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Oedipus Rex ()

By any definition, Oedipus Rex must be reckoned one of the greatest and most influential works of literature in human history.  Sadly, much of the influence has been quite pernicious.

The basic plot is probably one of the best known in all of literature.  An oracle foretells that a child born of Laius and Jocasta, rulers of Thebes, will one day slay his father and wed his mother.  In order to avoid this fate, they have their infant son hobbled and left to the elements on Mount Cithaeron, fully expecting the child to die.  Instead, he is found by a shepherd, passed to another shepherd, and eventually is adopted by the childless Polybus, King of Corinth.

In early manhood, the boy, Oedipus, comes to doubt his parentage and so visits the oracle at Delphi.  There he too hears the prophecy that he will commit parricide and incest.  Likewise, he seeks to avoid his fate and flees the kingdom.  In so doing, he encounters Laius on the road and slays him in a dispute.  After answering the riddle of the sphinx, the Thebans make him their new king and he weds Jocasta.  Despite several prosperous years for Thebes and fertile years for the unsuspecting couple, as the play opens a plaque has descended upon the kingdom.  Consulting with the oracle once again, it has been learned that Thebes is being punished for harboring the murderer of Laius.

Not realizing the import of what he says, Oedipus calls down a curse upon the hidden murderer:

Ye pray; 'tis well, but would ye hear my words
And heed them and apply the remedy,
Ye might perchance find comfort and relief.
Mind you, I speak as one who comes a stranger
To this report, no less than to the crime;
For how unaided could I track it far
Without a clue?  Which lacking (for too late
Was I enrolled a citizen of Thebes)
This proclamation I address to all:--
Thebans, if any knows the man by whom
Laius, son of Labdacus, was slain,
I summon him to make clean shrift to me.
And if he shrinks, let him reflect that thus
Confessing he shall 'scape the capital charge;
For the worst penalty that shall befall him
Is banishment--unscathed he shall depart.
But if an alien from a foreign land
Be known to any as the murderer,
Let him who knows speak out, and he shall have
Due recompense from me and thanks to boot.
But if ye still keep silence, if through fear
For self or friends ye disregard my hest,
Hear what I then resolve; I lay my ban
On the assassin whosoe'er he be.
Let no man in this land, whereof I hold
The sovereign rule, harbor or speak to him;
Give him no part in prayer or sacrifice
Or lustral rites, but hound him from your homes.
For this is our defilement, so the god
Hath lately shown to me by oracles.
Thus as their champion I maintain the cause
Both of the god and of the murdered King.
And on the murderer this curse I lay
(On him and all the partners in his guilt):--
Wretch, may he pine in utter wretchedness!
And for myself, if with my privity
He gain admittance to my hearth, I pray
The curse I laid on others fall on me.
See that ye give effect to all my hest,
For my sake and the god's and for our land,
A desert blasted by the wrath of heaven.
For, let alone the god's express command,
It were a scandal ye should leave unpurged
The murder of a great man and your king,
Nor track it home.  And now that I am lord,
Successor to his throne, his bed, his wife,
(And had he not been frustrate in the hope
Of issue, common children of one womb
Had forced a closer bond twixt him and me,
But Fate swooped down upon him), therefore I
His blood-avenger will maintain his cause
As though he were my sire, and leave no stone
Unturned to track the assassin or avenge
The son of Labdacus, of Polydore,
Of Cadmus, and Agenor first of the race.
And for the disobedient thus I pray:
May the gods send them neither timely fruits
Of earth, nor teeming increase of the womb,
But may they waste and pine, as now they waste,
Aye and worse stricken; but to all of you,
My loyal subjects who approve my acts,
May Justice, our ally, and all the gods
Be gracious and attend you evermore.

On his friend Creon's advice, Oedipus sends for the sage Tiresias.  Reluctantly, the prophet reveals that Oedipus is the murderer.  Oedipus, enraged, accuses the loyal Creon of plotting against him:

O wealth and empiry and skill by skill
Outwitted in the battlefield of life,
What spite and envy follow in your train!
See, for this crown the State conferred on me.
A gift, a thing I sought not, for this crown
The trusty Creon, my familiar friend,
Hath lain in wait to oust me and suborned
This mountebank, this juggling charlatan,
This tricksy beggar-priest, for gain alone
Keen-eyed, but in his proper art stone-blind.
Say, sirrah, hast thou ever proved thyself
A prophet?  When the riddling Sphinx was here
Why hadst thou no deliverance for this folk?
And yet the riddle was not to be solved
By guess-work but required the prophet's art;
Wherein thou wast found lacking; neither birds
Nor sign from heaven helped thee, but I came,
The simple Oedipus; I stopped her mouth
By mother wit, untaught of auguries.
This is the man whom thou wouldst undermine,
In hope to reign with Creon in my stead.
Methinks that thou and thine abettor soon
Will rue your plot to drive the scapegoat out.
Thank thy grey hairs that thou hast still to learn
What chastisement such arrogance deserves.

