The Sphinx presenting her riddle to Oedipus. Attic Red Figure. 450 – 440 BC.
🔆♣“The Theban Plays”🔆:
In my previous post, I introduced some of the most important characteristics of Tragedy, as highlighted by Aristotle in his book “Poetics”. In brief, I mentioned the main characteristics, aims and structure of tragedy.
Furthermore, I made reference to the most famous ancient greek playwrights of the genre Tragedy: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Sophocles 497/ 406 BC was the author of “Oedipus Rex”, the tragedy we´ll analyse in this post. He wrote 120 plays during the course of his life, but only seven have survived in a complete form. Among them we should mention the so-called Theban plays.
The Theban plays consist of three plays: “Oedipus Rex” (“Oedipus the King”, also called “Oedipus Tyrannus”), “Oedipus at Colonus” and “Antigone”.
These plays, which were presented as a trilogy, took second prize in the City Dionysia at its original performance. Aeschylus‘s nephew Philocles took first prize at that competition.
The three plays concern the fate of the city of Thebes during and after the reign of King Oedipus.
Each of the plays relates to the tale of the mythological Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother without knowledge that they were his parents. Oedipus´ family is fated to be doomed for three generations.
The Theban Plays by Sophocles.
The Trilogy was written across thirty-six years of Sophocles’ career and the plays were not composed in chronological order, but instead were written in the order “Antigone”, “Oedipus the King” and “Oedipus at Colonus”.
The logical and chronological order would be:
• “Oedipus Rex” narrates the vicissitudes of King Oedipus, who unknowingly married his mother, Jocasta, and killed his father, Laius.
• In “Oedipus at Colonus”, the banished Oedipus and his daughter Antigone arrive at the town of Colonus where they encounter Theseus, King of Athens. Oedipus dies and strife begins between his sons Polyneices and Eteocles.
• In “Antigone”, the protagonist is Oedipus’ daughter, Antigone. She is faced with the choice of allowing her brother Polyneices‘ body to remain unburied, outside the city walls, exposed to the ravages of wild animals, or to bury him and face death. The king of the land, Creon, has forbidden the burial of Polyneices for he was a traitor to the city. Antigone decides to bury his body and face the consequences of her actions. Creon sentences her to death. Eventually, Creon is convinced to free Antigone from her punishment, but his decision comes too late and Antigone commits suicide. Her suicide triggers the suicide of two others close to King Creon: his son, Haemon, who was to wed Antigone, and his Creon´s wife, Queen Eurydice, who commits suicide after losing her only surviving son.
Sophocles ca. 496 – 406 BC
🔆I. ♣“Oedipus Rex”. Background🔆:
Many elements of “Oedipus Rex” (which was first performed in 430 BC), take place before the opening scene of the play.
Let´s consider which they are…
Laius (Oedipus´father) was the tutor of Chrysippus, youngest of the King Pelops of Elis´son. He abducted and raped Chrysippus, who killed himself in shame.
This murder cast a doom over Laius and all of his other descendants.
King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes had a son.
Having Laius learned from an oracle that “he was doomed to perish by the hand of his own son”, he ordered Jocasta to kill the child. Jocasta couldn´t do that by herself so she asked a servant to commit the act. The servant took the child and gave him to a shepherd, who named him Oedipus (or “swollen feet”). He carried the baby with him to Corinth and raised him.
As a young man in Corinth, Oedipus heard a rumour that he was not the biological son of Polybus and his wife Merope.
He asked the Delphic Oracle who his parents really were. The Oracle ignored this question, cryptically telling him instead that he was destined to “Mate with his own mother, and shed/With his own hands the blood of his own sire”. Desperate to avoid this, Oedipus left Corinth in the belief that Polybus and Merope were indeed his true parents and that, once away from them, he would never harm them.
On the road to Thebes, he met Laius, his true father, with several other men. Unaware of each other’s identities, Laius and Oedipus quarrelled over whose chariot has right-of-way. As a result, Oedipus killed Laius, hence fulfilling part of the oracle’s prophecy.
