Oedipus Rex—Critical Approaches

Various Interpretations
Various views have been advanced about the meaning of Oedipus Rex. According to one view, the play justifies the gods by showing that we get what we deserve. Oedipus is a bad man as is seen in his treatment of Creon, and so the gods punish him. Or, he is not altogether bad; he is even rather noble in some ways; but he has one of these defects which all tragic heroes have. According to a second view, Oedipus Rex is a tragedy of destiny.

The play shows that man has no free will but is a puppet in the hands of the gods who pull the strings. According to yet another view, Sophocles was a “pure artist,” and was therefore not interested in offering a thesis about the gods. He took the story of Oedipus as he found it and used it to write an exciting play, with the gods simply a part of the machinery of the plot

Oedipus’s Goodness
All the above interpretations of the play, says F.R. Dodds, are unsound. The first two of these interpretations are linked with Aristotle’s view that the tragic hero is a man highly esteemed and prosperous who falls into misfortune because of some serious hamartia or defect. Oedipus is proud and over-confident; he harbours unjustified suspicions against Teiresias and Creon; in one place he goes so far as to express some uncertainty about the truth of oracles. But the flaw in this argument is that, even before the action of the play, Oedipus has been declared to be a would-be incestuous parricide, which means that the punishment has been decided upon before the crime has been committed. Apart from that, Sophocles has depicted Oedipus as a good man. In the eyes of the Priest in the opening scene Oedipus is the greatest and noblest of men, the saviour of Thebes who with divine aid rescued the city
from the Sphinx. The Chorus has the same view of him: he has proved his wisdom; he is the darling of the people; and never will the people believe ill of him.
Offence Committed in Ignorance
By hamartia, Aristotle did not mean a moral defect as is generally supposed; he means an offence committed in ignorance of some material fact and therefore free from wickedness or vice. An example of such an offence is Thyestes eating the flesh of his own children in the belief that it was butcher’s meat, and subsequently begetting a child on his own daughter, not knowing who she was. The story of Thyestes has much in common with that of Oedipus. Both these men violated the most sacred of Nature’s laws and as incurred the most horrible of all pollutions. But they both did so without wickedness, because they knew not what they did. Had they acted knowingly, they would have been inhuman monsters. In that case we could not have felt for them that pity which tragedy ought to produce. As it is, we feel both pity and terror—pity for the fragile state of man, and terror because of a world whose laws we do not understand. The hamartia of Oedipus did not lie in losing his temper with Teiresias; it lay quite simply in killing his father and marrying his mother. It is a wrong notion to say that the dramatist has a moral duty to represent the world as a place where the good are always rewarded and the bad are always punished. This notion is completely foreign to Aristotle as well as to the practice of the Greek dramatists. Aristotle did not say that the tragic hero must have a serious moral defect of character.
“Moral Innocence” of Oedipus
A suggestion is sometimes made that Oedipus should have taken every possible precaution to avoid his fate. But the oracle’s prediction was unconditional; it did not say that if Oedipus did such and such a thing he would kill his father and marry his mother. The oracle simply said that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. What an oracle said, was bound to happen. Oedipus does what he can to evade his fate: he resolves never to see his (supposed) parents again. But it is quite certain from the first that his best efforts would be unavailing. What should be emphasized is Oedipus’s essential moral innocence.
Oedipus, No Puppet but a Free Agent
If Oedipus is the innocent victim of a doom which he cannot avoid, is he a mere puppet? Is the whole play a “tragedy of destiny” which denies human freedom? Such a view would be wrong, too. Sophocles did not intend that we should treat Oedipus as a puppet and not a free agent. Neither in Homer nor in Sophocles does divine foreknowledge of certain events imply that all human actions are predetermined. The Messenger in the present play emphatically distinguishes Oedipus’s self-blinding as voluntary and self-chosen from the involuntary parricide and incest. Certain of Oedipus’s actions were fate-bound; but everything that he does on the stage from first to last he does as a free agent.
