Sunday, August 5, 2012

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Table of Contents
1. Oedipus Rex: Introduction
2. Oedipus Rex: Sophocles Biography
Oedipus Rex: Summary

¨ Act I Summary
¨ Act II Summary
¨ Act III Summary
¨ Act IV Summary
¨ Act V Summary
3.
Oedipus Rex: Essential Passages
¨ Essential Passages by Character: Oedipus
¨ Essential Passages by Theme: Fate
4.
5. Oedipus Rex: Themes
6. Oedipus Rex: Style
7. Oedipus Rex: Historical Context
8. Oedipus Rex: Critical Overview
Oedipus Rex: Character Analysis
¨ Creon
¨ Jocasta
¨ Oedipus
¨ Teiresias
¨ Other Characters
9.
Oedipus Rex: Essays and Criticism
¨ Oedipus: Possibly the Greatest of all Tragedies
¨ Review of Oedipus Rex
¨ Oedipus: From Man to Archetype
10.
11. Oedipus Rex: Compare and Contrast
12. Oedipus Rex: Topics for Further Study
Oedipus Rex 1
13. Oedipus Rex: Media Adaptations
14. Oedipus Rex: What Do I Read Next?
15. Oedipus Rex: Bibliography and Further Reading
16. Oedipus Rex: Pictures
17. Copyright
Oedipus Rex: Introduction
Sophocles's Oedipus Rex is probably the most famous tragedy ever written. It is known by a variety of titles
(the most common being Oedipus Rex), including Oedipus the King and Oedipus Tyrannus. Sophocles first
produced the play in Athens around 430 B.C. at the Great Dionysia, a religious and cultural festival held in
honor of the god Dionysus, where it won second prize. In the play Oedipus, King of Thebes, upon hearing that
his city is being ravaged by fire and plague, sends his brother-in-law Creon to find a remedy from the Oracle
of Apollo at Delphi. When Creon returns Oedipus begins investigating the death of his predecessor, Laius,
and discovers through various means that he himself was the one who had unknowingly killed Laius and then
married his own mother, Jocasta. Jocasta commits suicide, Oedipus blinds himself, takes leave of his children,
and is led away. Aristotle praises the play in his Poetics for having an exemplary, well-constructed plot, one
which is capable of inspiring fear and pity not only in its audience but especially in those who have merely
heard of the story. Following Aristotle's appraisal, many prominent authors including Voltaire, Frederich
Nietzsche, and Sidmund Freud reacted at length to the play's themes of incest and patricide. In the twentieth
century, the most influential of these thinkers, Freud, showed that Oedipus's fate is that of every man; the
"Oedipus Complex" is the definitive parent-child relationship. Throughout history, writers have drawn upon
the myth of Oedipus, and dramatists, composers, and poets, including Pierre Corneille, Fredrich von Schiller,
Heinrich von Kleist, William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky, and Jean Cocteau, have both written
on, translated, and staged the tragedy; contemporary filmmakers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Woody Allen
have directed self-consciously autobiographical versions of Oedipus Rex.
Oedipus Rex: Sophocles Biography
Sophocles was born in Colonus, Greece, c. 496 B.C. and died in Athens c. 406 B.C. The son of an armor
manufacturer, he was a member of a family of considerable rank, was well-educated, and held a number of
significant political positions, in addition to being one of the best dramatists in his age—an age in which his
dramatic peers included the famed playwrights Euripides and Aeschylus. Sophocles studied under the
musician Lampras and under Aeschylus, later becoming his rival. He lived and wrote during an era known as
the Golden Age of Athens (480-406 B.C.); in 480 and 479 B.C. the city had won the battles of Salamis and
Plataea against Persian invaders, thereby inaugurating what would become a definitive period in the history of
western literature and society, famed for its flourishing political and cultural life. The Golden Age lasted until
Athens's humiliating defeat to Sparta in 404 B.C., after 27 years of war between the two city-states
(commonly referred to as the Peloponnesian War).
In many ways, the dramatic arts stood at the center of the cultural achievements of the Golden Age, and the
popularity and success of the plays of Sophocles were evident in his own day. His works were produced at the
Great Dionysia in Athens, an annual festival honoring the god Dionysus and culminating in the famous
dramatic competitions. Sophocles won first prize over twenty times in the competition, beginning with
Triptolemos in 468 B.C., the first year that Aeschylus lost the contest to him. Euripides lost to Sophocles in
438 B.C. Unfortunately, Triptolemos is one among many of Sophocles's lost plays. He is purported to have
written over one hundred tragedies, yet only seven have survived to the modern era; Ajax (c. 450 B.C.);
Antigone (c. 442 B.C.); Ichneutai (translated as The Trackers,, c. 440 B.C.); The Trachiniae (c. 440-430
B.C.); Oedipus The King (c. 430-426 B.C.); Electra(c. 425-510 B.C.); Philoctetes (409 B.C.); and Oedipus at
Colonus (c. 405 B.C.).
eNotes: Table of Contents 2
While there is some dispute among scholars as to their actual relationship, three of Sophocles's surviving
works are thought to comprise a trilogy. Known as the Theban Trilogy the plays are Antigone, Oedipus The
King, and Oedipus at Colonus. All of these plays draw upon the ancient story of Oedipus, King of Thebes.
The sources for Sophocles's version of this legendary tale are thought to include Book XI of Homer's Odyssey,
two ancient epic poems entitled the Oedipodeia and the Thebais, and four plays by Aeschylus, including
Seven against Thebes.
In addition to being a dramatist and a public official, Sophocles also was a priest of the god Amynos, a healer.
He married a woman named Nicostrata and had two sons, Iophon and Agathon.
Oedipus Rex: Summary
Act I Summary
Prologue
Oedipus Rex begins outside King Oedipus's palace, where despondent beggars and a priest have gathered and
brought branches and wreaths of olive leaves. Oedipus enters and asks the people of Thebes why they pray
and lament, since apparently they have come together to petition him with an unknown request. The Priest
speaks on their behalf, and Oedipus assures them that he will help them. The Priest reports that Thebes has
been beset with horrible calamities—famine, fires, and plague have all caused widespread suffering and death
among their families and animals, and their crops have all been destroyed. He beseeches Oedipus, whom he
praises for having solved the riddle of the Sphinx (an action which justified his succession to King Laius, as
Jocasta's husband and as king) to cure the city of its woes. Oedipus expresses his profound sympathy and
announces that he sent Creon, the Queen's brother, to Delphi to receive the Oracle of Apollo, in order to gain
some much-needed guidance.
Creon arrives and Oedipus demands, against Creon's wishes, that he report the news in front of the gathered
public. Creon reports that the gods caused the plague as a reaction against the murder of their previous king,
Laius, and that they want the Thebans to "drive out pollution sheltered in our land"; in other words, to find the
murderer and either kill or exile him (Laius had been killed on the roadside by a highwayman). Oedipus vows
to root out this evil. In the next scene, the chorus of Theban elders calls upon the gods Apollo, Athena, and
Artemis to save them from the disaster.
Act I
Declaring his commitment to finding and punishing Laius's murderer, Oedipus says that he has sent for
Teiresias, the blind prophet. After much pleading and mutual antagonism, Oedipus makes Teiresias say what
he knows: that it was Oedipus who killed Laius. Outraged at the accusations Oedipus calls him a
"fortuneteller" and a "deceitful beggar-priest." Both are displaying what in Greek is called orge, or anger,
towards each other. Oedipus suspects the seer of working on Creon's behalf (Creon, as Laius's brother, was
and still is a potential successor to the throne). Teiresias thinks the king mad for not believing him and for
being blind to his fate (not to mention ignorant of his true parentage). Oedipus then realizes that he does not
know who his real mother is. Teiresias is led out while saying that Oedipus will be discovered to be a brother
as well as a father to his children, a son as well as a husband to the same woman, and the killer of his father.
He exits and the Chorus enters, warning of the implications of the decisive, oracular charges against Oedipus.
Act II Summary
Creon expresses great desire to prove his innocence to Oedipus, who continues to assert that Creon has been
plotting to usurp the throne. Creon denies the accusations, saying he is quite content and would not want the
Oedipus Rex: Sophocles Biography 3
cares and responsibilities that come with being king. Oedipus calls for his death. Jocasta, having heard their
quarrel, enters and tries to pacify them, and the Chorus calls for proof of Creon's guilt before Oedipus
punishes him. Jocasta reminds Oedipus of Apollo's oracle and also of the way Laius died. She recounts the
story as it was told to her by a servant who was there at the crossroads where a charioteer and an old man
attacked a man, who in turn killed them. Hearing the tale, Oedipus realizes that he was the murderer and asks
to consult the witness, the shepherd, who is sent for. The Chorus expresses its trust in the gods and prays to
Heaven for a restoration of faith in the oracle.
