Jan 7, 2010

On Oedipus the King

The Three Theban Plays (Penguin Classics)Origins of Greek Drama
Drama starts with the Ancient Greeks around 550 B.C. It emerges in Athens when plays were produced for an annual festival to celebrate the god Dionysus. We don’t know precisely how it all got started, but the historical sources suggest probable religious origins. Devotees of Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine, would compose dithyrambs, wild, ecstatic hymns sung and danced by a chorus of 50 men. Choruses from competing cities would sing their dithyrambs, vying for top honors at the festival. These dithyrambs lost some their religious/hymnal qualities and become more narrative in nature, evolving ultimately into drama as we know it. Tradition holds that Thespis (from whom we get the word thespian) was the first man to speak lines in character instead of narrating them as a member of the chorus. Ever since, he has been honored as the first actor. The playwright Aeschylus was the first dramatist to add a second actor to the performance.

Sophocles lived from 495 BC to 406 BC. He wrote 123 plays. Only seven complete plays survive. Oedipus the King was probably produced for the first time in 428 BC. Ironically, although this is widely thought to be perhaps the greatest tragedy ever written, it did not win the year it was performed! The winning playright that year was Philocles, a nephew of Aeschylus. Tradition holds that Sophocles never came in lower than second place.

The fifth century BC is known as the Golden Age of Greek drama in Athens and the major playwrights of this error include the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and the comic playwright Aristophanes. Plays were written and performed at the theater of Dionysus in Athens, in contests between three playwrights. Each wrote three tragedies and a lighter, more comic satyr play. The outdoor amphitheater could seat 17,000 people, and the audience would vote on the winner. The festival called the Dionysus was held in early spring, around late March, early April.

The word tragedy means “goat song” in Greek, and it stood for plays about serious themes, frequently with sad outcomes. Through the ages, tragedy has come to mean a serious play with unfortunate outcomes, usually centered on a tragic hero, a person who encounters a serious reversal of fortune (often partially by his own doing) and suffers for it.  


534. First tragic performance in Athens by Thespis (father of acting) at the Festival of Dionysus during the reign of Peisistratus.
510-507. Founding of Athenian democracy under Cleisthenes, after the expulsion of Peisistratus.
497/96. Sophocles born at Colonus, just outside Athens.
494. Birth of Pericles.
490. Persian invasion of Greece under King Dareius. Athenians victorious at Marathon.
480-478. Persian invasion of Greece under Kin Xerxes. Persians are defeated at the battle of Salamis by the Athenian navy and at Plataea by the Greeks on land.
477. Athenians found the Delian League, a naval alliance.
472. The Persians by Aeschylus is performed. It is the first extant Greek tragedy.
470/69. Socrates born.
468. Sophocles wins the first of many victories in the dramatic competition at Athens.
467. Aeschylus presents a trilogy based on the house of Laius, including an Oedipus play. Only the Seven Against Thebes survives.
460. Thucydides is born.
458. Aeschylus presents his great trilogy the Oresteia.
456/57. Aeschylus dies.
454. Athens solidies its naval empire.
449. Euripides wins his first victory at the dramatic competition.
447. Massive building projects begun in Athens under Pericles, including the new temple to Athena and the Parthenon.
442-41. Sophocles presents Antigone. It wins first prize.
441-40. Sophocles is elected on of ten generals to suppress the revolt on the island of Samos.
431. Beginning of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. Will continue (with a peaceful interlude from 421-18) until 404.
430. A great plague breaks out in Athens.
429. Pericles dies in the plague.
429-25. Oedipus Tyrannus probably performed.
428/27. Plato is born.
427. Aristophanes presents his first comedy on stage. Sophocles at this time is probably serving in the Peloponnesian War.
416. Athens conquers the island of Melos, executes all its adult men, and enslave everyone else.
413. Spartans establish a foothold in Athenian territory at Decelea.
411. A coup d'etat at Athens by an oligarchy. Sophocles chosen as one of the then commissioners. Democracy is suspended temporarily, a few months.
407/6. Euripides dies. Sophocles is said to have dressed his chorus in black that year.
406. Death of Sophocles.
404-3. Athens surrenders to Sparta. Rule of the Thirty Tyrants, supported by Sparta.
403. Democracy restored in Athens.
401. Posthumous presentation of Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles's grandson.
399. Socrates put on trial, convicted and sentenced to death.

