Louis Bouwmeester as Oedipus in a Dutch production of Oedipus Rex, c. 1896.
|Mute||Daughters of Oedipus (Antigone and Ismene)|
|Date premiered||c. 429 BC|
|Place premiered||Theatre of Dionysus, Athens|
|Original language||Classical Greek|
Oedipus Rex, also known by its Greek title, Oedipus Tyrannus (Ancient Greek: Οἰδίπους Τύραννος IPA: [oidípuːs týranːos]), or Oedipus the King, is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles that was first performed around 429 BC. Originally, to the ancient Greeks, the title was simply Oedipus (Οἰδίπους), as it is referred to by Aristotle in the Poetics. It is thought to have been renamed Oedipus Tyrannus to distinguish it from Oedipus at Colonus. In antiquity, the term “tyrant” referred to a ruler, but it did not necessarily have a negative connotation.
Of his three Theban plays that have survived, and that deal with the story of Oedipus, Oedipus Rex was the second to be written. However, in terms of the chronology of events that the plays describe, it comes first, followed by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone.
Prior to the start of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus has become the king of Thebes while unwittingly fulfilling a prophecy that he would kill his father, Laius (the previous king), and marry his mother, Jocasta (whom Oedipus took as his queen after solving the riddle of the Sphinx). The action of Sophocles' play concerns Oedipus' search for the murderer of Laius in order to end a plague ravaging Thebes, unaware that the killer he is looking for is none other than himself. At the end of the play, after the truth finally comes to light, Jocasta hangs herself while Oedipus, horrified at his patricide and incest, proceeds to gouge out his own eyes in despair.
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Many parts or elements of the myth of Oedipus take place before the opening scene of the play. They may be described or referred to in the text. In his youth, Laius was a guest of King Pelops of Elis, and became the tutor of Chrysippus, youngest of the king's sons, in chariot racing. He then violated the sacred laws of hospitality by abducting and raping Chrysippus, who according to some versions, killed himself in shame. This murder cast a doom over Laius, his son Oedipus, and all of his other descendants. However, most scholars are in agreement that the seduction or rape of Chrysippus was a late addition to the Theban myth.
A son is born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. After Laius learns from an oracle that "he is doomed/To perish by the hand of his own son", he tightly binds the feet of the infant together with a pin and orders Jocasta to kill the infant. Hesitant to do so, she orders a servant to commit the act for her. Instead, the servant takes the baby to a mountain top to die from exposure. A shepherd rescues the infant and names him Oedipus (or "swollen feet"). (The servant directly hands the infant to the shepherd in most versions.) The shepherd carries the baby with him to Corinth, where Oedipus is taken in and raised in the court of the childless King Polybus of Corinth as if he were his own.
As a young man in Corinth, Oedipus hears a rumour that he is not the biological son of Polybus and his wife Merope. He asks the Delphic Oracle who his parents really are. The Oracle seems to ignore this question, telling him instead that he is destined to "Mate with [his] own mother, and shed/With [his] own hands the blood of [his] own sire". Beliveing that Polybus and Merope are indeed his true parents, Oedipus, desperate to avoid his foretold fate, leaves Corinth for the city of Thebes rather than returning home in the hope that no harm will come to his parents.
On the road to Thebes, he meets Laius, his true father, with several other men. Unaware of each other's identities, Laius and Oedipus quarrel over whose chariot has right-of-way. King Laius moves to strike the insolent youth with his sceptre, but Oedipus throws him down from the chariot and kills him, thus fulfilling part of the oracle's prophecy.
Shortly after, Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, which has baffled many diviners. It isn’t known for certain what exactly the riddle was, it isn’t repeated in the play, but a later tradition gives it as: "What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?" To this Oedipus replies, "Man" (who crawls on all fours as an infant, walks upright later, and needs a walking stick in old age), and the distraught Sphinx throws herself off the cliffside. Oedipus's reward for freeing the kingdom of Thebes from her curse is the kingship and the hand of Queen Dowager Jocasta, his biological mother. The prophecy is thus fulfilled, although none of the main characters know it.
