Fate, Family, and Oedipus Rex: Crash Course Literature 202

Leo Tolstoy once famously wrote that “All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And I absolutely wish that there’s no relatives as miserable as Oedipus’s. Ancient Greek playwrights truly concentrated on the dysfunctional household. I mean, they had performances about spouses murdering husbands, parents killing children, daughters or sons murdering moms and dads, siblings murdering each other, and they also produced tragedies. But it’s difficult to imagine a much more tragic, dysfunctional family than the Theban clan that Sophocles writes about in Oedipus the King. I mean, except for the Kardashians.

Okay, so Oedipus is King of Thebes, having solved the riddle of the Sphinx and saved the city from destruction. But now a plague is ravaging Thebes, and numerous oracles and bird entrails suggest it’s due to the fact that the killer of the old king, Laius, still lives there unpunished. Oedipus decides to examine the murder, just to find that– mind blown– HE is the one who murdered Laius and wed his queen, Jocasta. THEN he learns that Laius was actually his father, and Jocasta is his mother, so he’s had four kids with his mother, fulfilling an earlier prediction, since bird entrails are never ever wrong. It’s the old “Mistakenly Murder Your Father, Accidentally Marry Your Mother” story. It goes way back. Freud can inform you a lot regarding it in Crash Course Psychology. Anyway, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes with her jewelry, then goes into exile. In succeeding plays, his 2 sons murder one another and one of his daughters commits suicide. So … You know, it could have gone better. 

So for a little context, the theater was a very big deal to the Greeks. I mean, if you were a male resident– not a woman, not a servant– attending it was your civic duty. It was kind of like voting, apart from that it started with ritual animal sacrifice, so it was truly nothing like voting. However this public duty aspect is fascinating because a lot of the plays ask truly unpleasant questions about power and control and the wisdom of rulers. Like, playwrights concealed their commentary by establishing plays in earlier, mythic periods or in international lands, much like Shakespeare did. However they were rather intriguing then, and what’s crucial is that the best of them are still interesting today. Three playwrights would each present 4 plays: a cycle of 3 related tragedies, and then a satyr play, which would be comical and would often entail massive phalluses and/or poop jokes. People would see play after play while judges would establish a victor. So it was kind of like Sundance or Cannes, but again, with the ritual animal sacrifice, and there were no multi-million dollar theatrical distribution deals. You know, yet there was glory. 

Sadly, we only have a small portion of these plays today– many were lost over the centuries, including some that were damaged at the burning of the Library of Alexandria. In Sophocles’ day, the cast was made of three male performers, a number of whom tackled numerous functions, and also a chorus. Playwrights were generally the director, the composer, the set designer, and frequently also the lead performer, although evidently, Sophocles did not appear in his plays due to the fact that he was, I presume, a terrible actor. Yet the choirs were drawn from the Athenian population, and generally served as like, stand-ins for the audience, insisting conventional wisdom and asking the things that a normal audience member might. The performers wore masks that were made from linen and hairs, as well as enormous robes and platform sandals so you could still see them, even if you were in the budget-friendly seats. So Sophocles lived through nearly all of the fifth century B.C.E, and he wrote 123 plays. We have 7. Who understands what sort of crazy stuff people got up to in the other ones. 

The first person to supply literary criticism of Greek theatricals was my old adversary, Aristotle, whom you’ll remember was wrong about everything. This was a guy that thought that people were naturally born into slavery. Except, he was really sort of right concerning a lot of theatre things. It pains me to say this because I do genuinely abhor him, but Aristotle had a great deal of intriguing ideas regarding the story. For example, he observed that in a lot of stories, the main character has recognition and a reversal. He’s additionally responsible for a great deal of classical ideas about tragedy and comedy, and Oedipus fits his interpretation of tragedy extremely well– probably since it was his preferred play. 

Aristotle defines tragedy as, quote, “An imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude.” Tragedy is likewise meant to evoke both pity and concern. I mean, when Oedipus returns at the play’s end sporting a brand-new mask that reveals his gouged-out eyes, you feel bad for him; you also really feel worried. But here’s the tricky part. Aristotle wrote that tragedy needs to affect a primarily good character who makes a huge mistake. I mean, it can not be about a bad character, since then you don’t feel any type of pity. And it can’t be about a perfect character who does everything right and still suffers an awful end, since one, that would not be really satisfying; and 2, it would imply that the universe doesn’t reward goodness and punish evil, which is sort of a scary thought. So instead, it has to have to do with a hero afflicted with a hamartia, or a ha-marsha, depending on how pretentious you are. This word is sometimes mistranslated as a tragic flaw. However really, it’s a term from archery that means you go for the bull’s eye, yet you miss. 

Now, I would certainly say that in the twenty-five hundred years since Oedipus, there have actually been some great tragedies that stir up worry and pity without the disagreement that the universe has an interest in the lives of individuals, however, you know, this is the classical interpretation. 

So, is Oedipus a good character, and does he make a great mistake? Well, let’s the Bubble. So, at the start of the play, Oedipus absolutely looks like an A++ king, I mean, the priest calls him “the first of men in all the chances of this life.” When the priest comes to tell him about the suffering in the city, Oedipus states he finds out about it already: “I have known the story before you told it.” Oedipus is already stressed over what’s occurring to his people– in fact, he’s sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to see an oracle and discover the origin of the plague. And let’s not fail to remember that Oedipus has actually already spared the city once by answering the puzzle of the Sphinx; the Sphinx had the body of a woman, the wings of an eagle, and a really bad temper. She had the habit of murdering every person who solved her riddle incorrectly. 