Act III Summary
Jocasta prays to Apollo to restore Oedipus's sanity, since he has been acting strange since hearing the manner
in which Laius's died. A messenger tells her that King Polybos (the man Oedipus believes to be his father) has
died and that the people of Isthmus want Oedipus to rule over them. Oedipus hopes this news means that the
oracle is false (he hasn't killed his father since Polybos has died of old age), but he still fears that he is
destined to marry his mother. The messenger tells him that Polybos was not his father and that he, a shepherd,
had been handed the child Oedipus by another shepherd, one of Laius's men. Jocasta tries to intervene and
stop the revelations, but Oedipus welcomes the news.
Act IV Summary
The shepherd enters and tells Oedipus, after a great deal of resistance, that he is Laius's son and that he had
had him taken away to his own country by the messenger so as to avoid his fate. The chorus bewails the
change in Oedipus from revered and fortunate ruler to one who has plunged into the depths of wretchedness.
Act V Summary
A second messenger reports that Jocasta has just committed suicide, having realized that she was married to
her son and thus had given birth to his children. He also reports that the king, suffering intensely upon hearing
the news of his identity, blinded himself with the Queen's brooches. Oedipus has also requested that he be
shown to the people of Thebes and then exiled; he comes out, bewildered and crying, asking for shelter from
his painful memory, which cannot be removed as easily his eyes could be.
In the darkness of his blindness he wishes he were dead and feels the prophetic weight of the oracle. His
blindness will allow him to avoid the sight of those whom he was destined to wrong and toward whom he
feels immense sorrow and guilt. He asks Creon to lead him out of the country, to give Jocasta a proper burial,
and to take care of his young daughters, Antigone (who comes to play a central role in the play named after
her) and Ismene. In an extremely moving final moment with his children (who, he reminds himself, are also
his siblings), Oedipus hears them and asks to hold their hands for the last time. He tells them they will have
difficult lives and will be punished by men for sins they did not commit; for this reason he implores Thebes to
pity them. He asks Creon again to exile him, and in his last speech he expresses regret at having to depart
from his beloved children. The Chorus ends the play by using Oedipus's story to illustrate the famous moral
that one should not judge a man's life until it is over.
Oedipus Rex: Essential Passages
Essential Passages by Character: Oedipus
Essential Passage 1: Lines 410-418
Act II Summary 4
So tell me, when are you the wise seer? (410)
How is it that, when the singing hound was here,
you never said how the citizens might be freed?
Even though the riddle could not be solved by
the first man who met it, but required prophecy.
But you did not come forth with this, knowing some clue (415)
from birds or gods; instead I came along,
the idiot Oedipus! I stopped her,
working from intellect, not learning from birds.
Summary
As the plague ravages the city of Thebes, Oedipus asks the prophet Tiresias to identify the cause of the
plague. Tiresias has very reluctantly placed the blame on Oedipus himself. In anger, Oedipus rages against
Tiresias for this accusation. Oedipus even accuses Creon, his brother-in-law and co-ruler, of plotting to
remove Oedipus from the throne and thus retain the crown for himself. Boasting, Oedipus recalls how he
saved the city of Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx (the singing hound) that had held Thebes captive
in the absence of its previous ruler, Laius. It was not by the prophecies of old, nor the priests’ reading of
omens in the flights of birds, nor not even by the gods that Thebes was saved. Instead, it was by Oedipus
using his own intellectual strength to rid the city of the threat of the Sphinx.
Essential Passage 2: Lines 648-660
CREON:
What do you want? To cast me from this land?
OEDIPUS:
Hardly—I want you to die, not flee.
CREON:
You are the form of jealousy. (650)
OEDIPUS:
You speak neither to concede nor to persuade?
CREON:
For I see well that you do not understand.
OEDIPUS:
I understand my own affairs well enough.
CREON:
You must know mine equally well.
OEDIPUS:
Not when they are false! (655)
CREON:
Do you understand nothing?
Essential Passages by Character: Oedipus 5
OEDIPUS:
Yet, there must be rule.
CREON:
Not if ruled badly!
OEDIPUS:
O city, city!
CREON:
The city is mine, too, not yours alone! (660)
Summary
Creon vehemently denies Oedipus’s charge of treason. At this point in the work, Creon holds the role of
adviser, though he is one of the three named rulers of Thebes (along with Oedipus and Jocasta). Why would
he want to be saddled with the pressures and burdens of ruling alone, he asks. His life is much easier, his sleep
is much sounder, being in the shadows. Oedipus is the one who wants to rule alone, Creon states. When asked
if he realizes he could be misjudging Creon, Oedipus in his pride says that being right is not important, just so
long as he continues to rule. As Oedipus cries out to Thebes (“my city!”), Creon objects, stating that it is also
his city, not Oedipus’s alone.
Essential Passage 3: Lines 1412-1435
Oh, Cithaeron! Why did you accept me? Why did
you not kill me at once, so that I would never
reveal to men my origins? O Polybus
and Corinth and my old ancestral home—(1415)
so-called—in what a pretty festering
of evils you brought me up! For now I
find myself evil and born from evil people.
O three paths and hidden groves and the
narrow oak coppice at the triple crossroads, (1420)
which drank my own blood from my father
from my own hands, do you still remember me?
What deeds I performed in your presence,
what deeds I was still to do! O marriage, marriage,
you brought me forth, and afterwards again (1425)
you harvested that same seed and revealed
father-brothers, children of kin blood,
brides who were wives and mothers, and all else
counted the most shameful acts by men.
But, since these matters are as foully said as done, (1430)
by the gods, quickly hide me from the sight of men
somehow, or kill me or cast me into the sea,
where you will never see me again.
Go, deem it worthy to touch a poor man!
Yield, do not fear; for my evils are (1435)
such that no one of men can bear but me.
Summary
Essential Passages by Character: Oedipus 6
Jocasta the queen is dead by her own hand. Oedipus—her son, her husband, and the father of her
children—takes the pins that holds her gown and stabs out his eyes. He realizes that what Tiresias had said was
true, despite his angry refusal and condemnation at the prophet and his words. He has lived his life
considering himself blameless and the hero of Thebes. He thought, at the outset of the plague, to be the one to
heal it. Instead, he discovers that he is not the physician but the disease. At last, he accepts responsibility,
begging forgiveness for the people and places that have been affected by his downfall.
Analysis of Essential Passages
Oedipus is the original tragic hero, destined by fate and his own pride to fall from glory into infamy. Oedipus
takes pride first of all in his brilliant mind. As he constantly reminds the people of Thebes, it was his
intellectual powers that freed them from the control of the Sphinx by solving its riddle. Yet he is unaware that
it was in fact a physical act of violence that made the throne available to him. By killing Laius, Oedipus
makes a place for himself through wrath, unable or unwilling to control his emotions. In his encounter with
both Tiresias and Creon, it is clear that anger is born of his pride, fear that he will be proved to be less than he
has presented himself to be.
Oedipus resents having to reign with Creon, even though Creon has willingly taken the lesser role of an
adviser. In the narrative, Creon is a foil by which the pride of Oedipus is displayed. Creon has no ambition for
himself. He does not seek power; rather, he is content to let Oedipus be the high king of Thebes. Yet he insists
that the law, in this case Oedipus’s own curse on the murderer of Laius, be carried out. The law is higher than
the individual, even if that individual is the king. Oedipus does not dispute the law, but he disputes who is to
be the dispenser of the law. The king is the king, no matter if he is right or wrong. Oedipus thus stops being a
just ruler and becomes a tyrant.
Faced with unassailable proof of the charges against him, Oedipus bows before fate. Above the king, above
the law, rules fate. He has pronounced the curse of banishment on the murderer of Laius. In the course of
events, he finds that he is worse than just the murderer of his father: he is the ravisher of his mother and the
curse of his children/siblings. In his pride, instigated at the moment of killing Laius for pushing him off the
road, he has allowed his tragic flaw to bring about not only his own downfall, but that too of his wife, his
children, his city, and his legacy.
Essential Passages by Theme: Fate
Essential Passage 1: Lines 1004-1010
JOCASTA:
Why should a person fear when the ways of fortune
are supreme, when there is no clear foresight? (1005)
It’s best to live at random, however one can.
Do not worry you will wed your mother,
for many mortals already have lain with
their mothers in dreams. Rather, the one for whom
these things are nothing bears life easiest. (1010)
Summary
Oedipus, having lived in fear of the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, has avoided his
boyhood home of Corinth and the people he believes to be his parents: Polybus and Merope. A messenger
arrives with both bad and good news. The bad news is that Polybus has died after a short illness. The good
Essential Passages by Theme: Fate 7
news is that the people of Corinth want Oedipus to be their king. Despite the grief at his father’s death, he is
overjoyed that the prophecy has proved false. Jocasta states that it is chance, not fate, that rules human lives.
