George Gascoigne,
Francis Kinwelmershe


Note:Although the title page of the play as first published in George Gascoigne's A Hundredth Sundrie Flowres (1573) states that Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmershe "translated and digested" Euripedes (Phoenissae), the play is actually a close translation of Ludovico Dolce's adaptation of R. Winter's Latin translation of 1541, Giocasta. According to Gascoigne's notes to the play, Kinwelmershe was responsible for Acts 1 and 4, Gascoigne for 2, 3, and 5. The play was performed before the Queen at the Inns of Court (Gray's Inn) in 1566, with an elaborate staging that included many non-speaking performers in the dumb shows and ceremonial processions that frame the acts and scenes.


'The first Greek tragedy presented on the English stage.'

a synoptic, alphabetical character list


A "ghost character", Adrastus is King of Argos. He has come to Thebes with his Argive army to help his son-in-law Polynice avenge Eteocles' refusal to honor their agreement. When the assault on the city is repulsed by the Thebans, he withdraws his army to their camp, and gives up the war when Eteocles and Polynice kill each other.


Oedipus' and Jocasta's daughter, Antigone announces to Bailo her allegiance to Polynice rather than to Eteocles. She accompanies her mother to the battlefield, watches the brothers kill each other and the suicide of her mother, and after the Theban soldiers rout the Greeks brings the royal bodies back to the city. She summons Oedipus to witness the dire results of his crimes. Creon reaffirms her betrothal to Haemon, but when the new king banishes Oedipus and denies burial rites to Polynice she rebukes him bitterly, and resolves to accompany her banished father to Athens.


A "ghost character." Argia is Adrastus' daughter and Polynice's wife; she has stayed in Argos and does not appear on stage.


A group of mute female Bacchanales accompanies the priest of Bacchus to the stage.


Bailo is Antigone's tutor (this Italian designation tells us that Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe were working from Dolce rather than a Greek or Latin text of Euripides). He tells her about the besieging army and about Polynices' projected parlay with Eteocles.


The Chorus and Polynice express their reverence for Bacchus, tutelary god of the Greek drama and of the city of Thebes.


A "ghost character." The first messenger describes how during the assault the Greek hero Capaney climbed to the top of the walls of Thebes, but as he exulted there was struck dead by a bolt of lightning; the event encouraged the Thebans and caused Adrastus to withdraw.


The Chorus, four women of Thebes, comes on at the end of the first scene and remains on stage throughout the rest of the play, commenting on the action and occasionally making an introduction or asking a question of one of the characters.


Jocasta's brother Creon advises Eteocles to put a Theban hero in charge of each of the city's seven gates. He learns from Tyresias that only by sacrificing his son Menetius can the city be saved from destruction by the besieging army; he dismisses the boy's willingness to die, and sends him away to Thesbeotia. When he learns that, instead, Menetius has killed himself in front of Eteocles, he resolves to satisfy the second part of Tyresias' prophecy and rule in Thebes. After the battle and the death of the sons of Oedipus has made him king he reaffirms the bethrothal of Antigone and Haemon, banishes Oedipus, denies burial rites to Polynice, and banishes Antigone, too, when she refuses to honor his orders.


The Curiatii, three Roman brothers, are imaged in the fourth dumb show to express the power of brotherly affiliation and the vulnerability that ensues when brothers are divided.


The Roman hero Curtius is represented in the third dumb show as accomplishing by heroically leaping into a chasm what others could not do by ordinary labor or the use of money.


The older of Oedipus' sons, Eteocles has reneged on his agreement with Polynice that they would share the throne of Thebes, one serving as king for a year while the other went abroad, and then changing places, and as the play begins, having declined to yield the crown to Polynice, faces the threat of a foreign army at his gates with his brother at its head. At Jocasta's behest, he agrees to a parlay with Polynice at the city's gates, but curtly refuses ever to step down from the throne, and sends his brother back to the Greek camp with a shower of insults. In the ensuing battle the Greeks are repulsed; Eteocles chases them back to their trenches, and there meets Polynice to settle the quarrel in single combat: they kill each other.


The unpredictable goddess Fortune is the central figure of the fifth dumb show and the final choral ode.


Four mute gentlemen accompany Creon onto and off the stage.


Eteocles, in thanks for Creon's support, pledges to give his sister Antigone in marriage to Creon's son Haemon.


Four mute handmaids accompany Jocasta at all times.


The Horatii, three Roman brothers, are imaged in the fourth dumb show to express the power of brotherly affiliation and the vulnerability that ensues when brothers are separated.


A "ghost character." Ismena, daughter of Jocasta and Oedipus, does not appear on the stage, but is several times referred to as suffering with the others from the strife between Eteocles and Polynice.


