As part of the Ancient Greek Classics Tour, I offer my reading of Oedipus the King, also known by the Latin title Oedipus Rex, the greatest drama that has come down to us from Sophocles (c. 496-406 B.C.). I thank Rebecca Reid for organizing this tour for the The Classics Circuit and I recommend that you check out the many interesting stops on the tour, highlighting the Ancient Greek epics, tragedies, comedies, and histories.
Oedipus ranks 6th on The Fictional 100, and the following chapter is excerpted from my book. If you would like to learn more about other Ancient Greek characters, their continuing influence, and where they rank on the list, please visit the Fictional 100 website.
With such clues I could not fail to bring my birth to light.1
Oedipus is the most striking and memorable character dramatized by the ancient Greek tragedians. This is saying a lot, because there is so much competition: Medea , Electra , Agamemnon , Antigone , to name a few. The power of Oedipus lies in the depth of his own horror at his situation, combined with its apparent inevitability.
The story of Oedipus, as part of the cycle of myths concerning the kings of Thebes, was well-known to Homer, who mentioned it briefly in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Later, composing tragic plays about Oedipus was apparently a very common thing in ancient Greece, because at least twelve such plays by dramatists other than Sophocles are believed to have been lost.2 Among these are an Oedipus by Aeschylus (for which the sequel, Seven Against Thebes survives) and one by Euripides. But Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus managed to survive. Perhaps because of their near perfection, people made more copies of them, and these came to supersede all other versions of the story. In fact, when Aristotle wrote his theory of tragedy in the Poetics, he singled out Oedipus the King as the epitome of the form, and his theory shaped the way tragedies were written and analyzed for the next two thousand years.3
But at its debut performance in 427 B.C. (the date is somewhat uncertain), Oedipus the King won only second prize! It lost to a play by Aeschylus’s nephew, Philocles, who is barely remembered now.4 It soon became clear, however, that Sophocles’ play was remarkable not only for the shocking story it tells, but for the way in which Oedipus demands that all secrets be revealed. His gradual discovery of his unwitting crimes requires the intricate plotting that Aristotle admired so much.
When the play begins, Oedipus is already king of Thebes, a position he attained by virtue of solving the famous riddle of the Sphinx: What creature walks on four legs, two legs, and three legs? Man—because he crawls on all fours as a baby, stands erect on two as a vigorous young man, and then must lean for support on a stick, his third leg, as an old man. For this feat of freeing Thebes from the Sphinx’s power, Oedipus won its throne and its newly widowed queen, Jocasta. But now a plague ravages the city and an oracle proclaims that the only remedy is to banish the murderer of the previous king, Laius. Oedipus does not know who this could be, and in his relentless pursuit of the answer he destroys himself. His tragedy is that by seeking the truth, he will uncover his own guilt. His situation brims with paradox and irony, trapping him in his own riddle. As French anthropologist Jean-Pierre Vernant put it, “lucid and blind, innocent yet guilty, the decipherer of enigmas is for himself an enigma he cannot decipher.”5
Because Oedipus has remained so much a part of our culture, modern readers, as much as their ancient Greek counterparts, know what is coming. Oedipus learns that he unwittingly murdered his father, Laius, and married his own mother, Jocasta, also having four children with her, a horrifying mixing of the generations in which he is both father and half brother to his children. (From an anthropological viewpoint, this need to avoid confusion in kinship structure is the primary barrier to incest, since social order rests on maintaining orderly succession between generations).6
No matter that both Laius and Oedipus, at different times, had tried to escape their fate, which had been predicted by earlier oracles. When Laius heard the prophecy that his son would kill him, he pierced and bound his newborn son’s feet (oedipus means “swollen foot”) and left the baby to die of exposure on the Cithaeron hill. But a herdsman rescued him, and gave him to the King of Corinth, Polybus, to be raised. Oedipus likewise had heard from an oracle that he would murder his father and so left Corinth, only to encounter his real father, Laius, on a crossroads, have an altercation with him, and kill him. He proceeded into Thebes, answered the Sphinx, and, completely “blind” to his true position, married his mother. When the truth came out, two hideous consequences followed: Jocasta hanged herself, and Oedipus literally blinded himself, feeling utterly guilty for what he had not been able to see and utterly repelled at seeing any longer what the world had to offer. He left the city to wander as an outcast, finding refuge in Theseus’ Colonus only as an embittered old man.