No one can see ahead, so all prophecies are false. It is best to live for today rather than in obedience to the
oracles of some priest or prophet.
Essential Passage 2: Lines 1376-1388
OEDIPUS:
Let him die who took off the fierce fetters,
feeding off my feet, and rescued and saved
me from my death, no good deed for me!
For if I had died then,
I would not have brought (1380)
so much pain to my friends or me!
CHORUS:
It is my wish, too, that it have been thus.
OEDIPUS:
I’d not then be my father’s slayer,
nor called the groom of her whence I was born.
Abandoned by the gods, child of sacrilege, (1385)
sharing the source of those I myself sired.
Were some evil greater still than evil,
this, too, would be Oedipus’ lot.
Summary
Jocasta has committed suicide, hanging herself above her marriage bed. In horror at what he has unwittingly
done, Oedipus takes the pins from Jocasta’s gown and gouges out his eyes. Led out to the people, he stands
before them, blinded and destined for exile. Begging to be sent away from Thebes, he curses the shepherd
who took off the pins that bound his ankles together as a baby, destined to die. Saving his life was not mercy.
It condemned those he loved, including the people of Thebes, to fall under the punishment of the gods for his
sin. The Chorus, speaking for the people, agrees. If he had died, as his father had intended, he would not have
been the tool of fate by which his father would die. His wife/mother is now dead. His children are under the
curse of Fate. He can blame no one else. He alone is guilty.
Essential Passage 3: Lines 1553-1559
CHORUS:
People of our country Thebes, behold this Oedipus,
who knew the famous riddle and was a most powerful man,
whose fortunes all the citizens watched with emulation, (1555)
how deep the sea of dire misfortune that has taken him!
Therefore, it is necessary to call no man blessed
as we await the final day, until he has reached
the limit of life and suffered nothing grievous.
Summary
Essential Passages by Theme: Fate 8
The childhood prophecy about Oedipus, that he would kill his father and marry his mother, has been fulfilled,
though with Oedipus’s full ignorance of the significance of his actions. In full honor, he exiled himself from
Corinth so that he would not kill who turned out to be his foster father, Polybus. On his way, he unknowingly
killed Laius, his true father, and after solving the riddle of the Sphinx and becoming the savior of Thebes, he
married the widowed queen, who turned out to be his mother. He has sired four children by his mother, two
grown sons and two young girls. He proclaims a curse on the girls, who can never marry because of their
father’s sins. Creon, now the sole ruler, fulfills Oedipus’s decree that the murderer of Laius must be exiled.
Although Oedipus at the end finds parting from his daughters too painful, the girls are nevertheless taken
away, and Oedipus is forced out of Thebes. In closing, the Chorus addresses the audience, proclaiming that
although Oedipus’s deeds were great, fate had the upper hand.
Analysis of Essential Passages
Fate plays a crucial part in Oedipus Rex, providing the vehicle by which Oedipus’s tragic flaw, hubris, leads
to his downfall. Fate is presented as an impersonal force, beyond the mere whim of the gods. It is the progress
of an individual’s life that has been set in stone from before his or her birth. Neither god nor man may escape
from it. In fact, it is the attempted escape by both Oedipus and Jocasta that brings about fate’s intended
design.
Jocasta is presented with her fate by an early prophecy: her son will kill his father. Laius starts off the chain of
events by trying to control fate: he sentences his son to death. Oedipus is instead taken by a shepherd to
Corinth, where he is reared by Polybus and Merope. Fate follows Oedipus there, with an additional prophecy
stating that not only will he kill his father, but he will marry his mother in his father’s place. The secret of his
birth has been kept from him, not intentionally but out of ignorance. Oedipus then flees Corinth, attempting to
avoid fate’s declarations. As he travels, fate puts him in the way of his father, Laius, thus allowing the first
part of the prophecy to be fulfilled as Oedipus kills Laius in a fit of rage. This leaves the way open for him to
enter Thebes, solve the riddle of the Sphinx, become the hero, and marrying the widow of the late king.
Jocasta is presented as a mocker of fate. She tells Oedipus that one must live for today. Her realization
(anagnorisis, the term created by Aristotle for the sudden enlightenment of the protagonist) that she has put
herself and Oedipus in the path of fate prompts her final act of suicide.
As the Chorus closes the drama, it tells the audience that there is no happiness as long as fate is in control. A
person’s courage, intelligence, power, and even reverence for the gods mean little if fate has determined a
different destiny.
Oedipus Rex: Themes
Oedipus Rex is the story of a king of Thebes upon whom a hereditary curse is placed and who therefore has to
suffer the tragic consequences of fate. During a time of plague, fires, and other forms of decimation, Oedipus
decides to take action to restore life and prosperity to his kingdom, only to discover through this quest that his
identity is not what he thought. He learns that he has killed his father, married his mother, and had children
with her; his wife-mother Jocasta kills herself, and Oedipus blinds himself and goes into exile; his uncle
Creon becomes King of Thebes.
Knowledge and Ignorance
Oedipus's desire to gain knowledge that will help to rid Thebes of its pollution is evident from the beginning
of the play. When the priest comes to him to ask for help, Oedipus has already begun the process of searching
for solutions; he has sent Creon to Delphi to learn from Apollo what measures should be taken. When Creon
enters, Oedipus begins questioning him intensely, declares a search for Laius's murderer, and asks for
Oedipus Rex: Themes 9
Teiresias's assistance as well as that of others; when a member of the chorus offers information Oedipus says,
"tell me. I am interested in all reports." His strong belief that the search for the truth will lead to a successful
cleansing of Thebes is juxtaposed with the reluctance on the part of other characters to deliver their
knowledge. Most fear retribution, since their knowledge points to Oedipus as the source of Thebes's troubles.
This belief should also be understood in the context of Oedipus's ignorance and final, tragic discovery of his
identity; by demanding that others tell him all they know he is forced to confront the hideous facts of his
patricide and incest.
Choices and Consequences
Another theme in the play is the distinction between the truthfulness of oracles and prophecies of the gods
(fate), as opposed to man's ability to influence his life's trajectory through his own actions (free will or
self-determinism). While arguments exist regarding the predominance of these schools of thought, Oedipus
Rex emphasizes the eventual and tragic triumph of the former over the latter. Despite his best efforts to be a
good and wise king and to substantiate his claims about the evil machinations of Creon and Teiresias, fate
works against him and finally shows that he was wrong to believe in a conspiracy. For example, when
Oedipus wishes to punish Creon, he expresses to a member of the chorus his intention to shape his policy in
forcefully self-determining language: "Would you have me stand still, hold my peace, and let this man win
everything, through my inaction?" Again, Oedipus struggles against the oracle that predicts his hand in his
father's death and boldly asserts that it is wrong when Polybos's death is reported: "Polybos/ Has packed the
oracles off with him underground./ They are empty words." But the oracle remains true, and Oedipus is
helpless in the face of its powerful prophecy.
Public vs. Private Life
The extent to which Oedipus desires public disclosure of information is particularly striking in the play's first
scenes. He asks the priest and Creon to speak publicly about the troubles of Thebes and to offer possible clues
and solutions in front of his subjects, in spite of their reservations. Creon asks: "Is it your pleasure to hear me
with all these/ Gathered around us? I am prepared to speak,/But should we not go in?'' Oedipus consistently
refuses to hide any knowledge he will receive and wants his informers to adopt a similar attitude. When
Teiresias refuses to answer Oedipus's call and later resists revealing the king's dark truth, Oedipus grows
impatient, hostile, and abusive. Teiresias would like to keep his information to himself, as will the shepherd in
a later scene, but Oedipus will hear nothing of it. In addition, Jocasta is inclined to evade or gloss over the
truth as it is about to be revealed from various people. She views the matter a private one and tries to protect
Oedipus from the disastrous disclosures. Oedipus, however, refuses to tolerate a world in which secrets exist.
He publicly learns the truth—at the expense of his sanity and happiness. His desire for a Theban society that
fosters truth and openess is an admirable one, one that albeit contributes to his demise.
Oedipus Rex: Style
The Genre of Greek Tragic Drama
Ever since Aristotle's high praise regarding its structure and characterization in his Poetics, Oedipus Rex has
been considered one of the most outstanding examples of tragic drama. In tragedy, a protagonist inspires in
his audience the twin emotions of pity and fear. Usually a person of virtue and status, the tragic hero can be a
scapegoat of the gods or a victim of circumstances. Their fate (often death or exile) establishes a new and
better social order. Not only does it make the viewer aware of human suffering, tragedy illustrates the manner
in which pride (hubris) can topple even the strongest of characters. It is part of the playwright's intention that
audiences will identify with these fallen heroes-and possibly rethink the manner in which they live their lives.
