Oedipus the King Translated by Robert Fagles with Notes by Bernhard Knox
Questions, comments, assignment, and sample paper by Andrew Gottlieb
The writing assignment is on page 43 of this handout.
We’re going to read Oedipus the King, a play reputed by the philosopher Aristotle and others to be the greatest play in antiquity and one of the greatest plays of all times. The play was written by Sophocles who lived in Greece during the 6th century B.C.E.
Before reading the play, let’s take a look at the writing assignment on page 43.
Now that you know the writing assignment, we will take a brief look at the historical and religious contexts in which the play was written. After that we will discuss some questions relating to the narrative. Once we have explored these questions, we will discuss key lines of the play and then consider how to write a paper about it. In addition to the writing assignment, I have provided a sample outline along with a sample essay to help you write your own.
The Oracle of Apollo on Mount Parnassos
Video - Oracle of Delphi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBnOs8GmYHk
Video - Oracle of Delphi & Oedipus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ToVeoUzhR0Q
Theatrical Greek Masks
God of Wine
To what extent are we in control of our lives?
The Greeks believed one’s that destiny was ordained by the will of the Gods and that there was nothing anyone could do to alter it.
How can this idea of destiny be reconciled with free will?
How can a person be destined and
have free will at the same time?
If destiny is unalterable, can one who fulfills his or her destiny be held accountable for what he or she does?
Oedipus is destined to murder his father and marry his mother. Is he to blame for his sins?
Key Elements of the Play
Tragedy In drama, tragedy is a fall from greatness, usually resulting in the death of the tragic hero. Oedipus goes from king to outcast.
Tragic Flaw A tragic flaw is a flaw that results in the decline and possibly the death of the tragic hero.
Tragic Hero A tragic hero is one who, due to tragic flaw, causes and is therefore responsible for his or her own downfall. Sometimes, a tragic flaw can also be a virtue.
Oedipus’ Tragic Flaw Oedipus’ tragic flaw is persistence along with unrelenting courage and an insatiable need to seek and reveal the truth regardless of the consequences.
Oedipus is great because he saves Thebes. He is both clever and courageous. He is also a seeker of truth. This is his both his strength and his weakness. It is his unrelenting insistence on finding the truth that leads him to discover that he has fulfilled his horrible destiny to murder his father and marry his mother, and it is this discovery that destroys him and his family.
Destiny Destiny is the unalterable ordering of events according to divine will.
Oedipus’ destiny is to murder his father and marry his mother.
Free Will Free will is the capacity to act independent of forces beyond one’s control. If a person believes that he is controlled by destiny, he has no free will. Although Oedipus is destined to murder his father and marry his mother, it is arguable that he is not destined to engage in the investigation that reveals that he has in fact fulfilled his destiny. Is Oedipus’ quest for the truth an act of free will or is this too a function of his destiny?
Conflict and Contradiction The story of Oedipus is full of conflict and contradiction. If his life is directed by destiny, how can he have free will? If he has no free will, how can he be held accountable for his actions? How can he be condemned for fulfilling the unalterable destiny of murdering his father and marrying his mother?
Prophecy Prophecy is the foretelling of future events. In ancient Greece, the source of prophecy was the Oracle of Delphi. The priests were believed to have the ability to receive knowledge of future events from Apollo.
Balance and Symmetry Symmetry is in part the property involving a perfect balance of two things. Oedipus the King is symmetrical in that good and bad balance each other out. Oedipus destroys the sphinx, saves Thebes from destruction and becomes king but as a result marries his mother thus fulfilling his horrible destiny. Oedipus ends the plague by determining that he is the murderer of the king but by so doing destroys himself and his mother.
The Irrational The irrational is the property of being inconsistent and self-contradictory. It is irrational to believe at one and the same time that you are responsible for your actions and that divine will is responsible as well. It is irrational to affirm at one and the same time the preponderance of free will and destiny. These beliefs are inconsistent and self-contradictory. They cancel each other out. Oedipus affirms that he is the cause of his own downfall but then says that a man of judgement would recognize that his misfortune is the result of some savage power (206-207/905-918).
Linear Time and Nonlinear Time Linear time is time moving from past to present to future. Implicit in linear time is free will since time is flowing and is not fixed. Nonlinear time is time conceived of as immobile space with no reference to motion through time. Implicit in nonlinear time is destiny since time is fixed like a picture and cannot be altered.
Resolving the Contradiction between
Free Will and Destiny The duality of linear and nonlinear time can be used to resolve the contradiction between free will and destiny. We can say that these are two distinct perspectives and that reality is twofold. We need not have a single reference frame by which to characterize reality. From the perspective of linear time, free will is conceivable. From the perspective of nonlinear time, destiny is conceivable. Both realities are equally conceivable, but not at one and the same time. To accept this we need to suspend the belief that reality is singular.
Irony One of the most compelling aspects of Oedipus the King is irony. An action is ironic when it results in the opposite of what we expect. To put it simply:
Irony is a reversal of expectation.
What is ironic about the play?
Firstly, Oedipus is both the detective and the criminal. The blind prophet Tiresias refers to Oedipus as the murder he hunts (180/413). Surely we do not expect the hunter to be the hunted, yet Oedipus is just that. He is both hunter and prey.
Secondly, the play is also ironic in its treatment of blindness. Oedipus, who can see, is blind to the truth, whereas Tiresias, who is blind, sees the truth. In the end, Oedipus blinds himself when he discovers the truth. Only the blind can see and the one who sees is blind. The reversal of expectation in this is evident.
Thirdly, Oedipus is both a savior and a curse. He is the savior of Thebes because he destroys the Sphinx by solving the riddle. He is its curse because he kills the king and by so doing caused the plague. One does not expect savior to be a curse.
