Who were Oedipus' Children?

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

All four of Oedipus's children are mentioned in the three Oedipus plays by Sophocles, but only his daughters play any sort of prominent role as the two brothers battle behind the scenes for the throne that their father vacated.

Oedipus' Children

Most everyone has heard of Oedipus and the horrible curse that befell him. How many of us remember his children, or how many he had with his wife Jocasta? Sophocles brings them to the forefront in the latter two Oedipus dramas. In them, he shows how the curse of Oedipus affected his children.

Eteocles

Eteocles is the younger of Oedipus' two sons. He does not make an appearance in any of Sophocles' three plays about Oedipus, and very little is said about him. Sophocles does reveal that Eteocles is supposed to share the rule of Thebes with his older brother Polyneices after Oedipus leaves Thebes for exile at the end of Oedipus The King. The brothers are to alternate ruling, but conflict arises.

Eteocles rules first, but gains the support of the populace and refuses to give up his place as ruler to his brother Polyneices. This escalates to the stage of war. Sophocles only makes mention of the aftermath of this battle at the beginning of Antigone, but their father's curse destined the two brothers to die at each other's hands. Creon, who takes over for Eteocles as king of Thebes, permits a proper burial for Eteocles, but not for Polyneices. Although Sophocles does not tell the story of the brothers' battle, Aeschylus uses it as the plot for his dramatic work Seven Against Thebes.

Polyneices

Being the eldest son of Oedipus does not work out well for Polyneices. When Oedipus gives up his throne, Polyneices should be first in line to take over, but Eteocles outmaneuvers him. Polyneices goes forth and gathers support from other communities as a means to threaten war and claim his place on the throne. When Polyneices goes to Oedipus to garner his support and favor, he finds only disfavor. Oedipus places a curse on his sons as a result of their inability to cooperate.

Oedipus at Colonus is the only appearance of Polyneices in the three Oedipus plays. It is in this play that we learn that Polyneices banished his father from Thebes and wants nothing to do with him. When he is unable to take his place on the Theban throne, he runs back to Oedipus to try and gain his support. When he greets his father, he only notices the negative attributes, such as poor clothes and food. Oedipus' poor appearance is due to having been banished by Polyneices from Thebes. Polyneices deserves the response he gets from Oedipus. He goes to war with Eteocles and they both kill each other.

Ismene

Although Ismene appears in all three of the Oedipus plays by Sophocles, her role is limited. Ismene is sister to Antigone, Eteocles, and Polyneices. She helps Oedipus attempt a rite to the Eumenides, or Furies, who are goddesses of vengeance, since he intruded on their land in Oedipus at Colonus. It is noted that she and Antigone provided care for their father. It isn't until the play Antigone that her persona becomes better defined.

Ismene learns from Antigone that King Creon will allow proper burial for only one of their brothers. While Antigone declares that she will not obey, Ismene attempts to convince her that their loyalty should be to their king and his laws. Antigone disowns her at this point. When Ismene learns that Antigone will be put to death, she stands beside her sister and indicates that she will share the same fate as Antigone. Ismene does stand by family, yet seems torn between family and country. By the end of Antigone, Ismene is the last child of Oedipus still alive. She seemingly escapes his curse.

Antigone

Based on appearances, Antigone is the most prominent character of Oedipus's four children. She has a prominent role in two of the Oedipus plays by Sophocles. In Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone guides her father and acts as his eyes. At times, it almost seems that she is his favorite child. Oedipus continually keeps her by his side and refers to her as she who has sight for me. Antigone is unable to keep her father from his fate, and while she mourns his death, her brothers will soon follow their father in death.

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