Theorists of tragedy, beginning with Aristotle, have used the term catharsis to capture the sense of purgation
and purification that watching a tragedy yield in a viewer: relief that they are not in the position of the
protagonist and awareness that one slip of fate could place them in such circumstances.
Oedipus Rex: Style 10
Structure
The dramatic structure of Greek drama is helpfully outlined by Aristotle in the twelfth book of Poetics. In this
classical tragedy, a Prologue shows Oedipus consulting the priest who speaks for the Theban elders, the first
choral ode or Parodos is performed, four acts are presented and followed by odes called stasimons, and in the
Exodos, or final act, the fate of Oedipus is revealed.
Staging
Tragedies in fifth-century Athens were performed in the marketplace, known in Greek as the agora. The
dramatic competitions of the Great Dionysia, Athens's annual cultural and religious festival, were held in a
structure made of wood near the Acropolis. The chorus performed on a raised stage. There were no female
actors, and it is still unknown (though much speculated upon) whether women attended these performances. It
is also noteworthy that the performance space was near the Priyx, the area in which the century's increasingly
heated and rhetorically sophisticated political debates took place—a feature of Athenian cultural life that
suggests the pervasive nature of spectacles of polished and persuasive verbal expression.
The Chorus
The Greek chorus, like the genre of tragedy itself, is reputed to be a remnant of the ritualistic and ceremonial
origins of Greek tragedy. Sophocles added three members of the chorus to Aeschylus's twelve. In terms of
form, the choral ode has a tripartite structure which bears traces of its use as a song and dance pattern. The
three parts are called, respectively, the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode; their metrical structures vary
and are usually very complex. If the strophe established the dance pattern, in the antistrophe the dancers trace
backwards the same steps, ending the ode in a different way with the epode.
With respect to content, the choral odes bring an additional viewpoint to the play, and often this perspective is
broader and more socio-religious than those offered by individual characters; it is also conservative and
traditional at times, potentially in an effort to reflect the views of its society rather than the protagonist. The
Chorus's first set of lyrics in Oedipus Rex, for example, express a curiosity about Apollo's oracle and describes
the ruinous landscape of Thebes. Its second utterance reminds the audience of the newness of Teiresias's
report: "And never until now has any man brought word/Of Laius's dark death staining Oedipus the King."
The chorus reiterates some of the action, expressing varying degrees of hope and despair wilh respect to it;
one of its members delivers the play's final lines, much like the Shakespearean epilogue. Sometimes the
chorus sings a dirge with one or more characters, as when it suggests to Oedipus not to disbelieve Creon's
protestations of innocence.
Setting
The play's action occurs outside Oedipus's palace in Thebes. Thebes had been founded, according to the myth,
by Cadmus (a son of Agenor, King of Phoenicia) while searching for his sister Europa, who had been
abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. A direct line of descent can be traced from Cadmus to Oedpius;
between them are Polydorus, Labdacus, and, of course, Laius.
Imagery and Foreshadowing
Associated with knowledge and ignorance are the recurring images of darkness and light in the play, and these
images work as examples of a kind of foreshadowing for which the play is justly famous. When the play
begins, the priest uses this set of contrasts to describe the current condition of Thebes: "And all the house of
Kadmos is laid waste/All emptied, and all darkened." Shortly after this moment, Oedipus promises Creon:
"Then once more I must bring what is dark to light,'' that is, the murder of Laius will out and Oedipus will be
responsible for finding and exposing the culprit(s). Metaphorical and literal uses of darkness and light also
provide foreshadowing, since it is Oedipus's desire to bring the truth to light that leads him to a
self-knowledge ruinous and evil enough to cause him to blind himself. After the shepherd reveals his birth he
declares, "O Light, may I look on you for the last time!" In saying this he sets up for the audience, who are,
presumably, familiar with the legend of Oedipus, his subsequent actions. The second messenger describes his
Oedipus Rex: Style 11
command to himself as he proceeds to perform the gruesome task: "From this hour, go in darkness!" thereby
enacting both a literal and metaphorical fall into the dark consequences of his unbearable knowledge. These
are but a few examples of how imagery and foreshadowing as techniques can meet, overlap, and mutually
inform one another in the play; through subjective interpretation, many more may be found.
Oedipus Rex: Historical Context
Sophocles lived and worked in a time of great cultural significance, not only in the history of Athens but the
greater sense of western democratic culture. Wars with Persia and Sparta, the development of democratic
culture, public architectural projects, and theatrical entertainments, as well as the rise of a distinctively
rhetorical culture (a culture based on the strength of language and writing) are important features of the
Athens during Sophocles's life, known as the Golden Age of Athens.
Soon after Cleisthenes established democracy in Athens in 507 B.C., Athens was threatened by outside
enemies. At the beginning of the fifth century B.C., the Persians, led by Darius, crossed the Aegean to
conquer Athens. After its triumph over Miletos in 494, the Persian army began to be defeated, with Athens
winning the decisive victory at Marathon in 490. The battles of Salamis, Platea, and Mycale in 480-79 were
also won by Athens, and the Persian forces (led by Xerxes I) finally lost the war. The Athenians prided
themselves on their victory over Xerxes; roughly fifteen years after Sophocles's birth, Athens had become an
Empire in its own right, forming the Dehan League in 478-77. From 492-60 the city-state was led by Pericles,
a populist leader who is famous today for his military skill, his rhetorical prowess, and his public building
projects—including the Parthenon. Sophocles himself took part in some of Pericles's projects and in the city's
military life, aiding Pericles in the Samian war (441-39), becoming an ambassador some years later, and
joining the ruling council in 413.
Although the Persian threat had subsided, a new threat arose: the Peloponnesian War with Sparta and other
states under their leadership began in 432. Thucydides, an Athenian general and historian noted for his
impartiality and accuracy, tells the story of this war in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Athens, defeated
in Sicily in 413, surrendered to Sparta (which was being supported by Persia) in 404, the year after Sophocles
died.
In the midst of all this war, Athenian democracy flourished during Sophocles's lifetime, its commercial
enterprises along the eastern Mediterranean coastline were successful, and its cultural life enjoyed immense
nourishment and development. Greek religious life centered around the shrines frequented by worshippers of
Apollo at Delphi, Apollo and Artemis at Delos, and Zeus at Olympia. Festivals were often held at the shrines,
and athletic competitions, dance, song, and theatrical performances also took place. Intellectually, Athens was
thriving—its mathematicians and scientists, after the work of Pythagoras and Xenophanes during the previous
century, began to make new discoveries in arithmetic and geology; Pericles, who studied sophistry with Zeno,
brought the skill of oratory to new, unprecedented heights, and his support of the plastic and literary arts
allowed Athenians to enjoy the lasting achievements of their contemporaries. While public building was
interrupted by the Persian war, it resumed with vigor in the latter half of the fifth century, with the Temple of
Zeus at Olympia and, in Athens, the Temple of Athena Nike, as well as the Parthenon, Propylaea, and the
Erechtheum. Pericles saw to it that elaborate public building projects motivated artists of his time to achieve
greatness for their city.
Greek drama also flourished. Pericles provided entertainments and pageantry, granting allowances for public
festivals so that all men could attend them. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were the three great
dramatists of the age; Sophocles competed successfully with both his teacher Aeschylus and with his
contemporary, Euripides, in the annual tragic competitions of the Great Dionysia. Some of the drama of this
period concerned specific political issues, such as Phrynichos's Capture of Mileros (493) and Aeschylus's
Oedipus Rex: Historical Context 12
Persians (472). Other plays, like Aeschylus's Oresteia and Oedipus Rex address broader questions about
mythological leaders and their relationships to the gods, fate, and their native Greek cultural heritage. While
critics have argued that readers are not meant to draw any parallels between the plague-ridden Thebes in
which Oedipus Rex takes place and the plague in Athens in 430-29 B.C., it is not difficult to surmise that an
audience for whom the experience of such devastation was familiar would have felt particular connections
with their own situation.
Oedipus Rex: Critical Overview
The history of the critical reception to Oedipus Rex begins with Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who in his Poetics
inaugurated the history of formalist and structural analysis of literature, two important cornerstones for the
enterprise of the critical interpretation of literature. In some ways, Poetics can be regarded as the first book of
literary criticism.
The influence of Sophocles in general and Oedipus Rex in particular is enormous, due to the exemplary status
Aristotle granted the play as the greatest tragedy ever written. He gave it high praise for its outstanding
fulfillment of the requirements he set out for tragedy, including reversal of situation, characterization,
well-constructed plot, and rationality of action.
