Characters in Greek tragedies are constantly met with difficult, life-determining decisions, and are tragic because they make the “wrong” choice. “Wrong”, because it can be argued that they were incapable of escaping their fates in the first place. In Oedipus’s and Orestes’s case, they were not actually given a choice of how to proceed with their lives; they were met with an impossible problem. Antigone and Clytemnestra, on the other hand, were given almost full autonomy in their decisions. This expresses how men suffer due to their fates, but women instead suffer due to their own autonomous decisions. In all of the conflicts, the characters ultimately choose their “family”. In these plays, there is family and “family”. Family is the literal, biological family. “Family” is the chosen family. The characters who are seen as “villains”, like Clytemnestra or Creon, chose loyalty to themselves and power over loyalty to their true family, which ultimately causes their demise.
In “The Libation Bearers” by Aeschylus, Orestes was given two options from Apollo: seek revenge for your father or suffer for the rest of your life(The Libation Bearers 270-277). Apollo shows Orestes how critical it is that he overthrows Clytemnestra and avenges his disgraced and murdered father: “Dragged from altars by a father’s unseen wrath, none can offer shelter, there can be no sanctuary, just lonely death, disgraced and despised, wasting away, reduced to nothing(The Libation Bearers, 293-296).” Orestes knew he would suffer regardless of which path that he took, but ultimately he knew that to let his mother continue her reign would burden him the most. Orestes ceases to refer to Clytemnestra as his mother for the entirety of the play, save for one line when he was doubting his resolve: “Pylades, what should I do? How can I kill my own mother?”(The Libation Bearers 899). This shows his rejection of Clytemnestra as his true family. He makes it clear that Clytemnestra is not “family”, thus he is still choosing his family in this situation. Because she is not family, she does not deserve his loyalty, which allows him to build up the resolve to kill her.
Clytemnestra was also given a difficult choice, although, her decision was made even before the play began. Clytemnestra chose her sacrificed daughter and her lover, Aegisthus, as the “family” to whom she held loyalty. Clytemnestra also held a strong loyalty to power. She needed power in order to get away with murder. She needed power to rule. She needed power, and she would do anything to get it. Clytemnestra betrayed her true family, most importantly her husband, which is why she suffered so greatly in death. Creon also held a strong allegiance to power, and became power hungry and conceited after becoming the king of Thebes. Creon was blinded by the throne and the power that it afforded him. Because of that, Creon no longer gave priority to his family. Creon was being disloyal to his family by neglecting their obligations to bury their family member. This neglect leads to the eventual chain suicide that marks “Antigone”.
In “Oedipus the King” by Sophocles, Oedipus had a fate, and he could either try to avoid it or give in to his cruel destiny. When Oedipus learned of his fate, his first instinct was to run away in order to escape it, inevitably fulfilling his destiny. Oedipus shows a strong loyalty to who he believes to be his family. He takes action in order to avoid a disgraceful future. As it turns out, Oedipus was mistaken in where his loyalties should lie, which brought about the destruction of his family. This shows how loyalty needs to remain with the biological family. The highest priority is protecting the integrity of the biological mother and father. Oedipus was punished because he failed to prevent his atrocious fate. He was punished because he was blind to the truth and only when he was blind literally, could he see. After he knew where his loyalty was supposed to lie, Oedipus made the decision to suffer in order to protect the integrity of his remaining true family: his children.
In “Oedipus at Colonus”, the blind Oedipus was given the power to choose who his real family was, and unsurprisingly he chose the people that were always with him. Oedipus revealed to Theseus that, “Oh no-when I was willing, they refused!”, showing the disloyalty of his sons (Oedipus at Colonus 664). Polynieces and Eteocles felt remorse only when it was clear that Oedipus would hold sway over their futures. Because they were only loyal to Oedipus when they had everything to gain from him, Oedipus curses them and rejects them as family. “But you, my brace of boys, you’re born of a stranger, you’re no sons of mine!”(Oedipus at Colonus 1549-1550). In fact, because his daughters were the ones who nursed him, Oedipus feels that Ismene and Antigone are his true sons: “They’re men, not women, look, when it comes to shouldering my burdens.”(Oedipus at Colonus 1548-1549). Oedipus’s monologue comparing his sons and daughters shows how loyalty in the family is first given to the man and then secondly to the woman. Because his daughters were the ones to take care of him, Ismene and Antigone were closer to sons for Oedipus than his actual sons.
In “Antigone”, the final Theban play, Antigone had to choose between living in confliction or dying in resolution. Antigone stood up for what she felt was the just answer. When she decided to bury her brother, Antigone showed loyalty to both her family as well as the wishes of the gods. Like in “The Libation Bearers”, Antigone rejects Creon as her family even though they are related by blood. This can be seen in the line “ no loved one mourns my death.”, suggesting that all of her “family” is already gone (Antigone 968). Antigone’s loyalty currently lies with her father, mother, and brothers. Antigone also proclaims “if I had been the mother of children or if my husband died, exposed and rotting- I’d never have taken this ordeal upon myself,”(Antigone 996-998). This further reinforces how important her parents and siblings are to her. “A husband dead, there might have been another, a child by another too, if I had lost the first. But mother and father both lost in the halls of Death, no brother could ever spring to light again.” her loyalty lies first with her family because she is the last one alive(Antigone 1001-1004). Men were the ones who carried the line; with no more brothers, Antigone’s family line can no longer continue. Antigone also rejects Ismene as her sister when she proclaims herself to be the only daughter left in the family. Ismene wanted to follow the law, so she was not being loyal to her family. Because of her lack of loyalty to her family, Ismene is unworthy of dying for her family in Antigone’s eyes.
When a character goes against their loyalties to their family, they suffered greatly without closure. When their loyalty was with their family, their suffering brought closure to their situation. Orestes suffered for his father and sister, and he came out victorious in the end. Clytemnestra was not loyal to her family, and that ultimately led to her wretched existence in death. Oedipus did not know where his loyalty truly lied, so he was punished in order for him to see the truth. In “ Oedipus in Colonus” Oedipus, now blind, came to see that his loyalty laid with his daughters who reciprocated his loyalty, and not his sons whose loyalties were with the throne and themselves. Loyalty should always be to the family, no matter what the consequence is for remaining loyal.