“The Phoenician Women” by Euripides

Oedipus Mourning His Wife and Sons

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world”

I wonder if John Lennon would still have imagined “brotherhood of man” if he had read this play: Two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices, two brothers killed each other in a single combat, because they were not willing to share their father’s kingdom.

As in many of Euripides’ plays, the main theme of “The Phoenician Women” is justice, more specifically, the struggle between those in power and the disenfranchised. There are also profiles in courage and cowardice, sacrifice and greed, devotion and betrayal.

The tragedy of Oedipus and his family seems to be the story of mankind, repeated over and over again throughout history. As Jocasta pleads with her two sons, one could almost hear the poet himself, as the voice of humanity, pleading with her children, to abide by justice and be reconciled to each other. As an example of virtue and antidote of evil, Euripides commended the action of Menoeceus, the cousin of the two dueling brothers, who sacrificed himself to save the city.


Eteocles: “If all were at one in their ideas of honor and wisdom, there would be no strife to make men disagree; but, as it is, fairness and equality have no existence in this world beyond the name; there is really no such thing. I will tell you this, mother, without any concealment: I would go to the rising of the stars and the sun, or beneath the earth, if I were able so to do, to win Tyranny, the greatest of the gods. Therefore, mother, I will not yield this blessing to another rather than keep it for myself; for it is cowardly to lose the greater and to win the less.”

Jocasta: “Why, my son, do you so long for Ambition, that worst of deities? Oh, do not; the goddess is unjust; many are the homes and cities once prosperous that she has entered and left, to the ruin of her worshippers; and she is the one you are mad for. It is better, my son, to honor Equality, who always joins friend to friend, city to city, allies to allies; for Equality is naturally lasting among men; but the less is always in opposition to the greater, and begins the dawn of hatred. For it is Equality that has set up for man measures and divisions of weights, and has determined numbers; night’s sightless eye, and radiant sun proceed upon their yearly course on equal terms, and neither of them is envious when it has to yield. Though both sun and night are servants for mortals, you will not be content with your fair share of your heritage and give the same to him? Then where is justice? Why do you honor to excess tyranny, a prosperous injustice, why do you think so much of it? Admiring glances are to be prized? No, that is an empty pleasure. Or do you want to have many troubles from the many riches in your house? What advantage is it? The name only; for the wise find what suffices to be enough. Mortals indeed have no possessions of their own; we hold the management of the gods’ property; and when they will, they take it back again. Prosperity is not secure, but as transient as the day.”

“Lay aside your violence, my sons, lay it aside; two men’s follies, once they meet, result in very deadly evil.”

Menoeceus: “Know this, I will go and save the city, and give my life up for this land. For it is shameful: those whom no oracles bind and who have not come under divine necessity, stand there, shoulder to shoulder, with no fear of death, and fight for their country before her towers; while I leave the land like a coward, a traitor to my father and brother and city; wherever I live, I shall seem base. … I will go, and standing on the topmost battlements, will sacrifice myself over the dragon’s deep, dark den, the spot the seer described, and will set my country free. I have spoken. Now I go to make the city a present of my life, no mean offering, to rid this kingdom of its affliction. For if each were to take and expend all the good within his power, contributing it to the common good of his country, our states would experience fewer troubles and would prosper for the future.”



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