Continuing on his way, Oedipus found Thebes plagued by the Sphinx, who put a riddle to all passersby and destroyed those who could not answer.
The riddle of the sphinx was “What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?”
Oedipus gave the proper answer: man, who crawls on all fours in infancy, walks on two feet when grown, and leans on a staff in old age.
Thus, Oedipus solved the riddle, and the Sphinx killed herself. And, in reward, he received the throne of Thebes and the hand of the widowed queen, his mother, Jocasta.
Oedipus and Jocasta had four children: Eteocles, Polyneices, Antigone, and Ismene.
“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1808).
Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau. 1864.
Oedipus and the Sphinx by Giorgio de Chirico. 1968.
🔆II. ♣“Oedipus Rex”. Summary🔆:
The entire action of the play is set in the city of Thebes, which is in the grip of a deadly plague.
Oedipus has already sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the Oracle of Delphi in order to ask the Oracle why this is the case. According to the Oracle, Apollo regards religious or moral pollution (miasma) resulting from the murder of the former king, Laius, to be the cause of the plague and that the cause of it (i.e. Laius’ murderer) must be killed or expelled from Theban territory.
Laius was the ruler of Thebes before Oedipus and was supposedly killed during a journey by a group of robbers.
Oedipus firmly resolves to find the murderer and prosecute him. This causes Oedipus to put a curse on Laius’s murderer and to call the blind prophet, Tiresias, for advice.
But the meeting with Tiresias doesn´t turn out well. Tiresias refuses to reveal anything to Oedipus. He prefers to keep silent as he does not want to be the cause of Oedipus’ ruin. Oedipus, on the other hand, interprets Tiresias’ silence as treachery. He labels him a villain and a conspirator along with Creon.
Tiresias leaves, warning that Oedipus will cause his own ruin. Later in the play, Tiresias tragically reveals to Oedipus that the king himself is the cause, since he had killed King Laius.
Oedipus doesn’t believe him — since he did not know who Laius was when he killed him — and sends him away.
When Jocasta tells Oedipus the story of Laius’s murder, her mention of the specific location at which he was killed makes Oedipus suspicious that he might have been the killer.
As the investigations into Laius’ murder proceed, the fact that a sole witness is alive comes to light. Oedipus sends for this man, who is an old shepherd.
But, such an awry coincidence, he sole witness of Laius’ murder is also the man who had handed over the infant Oedipus to the Corinthian shepherd. This man holds the key to the mystery of Oedipus’ birth. Oedipus persuades him to speak up and so he does.
Finally the Theban shepherd reveals his version. And the truth comes to light: that Oedipus is the son of Laius and Jocasta, not Polybus and Merope. This moment is the Climax, meaning the most tension in the tragedy.
After the climax comes the Falling action. Jocasta commits suicide by hanging herself and Oedipus, unable to see his wretched existence, blinds himself. Oedipus’ curse falls on himself, and he wishes to leave Thebes.
Oedipus briefly speaks with his daughters, lamenting their fates as a result of his own. Finally, Oedipus goes into exile, accompanied by Antigone and Ismene, leaving his brother-in-law Creon as regent. With that, the plague ends.
The Murder of Laius by Oedipus by Paul Joseph Blanc. 1867.
🔆III. ♣“Oedipus Rex”. Structure🔆:
According to Aristotle in his book “Poetics”, the narrative structure or plot (Mythos) consists of three parts: Protasis, Epitasis and Catastrophe.
• The Protasis is the beginning of the tragedy.
• The Epitasis is the middle or climax of the plot, which are caused by earlier incidents and itself cause the incidents that follow it.
• The Catastrophe is the resolution or end of the plot.
Check out further details concerning the narrative structure in “Oedipus Rex” by clicking on the images below.
1. Protasis. A Plague is upon Thebes and Oedipus send Creon to the Delphi Oracle to know the reasons or this. Supposedly the only way to end it is by finding the King´s murderer.
2. Epitasis. Oedipus meets the blind Tiresias who tells him that Oedipus himself is the killer. Oedipus accuses him of betrayal, but at the same time begin to look for further clues as he hints something might be woefully true.