A fourth aspect of irony is reversal of fortune. Oedipus’ good fortune is the source of his misfortune. His rise to the throne results in his eventual downfall. One does not expect good fortune to be the source of misfortune.
A fifth aspect of irony involves the plague, the problems that sets the drama in motion. By revealing himself as the murderer of Laius, Oedipus eradicates the curse that is the cause of the plague. Ironically, he has, by so doing, incurred the downfall of the royal family. The solution of one problem results in the realization of another. A sixth aspect of irony inherent in the narrative that precedes the action in the narrative is the fact that the more Oedipus tries to avoid his destiny, the more he falls into it. Oedipus leaves Corinth to avoid killing his father and marrying his mother only to fulfill his fate elsewhere.
King of Thebes A Priest
of Zeus Creon
Brother of Jocasta
(Brother-in-law and uncle of Oedipus) Chorus
Of Theban citizens and their Leader Tiresias
a blind prophet Jocasta
the queen, wife (and mother) of Oedipus A Messenger
from Corinth A Shepherd A Messenger
from inside the palace (who saves Oedipus’ life
by giving him to the Shepherd) Antigone, Ismene
Daughters of Oedipus and Jocasta (sisters of Oedipus) Guards and attendants Priests of Thebes
Timeline for Oedipus the King
Laius rapes Chrysippus.
Laius hears the prophecy that his son is destined to kill him.
Laius has the shepherd bind his son’s feet and leaves him on Mount Cithaeron to die
The shepherd takes mercy on Oedipus and gives him to another shepherd who takes him to Corinth where he is adopted by the king and queen Polybus and Merope. They never tell him he is not their child, so Oedipus believes they are his biological parents.
A drunk tells Oedipus that Polybus is not his father.
Oedipus goes to the Oracle of Delphi and hears of the prophecy that he is destined to murder his father and sleep with his mother. The Oracle refuses to tell him whether or not Polybus is his father. Had Oedipus known the truth about Polybus he would not have taken the next step.
Oedipus leaves Corinth to avoid fulfilling his destiny.
On the road he gets into a fight and kills an old man who just happens to be Laius, his father. Oedipus has now fulfilled the first part of the prophecy.
A monster called the Sphinx is killing the people of Thebes. The only way to destroy the monster is to solve a riddle. Oedipus solves the riddle and saves Thebes.
Oedipus becomes king and marries the queen, former wife of Laius, and his mother. He has no idea who she is.
Oedipus has four children with Jocasta, two daughters: Antigone and Ismene, and two sons: Polyneices and Eteocles. Since Jocasta is his mother, Oedipus’ children are also his siblings. He is totally unaware of this.
Thebes suffers from a terrible plague. This is where the play Oedipus the King begins.
Oedipus sends Jocasta’s brother, Creon, to the Oracle of Delphi to find out what can be done to end the plague. When Creon returns he tells Oedipus that the cause of the plague is the murder of Laius.
Oedipus proclaims that the murderer of the former king will be caught and banished from Thebes.
A blind prophet named Tiresias tells Oedipus that he is the cause of the plague. Oedipus denies this and denounces Tiresias as a fraud.
JOCASTA’S ACCOUNT OF THE FIRST PROPHECY:
Jocasta denounces prophecy as false and to prove this recounts the story of how Laius was killed not by his son but by thieves at a place where “three roads meet” and how previously Laius had “fastened his ankles” and “had a henchman fling him away on a barren trackless mountain” (p.201, ll. 785-795).
OEDIPUS’ ACCOUNT OF THE PROPHECY
The crucial clue is “three roads” where Laius was killed. Oedipus recalls that he killed a man in such a place and now realizes that he is the one who killed the king. He tells Jocasta the story of how the drunk told him he was not his father’s son and that he went to the Oracle of Delphi where he first heard that he was destined to couple with his mother, to “bring a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see,” and to kill his father (p.205, ll.850-880).
A messenger comes from Corinth and tells Oedipus that Polybus is dead (p.214, l049). Oedipus is relieved since now he believes that there is no way he can fulfill the part of destiny of killing his father.
The messenger tells Oedipus that Polybus is not his biological father, that he was adopted and that he had been saved by a servant of Laius. Jocasta now realizes that Oedipus is her son and tries to stop Oedipus from investigating further.
Oedipus refuses to listen to Jocasta and, believing that she is concerned only that the investigation may reveal that he comes from a family of commoners or slaves, proceeds with his quest for the truth. He must know!
Oedipus interrogates the shepherd who was supposed to have left him as a baby on Mount Cithaeron to die but instead saved him. Oedipus now finds out that he is the son of Laius and Jocasta. He knows that he has fulfilled his terrible destiny.
Jocasta who now knows that she has been married to her son, cannot bare the truth, and hangs herself.
Oedipus takes the brooches from Jocasta’s dress and gouges out his eyes.
Oedipus asks Creon, who is now the acting king, to banish him.
Creon banishes Oedipus and the play ends.
Oedipus, a compassionate king:
“Oedipus: … I’ll do anything. I would be blind to misery
not to pity my people kneeling at my feet” (159/14-15).
Apollo, the source of knowledge of the future:
…And all the rest, your great family gathers now,
branches wreathed, massing in the squares,
kneeling before the two temples of queen Athena
or the river-shrine where the embers glow and die
and Apollo sees the future in the ashes” (160/25-26).
The plague personified and seen as the result of divine will:
... and the plague, the fiery god of fever hurls down
on the city, his lightning slashing through us-
raging plague in all its vengeance, devastating
the house of Cadmus! And the black Death luxuriates
in the raw, wailing misery of Thebes” (160/28-38).
Oedipus the Savior:
…Now we pray to you. You cannot equal the gods,
Your children know that, bending at your alter.