Sources of the Oedipus myth

The Greeks drew on ancient stories as source material for their plays. These stories had religious, ethical, and pedagogic value for Greek culture. We call them myths. The particular myth cycle we are concerned with is the story of Oedipus, king of Thebes, son of Laius and Jocasta, a man cursed with the cruel fate of patricide (murder of the father) and incest (fornication with his mother). As is always the case with myth and legend, variations of the story of Oedipus abound, yet some of the recurring story elements involve the abandonment of baby Oedipus by his parents, his unwitting murder of the father, the confrontation and defeat of the monster known as the Sphinx (a flying lion with the head and breast of a woman), which was terrorizing the city of Thebes. Oedipus is awarded with the spoils of victory (the kingdom and the widowed bride Jocasta). Upon the discovery of his sins, Oedipus, in Sophocles' version, blinds himself.

Plot guide to Oedipus the King

Prologue. The prologue is the exposition phase of the plot. It establishes the scene of action and the problem facing Oedipus: namely, that a plague infests the city of Thebes. The citizens are pleading for his help. Oedipus, showing himself to be a sympathetic yet proud ruler, takes responsibility for ridding the city of pestilence. He has dispatched Creon to Delphi. Creon returns with the message that the god commands them to expel from Thebes the defilement they are sheltering. King Laius's murder must be avenged, the murderer identified and either exiled or put to death. If we didn't know who Oedipus was, we might think we were in for an entertaining murder/mystery with Oedipus as chief inspector. The plot in the scenes to come will use this as an organizing principle: Oedipus interviews, interrogates, and accuses several persons: the blind prophet Tiresias, his brother-in-law Creon, his wife Queen Jocasta, the Messenger from Corinth, and an old Shepherd. Since the audience was likely to be well acquainted with the Oedipus myth, we already know that he is the defilement he seeks, and the play is already oozing with situational and dramatic irony: the chief inspector and the perpetrator are the same man, and Oedipus doesn’t realize it.

Parados. The song accompanying the entrance of the chorus. The poem is a series of alternating sections called Strophe and Antistrophe, which probably relates to the movements of the chorus back and forth across the stage. The chorus acts as the voice of the community, the citizenry. They appeal to the gods and offer wise commentary on the action. Sometimes the chorus (or a representative from the chorus) will play a role in the action; often, they stand back and observe the drama, stepping in to bridge between episodes (which I will call scenes).

Scene I. The main action in this scene is the verbal battle between Oedipus and Tiresias, the blind prophet. Tiresias knows the truth of Oedipus's true identity, but is reluctant to tell it. Oedipus is enraged by the prophet's stubborn refusals and lashes out, mocking his prophetic abilities and then when he succeeds in getting Tiresias to identify the murderer, he can't handle the truth and accuses him of being in league with Creon to overthrow him. The scene reveals much about Oedipus's character -- he is constantly thinking through problems and consequences and possibilities, distrustful of oracles, more confident in his own powers, yet at the same time he feels threatened by the prophecies and is paranoid over the prophet. He resorts to conspiracy theory because the thought that he would be the murderer is preposterous to him; it defies reason.

Ode I. A short choral ode bridges scene 1 and scene 2. At this point, the chorus seems to be siding with Oedipus. The blind old man's "evil words are lies."

Scene II. The conflict of Oedipus and Creon. Oedipus grills Creon, accuses him of plotting against him, while Creon puts up a solid defense. The conflict heightens, Oedipus rages. Jocasta intercedes to diffuse the argument. And here we have a masterful plot twist. In order to allay Oedipus's concerns, she tells him not to put his trust in soothsayers and proceeds to introduce the story of her baby, the oracle, and the abandonment of the baby. How could Oedipus be the murderer, when the son died in the wilderness, and the father was murdered by a gang where three highways meet. That small detail stuns Oedipus, who questions Jocasta for more details of the crime, and each detail confirms his memory of the incident where three roads meet. It's important to point out that at this point in the play, there's no need to think that Oedipus suspects he is the son of Jocasta and Laius; he is only afraid that he is Laius's murderer. If so, he must exile himself. The sole witness of the murder must be found and brought in for questioning. Oedipus take this opportunity to relate his side of the story -- being raised in Corinth as son of Polybos and Merope, the prophecy relating to his fate, and how he never returned to Corinth, and how he killed a small band of travelers where three roads meet. We see the stories converging. Rising action indeed. The tension is building. Situational irony abounds.

