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 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...
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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...
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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...
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