He also sends Tiresias away, but the prophet has some parting words in defense of Creon:

I go, but first will tell thee why I came.
Thy frown I dread not, for thou canst not harm me.
Hear then:  this man whom thou hast sought to arrest
With threats and warrants this long while, the wretch
Who murdered Laius--that man is here.
He passes for an alien in the land
But soon shall prove a Theban, native born.
And yet his fortune brings him little joy;
For blind of seeing, clad in beggar's weeds,
For purple robes, and leaning on his staff,
To a strange land he soon shall grope his way.
And of the children, inmates of his home,
He shall be proved the brother and the sire,
Of her who bare him son and husband both,
Co-partner, and assassin of his sire.
Go in and ponder this, and if thou find
That I have missed the mark, henceforth declare
I have no wit nor skill in prophecy.

And Creon defends himself, disavowing any interest in the kingship:

Not so, if thou wouldst reason with thyself,
As I with myself.  First, I bid thee think,
Would any mortal choose a troubled reign
Of terrors rather than secure repose,
If the same power were given him?  As for me,
I have no natural craving for the name
Of king, preferring to do kingly deeds,
And so thinks every sober-minded man.
Now all my needs are satisfied through thee,
And I have naught to fear; but were I king,
My acts would oft run counter to my will.
How could a title then have charms for me
Above the sweets of boundless influence?
I am not so infatuate as to grasp
The shadow when I hold the substance fast.
Now all men cry me Godspeed! wish me well,
And every suitor seeks to gain my ear,
If he would hope to win a grace from thee.
Why should I leave the better, choose the worse?
That were sheer madness, and I am not mad.
No such ambition ever tempted me,
Nor would I have a share in such intrigue.
And if thou doubt me, first to Delphi go,
There ascertain if my report was true
Of the god's answer; next investigate
If with the seer I plotted or conspired,
And if it prove so, sentence me to death,
Not by thy voice alone, but mine and thine.
But O condemn me not, without appeal,
On bare suspicion.  'Tis not right to adjudge
Bad men at random good, or good men bad.
I would as lief a man should cast away
The thing he counts most precious, his own life,
As spurn a true friend.  Thou wilt learn in time
The truth, for time alone reveals the just;
A villain is detected in a day.

Meanwhile, Jocasta seeks to reassure Oedipus that he could not have killed Laius:

Then thou mayest ease thy conscience on that score.
Listen and I'll convince thee that no man
Hath scot or lot in the prophetic art.
Here is the proof in brief.  An oracle
Once came to Laius (I will not say
'Twas from the Delphic god himself, but from
His ministers) declaring he was doomed
To perish by the hand of his own son,
A child that should be born to him by me.
Now Laius--so at least report affirmed--
Was murdered on a day by highwaymen,
No natives, at a spot where three roads meet.
As for the child, it was but three days old,
When Laius, its ankles pierced and pinned
Together, gave it to be cast away
By others on the trackless mountain side.
So then Apollo brought it not to pass
The child should be his father's murderer,
Or the dread terror find accomplishment,
And Laius be slain by his own son.
Such was the prophet's horoscope.  O king,
Regard it not.  Whate'er the god deems fit
To search, himself unaided will reveal.

But Oedipus reveals his own side of the tale:

My sire was Polybus of Corinth, and
My mother Merope, a Dorian;
And I was held the foremost citizen,
Till a strange thing befell me, strange indeed,
Yet scarce deserving all the heat it stirred.
A roisterer at some banquet, flown with wine,
Shouted "Thou art not true son of thy sire."
It irked me, but I stomached for the nonce
The insult; on the morrow I sought out
My mother and my sire and questioned them.
They were indignant at the random slur
Cast on my parentage and did their best
To comfort me, but still the venomed barb
Rankled, for still the scandal spread and grew.
So privily without their leave I went
To Delphi, and Apollo sent me back
Baulked of the knowledge that I came to seek.
But other grievous things he prophesied,
Woes, lamentations, mourning, portents dire;
To wit I should defile my mother's bed
And raise up seed too loathsome to behold,
And slay the father from whose loins I sprang.
Then, lady,--thou shalt hear the very truth--
As I drew near the triple-branching roads,
A herald met me and a man who sat
In a car drawn by colts--as in thy tale--
The man in front and the old man himself
Threatened to thrust me rudely from the path,
Then jostled by the charioteer in wrath
I struck him, and the old man, seeing this,
Watched till I passed and from his car brought down
Full on my head the double-pointed goad.
     Yet was I quits with him and more; one stroke
Of my good staff sufficed to fling him clean
Out of the chariot seat and laid him prone.
And so I slew them every one.  But if
Betwixt this stranger there was aught in common
With Laius, who more miserable than I,
What mortal could you find more god-abhorred?
Wretch whom no sojourner, no citizen
May harbor or address, whom all are bound
To harry from their homes.  And this same curse
Was laid on me, and laid by none but me.
Yea with  these hands all gory I pollute
The bed of him I slew.  Say, am I vile?
Am I not utterly unclean, a wretch
Doomed to be banished, and in banishment
Forgo the sight of all my dearest ones,
And never tread again my native earth;
Or else to wed my mother and slay my sire,
Polybus, who begat me and upreared?
If one should say, this is the handiwork
Of some inhuman power, who could blame
His judgment?  But, ye pure and awful gods,
Forbid, forbid that I should see that day!
May I be blotted out from living men
Ere such a plague spot set on me its brand!