Oedipus Rex contains an excellent moment of "reversal" in the scene in which the messenger comes to tell
Oedipus of the death of Polybos, whom he believes to be Oedipus's father. According to Aristotle, because
Oedipus learns from him inadvertently that Polybos is not his father, "by revealing who he is, he produces the
opposite effect." Aristotle also praised the play for its characterization of the hero, who causes the audience to
feel the right mixture of "pity and fear" while observing his actions. The hero should not be too virtuous, nor
should he be evil: "there remains, then, the character between these two extremes—that of a man who is not
eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or
frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous—a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other
illustrious men of such families."
The plot receives commendation by Aristotle for its ability to stir the emotions of not only its audience
members but, even more significantly, those who merely hear the story:"he who hears the tale told will thrill
with horror and melt to pity at what takes place." In addition, Oedipus Rex succeeds in shaping the action in
such a way that its ramifications are unknown until after the event itself occurs: "the deed of horror may be
done, but done in ignorance, and the tie of kinship or friendship be discovered afterwards here, indeed, the
incident is outside the drama proper." Lastly, Aristotle remarks that he prefers the role of the chorus in
Sophocles to that of Euripides, and that the Oedipus Rex excludes from the play proper any irrational
elements, such as Oedipus's ignorance of the mode of Laius's death. This last point is taken up by Voltaire,
who subjected the play to intense questioning on the basis of the improbability of aspects such as this one.
After Aristotle, the major figures who have analyzed the play include those dramatists, from antiquity to the
present, such as Seneca, Corneille, Dryden, and Hofsmannsthal, who respectively translated the play into
Latin, French, English, and German. Poets and dramatists are themselves acting as critics when they embark
on projects of translation, even if they have not given explicit accounts of how and why they have proceeded.
Implicitly, these works ask their readers to attempt to answer these questions for themselves, and a short list of
the variations on Sophocles's play should begin to generate such study. In 50 A.D, the Roman writer Seneca,
for instance, decided to add an unseen episode narrated by Creon in which the ghost of Laius identifies his
murderer to Teiresias.
In the 1580s in England the Tudor university dramatist William Gager sketched out five scenes for an
unfinished version of the play, combining elements of Seneca's Oedipus and his Phonecian Women with
Oedipus Rex: Critical Overview 13
scenes of his own creation; the first original scene is a lament of a Theban citizen for his dead father and son,
to whom he seeks to give a proper burial in the midst of the plague-ridden city. His Jocasta kills herself
because of her sons' fratricidal struggle for power. In 1659 Corneille prefaced his neo-Classical version of the
play with a notice that he has reduced the number of oracles, left out the graphic description of Oedipus's
blinding because of the presence of ladies in the audience, and added the happy love story of Theseus and
Dirce in order to satisfy all attendees. He keeps Seneca's additional scene but makes Laius's speech more
vague. Dryden, two decades later, self-consciously drew upon Corneille's subplot but chaned its ending to an
unhappy one. Like Corneille he laments the fact that audiences demand such light entertainment
accompanying their experience of great tragic drama.
In the next century, translators and commentators in England and France beginning with Voltaire and
including Pierre Brumoy, Thomas Maurice, and R. Potter brought unique perspectives to the play. Voltaire
believed the play to be defective in ways that many scholars expected from the Enlightenment thinker.
Following Aristotle and going much further in his skeptical stance, in 1716 Voltaire criticized the lack of
plausibility in Oedipus's ignorance of the manner of Laius's death: "that he did not even know whether it was
in the country or in town that this murder was committed, and that he should give neither the least reason nor
the least excuse for his ignorance, I confess that I do not know any terms to express such an absurdity."
Another famous criticism of his concerns the fact that Oedipus, upon learning that the shepherd who knows
his origins is still alive, chooses to consult the oracle "without giving the command to bring before him the
only man who could throw light on the mystery." In contradistinction to Voltaire, in the middle of the
eighteenth century Brumoy movingly expressed his satisfaction with the play. Of the opening scene he wrote:
"This is a speaking spectacle, and a picture so beautifully disposed, that even the attitudes of the priests and of
Oedipus express, without the help of words, that one relates the calamities with which the people are afflicted,
and the other, melted at the melancholy sight, declares his impatience and concern for the long delay of
Creon, whom he had sent to consult the Oracle." Brumoy also recognizes that the play's values are pagan
rather than Christian, and specifically he emphasizes the influential classical notion of destiny, after him, the
English translators Thomas Maurice (1779) and R. Potter (1788) did the same.
German authors, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, dominate the reception history of Oedipus in the
nineteenth century.
Oedipus Rex: Character Analysis
Creon
Creon is the brother of Laius. Before the play begins Oedipus sent him on a mission to receive the Oracle of
Apollo at Delphi, and he returns with its news during the prologue. With great hesitation he reports that "The
god commands us to expel from the land of Thebes/An old defilement we are sheltering.'' He says that in
order to rid the city of its woes, Oedipus must find the murderer of King Laius, his predecessor. Oedipus feels
threatened by Creon and believes that he covets the throne (by some accounts Creon was to have been the
next ruler following his brother's death, and he is thus filled with resentment).
When Teiresias tells the unbelieving Oedipus what he will come to know, his true identity and responsibility
for his father's murder, Oedipus immediately assumes that Teiresias is working for Creon, trying to get him
the throne. Creon takes these accusations seriously and wishes to clear his name: "The fact is that I am being
called disloyal/ To the State, to my fellow citizens, to my friends." Creon defends himself to Oedipus in the
next scene, saying that he has no desire to become king and that Oedipus harms himself and the state in
leveling such accusations. Oedipus grows more incensed and calls for Creon's death; only the pleading of
Jocasta and a member of the chorus prevent him from acting. At the end of the play, after Oedipus has blinded
himself, Creon becomes king and acts with compassion towards the repentant Oedipus, leading him into the
Oedipus Rex: Character Analysis 14
palace and then, as Oedipus requests—and Apollo has ordained—into exile.
Jocasta
Jocasta is Oedipus's wife and mother; she is also the mother of his children. Her first entrance onstage occurs
when Oedipus and Creon are in the midst of arguing; Jocasta storms in and demands that they resolve their
petty personal dispute because the country's troubles are far more urgent: "Poor foolish men, what wicked din
is this?/With Thebes sick to death, is it not shameful/That you should rake some private quarrel up?" She
pleads with Oedipus to believe Creon's good intentions towards him, and their hostilities momentarily abate.
She assures Oedipus that the oracle proclaiming Laius's murder by his own son was false, since Laius was
killed by highwaymen, and his son had been left "to die on a lonely mountainside." Rather than placating
Oedipus, her words haunt him, he recalls "a shadowy memory,'' and asks her to give details about Laius's
death. The surviving witness to the crime, tells Jocasta, had come to her when Oedipus was made king and
asked her if he could be sent far away; she granted him his wish and now is asked by Oedipus to recall this
witness—a shepherd—to the palace to testify about the murder.
Jocasta tells Oedipus not to trust in the truth of oracles. When the messenger arrives to tell of Polybos's death,
Jocasta is hopeful that she can allay Oedipus's fears about fulfilling the prophecy. Later in the same scene she
tries to stop him from questioning the messenger regarding his true father: "May you never learn who you
are!" In her final speech she calls Oedipus "miserable'' and says she will have no other name for him. Towards
the end of the play a second messenger reports that she has hanged herself, giving a moving account of her
wailing and physical expressions of grief during her last moments. Thornton Wilder, the American
playwright, eloquently described Sophocles's artistry in portraying Jocasta in American Characteristics and
Other Essays: "The figure of the Queen is drawn with great precision, shielding her husband form the
knowledge she foresees approaching; alternately condemning and upholding the authority of the oracles as
best suits the direction of the argument at the moment, and finally giving up the struggle."
Oedipus
Oedipus, the title character, is the protagonist of the play. His name means "swell-foot" or "swollen-foot."
One of the most famous dramatic characters in the history of western literature, he was singled out by
Aristotle in his Poetics as the right kind of protagonist because he inspires the right combination of pity and
fear. "This is the sort of man who is not preeminently virtuous and just, and yet it is through no badness or
villainy of his own that he falls into the misfortune, but rather through some flaw in him; he being one of
those who are in high station and good fortune, like Oedipus and Thyestes and the famous men of families
such as these." Oedipus's fatal flaw, the technical Greek term for which is hamartia, can be thought of as a
character fault or a mistake, or more like an Achilles heel rather than a flaw for which he can be held directly
responsible. A hereditary curse has been placed on his family, and he unknowingly has fulfilled the terms of
the prophecy that Laius's son would kill him and marry his wife.