But we do rate you first of men,
both in the common crises of our lives
and face-to-face encounters with the gods.
You freed us from the Sphinx, you came to Thebes
and cut us loose from the bloody tribute we had paid
that harsh, brutal singer. We taught you nothing,
no skill, no extra knowledge, still you triumphed.
A god was with you, so they say, and we believe it-
You lifted up our lives” (161/39-48).
…Act now-we beg you, best of men, raise up our city!
Ac, defend yourself, your former glory!
Your country calls you savior now
For your zeal, your action years ago” (161/56-60).
Oedipus’ Insistence on Knowing:
Oedipus sends Creon to Delphi (the oracle) to determine the cause of the plague.
…I’ll be a traitor
if I do not do all the god makes clear” (162/88-89).
If you want my report in the presence of these people…
Pointing to the priests while drawing Oedipus toward the palace.
I’m read now, or we might go inside.
Speak to us all. I grieve for these, my people,
far more than I fear for my own life” (162/103-106).
Sin and Corruption - the Cause of the Plague:
Creon: Very well
I will tell you what I heard from the god.
Apollo commands us-he was quite clear-
“Drive the corruption from the land,
don’t harbor it any longer, past all cure,
don’t nurse it in your soil-root it out!”
How can we cleanse ourselves-what rites?
What’s the source of the trouble?
Banish the man or pay back blood with blood.
Murder sets the plague-storm on the city” (164/107-114).
Whose fate does Apollo bring to light?
my lord, was once a man named Laius,
before you came and put us straight on course.
or so I’ve heard. I never saw the man myself” (164/106-118).
We hear how King Laius was killed and how only one of his entourage escaped, a lone witness to the crime” (165/130-137).
Oedipus the Blind Investigator/Seeker of Truth:
It is ironic that Oedipus is both the detective and the criminal he seeks.
“Oedipus: …I will speak out now as a stranger to the story,
a stranger to the crime. If I’d been present them,
there would have been no mystery, no long hung
without a clue in hand” (171/249-250).
The Irony of Oedipus Blindly Condemning Himself: “Oedipus: …Drive him out, each of you, from every home.
He is the plague, the heart of our corruption” (172/275-276)
Oedipus is the murderer, the plague, and the heart of corruption but is unaware of this. As he condemns the murderer of Laius, he is unknowingly and blindly condemning himself. Oedipus is the accuser and the one accused. The irony of this is evident since one does not expect the one who condemns to be the object of his own condemnation. This is evident as well in the following line:
“Oedipus: … So I will fight for him as if he were my father” (173/301).
The irony here is evident in the fact that Laius is or was Oedipus’ father.
Again, the foundation of the irony of Oedipus’ declaration is his blindness, one not shared by the audiences in ancient Greece who were well acquainted with the narrative more than the protagonist. As such we as informed watchers of the play share a perspective similar to that of the gods who had plain sight of the future, the outcome of destiny.
Tiresias’ Prophesy of Oedipus’ Blindness:
“Tiresias: … So,
You with your precious eyes,
you’re blind to the corruption of your life,
to the house you live in, those you live with-
who are your parents? Do you know? all unknowing
you are the scourge of your own flesh and blood,
the dead below the earth and the living here above,
and the double lash of your mother and your father’s curse
will ship you from this land one day, their footfall
treading you down in terror, darkness shrouding
your eyes that now can see the light” (183/468-478)!
I will go,
once I have said what I came here to say.
I will never shrink from the anger in your eyes-
the man you’ve sought so long, proclaiming,
cursing up and down, the murderer of Laius-
he is here. A stranger,
you may think, who loves among you,
he will soon be revealed a native Theban
but he will take no joy in the revelation.
blind who now has eyes, beggar how now is rich,
he will grope his way toward a foreign soil,
a stick tapping before him step by step.
Oedipus enters the palace.
Revealed at last, brother and father both
to the children he embraces to his mother
son and husband both-he sowed the loins
his father sowed, he spilled his father’s blood” (185/508-523)!
Watch the video with John Gielgood, Part 4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WS9KJ_bAJLE
Read the dialogue between Tiresias and Oedipus (175-185/337-526)
Notice that in the dialogue between Oedipus and Tiresias that prior to Tiresias’ revelation of Oedipus as the source of the plague, Oedipus refers to the prophet as a “the one savior we can find” (176/346). After however Tiresias calls Oedipus “the corruption of the land” (179/401), he calls the prophet blind (181/425) and characterizes him as a “scheming quack” (182/440). What does this say about Oedipus, a man who praises a man one minute and, after hearing something from him he cannot bear to hear, discounts him and all he says the next.
Bernhard Knox’s Comment Regarding Drama and Free Will: “In a play, then the hero’s will must be free, but something else is needed: it must have some causal connection with his suffering. If through no fault of his own the hero is crushed by a bulldozer in Act II, we are not impressed… But it is the function of great art to purge and give meaning to human, and so we expect that if the hero is indeed crushed by a bulldozer in Act II there will be some reason for it, and not just some reason but a good one, one which makes sense in terms of the hero’s personality and action. In fact, we expect to be shown that he is in some way responsible for what happens to him.
If so, the hero obviously cannot be “fated,” predestined or determined to act as he does. And, to get back finally to the Oedipus of Sophocles, Oedipus, in the play is a free agent, and he is responsible for the catastrophe. For the plot of the play consists of the actions which Oedipus was “fated” to perform, or rather which were predicted; the plot of the play consists of his discovery that he has already fulfilled the prediction. And this discovery is entirely due to his action” (Knox, 149).
