Oedipus the King by Sophocles (trans. David Greene)

(Originally read this work and wrote this post on September 27th, 2008)

The story of Oedipus the king, the tragic man who accidentally kills his father and marries his mother, stands as a central story of Western Civilization due not only to Sophocles’s skills as a dramatist, but also because of Freud’s controversial psychological theories, which turned to this story as a model.

For a modern reader, Oedipus’s incest with his mother is grotesque. Interestingly enough, I remember hearing a while ago in some lectures that for the patriarchal audience of Sophocles’s day the killing of the father by the son was probably the more horrific offense. Still, Oedipus’s story has very little to do with Freud’s theories, despite it serving as inspiration for them, since Oedipus had no idea that Laius, the man he murdered, and Jocasta, his wife, were his father and mother. If Freud’s theory actually applied, then Oedipus would’ve fallen for his adoptive parents who he believes to be his real ones.

Another way to view the work is as a play about fate versus freewill. Although Oedipus tries to avoid his fate of killing his father and marrying his mother by fleeing his adoptive parents, his own actions bring him to face his fate. His own freely chosen actions to inquire into Laius’s death reveal his own culpability in the matter. Oedipus tries to use his freewill to prevent his fate, but finds out that fate cannot be avoided.

With all this in mind, the story is warning against hubris; a hubris that leads one to put too much faith in the power of reason alone to solve a crisis. It is Oedipus’s faith in his own reasoning and understanding that leads to his downfall, believing he can save the city from plague by unraveling the mystery of who murdered Laius. The play shows what happens to reason if one begins from the wrong first principles and makes too many assumptions about what one thinks they know.  In many ways Sophocles wrote a very traditionalist play, questioning the human faculty of reason in comparison to the tried-and-true oracles of the gods.  

The structure of the play is deceptively simple, relying heavily on dramatic irony as its main draw. This isn’t a play you continue reading for the plot twists so to speak. The Ancient Greeks already knew the backstory when they came to watch Sophocles’s play. The audience already knows that Oedipus has killed his father and is currently married to his mother as the play opens, transforming Oedipus’ vow that he will find the man who killed Laius and save Thebes from plague into stark irony since he himself is the killer and very man he must banish. As the truth slowly dawns on Oedipus, he accuses everyone around him of being a conspirator and a liar. He mocks the blind prophet Teresias, calling our attention to an important motif in the play where the blind can see and the seeing are blind, which leads to Oedipus plucking out his eyes in the end because they are useless.  The audience can only wait in anticipation for his downfall as the truth, that the audience has known all along, becomes known to Oedipus. The end results remind us that a person’s fortunes can change in a heartbeat. One day you can be a king, the next day you can be out on the streets.

In the ritualist theories of Walter Burkert, the Oedipus drama serves as an explanation for the scapegoating ritual where a hated man in the city would be banished in order to subside plagues or famine. At the end of the play, Oedipus leaves banished from the city, heading on a long journey of miserable wandering in blindness across the Greek continent, which sets the stage for the last play Sophocles ever wrote in his life “Oedipus at Colonus.”

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