He is sometimes charged with pride, what the Greeks called hubris, an overconfidence that he could outwit Fate and thereby escape it. This seems unfair to him, however, because he merely did the best he could to avoid doing evil, and when confronted with the truth he punished himself mercilessly. His bitterness at the end reflects his frustration: His sincere efforts to avoid outraging the laws of the gods and society only made it more inevitable that he would transgress them.
After the Greeks, the Oedipus story continued as a strong current in Europe in plays by the Romans Seneca and Julius Caesar (Caesar’s is lost), the Frenchmen Corneille and Voltaire, the Englishman Dryden, and the Austrian Hugo von Hofmannsthal, to name a few.7 Above all, Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was responsible for a revolutionary interpretation of Oedipus at the turn of the twentieth century. He understood it not as a tale of the outlandish fate of one unfortunate man, but as a parable of the psyche of every man:
If Oedipus Rex moves a modern audience no less than it did the contemporary Greek one, the explanation can only be that its effect does not lie in the contrast between destiny and human will, but is to be looked for in the particular nature of the material on which that contrast is exemplified.…It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. . . . Here is one [Oedipus] in whom these primaeval wishes of our childhood have been fulfilled, and we shrink back from him with the whole force of repression by which those wishes have since been held down within us.…Like Oedipus, we live in ignorance of these wishes.8
This first published statement of the Oedipus complex appeared in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, where he also cited, as evidence, Jocasta’s assertion that men dreaming of sleeping with their mothers is commonplace.9
As a cornerstone of psychoanalysis, the Oedipus complex is the form in which the myth of Oedipus now affects us most in modern culture. Jean Cocteau’s Oedipus in The Infernal Machine (1936) reflects Freud as much as Sophocles. Furthermore, no modern production of Hamlet has been the same since Freud applied his Oedipal analysis to it (see Hamlet ). We have become used to skepticism about whether the Oedipus story is a genuine reflection of our own subconscious wishes, but, of course, that is just what Freud would expect.
The predictability of our reaction to the Oedipal situation makes it potent material not only for high drama, but for the lighter touch of pop culture as well. In an interview with Larry King, actor Michael J. Fox was asked to account for the tremendous popularity of his 1985 movie Back to the Future. He cited as one crucial factor the story’s resonance with the Oedipus myth. The film’s time-traveling teen hero, Marty McFly, finds himself transported back to 1955 and brought face to face with his own amorous teenage mother. He must divert her attentions away from himself and toward the young man who will become his father. The paradoxes of time-travel physics provide the weird workings of Fate, and McFly must work hard to avert an Oedipal disaster that would obliterate his own future.10
Oedipus has come down to modern times with little loss in the force of his personality. His violation of the incest taboo makes him a focal point for the experience of our deepest fears and, if Freud was correct, our most secret desires. Watching Oedipus on stage or reading his drama may allay our fears for a while—we believe we have escaped a fate like his—but again and again, an attraction deeper than we suspect pulls us back to him.
1. Sophocles, “Oedipus the King,” trans. David Grene, in Greek Tragedies, vol. 1, eds. D. Grene and R. Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), lines 1058–59.
2. Walter Kaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 108–9.
3. Ibid., p. 195.
4. Ibid., p. 114.
5. Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Oedipus,” in Greek and Egyptian Mythologies, ed. Yves Bonnefoy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 199.
6. Ibid., pp. 199–200.
7. Kaufmann, p. 109; Lowell Edmunds, Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and Its Later Analogues (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).
8. Sigmund Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 4, ed. and trans. J. Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1953), pp. 262–63.
9. “Before this, in dreams too, as well as oracles, many a man has lain with his own mother.” Sophocles, “ Oedipus the King,” lines 981–82.
10. For further discussion of Back to the Future and time-travel paradoxes, see J. Richard Gott, Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), pp. 11–13.
Excerpted from The Fictional 100: Ranking the Most Influential Characters in World Literature and Legend by Lucy Pollard-Gott, chapter 6.
Copyright © 2009 Lucy Pollard-Gott, PhD. All rights reserved.