The place of the Oedipus Tyrannus in literature is something like that of the Mona Lisa in art. Everyone knows the story, the first detective story of Western literature; everyone who has read or seen it is drawn into its enigmas and moral dilemmas. It presents a kind of nightmare vision of a world suddenly turned upside down: a decent man discovers that he has unknowingly killed his father, married his mother, and sired children by her. It is a story that, as Aristotle says in the Poetics, makes one shudder with horror and feel pity just on hearing it. In Sophocles’ hands, however, this ancient tale becomes a profound meditation on the questions of guilt and responsibility, the order (or disorder) of our world, and the nature of man. The play stands with the Book of Job, Hamlet, and King Lear as one of Western literature’s most searching examinations of the problem of suffering.
—Charles Segal, Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge
No other drama has exerted a longer or stronger hold on the imagination than Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (also known as Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus Rex). Tragic drama that is centered on the dilemma of a single central character largely begins with Sophocles and is exemplified by his Oedipus, arguably the most influential play ever written. The most famous of all Greek dramas, Sophocles’ play, supported by Aristotle in the Poetics, set the standard by which tragedy has been measured for nearly two-and-a-half millennia. For Aristotle, Sophocles’ play featured the ideal tragic hero in Oedipus, a man of “great repute and good fortune,” whose fall, coming from his horrifying discovery that he has killed his father and married his mother, is masterfully arranged to elicit tragedy’s proper cathartic mixture of pity and terror. The play’s relentless exploration of human nature, destiny, and suffering turns an ancient tale of a man’s shocking history into one of the core human myths. Oedipus thereby joins a select group of fictional characters, including Odysseus, Faust, Don Juan, and Don Quixote, that have entered our collective consciousness as paradigms of humanity and the human condition. As classical scholar Bernard Knox has argued, “Sophocles’ Oedipus is not only the greatest creation of a major poet and the classic representative figure of his age: he is also one of a long series of tragic protagonists who stand as symbols of human aspiration and despair before the characteristic dilemma of Western civilization—the problem of man’s true stature, his proper place in the universe.”
For nearly 2,500 years Sophocles’ play has claimed consideration as drama’s most perfect and most profound achievement. Julius Caesar wrote an adaptation; Nero allegedly acted the part of the blind Oedipus. First staged in a European theater in 1585, Oedipus has been continually performed ever since and reworked by such dramatists as Pierre Corneille, John Dryden, Voltaire, William Butler Yeats, André Gide, and Jean Cocteau. The French neoclassical tragedian Jean Racine asserted that Oedipus was the ideal tragedy, while D. H. Lawrence regarded it as “the finest drama of all time.” Sigmund Freud discovered in the play the key to understanding man’s deepest and most repressed sexual and aggressive impulses, and the so-called Oedipus complex became one of the founding myths of psychoanalysis. Oedipus has served as a crucial mirror by which each subsequent era has been able to see its own reflection and its understanding of the mystery of human existence.
If Aeschylus is most often seen as the great originator of ancient Greek tragedy and Euripides is viewed as the great outsider and iconoclast, it is Sophocles who occupies the central position as classical tragedy’s technical master and the age’s representative figure over a lifetime that coincided with the rise and fall of Athens’s greatness as a political and cultural power in the fifth century b.c. Sophocles was born in 496 near Athens in Colonus, the legendary final resting place of the exiled Oedipus. At the age of 16, Sophocles, an accomplished dancer and lyre player, was selected to lead the celebration of the victory over the Persians at the battle of Salamis, the event that ushered in Athens’s golden age. He died in 406, two years before Athens’s fall to Sparta, which ended nearly a century of Athenian supremacy and cultural achievement. Very much at the center of Athenian public life, Sophocles served as a treasurer of state and a diplomat and was twice elected as a general. A lay priest in the cult of a local deity, Sophocles also founded a literary association and was an intimate of such prominent men of letters as Ion of Chios, Herodotus, and Archelaus. Urbane, garrulous, and witty, Sophocles was remembered fondly by his contemporaries as possessing all the admired qualities of balance and tranquillity. Nicknamed “the Bee” for his “honeyed” style of fl owing eloquence—the highest compliment the Greeks could bestow on a poet or speaker—Sophocles was regarded as the tragic Homer.