Even the Major Sins not Fate-Bound
Even in calling the parricide and the incest fate-bound we perhaps go too far. The average citizen of Sophocles’s day would not perhaps have thought so. As has been said, the gods know the future but they do not order it. This view may not satisfy the analytical philosopher, but it seems to have satisfied the ordinary man at all periods. Let us recall Jesus’s words to St. Peter, “Before the cock-crow, thou shall deny me thrice.” We are not to think that Peter’s subsequent action was fate-bound in the sense that he could not have chosen otherwise. Peter fulfilled the prediction, but he did so by an act of free choice.
The Real Cause of Oedipus’s Ruin
According to one view, the gods force on Oedipus the knowledge of what he has done. This view is unconvincing. The gods do nothing of the kind. On the contrary, what fascinates us is the spectacle of a man freely choosing, from the highest motives, a series of actions which lead to his own ruin. Oedipus could have left the plague to take its course; but pity for the sufferings of his people compelled him to consult the oracle. When Apollo’s word came, he might still have left the murder of Laius uninvestigated; but piety and justice compelled him to act. He need not have forced the truth from the reluctant Theban Shepherd; but he could not rest content with a lie and therefore wanted to tear away the last veil from the illusion in which he had lived so long. Teiresias, Jocasta, the Shepherd, each in turn tries to stop Oedipus, but in vain: he must read the last riddle, the riddle of his own life. The immediate cause of Oedipus’s ruin is not “fate” or “the gods”: no oracle said that he must discover the truth. Still less does the cause of his ruin lie in his own weakness. What causes his ruin is his own strength and courage, his loyalty to Thebes, and his loyalty to the truth. In all this we are to see him as a free agent. And his self-mutilation and self-banishment are equally free acts of choice.
The original assumption is too unreasonable, and this fairy-tale quality affects and infects the plot. Aristotle’s apology is that the irrationality is outside of and precedes the main action. That may serve as an apology for Oedipus’s ignorance of well-known facts about the Thebes in which he had been King for years and about the former husband of the woman he had married. But the fundamental folk-lore or fairy-tale irrationality is irremediable. In fact the underlying thought is not to be taken seriously. It is merely an answer to a primitive riddle: what is the worst thing that could happen to a man? Why, to kill his father, and marry his mother!
Unanswered Questions
As to the probability of the story of the play, one could ask some awkward questions. For example: Why did the servant of Laius give the false report of “a band of brigands”? Why did he say nothing when he saw Oedipus in Thebes but ask to go to the country? Why was he treated so well, when he had run away and left his master and fellow-servants on the road? One may answer these questions thus: The servant suspected the truth all the time, beginning with the encounter on the road, for he knew that the son of Laius did not die, and recognized him in this young man who looked like Laius. The servant was loyal to his protege, and perhaps disliked Laius, of whom no good has ever been told, here or elsewhere; the story of brigands protected both him and Oedipus. These answers are plausible, but are we intended to work them out, or is there even time to consider them in the rapid progress of the action?
Some More Such Questions
There are other points of verisimilitude. For instance, why had Oedipus never gone even superficially into the question of Laius’s murder? Or again, how could Jocasta know nothing at all about the stranger she married? Sophocles himself raised a couple of questions which he did not answer. Why, if Teiresias was wise and inspired, positively omniscient, did he not answer the Sphinx? Why, after the death of Laius and the arrival of Oedipus, did Teiresias say nothing about the connection between the two events? Creon’s answer to this is wise and temperate: “I do not know. And where I have no idea I prefer to keep quiet.” But it does not take us far. It may be, rather, that Oedipus is the man who must find, and condemn, and punish himself. Likewise it was not for Teiresias to solve the riddle of the Sphinx. The Sphinx is there for Oedipus to answer. To say he was “fated” is to overstate it with prejudice toward the grand designs of heaven; but it is a part of the pattern or story-tyche, which in Greek does not mean “fate” or “chance” or “fortune” so strictly as it means “contact” or “coincidence,” or the way things are put together.