Oedipus sent his brother-in-law Creon to ask advice of the oracle at Delphi concerning a plague ravaging Thebes. Creon returns to report that the plague is the result of religious pollution, since the murderer of their former King, Laius, had never been caught. Oedipus vows to find the murderer and curses him for causing the plague.
Oedipus summons the blind prophet Tiresias for help. When Tiresias arrives he claims to know the answers to Oedipus's questions, but refuses to speak, instead telling him to abandon his search. Oedipus is enraged by Tiresias' refusal, and verbally accuses him of complicity in Laius' murder. Outraged, Tiresias tells the king that Oedipus himself is the murderer ("You yourself are the criminal you seek"). Oedipus cannot see how this could be, and concludes that the prophet must have been paid off by Creon in an attempt to undermine him. The two argue vehemently, as Oedipus mocks Tiresias' lack of sight, and Tiresias in turn tells Oedipus that he himself is blind. Eventually Tiresias leaves, muttering darkly that when the murderer is discovered he shall be a native citizen of Thebes, brother and father to his own children, and son and husband to his own mother.
Creon arrives to face Oedipus's accusations. The King demands that Creon be executed; however, the chorus persuades him to let Creon live. Jocasta enters and attempts to comfort Oedipus, telling him he should take no notice of prophets. As proof, she recounts an incident in which she and Laius received an oracle which never came true. The prophecy stated that Laius would be killed by his own son; however, Jocasta reassures Oedipus by her statement that Laius was killed by bandits at a crossroads on the way to Delphi.
The mention of this crossroads causes Oedipus to pause and ask for more details. He asks Jocasta what Laius looked like, and Oedipus suddenly becomes worried that Tiresias's accusations were true. Oedipus then sends for the one surviving witness of the attack to be brought to the palace from the fields where he now works as a shepherd.
Jocasta, confused, asks Oedipus what the matter is, and he tells her. Many years ago, at a banquet in Corinth, a man drunkenly accused Oedipus of not being his father's son. Oedipus went to Delphi and asked the oracle about his parentage. Instead of answers he was given a prophecy that he would one day murder his father and sleep with his mother. Upon hearing this he resolved to leave Corinth and never return. While traveling he came to the very crossroads where Laius was killed, and encountered a carriage which attempted to drive him off the road. An argument ensued and Oedipus killed the travelers, including a man who matches Jocasta's description of Laius. Oedipus has hope, however, because the story is that Laius was murdered by several robbers. If the shepherd confirms that Laius was attacked by many men, then Oedipus is in the clear.
A man arrives from Corinth with the message that Oedipus's father has died. Oedipus, to the surprise of the messenger, is made ecstatic by this news, for it proves one half of the prophecy false, for now he can never kill his father. However, he still fears that he may somehow commit incest with his mother. The messenger, eager to ease Oedipus's mind, tells him not to worry, because Merope was not in fact his real mother.
It emerges that this messenger was formerly a shepherd on Mount Cithaeron, and that he was given a baby, which the childless Polybus then adopted. The baby, he says, was given to him by another shepherd from the Laius household, who had been told to get rid of the child. Oedipus asks the chorus if anyone knows who this man was, or where he might be now. They respond that he is the same shepherd who was witness to the murder of Laius, and whom Oedipus had already sent for. Jocasta, who has by now realized the truth, desperately begs Oedipus to stop asking questions, but he refuses and Jocasta runs into the palace.
When the shepherd arrives Oedipus questions him, but he begs to be allowed to leave without answering further. However, Oedipus presses him, finally threatening him with torture or execution. It emerges that the child he gave away was Laius's own son, and that Jocasta had given the baby to the shepherd to secretly be exposed upon the mountainside. This was done in fear of the prophecy that Jocasta said had never come true: that the child would kill his father.
Everything is at last revealed, and Oedipus curses himself and fate before leaving the stage. The chorus laments how even a great man can be felled by fate, and following this, a servant exits the palace to speak of what has happened inside. When Jocasta enters the house, she runs to the palace bedroom and hangs herself there. Shortly afterward, Oedipus enters in a fury, calling on his servants to bring him a sword so that he might cut out his mother's womb. He then rages through the house, until he comes upon Jocasta's body. Giving a cry, Oedipus takes her down and removes the long gold pins that held her dress together, before plunging them into his own eyes in despair.
