Oedipus: Possibly the Greatest of all Tragedies

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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.

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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 error." Hamartia can be understood to refer to the all-too-human limitations possessed by the tragic hero, his faults that make him less than perfect but not blameworthy in any moral sense. While he may have flaws (like the heel of Achilles), we cannot attribute his downfall to them. Oedipus's impatience with Teiresias's attempt to withhold the contents of the oracle, for example, led him to suspect the prophet of conspiring against him on behalf of Creon. He calls Teiresias a "sightless, witless, senseless, mad old man."

A. J. A. Waldock related Oedipus's hamartia to his approach to oracular knowledge. In his Sophocles the Dramatist, Waldock wrote: "he was in fault for not perceiving the truth, now he is in fault because he is too urgent to see it." In other words, Oedipus's eagerness to use his mind to act upon and thereby to solve every problem he encounters, when taken to its logical extreme, leaves no room for the gods' influence over the fate of man, an idea considered somewhat heretical in a culture which places much emphasis on, and had faith in, the role of the gods in shaping man's destiny. Readers such as W. P. Winnington-Ingram, in Sophocles: An Interpretation, have criticized Oedipus because he "trusts his intellect too much and must learn how fallible it is."

Ultimately, while we can regard Oedipus as both admirable for his leadership skills and noble intentions and imperfect for his overconfidence and harsh treatment of others, he is a figure whose fate inspires pity and terror because of his ability to endure misfortune. He blinds himself in an act of self-punishment and self-protection, since he is deeply horrified by his own crimes and unwilling to face others' gazes: "After exposing the rankness of my own guilt, / How could I look men frankly in the eyes?" Rather than ending his life, Oedipus lives to bear the weight of two curses, one imposed on his family line by the gods and the other self-imposed when he announces his intention to send Laius's murderer into exile. Dodds nicely captured the pathos of his suffering: "Oedipus is great, not in virtue of a great worldly position—for his worldly position is an illusion which will vanish like a dream—but in virtue of his inner strength: strength to pursue the truth at whatever personal cost, and strength to accept and endure it when found."

Notably, the end of the play does not show Oedipus leaving Thebes; although we see him ask Creon again and again to lead him into exile, the play ends with him being led into the palace, into a private space and away from a public domain polluted by his presence. In a detailed discussion of the last scene, M. Davies wrote in an issue of Hermes that it leaves our vision of Oedipus as a commanding figure very much intact: it "shows him still acting spontaneously like a king, in the old imperious manner, although the once equivalent temporal power has now fallen away."

In order to understand both the protagonist and the play itself in the larger context of fifth-century Greece, it is important to consider the conflicting roles of oracular knowledge and Athenian self-confidence in their culture's perception of man's place in the universe. At the time of the Peloponnesian War, oracular knowledge was often doubted because the oracles came from Apollo's shrine at pro-Spartan Delphi; the messages often reflected an anti-Athenian bias. In an essay on Oedipus Rex in Homer to Brecht: The European Epic and Dramatic Traditions, Paul Fry noted that "around 427 B.C., when the play was first acted, the priests of Apollo were out of favor because Apollo's oracles considering the Peloponnesian War were all pro-Spartan."

While this historical fact does not mean that the Priest and Teiresias would have been ridiculous figures for the play's first audiences, it does mean that Oedipus's skepticism would have been understood and sympathized with. In the context of the very different times of turmoil that the play depicts, however, Oedipus's disbelief may have appeared slightly more threatening, since, as Bushnell argued, Oedipus has no system of belief other than his own intellectual power with which to replace oracular knowledge: "Tiresias's arrival initiates the conflict between Apollo's signs and Oedipus's voice—a conflict that strikes at the roots of the city's order, which is based on the cooperation between sacred and secular interests. Oedipus seems to threaten directly the stability that the fulfillment of oracles represents, without establishing any new structure." In the plot thus conceived, Apollo's oracle is truth and Oedipus chastises himself for having believed otherwise: "Oedipus, damned in his birth, in his marriage damned, / Damned in the blood he shed with his own hand!" As an efficacious tool by which to shape human destiny, the power of oracular knowledge is retained by the gods, while Oedipus is able to reach lyrical heights in expressing the tragic consequences of being confined in such a world.

