Oedipus Tyrannus, Sophocles
Oedipus Tyrannus Sophocles
c. 425 b.c.
(Also translated as Oedipus Rex) Greek play.
The following entry presents criticism on Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannus. For more information on Sophocles's life and career, see CMLC Volume 2.
Oedipus Tyrannus is considered Sophocles's masterpiece and is probably the most famous of all the Greek tragedies. Aristotle deemed it a perfect play. First performed about 425 b.c., not long after a plague had ravaged Athens, Oedipus Tyrannus is set in Thebes, a city falling to ruin from a similar calamity. King Oedipus is told that the city will continue to suffer until the murderer of the previous king is brought to justice. Oedipus vows to discover the evildoer's identity and to punish him. Unaware that he himself is the killer, Oedipus relentlessly pursues the truth until he discovers his own guilt and blinds himself so that he may never see his father in the afterworld. Sophocles took a well-known legend and intensified it for his Athenian audience by emphasizing qualities they held dear: courage, self-assuredness, and love for their city. In this play of man versus inexorable fate, Sophocles used dramatic irony to further develop audience interest: they know how the play will end, relishing the irony of the words spoken by the characters, who do not know. In his Poetics, Aristotle used Oedipus Tyrannus as a model tragedy, analyzing Sophocles's masterful use of reversal, discovery, and character. Oedipus Tyrannus has received considerable attention in modern times partly due to Sigmund Freud, who, tremendously moved by the play, popularized the notion of the Oedipus Complex. The play continues to engage audiences and scholars to this day.
Plot and Major Characters
Oedipus Tyrannus opens with the people of Thebes praying for King Oedipus to save their dying city. Creon, the brother of Oedipus's wife, Jocasta, returns from a visit to the oracle of Apollo. He reports the oracle's message: the plague on Thebes is the result of the unpunished murder of the previous king, Laius. Oedipus vows to discover the murderer's identity and avenge Laius's death. He calls for Tiresias, an old blind seer, to reveal what he knows. The seer refuses and Oedipus is enraged at his disobedience. Tiresias, also angered, then tells the King that it is Oedipus himself who, as the murderer, has defiled the city, and further, that he is unknowingly living with his closest kin in a shameful manner. Oedipus accuses the seer of conspiring with Creon to overthrow him. Tiresias replies that Oedipus will soon be horrified when he learns the truth of his parentage and of his marriage. Oedipus considers executing Creon but Jocasta intercedes, and Creon is exiled instead. Jocasta tries to reassure her husband by insisting that no one, not even oracles, can divine the future. As an example, she tells him that she and Laius were once told that their son would kill his father, and that this did not happen since their son died on a mountain, where he was abandoned as an infant, and Laius was killed by thieves—there was a witness to the murder. This information does anything but calm Oedipus. He tells his wife that he had believed his parents to be Polybus of Corinth and Merope, a Dorian, until a drunken reveler at a banquet announced that Oedipus was someone else's son. Polybus and Merope, when questioned, were angry and upset, but neither confirmed nor denied the charge. Oedipus further recalls that he traveled to Delphi, to ask the oracle of Apollo the truth about his parentage. He was not given the answer he sought, but was instead told that he would slay his father and have children with his mother. In horror, he fled in the opposite direction of Corinth, until he came to a place where three roads intersected. He met a small party of men who rudely tried to shove him out of their way. Oedipus struck the driver and in return was struck by the man being drawn in the wagon; in the fight that followed, Oedipus slew them all—or so he thought. After Oedipus finishes his story, a messenger brings news that Polybus has died and Oedipus must return to rule Corinth as their king. He refuses, fearing that Apollo's oracle of fathering children by his mother might come true. The messenger tells Oedipus not to worry, that he was not really Polybus's son nor was Merope his mother. In reality a herdsman who worked for Laius gave Oedipus to the messenger, who in turn gave him to Polybus to raise as his own. Jocasta begs Oedipus to stop his search for the truth, but to no avail. The herdsman, who was also the witness to Laius's death, arrives. He admits that Laius had instructed him to kill the infant Oedipus but that he had given the child to the messenger instead. At last Oedipus realizes that he indeed has killed his father and sired four children with his mother. He rushes to find Jocasta and learns that she has locked herself in her room. He breaks the bolts of the doors and finds her hanged by her own hair. He rips out the brooches from the shoulders of her dress and gouges his eyes with them. Creon returns, now king, and Oedipus begs that he be exiled. Creon answers that the matter must be decided by the gods.
