The Phoenician Women by Euripides is a sort of mash-up of Seven Against Thebes and Antigone and it messes around with the timeline of events. If you recall in Oedipus after he learns his wife Jocasta is also his mother, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself and goes into exile led around by his daughters Ismene and Antigone. After Oedipus dies, Antigone returns to Thebes. In the play Seven Against Thebes Oedipus’ two sons Polyneices and Eteocles fight and kill each other for the right to rule Thebes. The play Antigone takes place after Seven and we see Antigone go against the wishes of her uncle and now king, Creon, by burying her brother Polyneices. Then Antigone hangs herself and Creon’s son to whom Antigone was betrothed kills himself in grief. Got that? It would be simpler to say everyone dies but then you’d miss out on all the fun.
In Phoenecian Women, Jocasta didn’t kill herself, Oedipus blinded himself and abdicated his throne to his sons but is still in town. His sons were supposed to rule together but each wanted to be the one in charge so they came up with the brilliant plan that they would alternate years and while one ruled the other had to leave town. As you can imagine it doesn’t work out. After Eteocles rules for a year, brother Polyneices shows up for his turn for a year to learn that Eteocles has no plans to share. So Polyneices puts together an army and marches on Thebes. Then we get a brief cease fire during which Jocasta tries to mediate a truce. But Eteocles won’t bend. The war is on.
Everyone is worried Thebes will fall. But we learn that if Creon kills his son Menoeceus as a sacrificial offering, Thebes will not fall. But Creon turns out to be a coward and rushes around trying to hide his son who has ideas of his own. Menoeceus will not be a coward and sacrifices himself. We then get a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of the long fighting and cataloging of the seven gates and the seven men on each side who attack and defend each gate that takes up so much of the play Seven Against Thebes. There was a moment that made me laugh as Eteocles is about to run off and direct the battle at the different gates. He tells Creon,
To the seven-gated town
I’ll go, and set the captains as you say
in even numbers against their enemies.
It would take long, long talk to give each name,
now while the enemy camps outside our walls.
I wonder if this is a little slam against Aeschylus who did take a long, long talk to give each name, what each was wearing and what was engraved on each shield.
Before he high tails it off to the walls, Eteocles tells Creon that should he die Creon will be king and orders him to not allow Polyneices to be buried. Then whoosh! Thebes is saved but the argument between the brothers still isn’t settled. They decide to fight it out one-on-one. Jocasta rushes out to the battlefield to stop her sons but arrives just in time to see them kill each other. In her grief she takes one of her sons’ swords and kills herself too. The death scenes happen out of view and get recounted in detail by a grave but friendly messenger who saw it all.
Creon is now king and tells Oedipus who is upset over the death of his sons and his wife/mother that he needs to man-up because it’s all his fault anyway, oh and he had better leave town by sunset or Creon will gun him down. Ok, maybe that last bit’s my own addition. Then Creon learns that Antigone has gone against his orders and buried her brother and is planning on killing her but Oedipus says no, she can come with me in my exile cuz I’m blind and I need a seeing-eye-daughter. Creon accuses Antigone of trying to avoid marrying his son Haemon. Antigone tells Creon to stuff it; she’s going into exile with pop or she’s doing herself in with a sword like mom. Creon throws up his hands and tells her to not let the door hit her on the way out.
See how Euripides got all timey-wimey with this one? Neither Oedipus nor Jocasta are supposed to be alive during the attack on Thebes but there they are. But they have to be alive so we can get this really awesome back and forth between Jocasta and Polyneices early in the play where each one shoots single lines at each other. Here’s a taste:
J: What is it to lose your country — a great suffering?
P: The greatest, even worse than people say.
J: What is its nature? What so hard on exiles?
P: One thing is worst, a man cannot speak out.
J: But this is slavery, not to speak one’s thought.
P: One must endure the unwisdom of one’s masters.
And it goes on. Of course, at the end of the play Oedipus and Antigone become exiles and lose their country. This one line back and forth is something I have not come across in any of the plays before and here it happens more than once. Polyneices and Eteocles do it, Creon and Eteocles do it, Teiresias and Creon too, and the best one between a sharp-tongued Antigone and a grumpy Creon.
But back to Oedipus and Jocasta being alive. We also need Oedipus so at the end he can come full-circle and see what all the curses and bad choices have brought to his house beginning with his father trying to outsmart the Oracle. We have to have the man who bested the Sphinx and lived well as a king brought low because only he can say with full emotion and deep meaning:
Yet why do I lament these things and mourn for them in vain?
The constraint the gods lay on us we mortals all must bear.
There is an undercurrent in the play about what is best for the city. Each brother thinks he knows what is best, Creon thinks he knows, Teiresias spouts a bit of prophecy, but none of them actually do anything for the city. The only one who does do something is Menoeceus who gives his life to keep Thebes from falling to Ployneices’ army:
I’ll cure this ailing land.
If every man would take what good he can
and give it to his city’s common good,
cities would suffer less, be happy from now on.
But I have to wonder given everything that happens in this play, if his sacrifice was worth it.
The Phoenician Women was probably written around 410 BCE and has obvious additions in it. Scholars have been able to sort out at least three pieces, two speeches in different places mid-play, and very likely most of the play’s ending. Do the additions help or hinder the play? Did Euripides have a different, better ending that gives us a different conclusion? Oedipus submitting to the will of the gods does seem an odd thing for Euripides who often notes how absent and uncaring the gods are. We can only echo Oedipus and accept the constraints not of the gods, but of time.