It may be worth noting at this point that the story is operating on two tracks. First, we have what critics call the story or fabula: this is the larger storyline, the chronological time line of events that the audience would reconstruct in their imagination. In Oedipus Rex, it would stretch all the way back to the birth of Oedipus, the oracle’s prophecy to Laius and Jocasta, the abandonment of Oedipus on Mt. Cithairon, the compassionate shepherd’s delivery of baby Oedipus to the shepherd from Corinth, who delivers it to his adopted parents, King Polybos and Queen Merope of Corinth. We see the young man Oedipus learning of his questionable parentage, his journey to Delphi to consult with the oracle, the prophecy that he will commit patricide and incest, his flight from Delphi away from Corinth, his encounter with Laius at the place where three roads meet, the murder of Laius, Oedipus’s arrival at Thebes, his defeat of the Sphinx (by answering her riddle), his assumption of the throne at Thebes and the taking of Jocasta as his wife, who bears children by him, and finally the arrival of plague in Thebes, which brings us to the critical juncture: the most dramatic day in Oedipus’s life, when he discovers the murderer, his own true identity, and he blinds himself, and heads away from Thebes forever. That, in sum, is the fabula.

The second aspect of the narrative is what we call the plot, or the syuzhet. This is the arrangement and sequence of events as they unfold in the drama itself: what happens in each scene of the play. As the play steamrolls towards its powerful climax, we are also stepping back in time to Oedipus’s birth.

Ode II.The chorus weighs in with more color commentary.

Scene III. Jocasta, showing her inconstancy, who of late had flouted the oracles and their talk of fate and destiny, now appeals to the gods for help. Instead of the eyewitness coming in right away, we have a new plot twist: a messenger from Corinth arrives with good news. Oedipus's father Polybos is dead. It looks like Oedipus is off the hook. Oedipus is pleased, but he's still worried about the other half of the prophecy -- what of Merope, the mother? The messenger at this point reveals the crushing information that Polybos indeed was not his father, nor was Merope his mother, and he can vouch for it, because he was the very man who received the baby Oedipus from another shepherd. Jocasta has by now figured out the puzzle and is desperate for Oedipus to forestall his quest for truth. Oedipus completely misunderstands her motives, thinking she will be ashamed to have married a slave's son (i.e. the son of a shepherd). For all of Oedipus's intellectual ability, he is stunningly blind, but to be fair, who on earth would think the worst about oneself? He is very human in his refusal to accept the verdict of truth. Jocasta exits for the last time.

Ode III. The next choral ode is a prayer to Dionysus.

Scene IV. The shepherd is escorted on stage. Oedipus and the Messenger engage him in dialogue. Oedipus relentlessly interrogates the man, who is forced to admit that the child he pitied and handed over to the messenger was Laius's child. This is the climax of the play; Oedipus realizes for the first time his true identity. He rushes into the palace. He is the answer to the "who done it" riddle.

Ode IV. A longer choral ode pours out in pity and tears for Oedipus.

Exodos. The exodus is the final scene, where we come to resolution and see Oedipus's tragic recognition. First, a messenger tells the story of Jocasta's suicide and Oedipus's self-imposed eye gouging. The blind king is led back on stage, a broken, suffering man filled with shame. He bemoans his fate, asks to be reunited with his daughters one last time. Creon who is now in charge, sends him from the city. The choral speaker issues a stern warning to the people of Thebes about fate and fortune.

Sophocles’s dramatic technique

Sophocles demonstrates a formidable artistic mastery over his material in this play.