So, I mean, you know, it takes a measure of courage to try to answer the puzzle. He’s a good guy; he’s a wonderful king, right? Meh. I mean, when Creon provides answers that Oedipus does not like, Oedipus accuses him of plotting against him. He also has some harsh words for the blind seer, Tiresias, when Tiresias appropriately names Oedipus as the source of the plague. When the shepherd is taken to Oedipus and resists disclosing the fact of Oedipus’ birth, since he knows it will certainly distress the king, Oedipus threatens the man with torture. After that, there’s the ambiguity of missing the mark. I mean, what was Oedipus’ mistake in this play? Was it killing Laius at the crossroads? I mean, that’s possibly a little aggressive, yet Sophocles makes it rather clear that Laius had some chariot-era road rage, and Oedipus was acting in self-defense. 

Was it loving Jocasta? Well, that’s rather sickening, however once more, not truly a choice. She was presented to him along with the kingdom when he defeated the Sphinx, and as we’ve said, he treats other characters quite shabbily, yet those are tiny mistakes, as opposed to huge ones. Perhaps his blunder is thinking he can elude or leave his personal fate, yet if you were told you were going to murder your dad and marry your mom, wouldn’t you try to run away from it? 

Now, possibly you’re believing, “Well if I listened to a prophecy that I was going to be a father-killer and a mother– I would, you know, avoid battles with older men and sex with older women.” And fair enough, yet bear in mind, Laius and Jocasta had attempted to kill Oedipus– they got a prophecy concerning this, too, so Oedipus was brought up by the king and queen of Corinth, who he presumed were his parents. How is it a mistake to remain really far from your parents and at the same time, save the city of Thebes? And if you can’t outrun your fate, just how is your destiny a result of your flaws? 

So the play depends on a whole lot on ironies. The man that seems the smartest is really the most ignorant; the man who saved Thebes is, in fact, the one destroying it; enlightenment results in actual blindness … Yet that, combined with the previously mentioned ambiguity, is a lot of what’s made the play so delightful to numerous generations of people. We, in the audience, are aware of all these ironies in such a way that no one on stage is– at least until the very end. Remember how Oedipus says, “I have known the story before you told it”? Well, almost every person in the audience also knows the story prior to it’s told. I mean, you most likely recognized the details of this tale before you actually read through the play, right? The gap in between what we know in the audience and what the characters recognize on stage makes us uneasy and afraid for them, and it ratchets up the tension. 

Oedipus is a who done it story where it ends up, the investigator is the murderer, and the investigator does not know it, but the audience does, so with each new scene, with each new clue, the net draws more and more tightly around Oedipus. Every time a messenger comes with supposedly excellent news: “Hey, the King of Corinth is dead,” “Hey, the King of Corinth wasn’t your father,” Oedipus is led closer to the reality of his very own shame. And at many points, Jocasta attempts to convince Oedipus not to find out even more, yet Oedipus can’t help himself. He needs to know the whole story. For me, at least, that’s what’s admirable concerning him, and also what’s pitiable. The play asks whether knowing is a good thing. I mean, Tiresias says: “Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that’s wise.” And Oedipus, at least, personally, probably would have been better living in ignorance, although, then, the plague would have kept on devastating Thebes. So I assume the play ultimately suggests that despite the fact that ignorance can be bliss, Oedipus’ search for truth is right and just and courageous and uncompromising, which’s what makes him excellent. It’s likewise what destroys his life, as the critic E.R. Dodds says, “What causes his ruin is his strength and courage, his loyalty to Thebes and his loyalty to the truth.” 

Therefore, ultimately, the good news is, I do find myself differing with Aristotle because I don’t believe that Oedipus was a fantastic guy ruined by a wonderful error. I believe the tale is more complex than that. So, could Oedipus ever before truly have escaped his destiny? Most likely not. I mean, there are occasional examples in the Greek myth of gods softening of fate or discovering a loophole, however, those are rare. So when you read Oedipus, you realize there are in fact two stories: one is about what’s already taken place, and one is about what’s transpiring currently. It’s the 2nd one that interests Sophocles, like, killing the father and marrying the mother– that stuff happens in the past, offstage. Sophocles focuses on the choices that Oedipus readily makes to discover the source of the plague, even when it means implicating himself to gouge out his eyes to ensure that he will not have to look at his parents in the underworld. So Oedipus can not get away from his fate, yet he does have a measure of free choice, he does make some decisions. 

What’s interesting to Sophocles isn’t so much the fulfillment of the prediction as HOW it is fulfilled, and how that impacts today. As the critic A.W. Gomme put it, “The gods know what the final score of the football game will be, but we still have to play it.” Inevitably, the triumph, Gomme says, “will depend on the skill, the determination, the fitness of the players, and a little on luck.” Rather than utilizing the play to stage some sort of destiny versus free choice debate, Sophocles has an interest in asking questions of both destiny AND free will. I mean, when we see Oedipus, we should ask ourselves, “How much control do we have over our lives? How much do we owe to genetics, to privilege, to upbringing, to accident, to the choices that we do or don’t make?” And those matter questions today. 

Now, naturally, not every person thought that was the most interesting part of the play. Like, Sigmund Freud determined that the main reason the play was so successful is because everyone experiences a so-called “Oedipus Complex.” Freud defined this in the Interpretation of Dreams as “the fate to direct our first sexual impulse and our first hatred and our first murderous thought against our father.” Yet, for the record, Oedipus does not have an Oedipus Complex. His tragedy is about a guy who deliberately tries to prevent murdering his dad and impregnating his mother, not concerning a guy who covertly wishes to. But eventually, what makes Oedipus such an excellent play is that it stands up to many analyses, and can inform our lives in many ways. I mean, is he an excellent man? Does he make an excellent mistake? Does he suffer his fate because of personal flaws or as a result of the nature of the universe? Those are big, interesting questions, and it’s nice to know that individuals have been asking them for centuries.

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