Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.

Oedipus and the Sphinx by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
Oedipus Rex, or Oedipus the King (Οἰδίπους Τύραννος, 429 B.C.) is, in order of writing, the second of Sophocles' "Oedipus plays", however, in terms of the plays' chronology it is the first and is followed by Oedipus at Colonus (Οἰδίπους ἐπὶ Κολωνῷ, 406 B.C.) then Antigone (Ἀντιγόνη, 441 B.C.). It is the play that gave its name to Sigmund Freud's 'Oedipus Complex', which Freud describes (in The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899:
Being in love with the one parent and hating the other belong to the indispensable stock of psychical impulses being formed at that time which are so important for the later neurosis.
Freud goes on to invoke Oedipus:
I refer to the legend of King Oedipus and the drama of that name by Sophocles. Oedipus, son of Laius, King of Thebes, and Jocasta, is abandoned as an infant because an oracle has proclaimed to his father that his son yet unborn would be his murderer. He is rescued and grows up as a king's son at a foreign court, until he himself consults the oracle about his origins, and received the counsel that he should flee his home city, because he would perforce become his father's murderer and his mother's spouse. On the road from his supposed home city he encounters King Laius and kills him in a sudden quarrel. Then he arrives before Thebes, where he solves the riddle of the Sphinx as she bars his way, and in gratitude he is chosen by the Thebans to be their king and presented with Jocasta's hand in marriage. He reigns long in peace and dignity, and begets two sons and two daughters with his - unbeknown - mother, until a plague breaks out, occasioning fresh questioning of the oracle by the Thebans. At this point Sophocles' tragedy begins.
It begins rather like Shakespeare's Hamlet, "Something is rotten in the State of Denmark" (Act I): in Oedipus, something is rotten in Thebes:
The city, as you see yourself, is now
Storm-tossed, and can no longer raise its head
Above the waves and angry surge of death.
The fruitful blossoms of the land are barren,
The herds upon our pastures, and our wives
In childbirth, barren. Last, and worst of all,
The withering gods of fever swoops on us
To empty Cadmus' city and enrich
Dark Hades with our groans and lamentations...
The speaker is a priest and he is talking to Oedipus, the king, who has already asked Creon, his brother in law, to seek the answers. He swiftly returns saying,
Good news! Our sufferings, if they are guided right,
Can even yet turn to a happy issue.
... I will tell you what Apollo said -
And it was very clear. There is pollution
Here in our midst, long-standing. This must we
Expel, nor let it grow past remedy.
Oedipus asks what has defiled Thebes, and Creon tells him it is the murder of King Laius and his death, Apollo has said, must be revenged. Oedipus later consults a prophet, Tiresias, who is not forthcoming - "Let me go home!" he says, "It will be best for you / And best for me, if you let me go." But he soon tells him - "You are yourself the murderer you seek".

Remarkably, Oedipus appears to have no knowledge or memory of this murder. They argue - Oedipus believes that this is a plot hatched by Creon, and Tiresias finishes by saying,
... No frown of yours
Shall frighten me; you cannot injure me.
Here is my message: that man whom you seek
With threats and proclamations for the death
Of Laius, he is living here; he's thought
To be a foreigner, but shall be found
Theban by birth - and little joy will this
Bring him; when, with his eyesight turned to blindness,
His wealth to beggary, on foreign soil
With staff in hand he'll tap his way along,
His children with him; and he will be known
Himself to be their father and their brother,
The husband of the mother who gave him birth,
Supplanter of his father, and his slayer.
Oedipus tells his wife Jocasta and she dismisses it, telling him that a prophet once claimed that King Laius would be killed by his son however, as she relays, his son was cast out of Thebes and Laius was murdered by robbers. He then recalls once overhearing someone claim that he was not, as he believed, the real son of the king and queen of Corinth. He then remembers further - that when he asked the king and queen, Polybus and Merope, they denied this claim so he consulted an oracle that told him "I must marry my mother and kill Polypus / My father, who engendered me and reared me". On hearing this he left Corinth to avoid such a fate, and on his way he is involved in an argument on the road with Laius, who he killed whilst defending himself. Later consulting with the one survivor of the incident he is confronted with his worst suspicion - the truth was Oedipus did kill his father Laius. Jocasta goes on to hang herself, and Oedipus takes the pins from her dress and blinds himself. He begs to be exiled and, fulfilling Tiresias' prophecy, goes on to live as a beggar.