Voltaire’s View
Voltaire expressed the following opinion in this connection: “it is already contrary to probability that Oedipus, who has regarded for such a long time, should not know how his predecessor died. But that he should not even know whether it was in the country or in the city that this murder was committed, and that he should not give the slightest reason or the slightest excuse for his ignorance—I confess that I know of no word to express such an absurdity. It is, one might say, a fault of the subject and not of the author; as if it were not up to the author to correct his subject when it is defective!”
Voltaire goes on to say: “But what is still more astonishing is that Oedipus, when he learns that the Theban herdsman is still alive, does not dream of simply having him sought out; he amuses himself by pronouncing curses and consulting oracles, without commanding that the only man who could enlighten him be brought before him. The Chorus itself, which is so intent on seeing an end to the misfortunes of Thebes, and which gives Oedipus constant advice, does not advise him to question this witness to the death of the late King; it asks him only to send for Teiresias.”
Possible Symbolic Meaning
It may be supposed that Oedipus represents human suffering while the gods symbolize the “universe of circumstance as it is.” The play then becomes a dramatic expression of the universe of circumstance as it is and of the suffering of man.
Lack of Universality in the Play
But to argue thus is merely one more way of smuggling significance into the play, and of showing that the play is universal. The action of this play is in reality exceptional. Oedipus in his peculiar destiny is a freak. He is a man selected out of millions to undergo this stunning fate; that is why the story is so fascinating. He stands, because of the extreme rarity of his destiny, outside the common lot of mankind. And so the special disaster that befalls him is a thing quite apart from the universe of circumstance as it is. The gods who really do stand for circumstance are very much milder beings. That is why it is so misleading to reduce this play to the normal.
The Lesson of the Play
Oedipus Rex shows the humbling of a great and prosperous man by the gods. This treatment is not deserved by Oedipus. It is not a punishment for insolence, nor in the last resort is it due to any fault of judgment or character in the man. The gods display their power because they must. But since they display it, we may draw a lesson. This lesson is stated at the end of the play in the comment by the Chorus: “And, being mortal, think of that last day of death, which all must see, and speak of no man’s happiness till, without sorrow, he has passed the goal of life.”
Freud’s Interpretation of the Myth and the Play
Oedipus did all he could to avoid the fate prophesied by the oracle, and he blinded himself in self-punishment on discovering that in ignorance he had committed both these crimes. The play traces the gradual discovery of Oedipus’s deed, and brings it to light by prolonged inquiry which has a certain resemblance to the process of psycho-analysis. In the dialogue the deluded mother-wife, Jocasta, resists the continuation of the inquiry. She points out that many men have in their dreams mated with their mothers, but that dreams deserve no attention. To us today dreams are of great importance. The reader reacts to the play as though by self-analysis he had detected the Oedipus complex in himself, as though he had recognized the will of the gods and the oracle as glorified disguises of his own unconscious. The reader feels as if he remembered in himself the wish to do away with his father and in his place to marry his mother, and must abhor the thought. The dramatist’s words seem to him to mean: “In vain do you deny that you are answerable; in vain do you proclaim that you have resisted these evil designs. You are guilty, because you could not eradicate them; they still survive unconsciously in you.” And there is psychological truth in this; even though man has repressed his evil desires into his unconscious and would then gladly say to himself that he is no longer answerable for them, he is yet compelled to feel his responsibility in the form of a sense of guilt for which he can perceive no foundation.
The Flaw in the Freudian Interpretation
Superficially, the play seems to confirm Freud’s theory. But if Freud’s interpretation is right we should expect the myth to tell us that Oedipus met Jocasta without knowing that she was his mother, fell in love with her, and then killed his father, again unknowingly. But there is no sign whatsoever in the myth that Oedipus is attracted by or falls in love with Jocasta. The only reason we are given for Oedipus’s marriage to Jocasta is that she as it were, goes with the throne. Are we to believe that a myth with an incestuous relationship between mother and son would entirely omit the element of attraction between the two?