A blind Oedipus now exits the palace and begs to be exiled as soon as possible. Creon enters, saying that Oedipus shall be taken into the house until oracles can be consulted regarding what is best to be done. Oedipus's two daughters (and half-sisters), Antigone and Ismene, are sent out, and Oedipus laments their having been born to such a cursed family. He asks Creon to watch over them and Creon agrees, before sending Oedipus back into the palace.
The two cities of Troy and Thebes were the major focus of Greek epic poetry. The events surrounding the Trojan War were chronicled in the Epic Cycle, of which much remains, and those about Thebes in the Theban Cycle, which have been lost. The Theban Cycle recounted the sequence of tragedies that befell the house of Laius, of which the story of Oedipus is a part.
Homer's Odyssey (XI.271ff.) contains the earliest account of the Oedipus myth when Odysseus encounters Jocasta (named Epicaste) in the underworld. Homer briefly summarises the story of Oedipus, including the incest, patricide, and Jocasta's subsequent suicide. However, in the Homeric version, Oedipus remains King of Thebes after the revelation and neither blinds himself, nor is sent into exile. In particular, it is said that the gods made the matter of his paternity known, whilst in Oedipus the King, Oedipus very much discovers the truth himself.
In 467 BC, Sophocles's fellow tragedian Aeschylus won first prize at the City Dionysia with a trilogy about the House of Laius, comprising Laius, Oedipus and Seven against Thebes (the only play which survives). Since he did not write connected trilogies as Aeschylus did, Oedipus Rex focuses on the titular character while hinting at the larger myth obliquely, which was already known to the audience in Athens at the time.
The trilogy containing Oedipus Rex took second prize in the City Dionysia at its original performance. Aeschylus's nephew Philocles took first prize at that competition. However, in his Poetics, Aristotle considered Oedipus Rex to be the tragedy which best matched his prescription for how drama should be made.
Many modern critics agree with Aristotle on the quality of Oedipus Rex, even if they don't always agree on the reasons. For example, Richard Claverhouse Jebb claimed that "The Oedipus Tyrannus is in one sense the masterpiece of Attic tragedy. No other shows an equal degree of art in the development of the plot; and this excellence depends on the powerful and subtle drawing of the characters." Cedric Whitman noted that "the Oedipus Rex passes almost universally for the greatest extant Greek play..." Whitman himself regarded the play as "the fullest expression of this conception of tragedy," that is the conception of tragedy as a "revelation of the evil lot of man," where a man may have "all the equipment for glory and honor" but still have "the greatest effort to do good" end in "the evil of an unbearable self for which one is not responsible. Edith Hall referred to Oedipus the King as "this definitive tragedy" and notes that "the magisterial subtlety of Sophocles' characterization thus lend credibility to the breathtaking coincidences," and notes the irony that "Oedipus can only fulfill his exceptional god-ordained destiny because Oedipus is a preeminently capable and intelligent human being." H. D. F. Kitto said about Oedipus Rex that "it is true to say that the perfection of its form implies a world order," although Kitto notes that whether or not that world order "is beneficent, Sophocles does not say."
The science revolution attributed to Thales began gaining political force, and this play offered a warning to the new thinkers. Kitto interprets the play as Sophocles' retort to the sophists, by dramatizing a situation in which humans face undeserved suffering through no fault of their own, but despite the apparent randomness of the events, the fact that they have been prophesied by the gods implies that the events are not random, despite the reasons being beyond human comprehension. Through the play, according to Kitto, Sophocles declares "that it is wrong, in the face of the incomprehensible and unmoral, to deny the moral laws and accept chaos. What is right is to recognize facts and not delude ourselves. The universe is a unity; if, sometimes, we can see neither rhyme nor reason in it we should not suppose it is random. There is so much that we cannot know and cannot control that we should not think and behave as if we do know and can control.
Fate is a theme that often occurs in Greek writing, tragedies in particular. The idea that attempting to avoid an oracle is the very thing which brings it about is a common motif in many Greek myths, and similarities to Oedipus can for example be seen in the myth of the birth of Perseus.