“Oedipus did have one freedom: he was free to find out or not find out the truth. This was the element of Sophoclean sleight-of-hand that enabled him to make a drama out of the situation which the philosophers used as the classic demonstration of man’s subjection to fate. But it is more than a solution to an apparently insoluble dramatic problem; I is the key to the play’s tragic theme and the protagonist’s heroic stature. One freedom is allowed him: the freedom to search for the truth, the truth about the prophecies, about the gods, about himself. And of this freedom he makes full use. Against the advice and appeals of others, he pushes on, searching for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And in this search he shows all those great qualities that we admire in him-courage, intelligence, perseverance, the qualities that make human beings great.This freedom to search, and the heroic way in which Oedipus uses it, make the play not a picture of man’s utter feebleness caught in the toils off fate, but on the contrary, a heroic example of man’s dedication to the search for truth, the truth about himself. This is perhaps, the only human freedom, the play seems to say, but there could be none more noble” (Knox 153).
In light of Knox’s comment concerning the one freedom of the hero to search for the truth, a question arises. If Tiresias’ prediction that Oedipus’ blindness is a function of the hero’s destiny, then is his choice to blind himself really an act of free will? And if not, then is his quest for the truth which leads to this horrific act an act of free will or rather a path he is also destined to follow? If this is the case, then the play, according to Knox’s and the traditional view of tragedy as an outcome of the free will of the character breaks down. The tragedy must be the result of choices resulting from the hero’s character, his tragic flaw. Oedipus’ tragic flaw is his stubborn and persistent need to know the truth. Without this, he, his family, and the citizens of Thebes would never have known that he had fulfilled his horrible destiny. At the same time, Thebes would have perished from the plague since the corruption that was its cause would have remained uncleansed. Oedipus saves the city by brining ruin to himself and his family. Though this is not his intention, it is arguable that his quest truth is heroic, especially since he is willing to face whatever consequences it incurs.
Nonetheless, the question of free will remains. Tiresias prediction, given that he is a legitimate prophet, gives us reason to believe that not only was Oedipus destined to murder his father and marry his mother. He may well have been destined to seek out and discover that he had done these things. If so, Knox’s claim that Oedipus’ quest for the truth was his one freedom is not ironclad.
Oedipus the Riddle Solver & The Irony of His Good Fortune: “Tiresias: Ah, but aren’t you the best man alive at solving riddles?
Oedipus: Mocke me for that, go on, and you’ll reveal my greatness.
Tiresias: Your great good fortune, true, it was your ruin.
Oedipus: Not if I saved the city-what do I care (184/501-504) Ironic
THE FIRST PROPHECY:
Oedipus is has been told by Creon that he is guilty of the murder of Laius. He claims that Creon sent his prophet to do his “dirty work” (200/777). Oedipus sees the accusation as a conspiracy on Creon’s part to take the throne. Jocasta tries to reassure Oedipus about the prophet’s claim by discounting prophecy. She recounts what we can call the FIRST PROPHECY (201/785-800), namely that Laius would be killed by his son. This Jocasta believes did not happen since Laius fastened the baby’s ankles and commanded a henchmen to leave the him to die on a “barren, trackless mountain” (201/794). What Jocasta does not know is that the baby’s life was spared by the one who had been commissioned with the task of leaving him to die.
Phocis, Where Three Roads Meet (THE FIRST CLUE): “Oedipus: I thought I heard you say that Laius
was cut down at a placewhere three roads meet.
Jocasta: that was the story. It hasn’t died out yet
Oedipus: Where did this thing happen? Be precise.
Jocasta: A place called Phocis, where two branching roads,
one from Daulia, one from Delphi,
come together-a crossroads” (202/804-810).
OEDIPUS’S FIRST REVELATION:
In his quest to investigate the murder of Laius, Oedipus realizes that he is the murderer and by so doing confirms the truth of Tiresias’ claim.
“Oedipus: When? How long ago?
Jocasta: The heralds no sooner reported Laius dead
than you appeared and they hailed you king of Thebes.
Oedipus: My god, my god-what have you planned to do to me?
Jocasta: What, Oedipus? What haunts you so?
Oedipus: Not yet.
Laius-how did he look? Describe him
Had he reached his prime?
Jocasta: He was swarthy,
and the gray had just begun to streak his temples,
and his build … wasn’t’ far from yours.
Oedipus: Oh no no,
I think I’ve just called down a dreadful curse
upon myself-I simply didn’t know!
Jocasta: What are you saying? I shudder to look at you.
Oedipus: I have a terrible fear the blind seer can see.
I’ll know in a moment. One thing more-
afraid as I am-ask, I’ll answer, all I can.
Oedipus: Did he go with a light or heavy escort,
several men-at-arms, like a lord, a king?
Jocasta: there were five in the party, a herald among them,
and a single wagon carrying Laius.
now I can see it all, the clear as day.
Who told you all this at the time Jocasta” (202-203/811-830)
The Lone Survivor – Witness to The Crime:
now I can see it all, the clear as day.
Who told you all this at the time Jocasta?
Jocasta: A servant who reached home, a lone survivor.”
Oedipus: So could he still be in the palace-even now?
Jocasta: No indeed. Soon as he returned form the scene
and saw you on the throne with Laius dead and gone,
he knelt and clutched my hand,m pleading with me
to send him into the hinterland, to pasture,
far as possible, out of sight of Thebes.
I sent him away. Slave though he was,
he’d earned that favor-and much more.
Oedipus: Can we bring him back, quickly?
Jocasta: Easily. Why do you want him so?
Oedipus: I am afraid,
Jocasta, I have said to much already.
That man-I’ve got to see him” (204/831-847).
The Second Prophecy:
“Oedipus: And so you shall-I can hold nothing back from you,
now I’ve reached this pitch of dark foreboding.
Who means more to me than you? Tell me.
whom would I turn toward but you
as I go through all this?