Sophocles includes several themes in his play: he explores the potential dangers of pursuing self-knowledge, the question of guilt and innocence, and the nature of fate. Perhaps no play has better demonstrated the maxim that a man's character is his fate, for it is in fulfilling his personal characteristics—his relentless pursuit of knowledge, his absolute confidence in himself, and his quickness to anger—that Oedipus meets his destiny, and the prophecies are realized.
Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides were recognized in their own time as masters of drama, and Oedipus Tyrannus was hailed as Sophocles's masterpiece. Since its brilliance is indisputable, critics concentrate on other matters, including formulating their own interpretations of the play and discussing its themes, Sophocles's use of irony, and the function of the chorus. Francis Fergusson explores audience expectations and perceptions. Eric A. Havelock contends that signs of oral composition can be found in the play and that Oedipus Tyrannus was written during a major shift in composition styles. R. Drew Griffith explains that the ancient Greeks had a different view of what constituted guilt than modern man—that even though Oedipus was unaware of his father's identity when he killed him, he was nevertheless guilty of patricide. Some critics insist there are problems with understanding what actually transpired in the play's recalled events due to unresolved contradictions, for example the report that there were many men, not just one, who attacked and killed Laius. Erich Fromm considers Freud's interpretation of the play and the nature of patriarchal and matriarchal psychological principles. Critics agree that Oedipus Tyrannus is a gripping exploration of the role of the gods in man's life and a warning to mankind to avoid becoming too proud, too godlike. The numerous modern translations of the play, its continuing performance, and unwavering critical interest in it all attest to the magnitude of its popularity.
Aias [Ajax] (drama) 450 B.C.
Antigonē [Antigone] (drama) 442? B.C.
Ichneutai [The Trackers] drama 440? B.C.
Trakhiniai [The Trachiniae] (drama) c. 440–30 B.C.
Oedipus Tyrannus (drama) 425? B.C.
Elektra [Electra] (drama) c. 425–10 B.C.
Philoktētēs [Philoctetes] (drama) 409 B.C.
∗Oedipus at Colonus (drama) 401 B.C.
Oedipus Tyrannus (translated by Luci Berkowitz) 1970
Oedipus the King (translated by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay) 1990
Oedipus Rex (translated by E. H. Plumptre) 1993
Oedipus the King (translated by Bernard Knox) 1994
The Theban Plays (translated by David Grene) 1994
Oedipus Plays of Sophocles (translated by Paul Roche) 1996
Oedipus the King (translated by Nicholas Rudall) 2000
Oedipus Tyrannus (translated by Paul Woodruff) 2000
(The entire section is 105 words.)
SOURCE: “The Oedipus Complex and the Oedipus Myth,” in The Family: Its Function and Destiny, edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen, Harper & Brothers, 1949, pp. 420-48.
[In the following excerpt, Fromm contends that Oedipus Tyrannus must be examined in conjunction with Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone in order for its theme of the son rebelling against patriarchal control to be fully explicated.]
If the Oedipus Rex is capable of moving a modern reader or playgoer no less powerfully than it moved the contemporary Greeks, the only possible explanation is that the effect of the Greek tragedy does not depend upon the conflict between fate and human will, but upon the peculiar nature of the material by which this conflict is revealed. There must be a voice within us which is prepared to acknowledge the compelling power of fate in the Oedipus, while we are able to condemn the situations occurring in Die Ahnfrau or other tragedies of fate as arbitrary inventions. And there actually is a motive in the story of King Oedipus which explains the verdict of this inner voice. His fate moves us only because it might have been our own, because the oracle laid upon us before our birth the very curse which rested upon him. It may be that we are all destined to direct our first sexual impulses toward our mothers, and our first impulses of hatred and violence toward our fathers; our...
(The entire section is 11030 words.)
SOURCE: “Oedipus: Ritual and Play,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Oedipus Rex,” edited by Michael J. O'Brien, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, pp. 57-62.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1949, Fergusson describes the ritual involved in the audience's reception of Oedipus Tyrannus and the importance and function of the chorus.]