Two oracles in particular dominate the plot of Oedipus Rex. In lines 711 to 714, Jocasta relates the prophecy that was told to Laius before the birth of Oedipus. Namely:
(The oracle) told him
that it was his fate that he should die a victim
at the hands of his own son, a son to be born
of Laius and me.
that I was fated to lie with my mother,
and show to daylight an accursed breed
which men would not endure, and I was doomed
to be murderer of the father that begot me.
The implication of Laius's oracle is ambiguous. One interpretation considers that the presentation of Laius's oracle in this play differs from that found in Aeschylus's Oedipus trilogy produced in 467 BC. Helaine Smith argues:
Sophocles had the option of making the oracle to Laius conditional (if Laius has a son, that son will kill him) or unconditional (Laius will have a son who will kill him). Both Aeschylus and Euripides write plays in which the oracle is conditional; Sophocles ... chooses to make Laius's oracle unconditional and thus removes culpability for his sins from Oedipus, for he could not have done other than what he did, no matter what action he took.
This interpretation is supported by Jocasta's repetition of the oracle at lines 854–55: "Loxias declared that the king should be killed by/ his own son." In the Greek, Jocasta uses the verb chrênai: "to be fated, necessary." This iteration of the oracle seems to suggest that it was unconditional and inevitable. Other scholars have nonetheless argued that Sophocles follows tradition in making Laius's oracle conditional, and thus avoidable. They point to Jocasta's initial disclosure of the oracle at lines 711–14. In the Greek, the oracle cautions: hôs auton hexoi moira pros paidos thanein/ hostis genoit emou te kakeinou para. The two verbs in boldface indicate what is called a "future more vivid" condition: if a child is born to Laius, his fate to be killed by that child will overtake him.
Whatever the meaning of Laius's oracle, the one delivered to Oedipus is clearly unconditional. Given our modern conception of fate and fatalism, readers of the play have a tendency to view Oedipus as a mere puppet controlled by greater forces, a man crushed by the gods and fate for no good reason. This, however, is not an entirely accurate reading. While it is a mythological truism that oracles exist to be fulfilled, oracles do not cause the events that lead up to the outcome. In his landmark essay "On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex", E.R. Dodds draws a comparison with Jesus's prophecy at the Last Supper that Peter would deny him three times. Jesus knows that Peter will do this, but readers would in no way suggest that Peter was a puppet of fate being forced to deny Christ. Free will and predestination are by no means mutually exclusive, and such is the case with Oedipus.
The oracle delivered to Oedipus what is often called a "self-fulfilling prophecy", in that the prophecy itself sets in motion events that conclude with its own fulfilment. This, however, is not to say that Oedipus is a victim of fate and has no free will. The oracle inspires a series of specific choices, freely made by Oedipus, which lead him to kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus chooses not to return to Corinth after hearing the oracle, just as he chooses to head toward Thebes, to kill Laius, to marry and to take Jocasta specifically as his bride; in response to the plague at Thebes, he chooses to send Creon to the Oracle for advice and then to follow that advice, initiating the investigation into Laius's murder. None of these choices are predetermined.
Another characteristic of oracles in myth is that they are almost always misunderstood by those who hear them; hence Oedipus's misunderstanding the significance of the Delphic Oracle. He visits Delphi to find out who his real parents are and assumes that the Oracle refuses to answer that question, offering instead an unrelated prophecy which forecasts patricide and incest. Oedipus's assumption is incorrect, the Oracle does, in a way, answer his question:
"On closer analysis the oracle contains essential information which Oedipus seems to neglect." The wording of the Oracle: I was doomed to be murderer of the father that begot me refers to Oedipus' real, biological father. Likewise the mother with polluted children is defined as the biological one. The wording of the drunken guest on the other hand: you are not your father's son defines Polybus as only a foster father to Oedipus. The two wordings support each other and point to the "two set of parents" alternative. Thus the question of two set of parents, biological and foster, is raised. Oedipus's reaction to the Oracle is irrational: he states he did not get any answer and he flees in a direction away from Corinth, showing that he firmly believed at the time that Polybus and Merope are his real parents.
