Sophocles “Oedipus Rex”
Oedipus Rex is an extraordinarily cruel play.
Oedipus has seemingly done nothing wrong and lacks the fatal flaw that would justify the way that coincidences and events align against him. The punishment is completely disproportional to his crime, which seems to have been his birth. And whatever he does to extricate himself from his fate seems only to implicate Oedipus further. The story is constructed something like a noir thriller in which a minor transgression brings devastating consequences, or a slasher film in which “if they’d only stayed out of the woods, they’d still be alive”. But it’s hard to see what Oedipus might have done wrong; Apollo just has it out for him. And Sophocles’s attitude about this is disturbingly blasé; often described as the most pious of the Athenian tragedians, Sophocles seems a bit like an authoritarian lickspittle, rooting on Apollo as he persecutes an innocent man. His tone is pitiless, as if we’re listening to a fundamentalist cheerily comment on an earthquake: well, God is both great and mysterious!
A few things to remember though: there is another play in this series, ‘Oedipus at Colonus’, which discusses Oedipus’s seeming innocence, and Zeus basically absolves him. Maybe Sophocles had second thoughts. Secondly, Oedipus does suffer from hubris in his immoderate attacks on Creon and the prophet Teiresias; however, that comes after the fact of his doomed coincidences, so faulting him would be a bit like criticized a wrongly condemned man for swearing on the way to the electric chair.
There also seems to be the implication that kings are uniquely imperiled by their position; that the social order always threatens the sacred order and they tend to slip into impiety especially easily. And Oedipus’s father was impious. The backstory: La?us, king of Thebes, asks the oracle of Apollo at Delphi if he will have a son. The answer: yes, but the son will come to slay his father as a punishment for La?us having snatched the son of the pious Polyps. Fearing his son, he instructs a slave to kill the infant. But, just like the story of Cyrus in Herodotus, the slave instead hands the child to another shepherd, the herdsman of Polybus, king of Corinth.
So, the future king of Thebes was raised to be the king of Corinth. Trouble arose when a drunken reveler at a feast announced that Oedipus was not the true son of Polybus. Disturbed by this, Oedipus consulted the oracle of Apollo at Delphi and was given an infamous prophecy: he would slay his father and mate with his mother. So Oedipus fled from Corinth to Thebes where, by a turn of events, he became the King with Iocasta as his Queen.
As the play begins, Oedipus and Iocasta have been married sixteen years and have four children: Eteocles, Polyneices, Antigone, and Ismene. Thebes is afflicted by the plague, and their beloved king vows to help them. Iocasta’s brother Creon brings news of the latest prophecy: the state is suffering from a blood stain after the murder of Laius, the former king. Like OJ Simpson, Oedipus vows to find the killer and bring him to justice.
To this end, Teiresias, the god-inspired seer, is brought forth. Blind, he nevertheless has sacred vision, a trope that is often extended to Homer. He doesn’t want to speak, but when pressed blurts out that Oedipus is the “accursed polluter of this land”. He has killed the king and married his widow.
Oedipus, understandably, is in denial. He blames Creon, who he accuses of plotting to usurp him. But Creon doesn’t want to be King, and indeed, won’t handle the role well. Oedipus condemns him on mere suspicion and further condemns Teiresias of conspiracy. The play proceeds like a murder mystery, in which the detective eventually uncovers his own crime. While fleeing Corinth, Oedipus fought with a traveler at the meeting of three roads in the land of Phocis, and killed La?us in a case of road rage. Later, he became a hero in Thebes and married the king’s widow, unaware that he had killed the king.
Thus, he unwittingly killed his father and mated with his mother, just as prophesized. Sophocles tells us that one must follow the laws ordained on high, “The God in them is strong and grows not old.” In this case, the son is punished for the sins of the father by bloodline curse. Lineage is destiny.
To a disturbing degree though. Here, blood not only damns Oedipus; it seems to deny him agency. His actions are free, but not free since the information he would need to make free choices is withheld from him. He is cursed from birth to enact a punishment ordered by Apollo and to receive punishment for the contract killing. Nothing he does allows him to escape nature; he finally blinds himself to escape the sight of what he has done. Even crueler, Iocasta is driven to kill herself over a curse that clings to her by marriage. In the end, family ties are so strong that none of us can escape them.
1. I’m a little busy this week preparing for a conference on Saturday, so I might be slow in responding to comments.