My father was Polybus, king of Corinth.
unknown to mother and father I set out for Delphi,
and the god Apollo spurned me, sent me away
denied the facts I came for,
but first he flashed before my eyes a future
great with pain, terror, disaster-I can hear him cry,
“You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring
a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see-
you will kill your father, the one who gave you life” ” (205/846-875)!
Oedipus Unknowingly Kills His Father Laius:
“Oedipus… I heard all that and ran, I abandoned Corinth,
from that day I gauged its landfall only
by the stars, running always running
toward some place where I would never see
the shame of all those oracles come true.
And as I fled I reached the very spot
where the great king, you say met his death.
Now, Jocasta, I will tell you all.
Making my way toward this triple crossroad
I began to see a herald, then a brace of colts
drawing a wagon, and mounted on the bench… a man,
Just as you’ve described him, coming face-to-face,
and the one in the lead and the old man himself
were about to thrust me off the road-bruteforce-
and the one shouldering me aside, the driver,
I strike him in anger!-and the old man, watching me
coming up along his wheels-he brings down
his prod, two prongs straight at my head!
I paid him back with interest!
Short work, by god-with one blow of the staff
in this right hand I knock him out of his high seat,
roll him out of the wagon, sprawling headlong-
I killed them all-every mother’s son” (205-206/876-898)!
Conflict & Contradiction:
Free Will or Divine Will? Self Determination or Destiny?
“Oedipus: …Oh, but if there is any blood-tie
between Laius and this stranger …
what man alive more miserable than I?
More hated by the gods? I am the man
no alien, no citizen welcomes to his house,
law forbids it-not a word to me in public,
driven out of every hearth and home.
And all these curses I –no one but I
brought down these piling curses on myself
And you his wife, I’ve touched your body with these,
the hands that killed your husband cover you with blood.
Wasn’t I born for torment? Look me in the eyes!
I am abomination-heart and soul!
I must be exiled, and even in exile
never see my parents, never set foot
on native ground again. Else I am doomed
to coupled with my mother and cut my father down …
Polybus who reared me, gave me life.
But why, why?
Wouldn’t a man of judgment say-and wouldn’t he be right-
some savage power has brought this down upon my head? Oh no, not that, you pure and awesome gods,
never let me see that day! Let me slip
from the world of men, vanish without a trace
before I see myself stained with such corruption,
stained to the heart” (206-207/899-923).
On the one hand Oedipus takes responsibility for his suffering when he says “no one but I
brought down these piling curses on myself” (206/907-908). He then considers the alternative possibility that “some savage power” has brought the curses down upon his head (207/917-919)? This is the contradiction between free will and divine will, between self-determination and destiny. The question is: why does Oedipus raise the question of divine will as the source of his troubles? Is it perhaps because believing that a higher power is the cause of all wrongdoing relieves Oedipus at least to some extent from the pain incurred by his overwhelming guilt?
What do you think?
“Oedipus: You said thieves-
he told you a whole band of them murdered Laius.
So, if he still holds to the same number,
I cannot be the killer. One can’t equal many.
But if he refers to one man, one alone,
clearly the scales come down on me:
I am guilty” (208/933-937).
Bernhard Knox’s Comment:
“The figure of Oedipus represents not only the techniques of the transition from savagery to civilization and the political achievements of the newly settles society but also the temper and methods of the fifth-century intellectual revolution. His speeches are full of words, phrases, and attitudes that link him with the “enlightenment” of Sophocles’ own Athens. “I’ll bring it all to light.” he says (150); he is like some Protagoras or Democritus dispelling the darkness of ignorance and superstition. He is a questioner, a researcher, a discoverer-the Greek words are those of the sophistic vocabulary. Above all Oedipus is presented to the audience as a symbol of two of the greatest scientific achievements of the age-mathematics and medicine.Mathematial language recurs incessantly in the imagery of the play-such terms as “measure” (metrein) “equate” (isoun), “define” (diorizein)-and at one climactic moment Oedipus, seizing on a number discrepancy in the evidence against him, dismisses it with a mathematical axiom: “One can’t equal many” (934). This obsessive image, Oedipus the calculator, is one more means of investing the mythical figure with the salient characteristics of the fifth-century achievement, but is also magnificently functional. For, in his search for truth, he is engaged in a great calculation, to determine the measure of man, whom Protagoras called “the measure of all things” (Knox 142).
Jocasta’s Denial of the Prophecy:
“Jocasta: … Apollo was explicit:
my son was doomed to kill my husband … my son,
poor defenseless thing, he never had a chance
to kill his father. They destroyed him first,
So much for prophecy. It’s neither here nor there” (208/944-949).
“Jocasta: … Oedipus is beside himself. Racked with anguish,
no longer a man of sense, he won’t admit
the latest prophecies are hollow as the old-
he’s at the mercy of every passing voice
if the voice tells of terror
I urge him gently, nothing seems to help,
so I turn to you, Apollo, you are the nearest.
Placing her branch on the alter, while an old herdsman enters from the side, not theone just summoned by theKing but an unexpected MESSENGER from Corinth. I come with prayers and offerings … I beg you,
cleanse us, set us free of defilement!
Look at us, passengers in the grip of fear,
watching the pilot of the vessel go to pieces” (211/1001-1008).
Jocasta denies the veracity of prophecy but maintains her faith in Apollo and religious ritual. Clearly, she makes a distinction between the power of the prophets and the gods.
Evidence Against Prophecy:
The death of Polybus, the man Jocasta and Oedipus believe to be his biological father, appears to be conclusive evidence that Oedipus could not possibly fulfill his destiny to murder his father since he has died of natural causes and not by the hand of his son.
“Jocasta: To a servant.