"The scene with the drunken guest constitutes the end of Oedipus' childhood. … he can no longer ignore a feeling of uncertainty about his parentage. However, after consulting the Oracle this uncertainty disappears, strangely enough, and is replaced by a totally unjustified certainty that he is the son of Merope and Polybus. We have said that this irrational behaviour - his hamartia in Aristotle's sense - is due to the repression of a whole series of thoughts in his consciousness, in fact everything that referred to his earlier doubts about his parentage.
The exploration of this theme in Oedipus Rex is paralleled by the examination of the conflict between the individual and the state in Antigone. The dilemma that Oedipus faces here is similar to that of the tyrannical Creon: each man has, as king, made a decision that his subjects question or disobey; each king also misconstrues both his own role as a sovereign and the role of the rebel. When informed by the blind prophet Tiresias that religious forces are against him, each king claims that the priest has been corrupted. It is here, however, that their similarities come to an end: while Creon, seeing the havoc he has wreaked, tries to amend his mistakes, Oedipus refuses to listen to anyone.
Literal and metaphorical references to eyesight appear throughout Oedipus Rex. Clear vision serves as a metaphor for insight and knowledge, but the clear-eyed Oedipus is blind to the truth about his origins and inadvertent crimes. The prophet Tiresias, on the other hand, although literally blind, "sees" the truth and relays what is revealed to him. "Though Oedipus' future is predicted by the gods, even after being warned by Tiresias, he cannot see the truth or reality beforehand because his excessive pride has blinded his vision…" Only after Oedipus has physically blinded himself does he gain a limited prophetic ability, as seen in Oedipus at Colonus. It is deliberately ironic that the "seer" can "see" better than Oedipus, despite being blind. In one line (Oedipus the king, 469), Tiresias says:
"So, you mock my blindness? Let me tell you this. You [Oedipus] with your precious eyes, you're blind to the corruption of your life ..." (Robert Fagles 1984)
Sigmund Freud in Interpretation of Dreams wrote a notable passage regarding of the destiny of Oedipus as well as the Oedipus complex. He analyzes why this play, Oedipus Rex, written in Ancient Greece, is so effective even to a modern audience. Freud says,
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 towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so.”
In the same book, Freud indicates, however, that the “primordial urges and fears” that are his concern are not found primarily in the play by Sophocles, but exist in the myth the play is based on; he refers to the play as a “further modification of the legend”, one that originates in a “misconceived secondary revision of the material, which has sought to exploit it for theological purposes.”
The play has been filmed several times, twice in English.
The second English language film version, directed by Philip Saville and released in 1968, was filmed in Greece. This one showed the actors' faces and boasted an all-star cast, including Christopher Plummer as Oedipus, Lilli Palmer as Jocasta, Orson Welles as Tiresias, Richard Johnson as Creon, Roger Livesey as the Shepherd, and Donald Sutherland as the Leading Member of the Chorus. Sutherland's voice, however, was dubbed by another actor. The film went a step further than the play, however, by actually showing, in flashback, the murder of Laius (Friedrich Ledebur). It also showed Oedipus and Jocasta in bed together, making love. Made in 1968, this film was not seen in Europe and the U.S. until the 1970s and 1980s after legal release and distribution rights were granted to video and TV.
In 1967 Pier Paolo Pasolini directed Edipo Re, a modern interpretation of the play. Toshio Matsumoto's 1969 film, Funeral Parade of Roses, is a loose adaptation of the play and an important work of the Japanese New Wave. In Colombia, writer Gabriel García Márquez adapted the story in Edipo Alcalde, bringing it to the real Colombian situation.
Michael Pennington starred as Oedipus with Claire Bloom as Jocasta, Sir John Gielgud as Tiresias and John Shrapnel as Creon in Don Taylor's 1986 translation/adaptation of the play, which formed part of the BBC's The Theban Plays trilogy.
In 2017, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a production of Anthony Burgess' translation of the play with Christopher Eccleston as Oedipus and Fiona Shaw as Tiresias/Second Elder. John Shrapnel, who starred as Creon in the 1986 BBC television version, played The First Elder.
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