In marked contrast to his secure and stable public role and private life, Sophocles’ plays orchestrate a disturbing challenge to assurance and certainty by pitting vulnerable and fallible humanity against the inexorable forces of nature and destiny. Sophocles began his career as a playwright in 468 b.c. with a first-prize victory over Aeschylus in the Great, or City, Dionysia, the annual Athenian drama competition. Over the next 60 years he produced more than 120 plays (only seven have survived intact), winning first prize at the Dionysia 24 times and never earning less than second place, making him unquestionably the most successful and popular playwright of his time. It is Sophocles who introduced the third speaking actor to classical drama, creating the more complex dramatic situations and deepened psychological penetration through interpersonal relationships and dialogue. “Sophocles turned tragedy inward upon the principal actors,” classicist Richard Lattimore has observed, “and drama becomes drama of character.” Favoring dramatic action over narration, Sophocles brought offstage action onto the stage, emphasized dialogue rather than lengthy, undramatic monologues, and purportedly introduced painted scenery. Also of note, Sophocles replaced the connected trilogies of Aeschylus with self-contained plays on different subjects at the same contest, establishing the norm that has continued in Western drama with its emphasis on the intensity and unity of dramatic action. At their core, Sophocles’ tragedies are essentially moral and religious dramas pitting the tragic hero against unalterable fate as defined by universal laws, particular circumstances, and individual temperament. By testing his characters so severely, Sophocles orchestrated adversity into revelations that continue to evoke an audience’s capacity for wonder and compassion.
The story of Oedipus was part of a Theban cycle of legends that was second only to the stories surrounding the Trojan War as a popular subject for Greek literary treatment. Thirteen different Greek dramatists, including Aeschylus and Euripides, are known to have written plays on the subject of Oedipus and his progeny. Sophocles’ great innovation was to turn Oedipus’s horrifying circumstances into a drama of self-discovery that probes the mystery of selfhood and human destiny.
The play opens with Oedipus secure and respected as the capable ruler of Thebes having solved the riddle of the Sphinx and gained the throne and Thebes’s widowed queen, Jocasta, as his reward. Plague now besets the city, and Oedipus comes to Thebes’s rescue once again when, after learning from the oracle of Apollo that the plague is a punishment for the murder of his predecessor, Laius, he swears to discover and bring the murderer to justice. The play, therefore, begins as a detective story, with the key question “Who killed Laius?” as the initial mystery. Oedipus initiates the first in a seemingly inexhaustible series of dramatic ironies as the detective who turns out to be his own quarry. Oedipus’s judgment of banishment for Laius’s murderer seals his own fate. Pledged to restore Thebes to health, Oedipus is in fact the source of its affliction. Oedipus’s success in discovering Laius’s murderer will be his own undoing, and the seemingly percipient, riddle-solving Oedipus will only see the truth about himself when he is blind. To underscore this point, the blind seer Teiresias is summoned. He is reluctant to tell what he knows, but Oedipus is adamant: “No man, no place, nothing will escape my gaze. / I will not stop until I know it all.” Finally goaded by Oedipus to reveal that Oedipus himself is “the killer you’re searching for” and the plague that afflicts Thebes, Teiresias introduces the play’s second mystery, “Who is Oedipus?”
You have eyes to see with,
But you do not see yourself, you do not see
The horror shadowing every step of your life,
. . . Who are your father and mother? Can you tell me?
