Oedipus Tyrannus

Share this essay on:

One frequently sees this play with the title Oedipus the King or Oedipus Rex.  The first simply translates “tyrannus” from Greek into English, and that is fine.  The second translates it into Latin.  This absurdity originates from the fact that Latin dominated scholarship in the West for about fifteen hundred years.  The Roman Empire had been divided into two halves by Diocletian in 286, and this division became permanent after the death of Theodosius in 395.  The Eastern Empire, which was centered on Constantinople (Byzantium), was Greek-speaking since Greek was the lingua franca of the Near East.  The Western Empire disintegrated in the fourth and fifth centuries, falling in 476, but the Eastern Empire held out until 1453.  It was the bastion of the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity so it was viewed with suspicion and worse by Catholic Europe.  (It was even pillaged by the Fourth Crusade at the instigation of Venetian traders!)  Consequently, the great Greek classics weren’t readily available to the West until the collapse of the Eastern Empire.  This means that all learned talk about Greek literature in the West had been done in Latin, and this persisted even after the Renaissance.  There we have it, but since the translations are not written in Latin, there is no sensible reason to call this play Oedipus Rex.

There are actually two Oedipus plays, and together with Antigone they are sometimes called the “Theban Plays” and printed together.  This is misleading.  The Greek plays were performed in trilogies, groups of three, but only one of these survives:  the Oresteia by Aeschylus.  The Theban Plays belonged to different trilogies and were written at widely separated times in Sophocles’ career, and under the influence of different social needs and interests.  (Remember that the drama is a communal art form.  It exists only with the cooperation of many people.

This was particularly true of the Greek drama which was written to be performed at a holy festival, the Dionysia.)  Antigone is believed to have been performed in 444 BCE.  Oedipus Tyrannus was performed sometime between 430 and 425 BCE.  And Oedipus at Colonus was produced after Sophocles’ death in 401 BCE.  Thus, Antigone, which would be the last play of the series—if the idea of a series were reasonable—was written first.  Sophocles was in his early 50’s and this was probably his 42nd play out of 123.  Athens was rich and powerful and the Peloponnesian War had not yet broken out.  Oedippus Tyrannus was written early in that debilitating war which began in 431 BCE and ended with Athens’ defeat in 404 BCE.  Oedipus at Colonus was written after the war, when Sophocles was a very old man.

The three plays are, of course, inconsistent in many ways for Sophocles merely reached into mythology three times for something that interested him at the moment.  I don’t mention this as mere historical background—it is important in interpreting Oedipus Tyrannus.  There are at least four possible interpretations.  The first is the naïve interpretation that every reader comes to during the first reading as we are caught up in Oedipus’ inquiry and carried forward irresistibly to the conclusion.  This naïve view sees the play as an ironic quest in which a man who has tried to avoid his fate is made to pursue an investigation related to it, only to find out that it has already been fulfilled.  The second is the view held by Bernard Knox.  In this view, the play is a plea to the Athenian public to return to their ancient religious beliefs and to put their faith in the oracles.  The third is Philip Vellacott’s.  Here, we are invited to believe that both Oedipus and Jocasta know that he is the son of Laius and Jocasta, and is also the killer of Laius.  Oedipus’ problem is to allow himself to be found to be Laius’ killer without it’s becoming known that he was Laius’ son.  The fourth is a modification of this view.  Neither Oedipus nor Jocasta have been able to confront the possibility that Oedipus is the killer of Laius so it has become a taboo subject for them, and that has shaped their behavior for years.

The naïve view (which is not wrong as far as it goes) is simply that—naïve—and I won’t spend any time on it, but Knox’s view needs to be confronted.  His principal evidence is the choral ode [lines 864-910] which is clearly a prayer for purity and a lament that the old beliefs are dying.  For Knox, this means a return to faith in the Oracles.  However, during the Persian Wars (499-449 BCE) the Delphic Oracle had “Medized,” had gone over to the side of the Persians, lured by lucrative offerings.  The prophecy that the Persians would win turned out to be false, and the long-held suspicion that the Oracle could be bribed was confirmed.  Now, early on in the Peloponnesian War, the Oracle was saying that the Spartans would win.  Is it possible that Sophocles, a patriotic Athenian and a general, would write a play early in this popular war and tell the Athenian public—to applause—that they must return to a belief in the oracles?  I don’t think so.

Vellacott’s view is based on a series of improbabilities that naïve readers caught up in the movement of the action never notice.  Oedipus and Jocasta have lived together for something like seventeen years, and he has never asked her about her previous husband, the former king, Laius, who was killed shortly before Oedipus appeared in Thebes.  Both have had their lives transformed by prophecies:  he was told that he would kill his father and marry his mother; she was told that her son would kill his father.  Neither has ever mentioned this, even though prophecies must have often come up as a topic of conversation.  He has scars on his ankles which have given him his name (Oedi-pus, swollen-foot).  They were made when Laius and Jocasta had his ankles pinned together before he was given to a shepherd to be abandoned on a hillside.  She has never asked what caused them.  There is much more, but I will leave it at that.