The shepherds tell their versions of what happened and the entirety of the story becomes clear:

Ah me! ah me! all brought to pass, all true!
O light, may I behold thee nevermore!
I stand a wretch, in birth, in wedlock cursed,
A parricide, incestuously, triply cursed!

And as the truth takes hold, a horrific series of events occur:

By her own hand.  And all the horror of it,
Not having seen, yet cannot comprehend.
Nathless, as far as my poor memory serves,
I will relate the unhappy lady's woe.
When in her frenzy she had passed inside
The vestibule, she hurried straight to win
The bridal-chamber, clutching at her hair
With both her hands, and, once within the room,
She shut the doors behind her with a crash.
"Laius," she cried, and called her husband dead
Long, long ago; her thought was of that child
By him begot, the son by whom the sire
Was murdered and the mother left to breed
With her own seed, a monstrous progeny.
Then she bewailed the marriage bed whereon
Poor wretch, she had conceived a double brood,
Husband by husband, children by her child.
What happened after that I cannot tell,
Nor how the end befell, for with a shriek
Burst on us Oedipus; all eyes were fixed
On Oedipus, as up and down he strode,
Nor could we mark her agony to the end.
For stalking to and fro "A sword!" he cried,
"Where is the wife, no wife, the teeming womb
That bore a double harvest, me and mine?"
And in his frenzy some supernal power
(No mortal, surely, none of us who watched him)
Guided his footsteps; with a terrible shriek,
As though one beckoned him, he crashed against
The folding doors, and from their staples forced
The wrenched bolts and hurled himself within.
Then we beheld the woman hanging there,
A running noose entwined about her neck.
But when he saw her, with a maddened roar
He loosed the cord; and when her wretched corpse
Lay stretched on earth, what followed--O 'twas dread!
He tore the golden brooches that upheld
Her queenly robes, upraised them high and smote
Full on his eye-balls, uttering words like these:
"No more shall ye behold such sights of woe,
Deeds I have suffered and myself have wrought;
Henceforward quenched in darkness shall ye see
Those ye should ne'er have seen; now blind to those
Whom, when I saw, I vainly yearned to know."
     Such was the burden of his moan, whereto,
Not once but oft, he struck with his hand uplift
His eyes, and at each stroke the ensanguined orbs
Bedewed his beard, not oozing drop by drop,
But one black gory downpour, thick as hail.
Such evils, issuing from the double source,
Have whelmed them both, confounding man and wife.
Till now the storied fortune of this house
Was fortunate indeed; but from this day
Woe, lamentation, ruin, death, disgrace,
All ills that can be named, all, all are theirs.

The tale ends with Jocasta dead at her own hands and Oedipus blind and banished.  It remains only for the Chorus to enunciate the lesson of the play:


Look ye, countrymen and Thebans, this is Oedipus the great,
He who knew the Sphinx's riddle and was mightiest in our state.
Who of all our townsmen gazed not on his fame with envious eyes?
Now, in what a sea of troubles sunk and overwhelmed he lies!
Therefore wait to see life's ending ere thou count one mortal blest;
Wait till free from pain and sorrow he has gained his final rest.

When you begin to look for the reasons that a culture as accomplished as that of Ancient Greece fell into complete disrepair, you need look no further than the fatalistic philosophy embodied in this play.  The very concept that all of life is preordained by fates beyond the control of the individual is, in and of itself, a bar to human progress.  It is a recipe for stasis and stagnation, refuting the value of human endeavor.  After all, if you can not escape the fate that the gods have in store for you, then why try to achieve great things.  Indeed, why not just accept things as they are and assume that's what the fates decreed?  This is undiluted spiritual poison.  It is no wonder that a society which believed in it foundered.