Quickly, go to your master, tell him this!
You prophecies of the gods, where are you now?
This is the man that Oedipus feared for years,
he fled him, not to kill him-and now he’s dead,
quite by chance, a normal, natural death,
not murdered by his son” (213/1034-1040).
Jocasta, why, why look to the Prophet’s hearth,
the fires of the future? Why scan the birds
that scream above our heads? They winged me on
to the murder of my father, did they? That was my doom?
Well look, he’s dead and buried, hidden under the earth,
and here I am here in Thebes, I never put hand to sword-
unless some longing for me wasted him away,
then in a sense you’d say I caused his death.
But now, all those prophecies I-Polybus
packs them off to sleep with in hell!
They’re nothing, worthless” (214/1053-1064).
Oedipus’ Faith in Prophecy & the Oedipus Complex
“Oedipus: But my mother’s bed, surely I must fear-
that, at least, is a great blessing, joy to the eyes!
Oedipus: Great, I know … but I fear her-she’s still alive” (215-216/1082-1083).
Oedipus’ fear of sharing his mother’s bed after learning of the death of Polybus, the man he believes to be his father, is testament to the resilience of his faith in prophecy. He has been convinced that the prophets were wrong about his destiny to kill his father, so why now would he still believe that they were right about him and his mother especially when Merope, the woman he believes to be his mother, lives in Corinth, a considerable distance from Thebes? How would he end up sleeping with his mother who is so far away and why would he consider this possible in light of the fact that the first part of the destiny, the killing his father, proved to be false? Clearly, Oedipus is still, even in the face of seemingly overwhelming evidence, a believer. His faith in the prophets has not been dismantled.
Jocasta, on the other hand, places more confidence in the facts than in whatever belief she may have had about the prophets. As we have seen, she believes in Apollo and performs religious rituals demonstrating her faith in the gods. Her disavowal is directed at and limited to the oracles of Delphi.
Jocasta’s comment on Oedipus’s concern about sharing his mother’s bed is astounding.
“Many a man before you, in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed” (215/1074-1075). Is this not entirely out of step with the ethos of ancient Greece? It’s hard to believe Sophocles wrote such a line expressing an idea out of the context of the time in which the play was written. If one believed in time travel, the notion that Freud had found a way to travel back to that distant time and surreptitiously insert the line into the play might not be entirely farfetched.
Central to Freud’s work is the Oedipus Complex, the idea that every man secretly or unconsciously wants to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Bernhard Knox makes reference to this in his introductory comments to the play.
“In the very first year of our century Sigmund Freud in his Interpretation of Dreams offered a famous and influential interpretation of the destiny of Oedipus the King:
Oedipus Rex is what is what is known as a tragedy of destiny. Its tragic effect is said to lie in the contrast between the supreme will of the gods and the vain attempts of mankind to escape the evil that threatens them. The lesson which, it is said, the deeply move spectator should learn from the tragedy is submission to the divine will and realization of his own impotence. Modern dramatists have accordingly tried to achieve a similar tragic effect by weaving the same contrast in a plot invented by themselves. But the spectators have looked on unmoved while a curse or an oracle was fulfilled in spite of all the efforts of some innocent man: later tragedies of destiny have failed in their effect.
If Oedipus Rex moves the modern audience no less than it did the contemporary Greek one, the explanation can only be that its effect does not live in the contrast between destiny and human will, but is to be looked for in the particular nature of the material on which that contrast is exemplified. There must be something which makes a voice within us ready to recognize the compelling force of destiny in the Oedipus, while we can dismiss as merely arbitrary such dispositions as are laid in [Grillparzer’s] Di Ahnfrau orother modern tragedies of destiny. And a factor of this kind is in fact involved in the story of King Oedipus. His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours-because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse toward our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so” (Trans. James Strachey).
Knox goes on to say that though this “passage is a landmark in the history of modern thought,” as “a piece of literary criticism, however, it leaves much to be desired and goes on to present some very good arguments and examples to support his view. It is arguable that Freud’s interpretation of the play, not to mention his analysis of mankind, is reductionist. To say that we are moved by the play because we share Oedipus’s unconscious desire to sleep with his mother is more than a little dubious since there is not proof we all share this desire and secondly since Oedipus’ destiny does not result from an unconscious desire to share his mother’s bed. Such a leap of reasoning, if so it can be called, unfounded.
Oedipus’ Tragic Flaw – His Persistence in Seeking the Truth:
Oedipus learns from a messenger from Corinth that he is not the son of Polybus. The messenger tells him that a shepherd gave Oedipus when he was a baby and that his ankles were pinned together. When the messenger tells Oedipus that the shepherd who saved him was a servant of Laius, Jocasta realized the horrible truth, that Oedipus, her husband, is also her son. When Jocasta tries to prevent Oedipus from pursuing his investigation, Oedipus persists.
Oedipus believes that Jocasta’s concern is that he may find that was born of lowly parents. He is unaware of the horror he is about to face. We see that, in spite of Jocasta’s warning, Oedipus persists in his quest for the truth. “I must know it all, must see the truth at last,” he says (222/1269-1270) It is this persistence, this insatiable need for the truth that is his tragic flaw that brings about his downfall.
“Oedipus: What-give up now, with a clue like this?
Fail to solve the mystery of my birth?
Not for all the world!
Jocasta: Stop-in the name of god,
if you love your own life, call off this search!
Even if my mother turns out to be a slave,
and I a slave, three generations back,
you would not seem common.
Jocasta: Oh no,
listen to me, I beg you, don’t do this.
Oedipus: Listen to you: No more. I must know it all,
must see the truth at last. Jocasta: No, please-
for your sake-I want the best for you!
Oedipus: Your best is more than I can bear.