The play's action is concerned with the gradual and delayed revelation of the fulfillment of this oracle. It
specifically focuses on Oedipus's quest for knowledge, on the one hand, and, on the other, the other characters'
resistance to discovering the truth; Jocasta tries to protect her husband/brother from the facts, and the
shepherd cannot be forced to speak until his life is at stake. Oedipus impatiently confronts Creon and Teiresias
with their hesitation to answer his summons to the palace to share their knowledge with him and the public.
Connected with this frustration is a feature of Oedipus's personality for which he is somewhat more
responsible; Oedipus is also said to suffer from a character flaw known as hubris, or pride, and his cruel
treatment of Creon and Teiresias in the aforementioned situations evidences this trait. He insists on hearing
the truth, again and again, in the face of reluctant tellers who are scared for their lives, for his life, and for the
future of Thebes.
Creon 15
Perhaps it is Oedipus's pride which rounds him out and allows Aristotle to hold him up as a well-fashioned
character, since without it he would seem too virtuous and the tragedy would be too "unlikely." Oedipus's
speech is also given a good dose of irony in the play. For example, when he calls for an investigation of
Laius's murder and says "then once more I must bring what is dark to light," he is also foreshadowing his
future blinding, since his investigation will reveal the dark secret of his parentage, metaphorically enlightened
by the truth, but literally blinded by it as well. When he curses the murderer of Laius he is cursing himself and
predicts his own exile and consequent life of "wretchedness." Oedipus is wise (he has solved the riddle of the
Sphinx), revered by his subjects, and dedicated to the discovery of truth. He wants to rid Thebes of the plague
(pollution, a common theme in Greek drama) that is decimating its population. Fate and the gods, however,
have other things in store for Oedipus, and his helplessness and utter ruin at the play's conclusion are a painful
spectacle.
Teiresias
Teiresias, a blind prophet and servant of Apollo, twice was asked by Oedipus to come to the palace to discuss
the crisis in Thebes. In the first act of the play he finally appears, revealing the reasons for the city's
devastation, knowledge that he is reluctant to reveal to Oedipus for fear of making him miserable. Oedipus,
feeling himself to be betrayed by the prophet's resistance, verbally abuses Teiresias ("You sightless, witless,
senseless, mad old man!" ) and accuses him of working on behalf of the "usurper" Creon.
Reluctantly, Teiresias tells Oedipus that he should not mock him so quickly; in a famous moment of
foreshadowing, he tells the king that it is he who is blind: "But I say that you, with both your eyes, are
blind:/You cannot see the wretchedness of your life,/Nor in whose house you live, no, nor with whom."
Significantly, Teiresias is also the first character in the play to question Oedipus's assumption that he knows
his parentage and to tell him that he has committed atrocities that he does not yet know are his own. He tells
Oedipus that he will become blind and poor, that Oedipus is himself Laius's murderer, and that he will learn
that he has fathered children with his mother. While Teiresias's presence on stage is brief, as a prophet
representing the god Apollo he remains one of the most powerful characters in the play; in addition, the
Athenian audience would have recognized him from Homeric mythology (in The Odyssey the title character
must go down into the underworld to gain information from the dead prophet).
Other Characters
Chorus of Theban Elders
Unlike the chorus in Antigone, whose Ode on Man historically has been regarded as a model expression of
Athenian individualism, the chorus in this play has no famous statement, though its role is not insignificant.
The Theban elders of the chorus are considered to be fairly representative men of Thebes who honor and
respect the king and the gods; their odes reveal both a strong attachment to the king as well as a grounding in
religious culture. In The Idea of a Theater, Francis Fergusson likens the chorus' role to that of a character who
provides a broader context for the action of the play as a whole: "the chorus' action is not limited by the sharp,
rationalized purposes of the protagonist; its mode of action, more patient, less sharply realized, is cognate with
a wider, if less accurate, awareness of the scene of human life.''
Messenger
The messenger enters in Scene iii and tells Oedipus that King Polybos of Corinth, whom Oedipus had
believed to be his father, is dead. Oedipus also learns from this messenger that Polybos was not his father; the
messenger himself had been given Oedipus as an infant by one of Laius's men, and that he had untied
Oedipus's bound ankles. He causes the shepherd who left Oedipus to die (having been given him by Jocasta,
his mother) to come in and testify that Oedipus is Laius's son.
Oedipus 16
Messengers were common devices used in Greek drama. They were often used to relate action that occurred
offstage or to summarize events that have taken place between acts or scenes.
Priest
After Oedipus's opening lines, the Priest of Zeus is the next character in the play to speak, and he does so as a
religious leader and elder representative of the people of Thebes. Standing before the king's palace,
surrounded by the Theban people, the priest informs Oedipus (and the audience) of the misery-laden condition
of Thebes: a plague is killing many of the city' s human and animal populations, and fires are destroying the
lands and its crops. He praises Oedipus, who has solved the riddle of the Sphinx, for his wisdom and ability to
improve their lives, and asks of him, on behalf of the people, swiftly and decisively to act and end the
suffering.
Second Messenger
The second messenger appears in the last scene to announce and describe Jocasta's suicide. He also relates
Oedipus's discovery of her body and his subsequent blinding. He predicts future sorrows for a people whose
kings descend from this polluted line. The second messenger also announces Oedipus's entry onstage after his
self-mutilation: "You will see a thing that would crush a heart of stone."
Shepherd of Laius
The old shepherd is summoned by Oedipus so that he can discover his true parentage. The shepherd reveals
his information only after Oedipus threatens his life if he remains silent. He admits to receiving the infant he
gave to Polybos's messenger from Laius and Jocasta. Oedipus realizes his identity and his crimes of patricide
and incest after hearing the shepherd's story.
Oedipus Rex: Essays and Criticism
Oedipus: Possibly the Greatest of all Tragedies
Oedipus Rex is arguably the most important tragedy in all of classical literature. Ever since Aristotle used it in
his Poetics in order to define the qualities of a successful tragedy, its strengths have been emphasized again
and again by countless notable authors, whose remarks illuminate the play' s historical reception as much as
they help us to understand the broader critical climate in which they wrote. When Freud, for example, helped
to shape the direction of twentieth-century thought with his 1900 The Interpretation of Dreams, his coinage of
the term "Oedipal Complex" was an integral part of his definition of dreams and imaginative literature as
representations of wishes that usually remain hidden during normal social interaction. For Freud, then,
Oedipus's predicament dramatizes the desire of every man to marry his mother and kill his father, but whereas
most people tend to harbor or hide these feelings, Oedipus unknowingly acts them out. While still remaining
extremely controversial, his theory's suggestive placement of Oedipus in closer psychological proximity to his
readers throughout history raises fundamental questions about possible relationships between literature and
reality. Other twentieth-century scholars have occupied themselves less with these issues than with local
readings of the play's characters, its plot, structure, and, finally, what it can teach its readers about religious
values and human knowledge in fifth-century Athenian culture, a moment of great historical importance for its
artistic achievements as well as its political culture.
The character of Oedipus has historically inspired a combination of fascination and repulsion. It is generally
acknowledged, however, that he is to be admired for many reasons, and especially for demonstrating, as a
responsible leader, his desire—from the very opening lines of the play—for honesty and directness in
approaching the problem of Thebes's plague. In the Prologue, when he asks the priest to speak for the
petitioners before him, he does so with majestic generosity: "Tell me, and never doubt that I will help you / In
every way I can; I should be heartless / Were I not moved to find you suppliant here." The Priest responds to
Other Characters 17
him with equal magnanimity, praising Oedipus for his past achievements (he solved the riddle of the Sphinx,
sent to Thebes as divine punishment for Laius's sins) and pleading for the help that the capable Oedipus has
proven he can provide. Oedipus's position of power in relation to the Priest is extraordinary; as C. H. Whitman
pointed out in Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism, pagan culture customarily reversed those roles: "The
appeal of the priest, with its moving yet dignified description of the general suffering, is especially remarkable
in that it is an inversion of the usual situation, in which the secular ruler consults the priest or seer about
divine things, as Oedipus later consults Teiresias.''
The scene establishes Oedipus as a ruler not with divine intuition (the Priest also says "You are not one of the
immortal gods, we know"), but with the intellectual prowess to ameliorate Thebes's grave situation. A later
exchange between Creon and Oedipus and the first scene's dialogue between Teiresias and Oedipus, in which
Oedipus presses both figures publicly to utter the oracular knowledge they possess (but are extremely
reluctant to offer) show Oedipus as extremely eager to gain the knowledge that will help to rid Thebes of its
ills. In her recent study of Sophocles, Prophesying Tragedy Tragedy: Sight and Voice in Sophocles's Theban
Plays, Rebecca Bushnell agrees that the play establishes Oedipus as someone "who believes in speaking
freely, but he is not content merely to speak himself; he also forces others to speak." Oedipus shows
fearlessness in the face of turmoil, and his unstoppable quest for public utterance of the truth of the oracle
leads him, tragically, to the knowledge that he has fulfilled its terms. His perception of his responsibilities as
king, however, have led him to be compared to Pericles, the ruler when Sophocles lived and wrote,
remembered for heroically facing the most famous epoch of war and civil strife in Athenian history.