The Son’s Rebellion Against the Father’s Authority
A more convincing interpretation would be to say that the myth (and therefore the play) should be regarded as a symbol not of the incestuous love between mother and son but of the rebellion of the son against the authority of the father in the patriarchal family. From this point of view, the marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta is only a secondary element; the marriage is only an evidence of the victory of the son who takes the father’s place with all its privileges.
The Theme in the Other Two Plays of the Trilogy
This view is supported by Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, the other plays of Sophocles’s trilogy. We find that the theme of the conflict between father and son runs through all the three tragedies. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus kills his father Laius who had intended to take the infant’s life. In Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus gives vent to his intense hate against his sons. In Antigone, we find the same hate again, between Creon and his son Haemon. The problem of incest exists neither in the relationship between Oedipus’s sons to their mother nor in the relationship between Haemon and his mother, Eurydice. Thus it is quite valid to hold that the real issue in Oedipus Rex too is the conflict between father and son and not the problem of incest.
Oedipus, a Personification of Human Suffering
To know oneself is for Sophocles is to know man’s powerlessness. But it is also to know the victorious majesty of suffering humanity. The agony of every Sophocles character is an essential element in his nature. The strange fusion of character and fate is most movingly and mysteriously expressed in the greatest of his heroes, Oedipus. Sophocles returned once again to his character in Oedipus at Colonus, when Oedipus, a blind man, begs his way through the world, led by his daughter Antigone, another of Sophocles’s most beloved figures. From the first, the tragic king who was to bear the weight of the whole world’s suffering was almost a symbolic figure. He was suffering humanity personified.
Champion of Traditional Religion
Sophocles in this play supports the traditional religion against contemporary attacks. Apollo and his ministers are shown as justified, while the scepticism of Jocasta and Oedipus is condemned. Criticism of oracles was becoming common at the time. In such an atmosphere Sophocles wrote this play to defend what was for him, as for Socrates one of the basic facts of religion.
The Feeling of Curiosity Behind the Tragedy
The pressure of curiosity is sweetly bitter; curiosity is also uncontrollable. Curiosity leads Oedipus to the greatest of disasters. It was while inquiring into his own identity in the belief that he was not a Corinthian but a foreigner, that he met Laius. When he had killed Laius, won the throne, and married his mother as well, he once more made inquiry into his identity. His wife tried to stop him but he grew all the more insistent in questioning the old man who knew the facts. Finally, when the affair was already leading him to a suspicion of the truth and the old man had cried out, “Alas! I am on the very point of saying the fearful thing!” Oedipus nonetheless answered, “And I of hearing it. But all the same it must be heard.” The consequence was a most painful tragedy.
A Victim of His Victory Over Unconscious Fantasies
The treasure which the Sphinx guards is not gold, but an intellectual one, namely knowledge. The hidden and closely guarded secret is the unknown of the sexual riddle. While the fabulous dragon must be killed in other mythical stories in order that the treasure of gold may become the possession of man, the Sphinx significantly kills herself when her secret is broken in time of maturation. Oedipus, the swollen-footed hero, does not kill the monster by physical force but defeats her through insight and knowledge. The primary anxiety, connected with the sexual riddle, shapes the pattern of all subsequent anxiety arising from the unknown, especially if one is confronted with the riddle of existence and non-existence. The dragon-killer is a hero if he is the victor in the struggle with his own monster—with the feeling of anxiety and guilt that lies hidden in his unconscious fantasies. All dragon-killer heroes become finally the victims of their victory over unconscious fantasies. Oedipus, just because he has defeated the monster of the unknown, personifies the greatest blunder, the final defeat of the conscious self-evident thinking and the victory of the Sphinx, that is, of the psychic forces which are hidden in the unconscious and the unknown of the own self. He is the victim of his infatuation.
