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The Phoenician Women (Also known by the Greek title, Phoenissae) is a tragedy by Euripides based on the same story as Aeschylus' play Seven Against Thebes. The title refers to the Greek chorus, which is composed of Phoenician women on their way to Delphi who are trapped in Thebes by the war. Unlike some of Euripides' other plays, the chorus does not play a significant role in the plot. Patriotism is a significant theme in the story, as Polyneices talks a great deal about his love for the city of Thebes but has brought an army to destroy it; Creon is also forced to make a choice between saving the city and saving the life of his son.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

The play opens with a summary of the story of Oedipus and its aftermath told by Jocasta, who in this version has not committed suicide. She explains that after her husband blinded himself upon discovering that he was her son, his sons Eteocles and Polyneices locked him away in hopes that the people might forget what had happened. He curses them, proclaiming that neither would rule without killing his brother. To avert this, they have agreed to split the country - Polyneices allows Eteocles to rule for one year. When the year expired, Eteocles was to abdicate, allowing his brother to rule for a year. He refused to do so, forcing his brother into exile instead. While exiled, Polyneices went to Argos, where he married the daughter of Adrastus, king of the Argives. He then persuaded Adrastus to send a force to help him reclaim the city. Jocasta has arranged for a cease-fire so that she can mediate between her two sons.

She converses with Polyneices about what his life in exile was like, and then listens to both of their arguments. Polyneices re-explains the situation, and that he is the rightful king. Eteocles replies, saying that he desires power above all else and will not surrender it unless forced to. Jocasta reprimands them both, telling Eteocles his ambition may destroy the city and criticizing Polyneices for bringing an army to sack the city he loves. They argue, but are unable to reach any agreement.

Eteocles then meets with Creon to plan for the coming battle; since the Argives are sending one company against each gate, the Thebans select one company to defend each of the seven gates. Eteocles also asks Creon to ask Teiresias for advice, and gives the order that anyone who buries Polyneices in Theban soil is to be executed.

Teiresias reveals that Creon must kill his son Menoeceus. He explains that when the city was founded, it was by men who had sprung from the ground where Cadmus sowed the teeth of a serpent he had killed, but the serpent was sacred to Ares, who would punish Thebes unless a sacrifice was made. As only Creon and his son were pure-blooded descendents of the men who sprouted from the ground, Menoeceus was the only choice. Creon is told he can only save the city by sacrificing his son, and instructs Menoeceus to flee to the oracle at Dodona; Menoeceus agrees but secretly goes to the serpent's lair to sacrifice himself and appease Ares.

Jocasta then receives a messenger, who tells her about the progress of the war and that her sons are both alive, but have agreed to fight one-on-one for the throne. She and her daughter Antigone go to try to stop them. Shortly after they depart, Creon hears about how the duel has gone. Eteocles mortally wounded Polynieces, who was able to deliver a fatal blow to his brother; the two died at the same instant. Jocasta, overcome with grief, killed herself immediately.

Antigone enters, lamenting the fate of her brothers; Oedipus emerges from the palace and she tells him what has happened. After he has a little while to mourn, Creon banishes him from the country and orders Eteocles but not Polyneices to be buried in the city. Antigone fights him over the order and breaks of her engagement with his son Haemon. She decides to accompany her father into exile, and the play ends with them departing for Athens. For more on what happens to Antigone, see the play Antigone by Sophocles, which takes place soon after these events.

Translations

  • Edward P. Coleridge, 1891 - prose: full text
  • Arthur S. Way, 1912 - verse
  • Elizabeth Wyckoff, 1958 - verse
  • Andrew Wilson, 1994 - prose: full text

Plays by Euripides

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