3. Catastrophe. Jocasta and Oedipus realized that the prophecy is true. Oedipus is Jocasta´s son and has slept with her and killed his own father, Laius. As a tragic result, Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus stabs his eyes out and is sent to exile by Creon.
🔆IV. ♣“Oedipus Rex”. Analysis🔆:
Hamartia, Anagnorisis, Peripetia and Catharsis:
In a tipical Tragedy, the protagonist should be renowned and prosperous, so his change of fortune can be from good to bad.
This change should come about as the result, not of vice, but of some great error or frailty in a character. Such a plot is most likely to generate pity and fear in the audience. It will evoke pity and fear in its viewers, causing the viewers to experience a feeling of Catharsis, (“purgation” or “purification”).
Catharsis is linked to pity, which is “aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves”. That undeserved luck is most times linked to the word Hamartia, often translated as “tragic flaw”.
Oedipus suffers because of his Hamartia. Oedipus’ mistake – killing his father at the crossroads – is made unknowingly. Indeed, for him, there is no way of escaping his fate.
In “Poetics”, Aristotle outlined the characteristics of an ideal Tragic Hero. He must be “better than we are,” a man who is superior to the average man in some way.
In Oedipus’s case, he is superior not only because of social standing, but also because he is smart: he is the only person who could solve the Sphinx’s riddle.
Oedipus earns royal respect at Thebes when he solves the riddle of the Sphinx. As a gift for freeing the city, Creon gives Oedipus dominion over the city.
Thus, Oedipus’ nobility derives from many and diverse sources, and the audience develops a great respect and emotional attachment to him.
In general terms, we can say that the role of the Hamartia (Tragic Flaw) in tragedy comes not from its moral status but from the inevitability of its consequences.
According to Aristotle, the protagonist will mistakenly bring about his own downfall—not because he is sinful or morally weak, but because he does not know enough. Oedipus fits this precisely, for his basic flaw is his lack of knowledge about his own identity.
The Anagnorisis, or the recognition point, happens when Oedipus realizes the truth about his parentage, as a shepherd reveals the fact that Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta.
At this stage, the protagonist realizes the truth of a situation, discovers another character’s identity or learns an unknown fact about his own self. Oedipus is far from perfect. He has been blind to the truth and stubbornly refuses to believe Tiresias‘ warnings. And, although he is a good father, he unwittingly fathered children in incest.(With his own mother, Jocasta).
What follows anagnorisis is known as Peripetia (Reversal), where the opposite of what was planned or expected by the protagonist, occurs.
The Peripetia entrains a crucial action from/on the protagonis that changes the situation, from seemingly secure to vulnerable. This leads to results diametrically opposed to those that were intended.
Hence, this unavoidable downfall of the protagonist of a tragedy is usually caused by the character’s “tragic flaw”.
The ultimate cause of Oedipus‘ downfall is his unwillingness to accept his fate. He cannot accept the predictions about his life (that he will murder his father and sleep with his mother) and he fights against them. This rejection could be seen as evidence of his great pride.
Additionally, Oedipus invites information, however damaging it might be, saying that he can handle any truth that comes his way.
Oedipus was raised by his adoptive parents, Polybus and Merope, the king and queen of Corinth, after his biological parents, Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes, sent him away to be killed to avoid a prophecy that Laius received which stated that his son would kill him and then marry his wife.
Oedipus grew up, never knowing that his adoptive parents weren’t his biological parents until, one day, a drunk man told him about it. He needed to know more so he went to the oracle to find out, but the oracle wouldn’t answer his questions. Instead, the Oracle said that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother.
Thinking, then, that he would kill Polybus and marry Merope, Oedipus resolved never to return to Corinth and to go to Thebes instead. He met a man on the road, got into an altercation with him, and killed him; this man turned out to be his biological father, Laius. When Oedipus to Thebes, after answering the sphinx’s riddle and freeing the city from her reign of terror, the Thebans were so happy with him and in need of a king, they made him king and he married the old king’s wife, his mother, Jocasta.