Let’s start with the myth of Oedipus. We have a story that his audience would have already been familiar with: the story of the “swollen-foot” (the etymological meaning of Oedipus) who saved  the city Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, and   inadvertently killed his father and married his mother. The back story of Oedipus’s life is certainly revealed within the play, but the action of the drama is acutely focused on one day in Oedipus’s life. The most dramatic day in his life, the day when he will discover who he really is. It is the day on which his fortunes will instantly reverse from one of the man of wisdom, insight, and intelligence, the hero of the day, the king of Thebes to the most defiled, ashamed, and beleaguered man alive, the sort of man you would least want to be.

This is what Aristotle called the dramatic unities of action, place, and time. The play follows one main action or plot line, it represents action in one place (the palace at Thebes), takes place in the course of 24 hours.

Sophoclean irony

Oedipus the King offers us one of the greatest examples in literature of a technique used by writers called “irony.” Irony is a literary or rhetorical device in which there is a discrepancy, an incongruity, between what is said and what is understood by the audience. There are three types of irony to be introduced here:

Verbal irony. The speaker knowingly uses ironic language. Tiresias uses verbal irony in his verbal battle with Oedipus.

Situational irony. When a situation results in an outcome at odds with the expected outcome. The result is dissappointing, unfair, and often a surprise. In our play, the fact that Oedipus is the chief detective in search of the culprit, who turns out to be himself, is situational irony. Although this outcome is not a surprise, it does strike us as somehow unfair. Kenneth Burke’s definition of irony is “what goes out as A, returns as non-A.”

Dramatic irony. The words and actions of characters belie the real situation without their knowledge. The audience knows something the character doesn’t. Almost every line Oedipus utters in the play is rich with dramatic irony.
There are many instances of ironic reversals in the play. Oedipus’s curse early in the play comes back to haunt him by the end of the play (he must be banished from the city forever). Jocasta intends to calm Oedipus’s fears, and in telling her story, lets an important detail slip out (which is dramatic irony, not verbal irony: she doesn’t know any better), which ironically makes Oedipus all the more fearful for his guilt. The messenger comes from Corinth with “good news” (Oedipus’s father is dead), but this quickly inverts into bad news (Polybos wasn’t actually his father).

Oedipal guilt

Is Oedipus guilty or innocent? It is a question that has been debated for a long time, and as is the case with most questions of intepretation, it depends on how you look at the problem. Did he kill Laius (his father) and marry Jocasta (his mother): obviously the answer is yes. He has not been framed for these crimes. But did he do these horrible deeds knowingly? No. Does he accept responsibility for his actions anyway? Yes. This is partly what makes him a tragic hero. He feels the full force of what he has done, and the savage irony that it was his will that led him into the trap of destiny. We sense that Oedipus has paradoxically brought this on himself and has stubbornly pursued the truth of identity despite all warnings to back off the quest, while simultaneously we feel that something terribly unfair has befallen Oedipus, who never wanted any of this to happen. He has been ensnared by forces beyond his control.

Oedipus and the quest for self knowledge

Was Oedipus wise or foolish in his determined quest after the truth? He surely has his reasons for pursuing the murderer: he wants to release Thebes from the throes of plague, and he is looking to protect his own kingship (after all the murderer might come after him). And there is something noble in his determination to pursue the truth, even when it is clear that the truth will hurt him. He does not shy away from the task at hand. He is both wise and foolish. Not as wise as he thinks he is at the beginning of the play (which makes him seem foolish - hence all the dramatic irony), and a lot wiser by the end (even though he is now blind and beleaguered).

Oedipus as tragic hero

Some critics assert that Oedipus’s pride (in Greek, hamartia), is what does him in. Perhaps, but I don’t think this entirely explains the tragic logic of the play. He has many flaws: pride, stubbornness, paranoia, a wrathful temper. Do any of these adequately justify his horrible destiny?

Oedipus and destiny/free will

A great paradox haunts Oedipus Rex. How is it that a man could fulfill his destiny by consciously willing the precise opposite. The last thing Oedipus wants to do is kill his father and marry his mother, and yet his very actions put him in that very position. How are we to reconcile this?