The Cambridge School of Classical Anthropologists has shown in great detail that the form of Greek tragedy follows the form of a very ancient ritual, that of the Eniautos-Daimon, or seasonal god.1 This was one of the most influential discoveries of the last few generations, and it gives us new insights into Oedipus which I think are not yet completely explored. The clue to Sophocles' dramatizing of the myth of Oedipus is to be found in this ancient ritual, which had a similar form and meaning—that is, it also moved in the “tragic rhythm.”2
Experts in classical anthropology, like experts in other fields, dispute innumerable questions of fact and of interpretation which the layman can only pass over in respectful silence. One of the thornier questions seems to be whether myth or ritual came first. Is the ancient ceremony merely an enactment of the Ur-Myth of the year-god—Attis, or Adonis, or Osiris, or the “Fisher-King”—in any case that Hero-King-Father-High-Priest who fights...
(The entire section is 2450 words.)
SOURCE: “The Guilt of Oedipus,” in Sophocles:“Oedipus Tyrannus,” translated and edited by Luci Berkowitz and Theodore F. Brunner, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1970, pp. 250-59.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1954, Wheelwright argues that a key to understanding the meaning of Oedipus Tyrannus is found in its Greek title, which the critic renders as Oedipus the Usurper.]
If we compare the best Hellenic studies of the last two or three decades with those of the half-century preceding, three new emphases become apparent: anthropological, psychological, and semantic. The change has been gradual, of course; and it might be objected that anthropology, in particular, is no new arrival, having been a factor in the critical consciousness of western Europe almost since the founding of the Royal Anthropological Institute in the early 1870's. But although that is true, and although scattered anthropological references can be found in the books and textual annotations of the older classicists, there are two reasons, I think, why the influence of anthropology did not become a substantial factor in classical scholarship until somewhat recently. One reason was the natural intellectual lag between any large discovery and the full realization of its pertinence. Partly the ingrained conservatism of many (by no means all) classical scholars, and partly the magnitude of the field newly...
(The entire section is 4402 words.)
SOURCE: “The Tragic Perspective,” in The Identity of Oedipus the King: Five Essays on the “Oedipus Tyrannus,” New York University Press, 1968, pp. 125-54.
[In the following excerpt, Cameron discusses what can be learned from Oedipus Tyrannus concerning guilt, the past, and fate.]
In the middle of the Oedipus we find this juxtaposition: Oedipus and Creon quarrel, and before the scene is finished Oedipus has threatened to kill Creon, or at least to have him killed. Only the most strenuous pleading of both Jocasta and the chorus stops him. Then, in the next scene, Oedipus describes to Jocasta how he met Laius and his party, how he and they disputed the passage of the road, and how he killed them all.
Here, placed together, are Oedipus virtually on the point of killing now and Oedipus who did kill many years ago. An arresting juxtaposition, and surely not an accidental one. It immediately raises questions about the part played by Oedipus in the patricide. It also suggests that in this play crucial events of the past are in some sense being repeated in the present, and that is something about the play that has far-reaching implications for its interpretation.
Later we shall examine the relation of these two incidents to each other in detail, but let us look, for a moment, at another point of similarity between Oedipus' story of the past and the present...
(The entire section is 12592 words.)
SOURCE: “Semiotic Consequences,” in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 6, Nos. 1-2, Fall, 1981, pp. 5-15.
[In the following essay, Culler uses Oedipus Tyrannus to illustrate some of his points concerning the importance of semiotics in literary criticism.]
If one is interested in the consequences of semiotics for the study of literary signification, one needs a reliable account of what semiotics is or says; and for that it may be important to reflect on the strange consequentiality of semiotics itself, for semiotics is not a continuous discipline with a progressive historical evolution.1 Thinkers have often produced major insights about signs and signification, but semiotics is not the sum of insights about the sign. It comes into being when the problem of the sign is brought to the fore, made to organize a field—a consequential intellectual development.