Oedipus has also been noted for possessing a less desirable quality related to his desire for disclosure, and that
quality, hamartia, is an ancient Greek concept that B. R. Dodds, in Greece and Rome, classified as
"sometimes applied to false moral judgments, sometimes to purely intellectual error." Hamartia can be
understood to refer to the all-too-human limitations possessed by the tragic hero, his faults that make him less
than perfect but not blameworthy in any moral sense. While he may have flaws (like the heel of Achilles), we
cannot attribute his downfall to them. Oedipus's impatience with Teiresias's attempt to withhold the contents
of the oracle, for example, led him to suspect the prophet of conspiring against him on behalf of Creon. He
calls Teiresias a "sightless, witless, senseless, mad old man."
A. J. A. Waldock related Oedipus's hamartia to his approach to oracular knowledge. In his Sophocles the
Dramatist, Waldock wrote: "he was in fault for not perceiving the truth, now he is in fault because he is too
urgent to see it." In other words, Oedipus's eagerness to use his mind to act upon and thereby to solve every
problem he encounters, when taken to its logical extreme, leaves no room for the gods' influence over the fate
of man, an idea considered somewhat heretical in a culture which places much emphasis on, and had faith in,
the role of the gods in shaping man's destiny. Readers such as W. P. Winnington-Ingram, in Sophocles: An
Interpretation, have criticized Oedipus because he "trusts his intellect too much and must learn how fallible it
is."
Ultimately, while we can regard Oedipus as both admirable for his leadership skills and noble intentions and
imperfect for his overconfidence and harsh treatment of others, he is a figure whose fate inspires pity and
terror because of his ability to endure misfortune. He blinds himself in an act of self-punishment and
self-protection, since he is deeply horrified by his own crimes and unwilling to face others' gazes: "After
exposing the rankness of my own guilt, / How could I look men frankly in the eyes?" Rather than ending his
life, Oedipus lives to bear the weight of two curses, one imposed on his family line by the gods and the other
self-imposed when he announces his intention to send Laius's murderer into exile. Dodds nicely captured the
pathos of his suffering: "Oedipus is great, not in virtue of a great worldly position—for his worldly position is
an illusion which will vanish like a dream—but in virtue of his inner strength: strength to pursue the truth at
whatever personal cost, and strength to accept and endure it when found."
Oedipus: Possibly the Greatest of all Tragedies 18
Notably, the end of the play does not show Oedipus leaving Thebes; although we see him ask Creon again and
again to lead him into exile, the play ends with him being led into the palace, into a private space and away
from a public domain polluted by his presence. In a detailed discussion of the last scene, M. Davies wrote in
an issue of Hermes that it leaves our vision of Oedipus as a commanding figure very much intact: it "shows
him still acting spontaneously like a king, in the old imperious manner, although the once equivalent temporal
power has now fallen away."
In order to understand both the protagonist and the play itself in the larger context of fifth-century Greece, it is
important to consider the conflicting roles of oracular knowledge and Athenian self-confidence in their
culture's perception of man's place in the universe. At the time of the Peloponnesian War, oracular knowledge
was often doubted because the oracles came from Apollo's shrine at pro-Spartan Delphi; the messages often
reflected an anti-Athenian bias. In an essay on Oedipus Rex in Homer to Brecht: The European Epic and
Dramatic Traditions, Paul Fry noted that "around 427 B.C., when the play was first acted, the priests of
Apollo were out of favor because Apollo's oracles considering the Peloponnesian War were all pro-Spartan."
While this historical fact does not mean that the Priest and Teiresias would have been ridiculous figures for
the play's first audiences, it does mean that Oedipus's skepticism would have been understood and
sympathized with. In the context of the very different times of turmoil that the play depicts, however,
Oedipus's disbelief may have appeared slightly more threatening, since, as Bushnell argued, Oedipus has no
system of belief other than his own intellectual power with which to replace oracular knowledge: "Tiresias's
arrival initiates the conflict between Apollo's signs and Oedipus's voice—a conflict that strikes at the roots of
the city's order, which is based on the cooperation between sacred and secular interests. Oedipus seems to
threaten directly the stability that the fulfillment of oracles represents, without establishing any new
structure." In the plot thus conceived, Apollo's oracle is truth and Oedipus chastises himself for having
believed otherwise: "Oedipus, damned in his birth, in his marriage damned, / Damned in the blood he shed
with his own hand!" As an efficacious tool by which to shape human destiny, the power of oracular
knowledge is retained by the gods, while Oedipus is able to reach lyrical heights in expressing the tragic
consequences of being confined in such a world.
In ancient Athens, dissatisfaction with oracular knowledge was coupled with a growing sense that, in the
words of Protagoras, "man is the measure of all things." Self-confidence in man's ability to order and rule his
world reached even new heights under the leadership of Pericles, whose extensive training in sophistry and
lack of fear in the gods led him to be a highly persuasive thinker who inspired in his subjects a sense of man's
ability to accomplish limitless goals. For Sophocles's contemporaries, Oedipus's intellectual prowess was
probably strongly reminiscent of Pericles—his eloquence and devotion to his country in a time of upheaval
were legendary, and his investment in public building projects (the Parthenon among them) employed laborers
and inspired artists to create beautiful memorials to their epoch.
While Oedipus's affection for Thebes is of a very different nature, his expression of care is moving: "Let me
purge my father's Thebes of the pollution / Of my living here, and go out to the wild hills, / To Kithairon, that
has won such fame with me, / The tomb my mother and father appointed for me, / And let me die there, as
they willed I should." His desire to "purge [his] father's Thebes" and move mentally and physically towards
death provides a powerfully cathartic closure for the play. In The Birth of Tragedy, the philosopher Nietzsche
wrote of the spirituality of this final scene, its ability to leave audiences with a sense of rejuvenation:
"Sophocles understood the most sorrowful figure of the Greek stage, the unfortunate Oedipus, as the noble
human being who, in spite of his wisdom, is destined to error and misery but who eventually, through his
tremendous suffering, spreads a magical power of blessing that remains effective even beyond his disease."
Source: Jennifer Lewin, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
Oedipus: Possibly the Greatest of all Tragedies 19
Review of Oedipus Rex
In the fall 1992 issue of The Explicator, Bernhard Frank presented an unusual interpretation of the dramatic
climax of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. In the scene, reported by the Second Messenger, Oedipus, horrified by the
truth and distraught by his discovery that Jocasta has hanged herself, first lowers his queen/mother/wife to the
ground and then plunges the long pins of her robe's brooches into his eyes. Professor Frank suggests that
Jocasta's rope is an umbilical cord, that here we have a "role reversal," in which Jocasta becomes "the dead
infant Oedipus should have been, if the tragedy was to have been averted." Then, in "another stage of the role
reversal," he blinds himself. He is not castrating himself—a Freudian theory that Frank rightly rejects—but in
the persona of Jocasta he "rapes his own eyes with her 'phalluses'."
It is sometimes tempting in literary criticism to seek in a thrusting instrument a sexual parallel, but one should
carefully base such a parallel on hints and statements in the text. I do not find suggestions in Oedipus Rex for
Frank's interpretation of the blinding scene, which raises several difficulties. For example, there are many
nonsexual references to "eyes" and "sight" in the play. In fact, "seeing" could be called a unifying metaphor.
Why should this passage, with no hint from the translators, be read as having such powerful sexual meaning?
Oedipus's beard, into which the blood gushes, is identified as "the pubic region, as it were, of his pierced eyes.
It is Jocasta's twofold revenge, reciprocating his off—repeated coital act." This reading poses considerable
anatomical difficulties. Then, too, how can Jocasta at one moment represent her dead son and at the next a
raging rapist? What is one to make of the blood that gushes forth? (Herman Melville symbolizes a bloody
beard successfully in his poem, "The Portent," about the mutilation of John Brown's corpse.)
The Frank essay also considers the use of the brooches highly significant, inasmuch as Oedipus could have
used "any nearby object for the purpose." But not just "any nearby object" is agreeable for blinding oneself,
and probably weapons did not lie scattered about a queen's apartment as part of the decor. When Oedipus asks
the Chorus for a sword with which to pursue Jocasta, the Frank essay concludes that in his frenzy, Oedipus
"intends to thrust his sword into her offending womb, which ironically would emulate the sexual act one last
time." What the text really says, however, is this: "From one to another of us he went, begging a sword, /
Hunting the wife who was not his wife, the mother / Whose womb had carried his own children and himself."
