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.
When the play opens, Thebes is suffering a plague which leaves its fields and women barren. Oedipus, the king of Thebes, has sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the house of Apollo to ask the oracle how to end the plague. Creon returns, bearing good news: once the killer of the previous king, Laius, is found, Thebes will be cured of the plague (Laius was Jocasta's husband before she married Oedipus). Hearing this, Oedipus swears he will find the murderer and banish him. The Chorus (representing the people of Thebes) suggests that Oedipus consult Teiresias, the blind prophet. Oedipus tells them that he has already sent for Teiresias.
When Teiresias arrives, he seems reluctant to answer Oedipus's questions, warning him that he does not want to know the answers. Oedipus threatens him with death, and finally Teiresias tells him that Oedipus himself is the killer, and that his marriage is a sinful union. Oedipus takes this as an insult and jumps to the conclusion that Creon paid Teiresias to say these things. Furious, Oedipus dismisses him, and Teiresias goes, repeating as he does, that Laius's killer is right here before him - a man who is his father's killer and his mother's husband, a man who came seeing but will leave in blindness.
Creon enters, asking the people around him if it is true that Oedipus slanderously accused him. The Chorus tries to mediate, but Oedipus appears and charges Creon with treason. Jocasta and the Chorus beg Oedipus to be open-minded: Oedipus unwillingly relents and allows Creon to go. Jocasta asks Oedipus why he is so upset and he tells her what Teiresias prophesied. Jocasta comforts him by telling him that there is no truth in oracles or prophets, and she has proof. Long ago an oracle told Laius that his own son would kill him, and as a result he and Jocasta gave their infant son to a shepherd to leave out on a hillside to die with a pin through its ankles. Yet Laius was killed by robbers, not by his own son, proof that the oracle was wrong. But something about her story troubles Oedipus; she said that Laius was killed at a place where three roads meet, and this reminds Oedipus of an incident from his past, when he killed a stranger at a place where three roads met. He asks her to describe Laius, and her description matches his memory. Yet Jocasta tells him that the only eyewitness to Laius's death, a herdsman, swore that five robbers killed him. Oedipus summons this witness.
While they wait for the man to arrive, Jocasta asks Oedipus why he seems so troubled. Oedipus tells her the story of his past. Once when he was young, a man he met told him that he was not his father's son. He asked his parents about it, and they denied it. Still it troubled him, and he eventually went to an oracle to determine his true lineage. The oracle then told him that he would kill his father and marry his mother. This prophecy so frightened Oedipus that he left his hometown and never returned. On his journey, he encountered a haughty man at a crossroads - and killed the man after suffering an insult. Oedipus is afraid that the stranger he killed might have been Laius. If this is the case, Oedipus will be forever banished both from Thebes (the punishment he swore for the killer of Laius) and from Corinth, his hometown. If this eyewitness will swear that robbers killed Laius, then Oedipus is exonerated. He prays for the witness to deliver him from guilt and from banishment. Oedipus and Jocasta enter the palace to wait for him.
Jocasta comes back out of the palace, on her way to the holy temples to pray for Oedipus. A messenger arrives from Corinth with the news that Oedipus's father Polybus is dead. Overjoyed, Jocasta sends for Oedipus, glad that she has even more proof in the uselessness of oracles. Oedipus rejoices, but then states that he is still afraid of the rest of the oracle's prophecy: that he will marry his mother. The messenger assures him that he need not fear approaching Corinth - since Merope, his mother, is not really his mother, and moreover, Polybus wasn't his father either. Stunned, Oedipus asks him how he came to know this. The messenger replies that years ago a man gave a baby to him and he delivered this baby to the king and queen of Corinth - a baby that would grow up to be Oedipus the King. The injury to Oedipus's ankles is a testament to the truth of his tale, because the baby's feet had been pierced through the ankles. Oedipus asks the messenger who gave the baby to him, and he replies that it was one of Laius's servants. Oedipus sends his men out to find this servant. The messenger suggests that Jocasta should be able to help identify the servant and help unveil the true story of Oedipus's birth. Suddenly understanding the terrible truth, Jocasta begs Oedipus not to carry through with his investigation. Oedipus replies that he swore to unravel this mystery, and he will follow through on his word. Jocasta exits into the palace.
Oedipus again swears that he will figure out this secret, no matter how vile the answer is. The Chorus senses that something bad is about to happen and join Jocasta's cry in begging the mystery to be left unresolved. Oedipus's men lead in an old shepherd, who is afraid to answer Oedipus's questions. But finally he tells Oedipus the truth. He did in fact give the messenger a baby boy, and that baby boy was Laius's son - the same son that Jocasta and Laius left on a hillside to die because of the oracle's prophecy.
Finally the truth is clear - devastated, Oedipus exits into the palace. A messenger reveals that he grabbed a sword and searched for Jocasta with the intent to kill her. Upon entering her chamber, however, he finds that she has hanged herself. He takes the gold brooches from her dress and gouges his eyes out. He appears onstage again, blood streaming from his now blind eyes. He cries out that he, who has seen and done such vile things, shall never see again. He begs the Chorus to kill him. Creon enters, having heard the entire story, and begs Oedipus to come inside, where he will not be seen. Oedipus begs him to let him leave the city, and Creon tells him that he must consult Apollo first. Oedipus tells him that banishment was the punishment he declared for Laius's killer, and Creon agrees with him. Before he leaves forever, however, Oedipus asks to see his daughters and begs Creon to take care of them. Oedipus is then led away, while Creon and the girls go back in the palace. The Chorus, alone, laments Oedipus' tragic fate and his doomed lineage.