It is a bleak play on fate, inevitability, and prophecy - that that which is decreed by fate must come true, although whilst Oedipus appeared to have no control over most of it, he did perhaps fulfil Tiresias' prophecy consciously - he deliberately blinded himself. The prophecy came true, but the question of whether he was necessarily fated to do so is perhaps questionable. This is the subject of 'On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex' by E.R. Dodds (1966). He refers to Aristotle's interpretation of the play in his Poetics and the use of the word "άμάρτίά", which, roughly, translates as "sin" or "fault". According to Aristotle, Dodds claims, Oedipus' downfall was because of "άμάρτίά", which is an ambiguous term and it is assumed in this context it refers to a moral fault. Oedipus was never a perfect character even without killing his father and marrying his mother. He was proud and arrogant and for this he was punished by fate. However, Dodds claims that Aristotle used the word "άμάρτίά" as in "άμάρτημα", which means "mistake", which suggests that Oedipus was not being punished for anything, and this prophecy was completely unconditional - it will come true. Yet, conversely, Dodds suggests that this does not mean Oedipus was without free will: there is a difference between "fate" and "prophecy" - Dodds uses the example of a football game: a prophet may know Scotland will win a game, but it still depends on the skill of the Scottish team. There were various prophecies and Oedipus' determination to find their truth was not so much fated as his own choice to do so, despite those strenuously discouraging him. The temptation to take from this play that the gods and fate must be respected should be resisted, Dodds argues, because there is no way of knowing outside the play quite what Sophocles believed himself. Oedipus, therefore, is a strong and powerful character, undeterred to seek the truth and to live with the consequences, even when he suspects before it is revealed that these consequences are horrific. That Oedipus was fated to act has he did means this strength of character is lost and he becomes a mere pawn. This article of Dodds' is very interesting and persuasive, though very complicated: it was written for those with knowledge of both the classic plays and the Ancient Greek language (there are parts quoted in original language that are untranslated in the article, for example). I may need to read it a few more times but I hope I've summarised it adequately!

So there is Oedipus Rex. It's the first Sophocles play I've read and it's certainly a tough one but very satisfying all the same. I'm now very eager to get to Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.


And that was, incidentally, my 26th post for the Deal Me In Challenge, which means not only am I half way through that but also, frighteningly enough, half way through the year! I have another three plays by Sophocles left on this list - Ajax, Electra, and Women of Trachis, and, on the Ancient Greek theme, The Poet and the Woman by Aristophanes. Next week however, rather unfortunately, is the short story I'd previously avoided a month or so ago - Investigations of a Dog by Franz Kafka.

Next: Oedipus at Colonus

~ Sophocles' Plays ~

The Theban Plays: Oedipus Rex (429 B.C.) | Oedipus at Colonus (406 B.C.) Antigone (441 B.C.)
OthersAjax (450 - 430 B.C.) | Women of Trachis (440 - 430 B.C.)
Electra (410 B.C.) | Philoctetes (409 B.C.)


  1. Following your comparison, that which is "rotten in Denmark" but situated in Thebes is the miasma (pollution) that is causing Thebans' suffering; in the irony of ironies, Oedipus as murderer (not so innocent) and incestuous man (certainly innocent) -- a.k.a., "swollen foot" and forever blemished by the parents' capitulation to divine prophecy -- is the unwitting and unknowing pollution that must be purged. The play speaks to me in the 21st century by reminding me of the ironies in our own culture, and compelling all of us to ask the key question: what is the miasma (pollution) responsible for cultural and social suffering? We like to look at others to blame (family, politicians, and others), but -- like Oedipus -- we should look to ourselves. Once we look to ourselves, we erase our ignorance, and our knowledge just might destroy us. BTW, you're posting on Sophocles' play is great. Well done!

    1. That is a good message, the taking responsibility one's self and for one's self, which is what Oedipus did. It's such a good play and I'm glad I read it because I thought I knew what it was about but I had no idea. For example, I was under the wrong impression that Oedipus knew he was sleeping with his mother and that was his choice, but actually reading it I see what it is *actually* about. I do think this is my first Sophocles (99% certain, anyway) and I'm glad it was this one. Also glad I found that article by Dodds!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

2017 in Pictures.

The Book Tag.

20 Books of Summer.