Tag Archives: Sophocles

Oedipus Rex

13 Mar

Sophocles’s third and final treatment of the familiar Oedipal myths, variously translated as Oedipus Rex, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus Tyrannos, opens with a procession of priests appealing to King Oedipus to save Thebes. There’s blight on the crops and fields, cattle are dying, women die in childbirth and their babies are stillborn, and a plague is ravaging the city. When Oedipus appears from the palace Sophocles shows us the king in all his regal glory, we see a man concerned for his chosen city’s welfare and certain of his power to relieve his people’s distress. The people of Thebes have implicit faith in Oedipus – he became king by rescuing them from the monstrous Sphinx through his cleverness – and now they beg him for rescue once again. Oedipus tells the Thebans he’s already sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi so he can find out how to help them. Creon arrives and thus begins the gradual disclosure (a disclosure entirely prompted by Oedipus) that the king himself is the cause of all the trouble in Thebes; through his attempts to avoid a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother Oedipus has unwittingly fulfilled it.

To me, Oedipus Rex is disappointing; it’s a great example of why I love both Euripides and Aeschylus more than Sophocles.  Taking Clytemnestra from Agamemnon as a model, after the climax of the king’s death she’s changed – she’s openly triumphant and more defiant, probably because she’s aware of her own power to accomplish such an enormous deed, she’s also less nervous and more at peace with herself now that her grisly task is accomplished.  However, Clytemnestra is still clearly the same character we’ve been getting to know through the preceding parts of the play. Oedipus, on the other hand, is unrecognizable after the climax of Oedipus Rex. The weeping man who, having blinded himself, clings to his small children and begs for exile is an entirely different character than the stubborn, titantically willful king we’ve seen.  I read Oedipus’s self-mutilation as an extension of the same stubbornness and willfulness, so the change in behavior at the end was jarring. When I finished the play I badly wanted a “part 2” so Sophocles would have more time to fill out Oedipus’s character, and perhaps unify these two/too disparate versions of the king. I’m sure that’s one reason reading the Theban plays as a trilogy is sometimes recommended.

Aristotle, in his Poetics, makes numerous references to Oedipus Rex as a paradigm of how tragedy should be written. Certainly Sophocles follows Aristotle’s recommended unity of time to great effect. The play’s rapid pace almost seems to be hurrying Oedipus along towards destruction and helps lend a feeling of inevitability to Oedipus’s tragedy; this along with Oedipus’s unrelenting personality also heightens tension in the play. More than once I wanted to tell the character, “Wait! Can’t you just wait a second and think about this, Oedipus!”

One of the most obvious symbols in Oedipus is, of course, blindness.  The use of blindness as a metaphor is so pervasive and repetitive that I started to get uncomfortable with it as I was reading the play. At the point in my reading when I was thinking about how disturbing this was I came across these lines from the chorus that I found really repugnant:

How can I say you’ve chosen for the best?

Better to die than be alive and blind.

My first thought was, “Goddamn, Sophocles didn’t you Greeks say your greatest poet ever was a blind guy? Where did this come from?” I soldiered on and finished the play, but with a thousand questions in my mind about how people with blindness might have been treated and perceived in the ancient world. I’m putting the questions aside, for now, so I can work out what I’m writing about The Aeneid while the iron’s still hot, but if anyone happens to know something about it, or have a link you can leave, I’d appreciate it.