In ancient Athens, dissatisfaction with oracular knowledge was coupled with a growing sense that, in the words of Protagoras, "man is the measure of all things." Self-confidence in man's ability to order and rule his world reached even new heights under the leadership of Pericles, whose extensive training in sophistry and lack of fear in the gods led him to be a highly persuasive thinker who inspired in his subjects a sense of man's ability to accomplish limitless goals. For Sophocles's contemporaries, Oedipus's intellectual prowess was probably strongly reminiscent of Pericles—his eloquence and devotion to his country in a time of upheaval were legendary, and his investment in public building projects (the Parthenon among them) employed laborers and inspired artists to create beautiful memorials to their epoch.

While Oedipus's affection for Thebes is of a very different nature, his expression of care is moving: "Let me purge my father's Thebes of the pollution / Of my living here, and go out to the wild hills, / To Kithairon, that has won such fame with me, / The tomb my mother and father appointed for me, / And let me die there, as they willed I should." His desire to "purge [his] father's Thebes" and move mentally and physically towards death provides a powerfully cathartic closure for the play. In The Birth of Tragedy, the philosopher Nietzsche wrote of the spirituality of this final scene, its ability to leave audiences with a sense of rejuvenation: "Sophocles understood the most sorrowful figure of the Greek stage, the unfortunate Oedipus, as the noble human being who, in spite of his wisdom, is destined to error and misery but who eventually, through his tremendous suffering, spreads a magical power of blessing that remains effective even beyond his disease."

Source: Jennifer Lewin, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

Review of Oedipus Rex

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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 purpose." But not just "any nearby object" is agreeable for blinding oneself, and probably weapons did not lie scattered about a queen's apartment as part of the decor. When Oedipus asks the Chorus for a sword with which to pursue Jocasta, the Frank essay concludes that in his frenzy, Oedipus "intends to thrust his sword into her offending womb, which ironically would emulate the sexual act one last time." What the text really says, however, is this: "From one to another of us he went, begging a sword, / Hunting the wife who was not his wife, the mother / Whose womb had carried his own children and himself."

Across the fiery enthusiasms of Professor Frank fall the long and soothing shadows of Aristotle and Sophocles. Aristotle's famous definition of tragedy, in The Poetics, stresses that pity and fear will be evoked by action of "a certain magnitude." His frequent praise of Oedipus Rex proves that Sophocles' masterpiece met his highest standards. We can therefore safely conclude that the emotions Aristotle thought that the play produced were pity and fear—not disgust and revulsion, which would be our more likely reactions to the interpretation that Professor Frank suggests.

Sophocles' treatment of blindness in the drama accords with Aristotle's reading of the play. It has far greater meaning than that of a symbolically achieved sexual act. Spiritual blindness is equated with obduracy and arrogance—hubris—and towards the end of Oedipus Rex, the physical blinding is already encouraging new insight, awareness, and compassion. When Oedipus could see, he beheld the piercing light of Greece, but he had then less understanding of his fate, less inner vision, and less humility than he is beginning to achieve after he loses that flooding, outer light. The resemblance between Oedipus and the blinded Gloucester in King Lear often comes to mind. Gloucester says,"I stumbled when I saw." And when Lear observes, "[Y]et you see how this world goes," Gloucester answers, "I see it feelingly."

Light, to the ancient Greeks, was beauty, intellect, virtue, indeed represented life itself. The Choragos asks Oedipus, "What god was it drove you to rake black / Night across your eyes?" And Oedipus replies in anguish:

Apollo, Apollo, Dear
Children, the god was Apollo
He brought my sick, sick fate upon me.
But the blinding hand was my own!
How could I bear to see
When all my sight was horror everywhere'

We have in the drama, then, not just bitter irony played out by incredible coincidence, nor the story of a proud man rightly humbled. We have a powerful statement that the inscrutable gods exert extreme power over the unjust and the just, who suffer alike from their mysteriously random power. We do not need to make Oedipus's self-blinding into a sexual symbol or allegory to feel his baffled woe. Surely, enough sorrow is here to achieve the effect that Aristotle underlines so often and Sophocles creates with such skill.