The Queen of Thebes, Jocasta tells Servus the sad tale of her marriage to her son Oedipus, the birth of their two sons and two daughters, her husband's discovery of his crimes of parricide and incest, his blinding of himself, his imprisonment by his sons, and his curse that they should kill one another. She has asked the two brothers to negotiate a peace, welcomes Polynice dressed in mourning, and urges both her sons to settle their dispute amicably. She tells Polynice to check his ambition and assures him that he will gain no glory by bringing misery to Thebes should he be victorious, and lose his Greek wife if not his life if he fails. The parlay founders on Eteocles' intransigence; in the ensuing battle, the Greeks are repulsed, and Eteocles challenges Polynice to settle the issue man to man. Jocasta calls Antigone and the two women make for the battlefield, hoping to prevent the fight. We learn from a messenger that they fail, and that when the brothers kill each other Jocasta seizes Polynice's dagger and plunges it into her own throat.


A "ghost character." Jove is repeatedly invoked by the Chorus and several of the characters as the leader of the gods and the final arbiter of human destinies.


A "ghost character." According to the third messenger, before his fight with Eteocles, Polynice prayed to Juno for her support.


A "ghost character." Formerly king of Thebes, Laius initiated the disastrous events coming to a climax in this play when he tried to subvert the prophecy that his son would be his death by placing the infant to die in the wilderness. The boy, Oedipus, is rescued however, and survives to fulfill the prophecy. Jocasta tells the story to Servus to open the play.


Tyresias' daughter, Manto leads the blind soothsayer onto the stage, and then offers the sacrified goat to Bacchus.


A "ghost character." Mars is extensively invoked in the second choral ode, along with Venus and Jove.


Creon's son, Menetius fetches Tyresias to observe the sacrifice and advise his father, stands by to learn that only by being sacrificed himself can the city be saved from destruction, evinces a high-minded willingness to die, but is sent by Creon to Thesbeotia before Tyresias can tell others of his prophecy. Instead, however, the boy goes to Eteocles, announces the prophecy, and kills himself in order to save the city.


Three messengers figure in the play:
  • The first Theban messenger, a servant of Jocasta, arrives at the beginning of Act 4 to report that all is well: despite the challenge of Capaney the Greek assault has been repulsed, and Adrastus has withdrawn, with Eteocles in pursuit. He chills Jocasta's blood, however, by going on to say that to save further Theban and Greek losses, Eteocles and Polynice have resolved to settle the quarrel in hand-to-hand combat.
  • A second messenger brings Creon news of his son Menetius' death.
  • A third messenger (who may, however, be the same as 1 or 2) brings Creon an account of the fight between Eteocles and Polynice, in which they kill each other (making Creon king of Thebes), of Jocasta's suicide, and of the withdrawal of Adrastus and his army.


Jocasta tells Servus how the infant Oedipus, rescued by a shepherd after he was abandoned in the wilderness and raised to manhood as the son of the king and queen of Corinth, left that city in a vain attempt to escape the prophecy that he should slay his father. In his flight, however, he encountered his true father, Laius, killed him in battle, then came to Thebes and married his mother, Jocasta. When his crimes were discovered, he blinded himself, and was imprisoned by his sons, on whom he pronounced this curse: that they should destroy one another. At the time of the play, he still lives in a Theban dungeon, reiterating his curse. After the deaths of Eteocles, Polynice, and Jocasta, Antigone summons him to the stage to witness the results of his crimes. Creon banishes him, and at the play's end he and Antigone are setting out for exile in Athens.


A "ghost character."Jocasta tells Servus how Polibus, king of Corinth, adopted and raised the young Oedipus as his own son.


At the beginning of the play, Polynice, younger son of Oedipus and Jocasta, has come to Thebes with the army of his father-in-law, Adrastus, to punish his brother Eteocles for violating their agreement to occupy the throne of Thebes in turn, a year on and a year off. He agrees to his mother's request that he meet Eteocles, but the parlay fails. In the ensuing battle the early success of the Greeks is broken by the death of Capaney; driven back to the trenches, Polynice challenges Eteocles to settle the quarrel one-on-one, and they kill each other. When Creon orders that his body should be left unburied, Antigone declines to marry Haemon and sets out to accompany Oedipus into exile in Athens.


A "ghost character." In her opening exposition, Jocasta tells Servus how the childless king and queen of Corinth raised the rescued infant Oedipus as their own son.


This Theban priest of Bacchus sacrifices a goat with all due ceremony.


The faithful Servus (the designation presumably signaling his function, not his name) listens to Jocasta's account of the sad state of Thebes and moralizes on it.


Sesostros, King of Egypt, appears in the dumb show that opens the play, riding in a chariot drawn by four kings, as an emblem of "vnbrideled ambitious desire."


A "ghost character". By fighting Tydeus outside the walls of Argos, Polynice attracted the notice of Adrastus; each of the combatants marries one of the King's daughters.


The celebrated blind soothsayer Tyresias is summoned by Creon to foresee the city's fate; after observing the sacrifice, and pretending to the priest that all will be well, he tells Creon that only by the sacrifice of the latter's son Menetius can the city escape destruction.


A "ghost character". In the second choral ode, Venus is urged to distract her lover Mars from his bloody work at Thebes; later, her vengeful blinding of Tyresias is recalled.


A "ghost character". Ver, the goddess of spring, is celebrated in the fourth choral ode.

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