Source of book: I own an Easton Press hardback of this.
Oedipus Rex is overrated. There, I said it. And I don’t mean that in a “it’s rubbish” sense, but in the sense that I am puzzled as to why this play, of all the ancient Greek plays, is the one most high school students read.
A bit of background here. I was homeschooled from 2nd Grade on, initially because I was sickly and missed a lot of class and was already doing the work at home. By high school, it had become apparent that certain subjects (particularly Algebra) were beyond my parents’ ability to teach. Back then, there weren’t a whole lot of options for homeschoolers, and the mountain town where we moved to after my sophomore year lacked a high school in the first place. The one decent option was that A Beka had a set of video courses. Now, of course, there are a zillion options, from the University of California on down.
The A Beka course wasn’t perfect. The history was appallingly biased, whitewashed, and aimed at convincing kids that only American Fundamentalist Christianity was good, and everything else was horrible. I could certainly quote the outright lies and gross omissions on racial issues in the curriculum. That said, it was academically rigorous, and prepared me well for further education. (That I ended up foregoing normal college because my parents got into Bill Gothard’s cult is another discussion.)
Whatever else could be said about the A Beka courses, there were some things that I thought were pretty good. One of them was the English curriculum, which gave me a better overview of classic literature than many of my peers. One reason for this was Mr. Collins, 10th and 12 grade English teacher, who subverted a lot of the fundamentalism inherent in the school itself.
All this to say that, probably because of the incest theme, we did not study Oedipus Rex, although Mr. Collins made sure we knew the plot and ideas anyway. Rather, we studied Antigone, which in my opinion is a play both objectively better and certainly more relevant to a modern world. Many of Sophocles’ themes and concerns certainly resonated in the ancient world, and probably seemed of continuing relevance at the time that the “western canon” was established, with inertia keeping it in the standard curriculum since then. I would also guess that since Freud came up with his “Oedipus Complex,” that has also contributed, even though that particular idea has largely been discredited over time. Just my personal opinion, but I suspect that kids might find Antigone more interesting and relevant.
In particular, I was struck with several themes that were central to ancient and premodern thought which seem a bit odd in our time. First is the question of “legitimate” kingship. Oedipus is a “tyrant” in its original meaning - not in our modern sense of being an autocrat or particularly brutal. After all, ALL kings were autocrats, and brutality was besides the point. Instead, “tyrant” meant a ruler who had no legitimate claim to the throne, and it wasn’t necessarily negative. Oedipus is a “tyrant” because he killed the legitimate king and took his place, nothing more or less. Ironically, of course, he actually does have a legitimate claim, being the son of the prior king and next in line to the throne. But neither he nor anyone else knows that.
From the point of view of our own time, where many nations are founded on the idea that the right to rule comes from the consent of the governed - indeed, from democratic elections, the idea of “legitimacy” means something entirely different from either “the gods appointed me” or “my daddy was a king.” In our view, Oedipus was perhaps the most legitimate king, because his people asked him to rule (after he solved the famous riddle of the sphinx.) In the context of the play, then, this means that all of Oedipus’ insecurity about his legitimacy seems exactly backwards.
That’s the first thing. The second one is that the play seems rather obsessed with the idea of fate. No surprise - it is an ancient Greek play, after all, and the fates are pretty much a constant theme. The problem for us moderns is that we tend to believe (in practice, if not always in theory) in free will, and disbelieve in oracles and prophesies and so on. As a modern, I would tend to look at the whole story and wonder why the characters seemed hell-bent on making terrible choices, often based on fear of the oracle. If they genuinely believed in fate, then why fight it? If they don’t believe in fate, why do anything in response to the prophecies? Again, this is something about ancient Greek literature that can be frustrating, but I find it more so in this play, because so much of the play is taken up on what seems ludicrously illogical even in its own universe. This big debate on fate versus free will is a big deal in Calvinist circles, of course, which may be one reason I find it a bit triggering.
Contrast this with Antigone, which, while the fates still play a big role, focuses on the decisions and the conflicting duties involved. Should one choose to follow one’s own moral compass, or what society tells you? Is your duty to family and individuals, or to societal order? If you make exceptions to the rules, does it destroy the credibility of the law? See, these things are very relevant to our own time. Antigone and Creon may not have any good options, but they have options with deep moral significance. I don’t feel that with Oedipus nearly as much.
Which kind of leads into the third thing that I found problematic. Sophocles seems to be the goody-two-shoes of Greek playwrights. Aeschylus continually questions the gods and their decrees, holding them to the same moral standard as humans. While my experience of Euripides is a bit limited, he too seems to question the gods and even deny that they are ultimately to be relied on. Sophocles reminds me a bit too much of the religious tradition I grew up in: “the gods are always right and fair and if bad things happen you deserved them.” (Never mind that this is contradicted by the whole story of Job…) Sophocles spends a lot of time defending Apollo in this play, when Apollo has apparently been an absolute dick.