One consequence of the advent of semiotics is the creation of precursors and thus of a history. The history of semiotics involves not an ordinary causal sequence but that special historical relationship which Freud calls Nachträglichkeit, whereby an experience not understood at the time it took place (such as witnessing a Primal Scene) is later invested with traumatic meaning and, as trauma, can then be treated as a cause of later events.2 Semiotics now identifies, as the trauma which...
(The entire section is 4358 words.)
SOURCE: “Oral Composition in the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles,” in New Literary History, Vol. 16, No. 1, Autumn, 1984, pp. 175-97.
[In the following essay, Havelock describes elements of oral composition that can be found in the text of Oedipus Tyrannus.]
A stage play is by definition composed for performance by action and elocution. To argue for “oral” composition may seem to be arguing for the obvious. The “orality” of Greek drama, however, if it exists, goes deeper than a mere management of stage conventions. It would mean that what had to be spoken on the Greek stage in the fifth century before Christ was molded in a very special way. There are of course compositional rules common to all drama qua drama. But I shall argue that there were certain rules operating in classic Greek drama which were peculiar to it, and which stage production of later periods from the Hellenistic age to the present has, in the nature of things, been unable to share.
The surviving plays have come down to us as texts carefully read, copied, and transmitted over hazardous centuries and now at last printed in books. It is surely as texts that they deserve to be estimated, that is, as literate creations by literate authors. So runs the consensus of scholars, critics, translators, and adapters, to whom it would not occur that something like the “oralism” now accepted as inherent...
(The entire section is 10230 words.)
SOURCE: “Sophocles's Oedipus the King,” in Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 5-6.
[In the following essay, Frank contends that during the climax of Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus reverses roles with Jocasta.]
… There, there, we saw his wife hanging, the twisted rope around her neck. When he saw her, he cried out fearfully and cut the dangling noose. Then, as she lay, poor woman, on the ground, what happened after was terrible to see. He tore the brooches— the gold chased brooches fastening her robe— away from her and lifting them up high dashed them on his own eyeballs, shrieking out such things as: they will never see the crime I have committed or had done upon me! Dark eyes, now in the days to come look on forbidden faces, do not recognize those whom you long for—with such imprecations he struck his eyes again and yet again with the brooches. And the bleeding eyeballs gushed and stained his beard—no sluggish oozing drops but a black rain and bloody hail poured down.
lines 1263-80; David Grene, trans.
The self-blinding of Oedipus, a scene that Harold Bloom, in his introduction to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (New York: Chelsea House, 1988), singles out as “too terrible for acting out … [and] also too dreadful for representation in language,” has been read, time and again, as the manifestation of either Apollo's...
(The entire section is 608 words.)
SOURCE: “The Two Oedipuses: Sophocles, Anguillara, and the Renaissance Treatment of Myth,” in MLN, Vol. 110, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 178-91.
[In the following essay, Fabrizio examines how Giovanni Andrea dell'Anguillara, a Renaissance writer, dealt with what he deemed inconsistencies of characterization in his adaptation of Sophocles's text.]
To discuss so minor a writer as Giovanni Andrea dell'Anguillara (ca. 1517-1571) seems like an exercise in willful obscurantism or personal enthusiasm for what is better dead and buried. Of course, it could be claimed with Ernst Robert Curtius and Aby Warburg that “God lurks in detail,” that only by a minute exploration of even the minor figures of a period can we achieve any synthesis and understanding of literary history. We are all aware from experience how often a second or even third rate writer illuminates more clearly than a master the mentality of a period. But a more tangible justification exists for conjuring up the name of Anguillara from the dusty tomes of the past. His Edippo tragedia was both the first performed and first printed vernacular version of the Oedipus story in the Renaissance. Called “among the most famous tragedies” by one of those eighteenth-century collectors of details, Crescimbeni (I. iv. 309), the Edippo was printed twice in 1565,1 once in Padua and once in Venice. It was also performed twice,...
(The entire section is 5995 words.)
SOURCE: “Time and Knowledge in the Tragedy of Oedipus,” in Sophocles's Tragic World: Divinity, Nature, Society, Harvard University Press, 1995, pp. 138-60.
[In the following excerpt, Segal discusses how indefinite descriptions of time in Oedipus Tyrannus are part of what obscures the identity of Laius's killer.]