In this way, the most obvious irony in the play is that Oedipus‘s attempt to avoid fulfilling a terrible prophecy is actually what enables it to come true.
Blind Oedipus bids farewell to the body of his wife and son by Edouard Toudouze. 1871.
🔆V. ♣“Oedipus Rex”. Incest and Patricide🔆:
Among all the permissiveness of ancient Greek culture, including homosexual relationships between old men and young boys, and the open taking of numerous courtesans by married men, incest remains a reprehensible offense. Throughout Greek literature, Incest, alongside patricide/matricide also seem to be an equally odious crime.
In the second part of Aeschylus´ trilogy “Oresteia”, Clytemnestra is murdered by her son Orestes. (Matricide).
In the third and last play, “The Eumenides”, Orestes is judged because of his crime whilst being besieged and tormented by the Erynies, goddesses of vengeance and often depicted as ugly, winged women with hair, arms and waists entwined with serpents. Furthermore, the wrath of the Erinyes manifested itself in a number of ways and the most severe of these was the tormenting madness inflicted upon a patricide or matricide.
The theories presented in Freud’s “Totem and Taboo” help to explain Incest in “Oedipus Rex”.
Freud holds that all human males innately harbor not a natural aversion to incest, but the opposite: an instinctive sexual attraction to the mother (Oedipus Complex).
He says: “The experiences of psychoanalysis have taught . . . that the first sexual impulses of the young are regularly of an incestuous nature” (“Totem and Taboo”, p. 160).
He also asserts that each male harbors ambivalent feelings towards his father. On one hand, he loves, looks up to, and respects his father. On the other, with the awakening of sexual feelings which initially naturally fix themselves towards the mother, he comes to hate his father as a rival and oppressor.
“Oedipus and the Erynies or Furies” by Jakob Asmus (18th century).
🔆➰🔆►Read “Oedipus Rex”, by Sophocles here.
🔆V. ♣“Oedipus Rex”🔆:
🔆“Oedipus and Sophocles: Anthropology, Psychology, and the Role of Women in Context”🔆:
∼By ©Erin Sandlin∼
When Sophocles wrote the three plays that comprise the Oedipus series, his goals and messages would have been shaped both by his culture and his milieu. As an anthropologist, I tend to interpret the truism that art imitates life with a greater breadth and depth than most might. In the essay that follows, I’ll touch upon issues of cultural messaging, the modern (and to my mind, inaptly characterized) Oedipal Complex, and the role of women as reinforced such as that reinforced by the plays in question.
Given that my knowledge of Ancient Greek literature and art are not at a level consistent with scholarly discourse, I’ll largely speak in general terms, with an anthropological scope. Cultural messaging—or the formation and transmission of symbols, ideologies, material culture, aesthetics, and other domains—is taken as a constant feature of stratified human societies throughout time and space. It’s also a two-way street.
While established cultural themes and values shape and are received by individuals, those individuals in turn act to shape the continuously evolving features of cultural sensibilities that are characteristic of a general culture or culture group. This is, perhaps, more true of those responsible for creation of art and literature than of individuals who simply consume symbols or rely on established formulations for their livelihoods. Art imitates life, because it is this realism that makes art consumable.
While a play or a sculpture, a painting or architecture, dance, music or written works can all serve as platforms for specific cultural messages, they must not depart too severely from what is accepted as normal by the audience. Sophocles’ works tread this line in the social sand with finesse, using established cultural forms while delivering a message or suite of messages. In the Oedipus plays, he regaled his audience with drama that was instantly recognizable by any class, although what his intended messages were, I won’t speculate. They were, however, shaped on an intimate level by the world he knew.
•“Oedipus Rex” and Cultural Taboo:
Ancient Greece was by no means a unified, national entity. Rather, it was a loose collection of city-states with many common cultural features that permitted unification against a common enemy, even while they fueled internecine conflict. However, features shared by these warring sibling communities were often expressed in philosophy, rhetoric, and the general code of ethics required by any individual to be respected within their community. In addition to food and dress, music and theatre, the pursuits of the mind were a binding force of what we call Ancient Greece.