Oedipus rejects Teiresias’s horrifying answer to this question—that Oedipus has killed his own father and has become a “sower of seed where your father has sowed”—as part of a conspiracy with Jocasta’s brother Creon against his rule. In his treatment of Teiresias and his subsequent condemning of Creon to death, Oedipus exposes his pride, wrath, and rush to judgment, character flaws that alloy his evident strengths of relentless determination to learn the truth and fortitude in bearing the consequences. Jocasta comes to her brother’s defense, while arguing that not all oracles can be believed. By relating the circumstances of Laius’s death, Jocasta attempts to demonstrate that Oedipus could not be the murderer while ironically providing Oedipus with the details that help to prove the case of his culpability. In what is a marvel of ironic plot construction, each step forward in answering the questions surrounding the murder and Oedipus’s parentage takes Oedipus a step back in time toward full disclosure and self-discovery.
As Oedipus is made to shift from self-righteous authority to doubt, a messenger from Corinth arrives with news that Oedipus’s supposed father, Poly-bus, is dead. This intelligence seems again to disprove the oracle that Oedipus is fated to kill his father. Oedipus, however, still is reluctant to return home for fear that he could still marry his mother. To relieve Oedipus’s anxiety, the messenger reveals that he himself brought Oedipus as an infant to Polybus. Like Jocasta whose evidence in support of Oedipus’s innocence turns into confirmation of his guilt, the messenger provides intelligence that will connect Oedipus to both Laius and Jocasta as their son and as his father’s killer. The messenger’s intelligence produces the crucial recognition for Jocasta, who urges Oedipus to cease any further inquiry. Oedipus, however, persists, summoning the herdsman who gave the infant to the messenger and was coincidentally the sole survivor of the attack on Laius. The herdsman’s eventual confirmation of both the facts of Oedipus’s birth and Laius’s murder produces the play’s staggering climax. Aristotle would cite Sophocles’ simultaneous con-junction of Oedipus’s recognition of his identity and guilt with his reversal of fortune—condemned by his own words to banishment and exile as Laius’s murderer—as the ideal artful arrangement of a drama’s plot to produce the desired cathartic pity and terror.
The play concludes with an emphasis on what Oedipus will now do after he knows the truth. No tragic hero has fallen further or faster than in the real time of Sophocles’ drama in which the time elapsed in the play coincides with the performance time. Oedipus is stripped of every illusion of his authority, control, righteousness, and past wisdom and is forced to contend with a shame that is impossible to expiate—patricide and incestual relations with his mother—in a world lacking either justice or alleviation from suffering. Oedipus’s heroic grandeur, however, grows in his diminishment. Fundamentally a victim of circumstances, innocent of intentional sin whose fate was preordained before his birth, Oedipus refuses the consolation of blamelessness that victimization confers, accepting in full his guilt and self-imposed sentence as an outcast, criminal, and sinner. He blinds himself to confirm the moral shame that his actions, unwittingly or not, have provoked. It is Oedipus’s capacity to endure the revelation of his sin, his nature, and his fate that dominates the play’s conclusion. Oedipus’s greatest strengths—his determination to know the truth and to accept what he learns—sets him apart as one of the most pitiable and admired of tragic heroes. “The closing note of the tragedy,” Knox argues, “is a renewed insistence on the heroic nature of Oedipus; the play ends as it began, with the greatness of the hero. But it is a different kind of greatness. It is now based on knowledge, not, as before on ignorance.” The now-blinded Oedipus has been forced to see and experience the impermanence of good fortune, the reality of unimaginable moral shame, and a cosmic order that is either perverse in its calculated cruelty or chaotically random in its designs, in either case defeating any human need for justice and mercy.
The Chorus summarizes the harsh lesson of heroic defeat that the play so majestically dramatizes:
Look and learn all citizens of Thebes. This is Oedipus.
He, who read the famous riddle, and we hailed chief of men,
All envied his power, glory, and good fortune.
Now upon his head the sea of disaster crashes down.
Mortality is man’s burden. Keep your eyes fixed on your last day.
Call no man happy until he reaches it, and finds rest from suffering.
Few plays have dealt so unflinchingly with existential truths or have as bravely defined human heroism in the capacity to see, suffer, and endure.