Across the fiery enthusiasms of Professor Frank fall the long and soothing shadows of Aristotle and
Sophocles. Aristotle's famous definition of tragedy, in The Poetics, stresses that pity and fear will be evoked
by action of "a certain magnitude." His frequent praise of Oedipus Rex proves that Sophocles' masterpiece met
his highest standards. We can therefore safely conclude that the emotions Aristotle thought that the play
produced were pity and fear—not disgust and revulsion, which would be our more likely reactions to the
interpretation that Professor Frank suggests.
Sophocles' treatment of blindness in the drama accords with Aristotle's reading of the play. It has far greater
meaning than that of a symbolically achieved sexual act. Spiritual blindness is equated with obduracy and
arrogance—hubris—and towards the end of Oedipus Rex, the physical blinding is already encouraging new
insight, awareness, and compassion. When Oedipus could see, he beheld the piercing light of Greece, but he
had then less understanding of his fate, less inner vision, and less humility than he is beginning to achieve
after he loses that flooding, outer light. The resemblance between Oedipus and the blinded Gloucester in King
Lear often comes to mind. Gloucester says,"I stumbled when I saw." And when Lear observes, "[Y]et you see
how this world goes," Gloucester answers, "I see it feelingly."
Light, to the ancient Greeks, was beauty, intellect, virtue, indeed represented life itself. The Choragos asks
Oedipus, "What god was it drove you to rake black / Night across your eyes?" And Oedipus replies in
anguish:
Review of Oedipus Rex 20
Apollo, Apollo, Dear
Children, the god was Apollo
He brought my sick, sick fate upon me.
But the blinding hand was my own!
How could I bear to see
When all my sight was horror everywhere'
We have in the drama, then, not just bitter irony played out by incredible coincidence, nor the story of a proud
man rightly humbled. We have a powerful statement that the inscrutable gods exert extreme power over the
unjust and the just, who suffer alike from their mysteriously random power. We do not need to make
Oedipus's self-blinding into a sexual symbol or allegory to feel his baffled woe. Surely, enough sorrow is here
to achieve the effect that Aristotle underlines so often and Sophocles creates with such skill.
Source: Janet M. Green, review of Oedipus Rex, in the Explicator, Vol. 52, no. 1, Fall, 1993, pp 2-3. Green is
an educatior and critic.
Oedipus: From Man to Archetype
In Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus [Oedipus Rex](c. 427 B.C.) ... the supernatural agency that dominates the
action is Apollo. Unfortunately, however, there is no certainty concerning meaning of the role of the
Apollonian god in Sophocles' work. Apollo appears to use a man of noble, innocent, and pious nature to
undermine social and religious values, despite his horror of sinning against them. But it is obvious that
interpretations of this fundamental conflict between the irresistible power of destiny and the sacredness of
natural ties will vary, depending upon what tone is read into the richly human and ambiguous lines. Here a
representative selection from the vast resources of Sophoclean scholarship, particularly the work of modern
American and English scholars, will made in order to illustrate the diversity of interpretation and provide a
basis for understanding the adaptations of the creative writers.
Sir Richard Jebb, taking the traditional position in the nineteenth century, sees in Oedipus a symbol of modern
man facing a religious dilemma. Both Oedipus and Jocasta, he points out, do not reject the gods—both are
reverent, both believe in the wise omnipotence of the gods. But, on the other hand, both also reject the gods'
moral ministers—Oedipus, the prophet Tiresias, and Jocasta the priests at Delphi. Oedipus, Jebb states, is a
rationalist, intellectually self-reliant; Jocasta, likewise, is a sceptic who questions the reliability of the oracles.
Considering their views, Jebb feels that they represent a "spiritual anarchy" that not only unbalances the
"self-centered calm" of Sophocles' mind but also endangers "the cohesion of society." Thus, through their
experience, "a note of solemn warning, addressed to Athens and Greece, is meant to be heard." But Jebb
concludes by reading into the drama the nineteenth-century problem of adjusting religious faith to the findings
of science: "It is as a study of the human heart, true to every age, not as a protest against tendencies of the
poet's own, that the Oedipus Tyrannus illustrates the relation of faith to reason." Jebb's view is interesting
because it illustrates in scholarship the possibility of accommodating the myth to changing life—in general, the
attitude of the later imaginative critics of the myth. The modern trend in Sophoclean scholarship, however, is
historical in orientation, for the scholars look at Sophocles' work not in the light of universal values but in the
light of the ancient Greek past, particularly that of Sophocles himself in the Periclean Athens of the fifth
century.
For example, Sir John Sheppard, the first to demonstrate carefully the possibility of presenting Sophocles'
opinions in fifth-century terms, relates ancient Greek meanings given to the maxims of the Delphic oracle,
"Know Thyself" and "Nothing Too Much," to an understanding of Oedipus' character, and concludes that they
provide the final moral of the play. Sheppard interprets the philosophical theme of Sophocles' play as a mild
agnosticism or neutral fatalism. Oedipus, he declares, behaves normally, commits an error in ignorance, and
Oedipus: From Man to Archetype 21
brings suffering upon himself. "Sophocles justifies nothing.... His Oedipus stands for human suffering. His
gods ... stand for the universe of circumstances as it is.... He bids his audience face the facts.... Oedipus suffers
not because of his guilt, but in spite of his goodness."
Sir Maurice Bowra also synthesizes the two Delphic maxims, his point being that Oedipus has learned that he
must do what the gods demand, and in his life illustrates what the Platonic Socrates means when he says the
commands "Know Thyself" and "Be Modest" are the same. Oedipus finds modesty because he has learned to
know himself: "So the central idea of a Sophoclean tragedy is that through suffering a man learns to be
modest before the gods." Bowra argues that Sophocles' Oedipus, reflecting such tragic contemporary events
(noted by Thucydides) as a catastrophic plague in Athens and an unsuccessful war with Sparta, as well as a
current disbelief in the oracles, dramatizes a conflict between gods and men. He concludes that "Sophocles
allows no doubts, no criticism of the gods....
If divine ways seem wrong, ignorance is to blame.... For this conflict the gods have a reason. They wish to
teach a lesson, to make men learn their moral limitations and accept them," (Sophoclean Tragedy, [Oxford],
1944). But Bowra appears to be too committed to supporting the religious establishment, and as a result
misses the subtle and humane questioning suggested in the dramatic situation. For example, is not a very
critical irony intended by the dramatist when Jocasta's offering at the altar of Apollo on center stage is seen
still smoking at the time the messenger inform us of her suicide by hanging? Another such irony may be
intended in the epilogos when Oedipus, blind and polluted, craves to be sent out of the land as an outcast only
to have Creon reply that Apollo must first pronounce. This need not only suggest respect for the power of the
god; it may also suggest the god's failure at empathy. For it is as if the dramatist were asking Apollo to show a
little charity, love, and forbearance towards erring man.
On the basis of such evidence, Cedric H. Whitman takes issue with Bowra. He states that the picture of a pure
and pious Sophocles never questioning the oracles and serenely supporting the traditional belief in the Greek
theodicy is completely wrong. Sophocles, Whitman believes, appears in the Tyrannus to have suffered a loss
of faith; he is bitter, ironic, and pessimistic because of the irrational evil perpetrated by unjust gods on a
morally upright man who wishes to be and do good. Whitman's point is that the ancient Greeks used the gods
to explain where evil came from, especially that irrational evil which seemed to have no cause or moral
meaning. Thus Sophocles was doubting the moral trustworthiness of the Greek gods: "The simple fact is that
for Sophocles, the gods, whoever they are, no longer stand within the moral picture. Morality is man's
possession, and the cosmos—or chaos—may be what it will." Sophocles dramatizes the theodicy "with a kind of
agnostic aloofness. Sophocles was religious rather than pious" (Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism,
[Cambridge], 1951).
Such, briefly, are a few of the more significant prevailing views in American and English scholarship
concerning Sophocles' handling of the myth in his masterpiece. They demonstrate, despite differences of
opinion about Athenian life and Sophocles' character, that the meaning of the myth in the Tyrannus derives
from the society and culture of Athens during the fifth century, and that Sophocles accommodates the basic
story not only to his own time but also to his personal ideological and spiritual needs. So, depending upon
how the critic reads the complexities and ambiguities of Athenian culture and the author's tenuous character,
Sophocles, in this play about King Oedipus, is impious or pious. But whatever the stand on Apollo and his
oracles that Sophocles has really taken, there is no doubt about the depth, conviction, and art with which he
expresses his credo. These qualities have always been admired, and, as a result, the form in which Sophocles
has cast the myth has often been imitated.