Oedipus plays to the needs of the tragedy by committing two of the greatest taboo actions commonly acknowledged in the diverse and innately political realm of Ancient Greece. These actions are apparently forbidden to humans who hope to dwell in polite society, but are accorded a pass when it comes to the gods. Patricide seems to be one of the worst, and speaks to the value placed upon fatherhood and father figures within the culture. That matricide is slightly more excusable and often used as a plot device tells me that perhaps women intended for marriages of status held less value as humans and more as vessels or possessions. Unattached women who did not aspire to marriage or status via a husband held their own place in that world.
Incest is considered taboo by a number of cultures, although its precise relational definition is subject to change. This is largely a function of the fact that genetics is a comparatively new field of science. Incest is socially defined, even now, and how we interpret what is or is not incestuous is likely to differ from culture to culture. That being said, while we may still react with revulsion at the thought of a child and genetic parent or two siblings who share parents in common interacting sexually, there is more risk of genetic mutations occurring in the offspring of two first-cousins. This is because they share at least two closely related sets of genetic material. The evidence for this can be observed in the noble family trees of many European Great Houses.
Perhaps the only reprieve Sophocles granted to Oedipus is that he did not have him eat another human being (Cannibalism). While the gods may debauch themselves with sibling deities, murder their fathers, and consume their own children (only to regurgitate them at a later time,) these activities are prohibited among human beings who worship them. While there’s an entire academic paper on the ways in which a culture reserves its most horrifying behaviors to its ascribed gods or goddesses in that statement, we won’t go into that, here.
What can be said is that artistic media serve as a way for us to explore these taboos without fear of repercussion to ourselves. This method of cultural messaging serves to reinforce cultural bonds via shared value systems, as a means of exploring experiences without risk, and as a way to either shift or solidify cultural symbols, ideas, and forms. Other themes explored by Sophocles are: justice, inflexible pursuit of goals, the imperfect grasp of reality as it pertains to unknown details, honor, and social consequences that obtain when the order is challenged.
•At the Crossroads of Tragedy and Cultural Themes:
We might think it was rather poor form for Oedipus to murder Laius on the side of the road. But this says more about our own cultural themes than it does those of Sophocles. In anthropology, we are constantly made to confront our own culture and its embedded sensibilities.This, for better or worse, is known as cultural relativism, but should not be confused the permissive acceptance of human rights violations.
At the same time, it’s important that we acknowledge that different cultures will apply a specific moral weight to various scenarios and actions. Rash and ill advised as Oedipus’ actions may have been, Laius was a stranger who offered insult. He was an unnamed person, and Oedipus was offered a set number of ways in which he could respond, based upon the culture of Sophocles.
We, as the audience, might count the beginning of this tragedy with the actions of Laius and Jocasta. However, Oedipus’ personal journey begins when he leaves the two individuals he believes to be his parents in order to spare them the fate spoken by the oracle. Dr. Joseph Campbell, who so eloquently explored the Monomyth and the hero’s role within it, called this the beginning of the Hero Quest.
Oedipus breaks with all that is familiar in the effort to preserve the lives of those he loves. But he’s also serving another cultural maxim.If he fulfills the oracle’s pronouncements, he will have broken two grave strictures of his culture. In his own estimation, he will not be worthy of the fruits of society, honor, or noble birth. This sense of justice causes him to leave, and later in the story will cause him to pursue his own doom as he searches for the killer of King Laius.
•Incest and Feminine Agency:
The sexual lust shared by Oedipus and Jocasta receives, in my opinion, a disproportionate amount of attention. We aren’t alone in frowning on incest. But while that distaste may have relatively rational roots, within the narrative of the tragedy, incest doesn’t immediately apply to the actions of these characters.
Oedipus is unknown to Jocasta, who believes her infant son perished from exposure. Oedipus believes his mother to be miles away, safe from his roving eye. As self-realized individuals, there’s nothing untoward about their liaison. When I read the play, I immediately thought of another factor that may not have come to the attention of those with other educational backgrounds.
