Sophocles: Oedipus the King

Oedipus is famous in Western culture as a character who infamously killed his father and married his mother by mistake. He was the inspiration for Freud’s also notorious Oedipus complex, which is popularly understood as any kind of excessive or natural attachment that a son might have towards his mother. (I haven’t actually read any Freud, so that’s the best I can give.) Oedipus’ story is also a famous case of self-fulfilling prophecy: Laius, his father, was informed by Tiresias that he would be killed by his son, leading him to hand off baby Oedipus to be abandon in the woods. However, this sets of the chain of events that result in the fulfillment of the prophecy: the man tasked with killing Oedipus feels pity and gives him away to a shepherd. Oedipus grows up without knowing who his true father is, and ends up killing him after a dispute on the road.

The meat of this story is found in the first play of the Oedipus trilogy, Oedipus the King. From a literary perspective, the manner of the narrative surprised me, having never read the play before. The famous events of Oedipus’ past are not acted out in real time nor narrated in linear fashion. This is not a play of action, a trend consistent with the other Greek plays we have read: the heart of the play is really in the lengthy verbal exchanges, often presented in stichomythic duels and amplified by the songs of the chorus.

Oedipus the King begins with a priest lamenting the various blights that have fallen on the land. Creon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law, informs him that this is because the murderer of the previous king has never been caught. Throughout the rest of the play, Oedipus becomes determined to find out who the killer was. A succession of witnesses who know about his past are called up, each getting closer and closer to the core events: when Oedipus was abandoned as an infant and when he killed a man on the road due to a dispute. As the revelations become worse, Oedipus and Jocasta get backed into a corner, as the gaps in the evidence are gradually closed. The climax of the play occurs when the final witness is called – the herdsman who received Oedipus as a baby. Perhaps deliberately, the most lowly character is ironically the one who completes the chain of events that brings down the great man, Oedipus. In typically Greek fashion, this climactic point is expressed through another passage of stichomythia between the Herdsman and Oedipus, creating great dramatic effect. After the horrific realization, Oedipus laments and runs out. The chorus then sings a poignant yet perceptive lament about the limitations of mankind:

Races of mortal man
Whose life is but a span,
I count ye but the shadow of a shade!
For he who most doth know
Of bliss, hath but the show;
A moment, and the visions pale and fade.
Thy fall, O Oedipus, thy piteous fall
Warns me none born of women blest to call.

When Oedipus returns, he has blinded his own eyes in grief, as “How, could I longer see when sight//Brought no delight?”  Together with Jocasta’s suicide, these are the only major physical actions in the play, both of which are done offstage, in line with the polite standards of Greek drama. However, the effect of these actions must have been doubly amplified due to the complete lack of previous physical action. In addition, Oedipus’ action is dramatically apt: Blindness is featured prominently throughout, most notably in the blind prophet of Tiresias, who near the beginning claims he know the murderer is Oedipus, which is fiercely disputed by the latter. Besides this, the plot of the play can be described as a gradual un-blinding of Oedipus to the full significance of his past actions. At the moment of full realization, he cannot bear his newfound psychological “sight”, and he is driven to wound his eyes physically to compensate. Here we see that the play is truly a play of psychological realization and reinterpretation of the past, with drama driven by psychological events. But physical action is still woven vividly with the rest of this psychological and verbal drama. From a purely dramatic point of view, Oedipus the King is a masterpiece indeed.

What’s the Moral?

One might argue that the basic message is that it’s futile to fight against Fate. Even Laius’ actions of abandoning his son to die in the woods can be considered inevitable – if he truly did take the prophet seriously, then what else could he have been expected to do? But if Oedipus is just a cursed character, uncontrollably destined to suffer the unique misfortune of committing a crime without realizing it, what’s the point? Is it just entertainment? Maybe in Greek culture, the success and failures of one’s life is ultimately fated, out of control. It’s interesting that there is no mention of why Oedipus has that certain fate; unlike in the book of Job where his misfortunes are caused by the Devil wanting to play a bet with God, there is no mention of Oedipus being punished with such a fate for his or his ancestors’ transgressions.

Powerless submission to fate is completely at odds with the traditionally American way of thinking, which focuses on making your own destiny. Nevertheless, self-fulfilling prophecy is a common notion that has permeated human cultures through the ages, even up to modern times. In literature, the most famous example would be Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A more contemporary example would be the stock market, in which bad forecasts for the future of a company might result in a massive selloff of the company’s stock that destroys its state before any “natural” causes did anything to it. Still, there is a flip side to this. The idea of self-fulfilling prophecy is also present in the constant exhortations to think positive thoughts, “believe in yourself”, “fake it until you make it”, and creating a “growth mindset.” In these cases, however, instead of submitting to a revelation from the outside (as was in Laius’ case), one is encouraged to make their own self-fulling prophecies. Being unable to free yourself from prophecy, you take control of your future by being your own prophet. I’m not sure whether this tactic is really effective, scientifically speaking. But it seems more empowering than the fatalism of the Oedipus and the Greeks.

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