Apparently, Laius violated the laws of hospitality, which made Apollo pissed, so he cursed Laius with the oracle that his son would kill him and marry his mother. So, Oedipus is born into this impossible situation, and has essentially no choice in the outcome. Then, once Oedipus fulfills the prophecy, Apollo punishes the Thebans for what Oedipus had no choice in doing. No wonder Oedipus is pretty upset with the gods.
But Sophocles takes Apollo’s side pretty unequivocally, with the chorus lecturing the audience to be sure to properly worship the gods because everything they do is right. Yeah, I’ve heard that plenty before.
I’ve been perhaps a bit hard on the play, which is also unfair.
There are some fascinating issues raised in it. If you remove the question of the fates from it, the decisions that Laius and Oedipus make are...interesting. It was common enough, for example, to abandon infants to death in the ancient world. Or even in the Victorian world - something Fundie sorts like to pretend didn’t happen, because it contradicts their view that keeping women in their place prevents abortion and infanticide. No. It didn’t. And never has. Jocasta’s “female” weakness in not just killing the baby herself as Laius tells her to (really manly, there, dude, just pushing the dirty work off on your wife…) results in Oedipus living. But did she have any choice? The fates, right? But she at least made what I would consider a moral decision there.
Oedipus, though, goes wrong on several decisions. He seems to be an astonishingly poor listener, always assuming he knows better. He misunderstands the oracles. He assumes the worst in both Tiresias and Creon, and refuses to actually listen to either. He ignores warnings that he should just let things lie rather than digging up the past. Here is the passage in which the Chorus admonishes him for turning on Creon, who has a reputation for telling the truth, and took an oath in this matter.
CHORUS: Hearken, King, relent, we pray thee, be not stubborn but relent
OEDIPUS: Say to what should I consent?
CHORUS: REspect a man whose probity and troth
Are known to all and now confirmed by oath.
OEDIPUS: Dost thou know what grace thou cravest?
CHORUS: Yea, I know.
OEDIPUS: Declare it then and make thy meaning plain.
CHORUS: Brand not a friend whom babbling tongues assail;
Let not suspicion ‘gainst his oath prevail.
OEDIPUS: Bethink you that in seeking this ye seek
In very sooth my death or banishment?
CHORUS: No, by the leader of the host divine!
Witness, thou Sun, such thought was never mine,
Unblest, unfriended may I perish,
If ever I such which did cherish!
But O my heart is desolate
Musing on our stricken State,
Doubly fall’n should discord grow
Twixt you twain, to crown our woe.
OEDIPUS: Well, let him go, no matter what it cost me,
Or certain death or shameful banishment,
For your sake I relent, not his; and him,
Where’er he be my heart shall still abhor
CREON: Thou art as sullen in thy yielding mood
As in thine anger thou wast truculent.
Such tempers justly plague themselves the most.
OEDIPUS: Leave me in peace and get thee gone.
But perhaps his stupidest decision was to kill his father in the first place. I mean, this wasn’t a “we met in battle and I killed him before I knew who he was.” It wasn’t a “he was going to kill me and I had to defend myself.” It wasn’t an accident. Rather, it was perhaps the earliest recorded instance of Road Rage. Hey, I have the right of way. You didn’t yield, old man, so I killed you and your companions (except one.) It’s pretty hard to feel sorry for Oedipus on that score.
The second truly bad decision is also the most fascinating. Oedipus, as many in fiction have done before, calls down some pretty heavy curses on whoever is causing Apollo to afflict the Thebans. Of course, that person turns out to be himself. Oedipus’ condemnation of the murderer is filled with delicious irony - the audience, knowing the story itself in advance, would have relished all of the unintentional references. Here is a bit of it.
Thus as their champion I maintain the cause
Both of the God and of the murdered king.
And on the murderer this curse I lay
(On him and all the partners in his guilt): -
Wretch, may he pine in utter wretchedness!
And for myself, if with my privity
He gain admittance to my hearth, I pray
The curse I laid on others fall on me.
See that ye give effect to all my hest,
For my sake and the God’s and for our land,
A desert blasted by the wrath of heaven.
For, let alone the God’s express command,
It were a scandal ye should leave unpurged
The murder of a great man and your king,
Nor track it home. And now that I am lord,
Successor to his throne, his bed, his wife,
(And had ne not been frustrate in the hope
Of issue, common children of one womb
Had forged a closer bond twixt him and me,
But Fate swooped down upon him), therefore I
His blood-avenger will maintain his cause
As though he were my sire, and leave no stone
Unturned to track the assassin or avenge
The son of Labdacus, of Plydore,
Of Cadmus, and Agenor first of the race.
