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 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...
(The entire section is 1845 words.)