not dead and disturbingly calm and informative about the incestuous background. She tells of warnings before conceiving Oedipus with her initial husband Laius, of Oedipus’ road-rage-fueled killing of Laius, of his becoming ruler of Thebes, and of the contention between their two sons Eteocles and Polyneices.
We get a “teichoskopia” — a viewing from the wall — with daughter Antigone and a Pedagogue, in which the “seven against Thebes” and their armies are identified. Appropo of nothing much, the Pedagogue sends Antigone back inside with the declaration,
The female sex is very quick to blame.
If one of them gets a little launching place,
far, far she drives. There seems to be some pleasure
for women in sick talk of one another. (85)
Jocasta and the wronged and attacking Polyneices chat. Jocasta’s take is that “Some god is ruining all of Oedipus’ children. / The beginning was my bearing outside law. / It was wrong to marry your father and to have you” (90). Eteocles arrives and Jocasta’s purpose, insists the Chorus, is to reconcile the brothers, “for argument can straighten out as much / as enemy steel can do” (96). Jocasta has the opportunity to remark, “My son Eteocles, old age is not / a total misery. Experience helps. / Sometimes we can speak wiser than the young” (96). One of the seemingly wise moments: “Sufficiency’s enough for men of sense. / Men do not really own their private goods; / we simply care for things which are the gods’, / and when they will, they take them back again” (97). Ultimately the brothers renew their vows of hatred and war.
After speaking with Eteocles, Creon (Jocasta’s brother) calls in Teiresias, the blind seer. “This would be best, that none of Oedipus’ house, / live in the land as citizen or lord, / since the gods hound them on to spoil the state” (111). But to save Thebes, Creon must sacrifice his own son, Menoeceus, “and so give libation blood / for Cadmus’ crime, appeasing Ares’ wrath, / who now takes vengeance for his dragon’s death” (114). Naturally Creon reacts harshly, and Teiresias remarks,
A man’s a fool to use the prophet’s trade.
For is he happens to bring bitter news
he’s hated by the men for whom he works;
and if he pities them and tells them lies
he wrongs the gods. (114)
Creon sends his son far away, but Menoeceus privately notes that he could not run away from his responsibility to his “fatherland” (116). He will go to his own killing bravely. The Chorus prays, “Pallas, make us mothers / of sons as good as this” (118). We soon learn that Menoeceus thrust his own sword through his own neck, as a Messenger tells Jocasta while reporting on the war. He also must report, however, the brothers’ decision to engage in single combat with each other.
Some time later, a Messenger reports to Creon that Eteocles had struck Polyneices in the navel with his sword, piercing through to the spine. With a last lunge, Polyneices pierced Eteocle’s liver (130). Jocasta, in grief, grabbed a sword and drove it into her own neck; she lies with her sons dead.
Antigone informs her father Oedipus of the sad events. She defies Creon regarding the latter’s ban on treating Polyneices’ corpse with the proper respect, and on the topic of her marrying Menoeceus (138-139). She leads off her blind father. The odd last lines of the Chorus (a spurious ending):
O great Victory, stay with me
all my life.
Nor cease to give me crowns!
Euripides. The Phoenician Women. Trans. Elizabeth Wyckoff. Euripides V. Ed. David Grene and Richard Lattimore. NY: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1959. 75-143.