Then, as if this initial meaning had not done enough damage, along came Sigmund Freud.  Freud combined the great tragic elements of the story with his own aberrant psychosexual longings and produced the theory that all men contained the seed of Oedipus within themselves.  He built his great psychiatric edifice on the foundation of the Oedipal myth--that every man secretly wants to kill his dad and boink his mom.  And the amazing thing is that people actually bought it.  This two thousand year old melodrama came roaring back to pestilential life and blighted much of the 20th century as Freudian psychobabble turned otherwise serious people into idiots, obsessing over their subconscious urges.  Freud nearly succeeded in restoring the role of the fates in human affairs.  Thankfully, we've shaken free of these shackles as the century comes to a close and noone takes Freud seriously any more.

So, I heartily recommend the play.  It is an angst filled, sin laden, blood soaked hoot.  But be warned, the deeper meanings of the text are so much bunk.  Rest assured, you create your own destiny and you don't, necessarily, have the hots for a parent.  Enjoy the thing; don't take it too seriously.


Charlie Herzog response:

A pleasure to reread a great story, but I think you fell into your own trap of taking the play too seriously  by using it as a signpost for the eventual fall of Greek civilization.  They had a pretty good run, a couple thousand years; they managed to last a couple hundred years past Sophocles' lifetime; belief in the Gods and outside forces controlling their lives was as commonly accepted then as democracy is accepted in America today; and at the base of it, the prophecies that drive the play are a literary device, nothing more.

Kind of like the voice from the sky that moves the action along in Shoeless Joe.  Lighten up!

Orrin's response:

I'm merely suggesting that the very docility that is inherent in their religion, doomed them to oblivion.

The functioning metaphor in Shoeless Joe (Heal his Pain, If you build it he will come, Go all the way) is actually Christian.  And, of course, once Kinsella builds the heaven on Earth, his Father returns.


Q: Is this Heaven
A: No, it's Iowa

But Ray makes it Heaven.  He's sort of a modern day Fifth Monarchist. <p>Charlie counters:

Exactly what I'm talking about!  You're looking to impose a Christian set of moral values on a play that was written 400 years before Christ was born! Take the play on its own merit, and don't read your latter day value judgements into it.  You buy into the Shoeless Joe metaphor because it's what you believe in now-- 3,000 years into the future there's likely to be someone else blithely dismissing your religious beliefs as the reason that doomed American society to oblivion.

Orrin counters:

All I'm saying is that the view of Man reflected in Oedipus makes it obvious why Christ was necessary.

This rabid defense of Greeks is very troubling to me

Charlie concludes:

You had two points to make; that the play itself is good fun, and that all
the Freudian bullshit that's been attached to it is a pile of hoo-hah.  I
agree w/ both.  However, your current tendency is to use every review as a
chance to trumpet your own moral code and it's a) off point here, and b)
repetitive for your regular readers.

I'm suprised defense of the Greeks troubles you, given your formative years
in the Greek system and current love affair w/ their literary genre.  Pass
the soap!

Orrin concludes:

While I greatly appreciate your steadfast patronage, I sort of have to assume that I don't have a whole lot of loyal readers and write as if each one was the only review a reader will ever see.

But I am trying to trace a couple themes that I think are central to Western Culture (freedom, the idea of progress, the centrality of morality, etc.).  I am disturbed by our drift away from these precepts.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Sophocles (496-406 B.C.)
    -Literary Research Guide: Sophocles (497 - 406? B.C.)
    -Works by Sophocles (Internet Classics Archive)
    -The Classics Pages : Oedipus - Sophocles the Man
    -ETEXT: Oedipus the King   By Sophocles  Translated by F. Storr
    -Concordances of Sophocles
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: The Oedipus Trilogy  by Sophocles (John Maier, Spark Notes)
    -Enjoying "Oedipus the King", by Sophocles (Ed Friedlander MD)
    -Sophocles' Oedipus the King (Classics Technology Center)
    -ESSAY: Critical Writing Sample    Kimberly Rollins   This is an essay I wrote in rebuttal to E. R. Dodds' treatise, "On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex"
    -REVIEW: of The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles, translated by Robert Fagles, and introductions and notes by Bernard Knox (Hugh Lloyd-Jones, NY Review of Books)
     -REVIEW: It's a Tragedy  (Francis Fergusson, NY Review of Books)
                            Tragedy and Philosophy by Walter Kaufmann
                            The Identity of Oedipus the King by Alastair Cameron
                            Reality and the Heroic Pattern by David Grene
     -REVIEW: of Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon by John Kerrigan (Frank Kermode, NY Review of Books)
     -REVIEW: of Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater by Bernard Knox (Peter Green, NY Review of Books)
     -REVIEW: Freud and Women (Christopher Lasch,  NY Review of Books)
                            Psychoanalysis and Feminism: Freud, Reich, Laing, and Women by Juliet Mitchell
                            Women and Analysis edited by Jean Strouse
                            Psychoanalysis and Women edited by Jean Baker Miller
     -REVIEW: of The Eating of the Gods: An Interpretation of Greek Tragedy by Jan Kott (D.S. Carne-Ross,  NY Review of Books)