Euripides’s Phoenician Women comes down to us as a heavily edited dialogue. Some have suggested it was performed during Euripides’s lifetime, while others have suggested it remained unfinished and was expanded upon by later Greek writers.
The play is an interpretation of Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes – in which Oedipus’s two sons, Polynices and Eteocles battle for the kingship of Thebes. Recall in the Oedipus story, that he has married his own mother in a twisted turn of fate. Upon realizing the horrid truth of his life, Oedipus blinds himself and his sons hide him away in the palace, hoping that the people of Thebes forget this story. Oedipus then curses his sons – that neither would be able to rule without killing the other. Therefore, they agree to each rule for only one year, however in practice they are unwilling to relinquish power to the other brother. This sparks a civil war. This is the point at which Euripides’s play begins.
Jocasta, Oedipus’s mother who has not yet killed herself, appears onstage and laments her family’s fate. She plays the role of a judge between the two brothers, criticizing Eteocles for his blind pursuit of power and bemoaning Polynices’s decision to raise in army against his brother. There is an odd detour in the plot in which Polynices is advised by the seer, Tiresias, to kill his own son, which he neglects to do so his son decides to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Meanwhile Polynices and Eteocles duel in battle for the throne of Thebes and ultimately kill each other. Upon hearing the news, Jocasta, overcome with grief, also kills herself. The old and frail Oedipus is led away from the palace of Thebes with his daughter, Antigone, as Creon of Athens assumes control of the city. Oedipus and his daughter make their way to Athens for his exile.
The play is a continuation of the story of Oedipus – the man who refused to accept his tragic fate. Although Oedipus plays a minor role in the play, his fate looms large over the plot. It is a chaotic play about a power vacuum that is created when Oedipus becomes blinded by the horrible truth that he has unknowingly wedded his own mother, and his two sons cannot jointly maintain power over the kingship. Therefore, Thebes descends into chaos and becomes a fallen city, the prey of another more stable city under Creon’s rulership. The character of Oedipus is old and tired, ready for death and willing the impending chaos that has befallen Thebes. Meanwhile his two sons kill each other, along with their sons, and his wife who is also his mother, Jocasta, also kills herself.
It is difficult to decipher what of this play originated from the mind of Euripides himself, however the plot clings heavily to the coattails of Aeschylus’s earlier and superior version of the story in the Seven Against Thebes.