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...
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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...
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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 entire section is 1198 words.)