Source: Janet M. Green, review of Oedipus Rex, in the Explicator, Vol. 52, no. 1, Fall, 1993, pp 2-3. Green is an educatior and critic.

Oedipus: From Man to Archetype

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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 play. Sheppard interprets the philosophical theme of Sophocles' play as a mild agnosticism or neutral fatalism. Oedipus, he declares, behaves normally, commits an error in ignorance, and brings suffering upon himself. "Sophocles justifies nothing.... His Oedipus stands for human suffering. His gods ... stand for the universe of circumstances as it is.... He bids his audience face the facts.... Oedipus suffers not because of his guilt, but in spite of his goodness."

Sir Maurice Bowra also synthesizes the two Delphic maxims, his point being that Oedipus has learned that he must do what the gods demand, and in his life illustrates what the Platonic Socrates means when he says the commands "Know Thyself" and "Be Modest" are the same. Oedipus finds modesty because he has learned to know himself: "So the central idea of a Sophoclean tragedy is that through suffering a man learns to be modest before the gods." Bowra argues that Sophocles' Oedipus, reflecting such tragic contemporary events (noted by Thucydides) as a catastrophic plague in Athens and an unsuccessful war with Sparta, as well as a current disbelief in the oracles, dramatizes a conflict between gods and men. He concludes that "Sophocles allows no doubts, no criticism of the gods....
If divine ways seem wrong, ignorance is to blame.... For this conflict the gods have a reason. They wish to teach a lesson, to make men learn their moral limitations and accept them," (Sophoclean Tragedy, [Oxford], 1944). But Bowra appears to be too committed to supporting the religious establishment, and as a result misses the subtle and humane questioning suggested in the dramatic situation. For example, is not a very critical irony intended by the dramatist when Jocasta's offering at the altar of Apollo on center stage is seen still smoking at the time the messenger inform us of her suicide by hanging? Another such irony may be intended in the epilogos when Oedipus, blind and polluted, craves to be sent out of the land as an outcast only to have Creon reply that Apollo must first pronounce. This need not only suggest respect for the power of the god; it may also suggest the god's failure at empathy. For it is as if the dramatist were asking Apollo to show a little charity, love, and forbearance towards erring man.

On the basis of such evidence, Cedric H. Whitman takes issue with Bowra. He states that the picture of a pure and pious Sophocles never questioning the oracles and serenely supporting the traditional belief in the Greek theodicy is completely wrong. Sophocles, Whitman believes, appears in the Tyrannus to have suffered a loss of faith; he is bitter, ironic, and pessimistic because of the irrational evil perpetrated by unjust gods on a morally upright man who wishes to be and do good. Whitman's point is that the ancient Greeks used the gods to explain where evil came from, especially that irrational evil which seemed to have no cause or moral meaning. Thus Sophocles was doubting the moral trustworthiness of the Greek gods: "The simple fact is that for Sophocles, the gods, whoever they are, no longer stand within the moral picture. Morality is man's possession, and the cosmos—or chaos—may be what it will." Sophocles dramatizes the theodicy "with a kind of agnostic aloofness. Sophocles was religious rather than pious" (Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism, [Cambridge], 1951).

Such, briefly, are a few of the more significant prevailing views in American and English scholarship concerning Sophocles' handling of the myth in his masterpiece. They demonstrate, despite differences of opinion about Athenian life and Sophocles' character, that the meaning of the myth in the Tyrannus derives from the society and culture of Athens during the fifth century, and that Sophocles accommodates the basic story not only to his own time but also to his personal ideological and spiritual needs. So, depending upon how the critic reads the complexities and ambiguities of Athenian culture and the author's tenuous character, Sophocles, in this play about King Oedipus, is impious or pious. But whatever the stand on Apollo and his oracles that Sophocles has really taken, there is no doubt about the depth, conviction, and art with which he expresses his credo. These qualities have always been admired, and, as a result, the form in which Sophocles has cast the myth has often been imitated.

Source: Martin Kallich, "Oedipus: From Man to Archetype" in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 3, no. 1, 1966, pp. 33-35.

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Critical Overview


Oedipus Tyrannus, Sophocles