Jocasta: You’re doomed-
may you never fathom who you are!
To a servant.
Hurry, fetch me the herdsman now!
Leave her to glory in her royal birth.
man of agony-
that is the only name I have for you,
that, no other-ever, ever, ever!
Flinging through the palace door.
A long, tense silence follows. Oedipus: Let is burst! Whatever will, whatever must!
I must know my birth no matter how common
it may be-I must see my origins face-to-face.
She perhaps, she with her woman’s pride
may well be mortified by my birth,
but I, I count myself the son of Chance,
the great goddess, giver of all good things-
I’ll never see myself disgraced. She is my mother!
And the moons have marked me out k my blood-brothers,
one moon on the wane, the next moon great with power.
That is my blood, my nature-I will never betray it,
never fail to search and learn my birth” (222-224/1160-1194)!
Oedipus compels the Shepherd to reveal the truth of his birth even when he begins to see that the revelation will be horrific. His persistent and insatiable need for the truth is what destroys him. This is his tragic flaw, his downfall.
god’s sake, master, no more questions!
Oedipus: You’re a dead man if I have to ask again.
Shepherd: Then-the child came from the house …
Oedipus: A slave? or born of his own blood?
Shepherd: Oh no,
I’m right at the edge, the horrible truth-I’ve got to say it!
Oedipus: And I’m at the edge of hearing horrors, yes, but I must hear! Shepherd: All right! His son, they said it was-his son!
But the one inside, your wife,
she’d tell it best.
Oedipus: My wife-
she gave it to you?
Shepherd: Yes, yes, my king.
Oedipus: Why, what for?
Shepherd: To kill it.
Oedipus: Her own child,
how could she?
Shepherd: She was afraid-
Shepherd: They said-
he’d kill his parents.
Oedipus: But you have him to this old man-why?
Shepherd: I pitied the little baby, master,
hoped he’d take him off to his own country,
far away, but he save him for this, this fate.
If you are the man he says you are, believe me,
you were born for pain.
Oedipus: O god-
all come true, all burst to light!
O light-now let me look my last on you!
I stand revealed at last-
cursed in my birth, cursed in marriage,
cursed in the lives I cut down with these hands” (230-232/1280-1310)!
splashing his beard, a swirl of it, nerves and clots-
black hil of blood pulsing, gushing down.
These are the griefs that burst upon them both,
coupling man and woman. The joy they had so lately,
the fortune of their old ancestral house
was deep joy indeed. Now, in this one day,
wailing madness and doom, death, disgrace,
all the griefs in the world that you can name,
all are theirs forever” (237/1395-1421).
Now Oedipus, who has been blind to the truth, blinds himself. While blind to truth, Oedipus was happy and his family was well. The truth has not set him free. It has destroyed him. His tragedy lies not in the fact that he has killed his father and married his mother but in the discovery of these horrific acts. It is not wrongdoing that destroys him; it is his awareness of what he has done. His ignorance was his bliss; his newfound knowledge is his despair. Oedipus is like Adam who, having eaten of the Tree of Good and Evil, is cast out of Paradise.
It is often said that knowledge is power, but sometimes knowledge is destructive. In the case of Oedipus, knowledge leads to the end of power, the end of a kingdom, the ruination of the royal family. It is Oedipus’ quest for knowledge that results in all this. His lot, like Adam’s, and perhaps our own, is the outcome of his insatiable need to investigate and discover.
Is not the destructive side of our industrial, technological revolution the result of our love of inquiry? Does not our quest for knowledge and the power that it brings lead us on the path not only of advancement but of destruction as well? In our own way, we are Oedipus and, as such, Oedipus embodies us all. Though a king, he is the everyman whose story, though atypical and bizarre, expresses the essence of our cultural heritage, both a blessing and a curse.
Ironically, the ruination of Oedipus and his family entails the salvation of the city he rules. Only by revealing the murderer can the plague that has ravaged Thebes come to an end. And so, Oedipus is twice over a savior and a destroyer. By solving the riddle of the Sphinx, he saved the city. Having killed their king, he condemned it. Now, having revealed his crimes, he has destroyed himself and saved the city. This balancing of good and evil, the symmetry of opposites, comprises the human condition, the Wheel of Fortune that takes us up only to bring us crashing down.
The Fatal Leap:
“Oedipus: Oh, Ohh-
the agony! I am agony-
where am I going? where on earth?
where does all this agony hurl me?
where’s my voice?-
winging, swept away on a dark tide-
My destiny, my dark power, what a leap you made” (239/1442-1448)!
What is the leap Oedipus has made, from what to what?
“Oedipus: Apollo, friends, Apollo-
he ordained my agonies-these, my pains on pains!
But the hand that struck my eyes was mine,
mine alone-no one else-
I did it all myself!
What good were eyes to me?
Nothing I could see could bring me joy” (241/1467-1472).
Refer back to Tiresias’ Prophecy (183/468-478), (185/508-523) cited on pages 21-22 of this handout. Does Tiresias’ prediction of Oedipus’ blindness mean that he was destined to blind himself? If so, then we have to wonder if the blinding was an act of free will as Oedipus maintains when he proclaims, “I did it all myself” (241/1470)!
Also refer back to Knox’s comment: “In a play, then the hero’s will must be free…” (Knox 153).
If Oedipus did not act freely but rather according to a pre-ordained destiny when he blinded himself, then Knox’s characterization of the hero is questionable. If we retain Knox’s assertion, which is not his alone, can we explain how Oedipus’ horrific act could have originated from free will?
I with My Eyes:
“Oedipus: What I did was best-don’t lecture me,
no more advice. I, with my eyes
how could I look my father in the eyes
when I go down to death? Or mother, so abused …
I have done such things to the two of them,
crimes to huge for hanging.
the sight of my children, born as they were born,
how could I long to look into their eyes?