Vellacott explains these oddities by treating them as part of a conspiracy of silence:  if you don’t show that you know what has happened, you can’t be taxed with it.  Seen in this light, when the Oracle announces that the killer of Laius must be expelled from the community in order bring an end to the plague that is ravaging the city, Oedipus must allow himself to be caught and exposed, but only as the killer of Laius, not as someone guilty of parricide and incest.  The problem is that he is given the opportunity to do this early in the play when Creon returns from Delphi with the Oracle’s warning that the killer of Laius must be found:  “Wasn’t Laius the former king?  Where and when was he killed?  Oh my heavens, I killed a man at about that time and in that place!”  In short, there would be no play at all.

Just the same, Vellacott’s arguments can’t be shrugged off, and that leaves us with only one alternative.  Oedipus and Jocasta must have suspicions that they have never dared to face.  This explains many things.  Oedipus has apparently been a wise and respected king for seventeen years, but during the course of the play he turns upon his brother-in-law, Creon, a friend and trusted aide, accusing him of trying to usurp power.  He treats Jocasta brutally when she is in obvious distress.  He dismisses a revered seer, Tiresias, with threats and scorn.  He encourages his minions to torture an elderly man.  What can explain this apparently irrational behavior except some very deep psychological stress?

When the young Oedipus hears rumors that he is not the natural son of his adoptive parents, the King and Queen of Corinth, he goes to Delphi to ask the Oracle who his parents are.  He doesn’t receive an answer to that question, and readers who want to understand the play must cling to this; instead, he is told that he will kill his father and marry his mother, both unspeakable crimes in Greek society.  At this moment he should have two rules for life:  never kill a man old enough to be your father, and never marry a woman old enough to be your mother.  He doesn’t know who his parents are, but he doesn’t dare return to Corinth, just in case Polybus and Merope really are his father and mother, though they haven’t been identified as his parents by the oracle!

Immediately on leaving Delphi he breaks the first rule.  A pugnacious man coming from Thebes tries to force him off the road and strikes a blow at his head.  Oedipus kills him and all but one of his lackeys.  The man is old enough to be his father and looks just as he will look in twenty or thirty years.  What thoughts are certain to rush through his mind?  “Could it be . . . No!  No, it can’t be . . . .  No, it mustn’t be!”

Shortly thereafter he enters Thebes as a hero who has brought about the destruction of the Sphinx a monster that has been killing all those that cannot answer its riddle.  The recently widowed queen invites the young man to marry her.  She is, no doubt, attracted to him because he looks like her husband looked when he was young . . . but there was that old prophecy, and her husband has just been killed . . . and this young stranger has those scars on his ankles. No! it couldn’t possibly be . . . the survivor of Laius’ party said that a band of robbers had attacked them . . . that must be so . . . but it is very strange.

He is invited to marry a still-beautiful, older woman, one old enough to be his mother.  She has just lost her husband, and he has just killed a man on the road leading from Thebes to Delphi, a man with the kind of retinue that a king might merit, a man old enough to be his father—but he is used to being a king’s son, himself, and now he has nowhere to go, no source of support.  This is very tempting, and . . . No, it can’t be . . . it just can’t be.  Both of them have suspicions which they strive to deny, so every time prophecies come up, they change the subject.  Neither ever asks the other about the past, and as the years go by this becomes a settled habit.  Finally, they have almost forgotten their fears, and then the community is struck by a plague.

Oedipus is willing to do what a good king must.  He sends Creon to Delphi to find out what can be done.  Told that Laius’ killer must be expelled from the state, he vows to hunt down the killer, as he must, but every time the inquiry begins to point to him he panics and begins to grasp at straws:  It is Creon . . . it must be Creon behind this . . . something must turn up to show that he is innocent.  Finally, he knows that there is nothing else to do but to ask the last few questions, and his fate is sealed.

I can only imagine one possible objection to this reading of the play—that it is too sophisticated, too much a part of our modern understanding of psychology.  I don’t find this at all persuasive.  People know all sorts of things about the behavior of others.  We don’t need the academic discipline of psychology to tell us what we know in our hearts.  As a playwright, Sophocles was a professional observer of people.  He doesn’t diagnose his creations and specify their ills, but he knows how people behave.  There is no doubt in my mind that this is the best interpretation of the play, and it is much more interesting than the naïve view.  To make it effective on the stage we need only to emphasize the fragility of Oedipus as he asks the questions, and the desperate self-protectiveness with which he grasps at straws.  Jocasta is much more pragmatic, until she clearly sees the handwriting on the wall.

Note

I developed these ideas after reading Vellacott’s book some time in the late 1970’s and I taught it in my classes together with a discussion of other interpretations.  Although I have shared it with some of my colleagues, including some who were drama teachers, I haven’t published it until now.

Phillip Vellacott, “Sophocles and Oedipus:  A Study of Oedipus Tyrannus with a New Translation,” University of Michigan Press, 1971.