This begs the question: to what extent are the Gods in control of human affairs? Are we mere puppets acting out a script, the strings being pulled by forces beyond our control? Is Sophocles suggesting that human beings should not think of themselves as being free to determine their own destiny, the gods be damned? Is the play a cautionary tale for those would assume too much about the quest for human knowledge and human aspirations to be self-made human beings, to define ourselves?
Oedipus is the ultimate self-made man, so it seems. He takes charge of his destiny. He attempts to outflank the oracle. He leaves his homeland (Corinth) and overcomes the monstrous force of nature in the Sphinx  through his human reason, his mind. In doing so, he gains power and prestige. It makes him king. But the play undercuts the notion that we are in control of our destiny, that we are who we say we are, we are known by the way we make in the world. Oedipus thinks he knows who he is, but he doesn’t really know; however, a distinguishing characteristic he possesses is the desire to know. He does not want to be blind. He wants to know his true identity. As the play unfolds, this in fact supersedes the original pretext for the quest. This becomes an investigation not so much into who killed Laius (this matter is pretty well wrapped up midway through the plot), but who Oedipus actually is. But I do not think the play is saying we have no control over our actions, that we are mere puppets or playthings of the gods. The oracles stand back and tell you what is going to happen; they don’t tell you how. It is up to the human beings to act out their affairs on the stage of life, hoping they don’t meet the same fate as Oedipus.

Apollonian and Dionysian influences in Oedipus Rex

There is a kind of duel going on at a thematic level between the dark forces of nature and the light forces of reason and intellect. Oedipus thinks he is the man of Apollo, the champion of reason, logic, insight. He is after all the solver of riddles. This side of him has no need for oracles. Opposed to him are the Sphinx (an animal/female force, ravenously sexual and bestial), Tiresias, the blind prophet, and hidden aspects of Oedipus’s nature, namely his murderous, wrathful angry side and his blind desire for Jocasta. While he is smart and compassionate, he also has violent instincts. He has an anger management problem. He is irrationally paranoid about his parentage. And he is after all attracted to an older woman who turns out to be his  mother. He cannot control these desires as much as he assumes.

Dionysus, the god of wine, is the god of wildness, frenzied ecstasy, the lost of rational control, the wellspring of creative inspiration and blind desire. Oedipus is blind to the Dionysian in himself.

One might notice a hint of this blindness in his reaction to the oracle. When Oedipus turns from Delphi and resolves to flee from Corinth, never to return because he doesn’t want to kill or commit incest, in a convoluted way he has subconsciously confirmed his guilt. His attempt to run away betrays himself. A person who truly believe in the power of free will would have no fear of fulfilling the prophecy. Yet there are seeds of doubt. Subconsciously there is a realization that he is capable of violating the taboos. Why run if one is so certain that the impulses could never arise?

Critical perspectives

Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic Here are some observations on Oedipus from Terry Eagleton's Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic:

The classical scholar E.R. Dodds finds the value of Sophocles's King Oedipus in the fact that Oedipus, despite being 'subjectively innocent,' accepts responsibility for all his actions, including those which are 'objectively most horrible'.... As Hegel comments in his lectures on aesthetics, they did not divorce their purely subjective self-consciousness from what was objectively the case. It is also true, and bemusing to a modern, that Oedipus...never once summons his subjective lack of guilt in his self-defense. It would not occur to him to imagine that an incestuous parricide could be spared from pollution simply on account of his ignorance (33).