No, not with these eyes of mine, never.
Not this city either, her high towers,
the sacred glittering images of her gods-
I am misery! I, her best son, reared
as no other son of Thebes was ever reared,
I’ve stripped myself, I gave the command myself!
All men must cast away the great blasphemer,
the curse now brought to light by the gods,
the son of Laius-I, my father’s son!
Now I’ve exposed my guilt, horrendous guilt,
could I train a level glance on you, my countrymen?
Impossible! NO, if I could just block off my ears,
I’d wall up my loathsome body like a prison,
blind to the sound of life, not just the sight.
Oblivion-what a blessing …
for the mind to dwell a world away from pain” (243/1499-1523).
My Comment – The Play, a Window into Time:
In this passage Oedipus explains his motive for blinding himself. He cannot bear to look upon his children since they are the product of incest. He cannot “train a level glance” at his countrymen because of his guilt and shame. He cannot bear the thought of looking his father in the eyes when he goes down to Hades because of his shame and guilt as well. This last utterance is especially interesting since it sheds light on a religious belief. It was apparently believed that the departed enter the next world as they were in the land of the living. One wonders how a departed spirit whose living host had been torn apart by lions, burnt to a crisp in a fire, or beheaded would appear. Oedipus’ concern for his future in Hades gives us insight into the minds and hearts of the inhabitants of a world far removed from our own. The play is thus a window into time through which we can look and make inferences about the customs and beliefs comprising the heart and soul of ancient Greece.
“Oedipus: … Oh but this I know: no sickness can destroy me,
nothing can. I would never have been saved
from death-I have been saved
for something great and terrible, something strange.
Well let my destiny come and take me on its way” (246/1594-1598)!
For what has Oedipus been saved?
He now has a new destiny which we learn about in Sophocles’ next play, Oedipus at Colonus in which he plays a major role in the upcoming conflict between Athens and Thebes. The city on whose grounds Oedipus is buried is the one that will be the victor. The one who was blind to the truth and who now is blind in sight, senses his future and, in the spirit of a prophet, proclaims it with certainty.
For the gods, Oedipus is the hub of many wheels, the focal point upon which the destiny of so many others depends. He saves Thebes only to be the source of its near destruction. He destroys himself to save the city but brings ruin upon his family. In the next play, he is the outcast wanted for the magic of his presence as the lynchpin of success in armed conflict.
The Daughters’ Destiny:
“Oedipus: … About my children, Creon, the boys at least,
don’t burden yourself. They’re men,
wherever they go, they’ll find the means to live.
But my two daughters, my poor helpless girls,
clustering at our table, never without me
hovering near them … whatever I touched,
they always had their share. Take care of them,
I beg you” (247/1599-1606).
“Oedipus: … What more misery could you want?
Your father killed his father, sowed his mother,
one, one and the selfsame womb sprang you-
he cropped the very roots of his existence.
Such disgrace, and you must bear it all!
Who will marry you then? Not a man on earth.
Your doom is clear: you’ll with away to nothing,
single, without a child” (248/1638-1644).
Oedipus is confident that his sons will manage in the face of his and his family’s disgrace. His daughters will not fare so well. Apparently, no one would want to marry them. The sons, being men, can fend for themselves. It seems women are dependent on marriage and the good graces of their husbands to get along. Again, we have a window through time, and what we see is a society in which women were at a definitive disadvantage.
Death the Liberator (Closing Speech):
“Chorus: People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus.
He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance,
he rose to power, a man beyond all power.
Who could behold his greatness without envy?
Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him.
Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,
count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last” (251/1678-1684).
If death is the end of pain, as the closing line of the play suggests, what then of Hades and the afterlife? Oedipus has blinded himself in part so he will not have to suffer the pain of seeing his father and mother in the afterworld. Clearly, death will not free him from pain. Yet, the Chorus seems to ignore this, a peculiar contradiction indeed!
Is this perhaps because there was a dualistic perspective of death at the time, one rooted in tradition and myth, the other more grounded in a more prosaic sensibility? As Hamlet was unsure of what would transpire in that “undiscovered country,” so to might Sophocles and his audience have experienced their doubts as well and allowed themselves to view death merely as an end to life and all the pain it comes with. Yet Oedipus did not commit suicide in part because he did not want to enter the next world with the gift of sight. What then are we to believe about the closing lines of play?
Notes for Oedipus the King
Professor: Andrew Gottlieb
Text: Sophocles The Three Theban Plays: Translated by Robert Fagles.
Introductions and notes by Bernhard Knox. Penguin Books.
OEDIPUS THE KING
1st Prophecy 201/785
2nd Prophecy 205/873
Tiresias’ Prophecy 185/515, 183/475
221/1143 (Jocasta’s revelation)
232/1307 (the big revelation)
Contradictions: Free Will v. Destiny
News of Polybus’ Death
237/1400-1415 Blinding of Oedipus
Jocasta’s Freudian Remark
The Witness 204/830(top)
Son of Chance 224/1187
The Leap Down (Tragedy) 239/1445
202/805 THREE ROADS
Freud’s Oedipus Complex 132
Also in play see 215/1074
Intellectual revolution “enlightenment” 142
Tragedy and the need for free will 149
III - Writing Assignment for Oedipus the King: Write about Oedipus the King by Sophocles. Focus on one or several of the key concepts on pages 5-6 of this handout.
The paper must be 4 pages and satisfy all of the specifications and the format on pages
9-11 of this handout to receive credit.
Outline for Oedipus the King:
Discuss why Oedipus the King has stood the test of time. Write about destiny versus free will and how this relates Oedipus the King as well as the rest of us