There is an interesting parallel legend to this: the story of King David in 2 Samuel. Whereas Oedipus has mostly unknowingly done the deed, David has intentionally raped and impregnated a woman, and killed her husband to cover it up. When the prophet Nathan (analogous to Tiresias) tells him a parable, he too flies into a rage and brings down imprecations, only to be told that he is the one at fault. To be fair to David, he actually responds penitently; Oedipus accuses first Tiresias, then Creon, of conspiring against him. I find it an interesting comparison. In the end, both kings come to pathetic and tragic ends.
Okay, so enough about the themes and what I liked and didn’t. See below for another perspective on that. Whatever you think of the story, the poetry is wonderful. I have to quote some lines. My edition contains both the Greek original and English translation by Francis Storr, who really does a fine job.
In addition to the quotes above, there were a few others that I thought were outstanding. This one is from the song of the chorus between acts.
Of insolence is bred
The tyrant; insolence full blown,
With empty riches surfeited,
Scales the precipitous height and grasps the throne.
Then topples o’er and lies in ruin prone;
No foothold on that dizzy steep.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown indeed.
Jocasta is, to me, the more interesting character in the play. She actually is perhaps wisest when it comes to the fates. Here is a fascinating line.
JOCASTA: Why should a mortal man, the sport of chance,
With no assured foreknowledge, be afraid?
Best live a careless life from hand to mouth.
The ending of the play is seriously chilling, and may be one of the best endings ever.
CHORUS: Look ye, countrymen and Thebans, this is Oedipus the great,
He who knew the Sphinx’s riddle and was mightiest in our state.
Who of all our townsmen gazed not on his fame with envious eyes?
Now, in what a sea of troubles sunk and overwhelmed he lies!
Therefore wait to see life’s ending ere thou count one mortal blest;
Wait till free from pain and sorrow he has gained his final rest.
Man, that’s pretty heavy. And I am realizing how true it is. I count myself fortunate, but even so, many things I thought I could count as blessings have disappeared. Job too found out how fragile our lives are. A bit of humility regarding our circumstances does seem to be in order. And more so, we might consider hesitating in both ascribing our fortune to our virtue or advising others to do as we did.
In summary, perhaps, I would say that my experience of Oedipus Rex was mildly disappointing. I expected a bit deeper and more relevant exploration of fate and choice. On the other hand, I actually enjoyed reading it a lot. The translation is great, the words flow so well, and there are many astonishingly good passages. If I had read it cold, perhaps I might have thought it better - the problem is that Antigone is so great that this one seems somehow less great.
The edition I
have includes wood engravings by Demetrios Galanis, which are nice. Here is one:
The other thing included is a rather perceptive and interesting introduction by Thornton Wilder. I thought I might quote a few lines from it as well. Regarding the problem of fate in the play:
It is this concentration of the punishment in the hands of Apollo which gives to the play its character of cruelty; for Apollo is punishing a patricide and an incest which had long since been predicted by his oracles and which depended for their fulfillment on slight and easily preventable coincidences.
The impression that the play makes, according to Wilder, “is that of an innocent man’s being driven into a trap of vindictive ingenuity and of then being punished for it with equal malice.”
The catastrophes in the plays of Euripides, as in those of Shakespeare, proceed from flaws in the protagonists’ characters rather than from the implacable workings of circumstance. The sufferings that men endure as a result of their weaknesses are no less ‘tragic’, but they do not imply a universe in which the human struggle for felicity is doomed in advance to frustration.
That’s perhaps the best line. It really encapsulates why I was bothered by Sophocles’ blithe absolution of the gods. Here is another contrast with the other Greek giants:
Whereas both Aeschylus and Euripides were engaged throughout their life in purifying the mythical heritage and pouring into it a wealth of didactic innovations, Sophocles was generally content to retell the old stories without examination of their often savage principles.
Oh man. That’s exactly my problem with the Fundie approach to scripture. They are content - nay, insistent - on retelling the old stories with zero examination of their often savage principles. It was refreshing to discover both the ancient Jewish interpretive tradition, and the other branches of Christian thought, which revisited the old myths in a more creative way.
One more line here.
Modern psychology holds that mythmaking is one of the means whereby the generalized truths of human knowledge finds expression and particularly the disavowed impulses of the mind escape the ‘censor’ of acquired social control and find their way into indirect confession. Myths constitute the dreaming subconscious soul of the race telling its story. Greek mythology is peculiarly rich in these formulations of generalized truth. Prometheus, the benefactor, is perpetually the rebel against authority. Cassandra stands forever as the wisdom that is unable to warn the crowd. The heel of Achilles and the choice of Hercules have passed into proverbial expression.
This is a pretty great explanation of it. I suppose Wilder is correct that at some level, the Oedipus story must resonate. I am not convinced Freud had it right, but maybe that is because of my own personality and family dynamics? One way or another, it seems to resonate enough that Oedipus is performed more than any other Greek play.
Now I need to read some more Wilder, I think...