Oedipus doesn't try to weasel out of his fate; he doesn't whine 'it wasn't my fault, you should let me off the hook because I did everything I could do to avoid this outcome.' Instead he stands there like a man and suffers the outrage and shame of having violated two major taboos. Eagleton sees Oedipus as a 'sacrificial scapegoat, who will finally come to assume the burden of the community's sins.' And perhaps we as witnesses will flinch to see the heavy price paid for lifting this curse from the city of Thebes.
Eagleton later connects the Sphinx (the lion-bird-woman monster) to the forces of Nature; it is Oedipus the man of knowledge who overcomes Nature through his understanding and reason, but it is the same man who also violates Nature's sexual laws in committing incest with his mother. Oedipus overcomes Nature/Sphinx with his conscious mind, while his unconscious desire for Jocasta leads him to violate Nature's ways, the laws of kinship. The tragic question incest raises is, why was Oedipus attracted to his mother? To him, she's just the queen of Thebes, the reward for earning the throne of Thebes by outwitting the Sphinx. Yet at a unconscious level (anything below consciousness being by definition blind) his desire for this woman is blind, as is her desire for him. Neither one knowingly violates the law of nature, yet they still commit the sin and must bear the consequences. The fearful symbolism of this unfortunate, incestuous couple is that it could happen to anyone, conceivably. As creatures of sub-conscious desire, we are all capable of being led astray. "To merge with the parent is to come too near to the tabooed sources of one's own identity, and like Oedipus to be blinded by this excess of light. Only by establishing a distance from yourself, as in any act of knowledge, can you know yourself for what you are; but this risks a different kind of estrangement." (162). There is something to be feared in desire itself. What is it I am desiring? Is it another individual, or some part of myself that I am blind to? The uncertain ground beneath desire as personified by Oedipus is something to be feared, respected, and pitied. Why pity? Because none of us is free from desire's uncertain claims on the self.

None of this can stand, of course, as the plague on Thebes makes plain. A social abomination, Oedipus must be made an example of. He must follow his own orders. He must play the role of the pharmakos, a human being (or figure of a human) cast away and reviled as a scapegoat for society, who must bear their sins and be sacrificed for the good of all, and who then attains a sacred status. "[I]n very ancient times in some Greek cities, on the occasion of crises such as plague or famine or drought, to purify the city they would stone to death either the perpetrator of a sacrilegious act which was regarded as the cause of the disaster, or scapegoat(s), if it was of unknown origin. Such practice was gradually established as an annual event with the purpose of averting calamity, and consequently the expulsion of scapegoat(s) from the community became the essential element of the ritual and stoning changed into a symbolical, ceremonial act performed in casting out the scapegoat(s)." (Hirayama, Journal of Classical Studies XLIX(2001)

 Humanity is a riddle, definable only by paradox and aporia. It is open like the Sphinx's conundrum to conflicting readings, a question which is its own solution since it can be defined only in terms of itself. Oedipus the decipherer of enigmas is himself an enigma he cannot decipher. The unknowable, the Kantian noumenon, is humanity itself, constituted as it is by something which is centrally missing. And this enigma in Sophocles's drama is also the riddling or garbling of incest, which scrambles or telescopes the various stages of life (youth/age, parent/child) which the sphinx's riddle lays out in sequence. Incest erases boundaries, as does Oedipus's answer to the sphinx's query. The human confounds categories, just like the sphinx itself, composite of bird, lion, and woman. (Eagleton 281)

According to Sigmund Freud (as interpreted by Eagleton),

Oedipus is all of us, not because we are all potential parricides or aspiring mother-lovers. As with the rest of us, there is a gap between his objective location in the symbolic order and his imaginary idea of himself.... He is what he is - king, husband, father - only by virtue of this separation.... Oedipus will never be more estranged from himself than when these two registers merge in the terrible light of recognition. To come to selfhood is to acknowledge your self-alienation, the fact that subjectivity just is the process whereby the self constantly gives itself the slip.... In being too intimate with the are blinded to your own being, since it depends on distance and otherness for its constitution. Too much probing into the poisoned sources of your identity will put out your eyes. (281-282)

Oedipus's tragedy raises fundamental questions about identity and destiny. Are we really in control of who we are, what drives us, what impels us to make decisions? Is free will an illusion? Can we ever really "know ourselves"? And if we can, do we want to know what we'll find? Life is unpredictable, and yet we go about our business, making plans, scheming, tempting fate, living in denial, crafting identities for ourselves. We're a proud species, quick to learn when it's to our advantage, slow when it comes to shameful truths. We think we're in control, but are we ever? And yet, how else can we live? You can't will yourself not to will. You can't erase who you are, even if you don't realize what you are. That, maybe, is how Oedipus epitomizes the human predicament -- identity is not something you can take for granted.


Eagleton, Terry. Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic

Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of KnowledgeSegal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. [the best sourcebook on the myth and interpretations of the play] [amz link]

Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays trans. Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics. [amz link]