Even though Jocasta gave birth to Oedipus, he was taken from her as an infant and sentenced to death by her husband. Oedipus grew to maturity seeing another woman as his mother, and was never told he was a foundling. There is no bond of experience between them to dissuade them from coupling.
The Westermarck Effect is a theory that surmises that this close familiarity between closely related individuals in which one is younger will preclude sexual attraction.
Even if biology had been against them, a field of which Sophocles knew nothing, Jocasta was a woman in an Ancient Greek society—a married, widowed woman of status. Oddly enough, this made her one of the most powerless individuals, with the exclusion of actual slaves. Whether she felt attraction to Oedipus or not was immaterial. Even if Sophocles had been a feminist long before his time, Greek Society was openly hostile to the agency of women. Pheromones distasteful to Jocasta would not have stopped Oedipus from declaring his conquest of the realm and of her body in the same breath. She, and all women like her, were only as good as the men who ruled them decided they should be. And yet, a disproportionate amount of censure has been aimed at her.
•Complex Complexes and Misnomers:
Modern psychology has made us all familiar with Oedipus for one reason, and a very bad reason at that. Even if you’ve never read Sophocles, you know all about the young son who wants to tumble his mother. The Oedipal Complex stems from a poor grasp of the actual intricacies of the play by a Victorian Viennese psychotherapist named Sigmund Freud. It describes a phase in human psychosexual development in which young male children of three to five year old lust after their mothers and regard their fathers as rivals for her attention.
But, barring a superficial resemblance to the plays by Sophocles, this is a terrible name for the complex. Oedipus doesn’t know Laius as his father or Jocasta his mother. He does not identify them as his parents at all. To append his name to a person who desires their acknowledged mother and feels aggression towards their acknowledged father is, to say the least, incorrect.
While some excuse can be made for Freud—who lived in a distressingly ignorant, misogynistic, and simultaneously sexually repressed and depraved milieu (not unlike Ancient Greece in some regard,) and was a product of an educational system that idolized all things related to the ancient culture—there’s really no excuse for anyone who uses it in earnest these days. In the first place, quite a few of his theories have been outright disproven, shredded for the mass of hilarious misconceptions they were, or are discounted by more advanced understandings in the fields of neuropsychology, developmental psychology, and behavioral psychology. Moreover, it’s bandied about by popular culture as if adults could suddenly develop this complex, which isn’t what it originally described, anyway.
If we are to give either Sophocles or Joseph Campbell their due, it would behoove us to recognize the deep mastery of the work by Sophocles.
Oedipus, in spite of his window dressing from a culture with very different ideas about morality, is still a vital and believable hero to current audiences. He does things that are motivated by the best of intentions, but he ultimately functions as the architect of his own suffering. He, as an extension of the keen brilliance of Sophocles, advertises the morality and the cultural ideals of a civilization slowly relenting to the sunlight of decay.
In a way, Oedipus is a member of an elite club—the Hero Room—in which live all the big characters who dreamed magnificently, but ultimately failed. They sought to set their names in the bricks of every city, to be remembered, to uphold justice and avert tragedy, to earn glory or challenge the will of deities.
At the same time, they are terribly human in a way that does not fade when the cultural winds shift. Their quests are relatable, even if some of their actions become absurd or obscure in their rationale. Their imperfections help us to bring them close and identify with them.
At bottom, they remind us that, while we have myriad ways of living in the world, we are all human. All mortal. All subject to factors beyond our knowledge or control.
∼Essay By ©Erin Sandlin∼ May, 2016.-
Oedipus and Antigone by Johann Peter Krafft. 1809.
►About Erin Sandlin:
Erin Sandlin is a writer of both scholarly and lyric essays, poetry, and short fiction. She possesses advanced degrees in both anthropology and history. Born and raised in the Deep South of the United States, oral traditions, language, and systems of cultural memory continue to fascinate her. Her research interests also include the politics of gender, restriction of social space, and diets within stratified societies.
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