Oedipus Rex Oedipus Tyrannus, Sophocles - Essay



(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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

Erich Fromm (essay date 1949)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11030 words.)

Francis Fergusson (essay date 1949)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2450 words.)

Philip Wheelwright (essay date 1954)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4402 words.)

Alister Cameron (essay date 1968)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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 entire section is 12592 words.)

Jonathan Culler (essay date 1981)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4358 words.)

Eric A. Havelock (essay date 1984)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10230 words.)

Bernhard Frank (essay date 1992)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 608 words.)

Richard Fabrizio (essay date 1995)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5995 words.)

Charles Segal (essay date 1995)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11445 words.)

R. Drew Griffith (essay date 1996)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8701 words.)

Mark Ringer (essay date 1998)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 13182 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


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.”

(The entire section is 635 words.)