The story of Oedipus is the archetypal myth of personal identity in Western culture. It is the myth par excellence of self-knowledge, of human power and human weakness, of the determining forces of the accidents of birth that we can neither change nor escape. Its concerns are the interplay of supreme rationality and supreme ignorance, control and aggression in the human personality, and the relation of individual existence to order or chaos, meaning or meaninglessness in the world as we experience it and interpret it. Oedipus is a kind of black fairy tale; but, as Vladimir Nabokov remarks a propos of another fiction about self-discovery and self-deception, “Without these fairy tales the world would not be real.”1
For the modern interpretation of the Oedipus myth three models have been the most influential. They are Nietzsche's proto-existentialist view, Freud's psychoanalytic reading, and Claude Lévi-Strauss's structuralist approach.2 As the last is not concerned directly with the problem of knowledge or with a knowing subject, it is only...
(The entire section is 11445 words.)
SOURCE: “Asserting Eternal Providence: The Question of Guilt,” in The Theatre of Apollo: Divine Justice and Sophocles's “Oedipus the King,” McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996, pp. 45-58.
[In the following excerpt, Griffith examines the cases for and against Oedipus and explains why he is guilty of murder.]
On the last occasion I had the good fortune to read E. R. Dodds' famous essay “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex,”1 I felt certain misgivings at some of his conclusions. Dodds is denouncing a view that he discovered in some undergraduate essays on the question “In what sense, if in any, does the Oedipus Rex attempt to justify the ways of God to man?” The offending view2 holds that “we get what we deserve”3—that is, that Oedipus in some measure merits his suffering. Dodds' position in answer to this has an ethical aspect (Oedipus has an “essential moral innocence”4), a religious one (Sophocles' “gods are [not] in any human sense just”5), and a literary-critical one (“there is no reason at all why we should require a dramatist—even a Greek dramatist—to be for ever running about delivering banal ‘messages’”6 Many have anticipated Dodds in his position7 and others have followed him,8 with very few dissenting.9 This position is consonant with the...
(The entire section is 8701 words.)
SOURCE: “The Theban Plays: Illusion into Reality,” in Electra and the Empty Urn: Metatheater and Role Playing in Sophocles, The University of North Carolina Press, 1998, pp. 67-99.
[In the following excerpt, Ringer analyzes the different levels of illusion Sophocles uses in his Theban plays and discusses the audience's involvement in these illusions.]
All of Sophocles' tragedies engage the spectator in the fundamental metatheatrical problem of appearance versus reality. The dichotomy of appearance and essence is one of the favorite subjects of serious drama. By its very nature, drama deals in illusion, in the creative tension of one person or object standing in for or representing something else. As one of the masters of dramatic irony, Sophocles exhibits the keenest appreciation of the often invisible gulf that separates deeds from words and perception from reality. It is natural that someone so attuned to these fissures in experience would want to explore thoroughly the boundaries of his aesthetic medium. This exploration often calls attention to the irony of a character's situation in the story as well as the irony of the theatrical situation itself, the flickering “in and out” of illusion that is repeatedly created and destroyed in the course of a performance.
The so-called Theban Plays, Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus, and Oedipus at Colonus, were not viewed...
(The entire section is 13182 words.)
Ahl, Frederick. “Oracular Wordplay.” In Sophocles' Oedipus: Evidence and Self-Conviction, pp. 244-59. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Examines the wordplay in Sophocles's choice of names for his characters.
Arkins, Brian. “The Final Lines of Sophocles, King Oedipus (1524-30).” Classical Quarterly 38, No. 2 (1988): 555-58.
Argues that the closing lines of King Oedipus, although often questioned by scholars, are, in fact, genuine.
Armstrong, Richard H. “Oedipus as Evidence: The Theatrical Background to Freud's Oedipus Complex.” http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/articles/psyart1999/oedipus/armstr01.htm.
Examines Freud's assertion that Oedipus Tyrannus moves modern audiences with as much intensity as it did ancient Greek audiences.
Berkowitz, Luci and Theodore F. Brunner, eds. Sophocles:”Oedipus Tyrannus.” New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1970, 261p.
Includes religious and psychological studies of the play as well as several essays concerning the guilt or innocence of Oedipus. A selection from this work is printed above.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Sophocles's Oedipus Rex....
(The entire section is 635 words.)