Oedipus’s Real Fruit
Oedipus’s hamartia is not bad temper, suspiciousness, or hastiness in action, for his punishment does not fit these crimes. Nor is it ignorance of who his parents are, for ignorance of this type is not culpable. Still less is it murder and incest, for these things are fated for him by the gods. Oedipus’s fault is his failure in existential commitment, a failure to recognize his own involvement in the human condition, a failure to realize that not all difficulties are riddles to be solved by the application of pure intellect but that some are mysteries not to be solved at all but to be coped with only by the engagement of the whole self. Oedipus’s punishment, then, is not really punishment at all, but the only means by which the gods may enlighten blindness of this destiny. Sophocles was not concerned to tell a crime and punishment story; this is shown by his leaving the “crimes” out of the action.
The Evil Resulting From Incest
Among many peoples, breaches of marriage laws and other sexual offences have been thought to be productive of disastrous consequences. Adultery has often been regarded as being destructive of the fruits of the earth. Ancient Greeks and Roman perhaps had similar notions of the wasting effect of incest. According to Sophocles, the land of Thebes suffered from blight, from pestilence, and from the sterility both of women and of cattle under the reign of Oedipus, who had unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. The Delphic oracle declared that the only way to restore the prosperity of the country was to banish the sinner from it, as if his mere presence withered plants, animals, and women. No doubt these public calamities were attributed in great part to the guilt of parricide which rested on Oedipus, but much of the evil must have been thought to be due to his incest with his mother.
The Value of Guiltless Suffering
There are numerous religious myths that depend on guiltless suffering. The misery of a blameless man has been thought somehow to lighten the burden for the rest of mankind. The power of the Book of Job, and also of Prometheus Bound, Antigone, Hamlet, etc. seems to require a similar consciousness of innocence on the part of the sufferer. Christ was thought to be entirely undeserving of the humiliation, pain, and public execution—that is obvious. He also found these experiences difficult and painful in the extreme, in spite of his divinity. And the fact that Christ suffered thus though he deserved nothing but good is believed to reprieve the rest of mankind from guilt. Others are more innocent because of his having suffered innocently.
The Gods Not Justified
Another question to consider is whether Sophocles in this play tries to justify the ways of God to man. The answer to this question is “no” if “to justify” means to explain in terms of human justice. If human justice is the standard, then nothing can excuse the gods. But that does not mean that Sophocles intended the play to be an attack on the gods. In fact it is pointless to look for any message or meaning in this play. According to a critic, A.J.A. Waldock, “there is no meaning in Oedipus Rex; there is merely the terror of coincidence.” G.M. Kirkwood, takes a similar view: “Sophocles”, he says, “has no theological pronouncements to make and no points of criticism to score.” Both these opinions come close to saying that the gods are merely agents in a traditional story which Sophocles, a “pure artist”, uses for dramatic purposes without raising the religious issue or drawing any moral. The text of the play seems at first sight to support this view. After the catastrophe no one on the stage says a word either in justification of the gods or in criticism of them. Oedipus says: “These things were Apollo”—and that is all. Nor is there any reason why we should always be looking for a message from a work of art. The true function of an artist, as Dr. Johnson said, is to enlarge our sensibility.
Sophocles’s Religious Opinions
And yet it is possible to infer from the plays of Sophocles the opinions or religious views of the author. We can, for instance, safely say that (i) Sophocles did not believe that the gods were in any human sense “just” and (ii) he did always believe that the gods existed and that man should revere them.
Disbelief in Divine Justice, and the Need
to Revere the Gods
The first of these opinions is supported by the implicit evidence of Oedipus Rex, while the second opinion is supported by at least one passage in this play. The celebrated choral ode about the decline of prophecy and the threat to religion was of course suggested by the scene with Creon which precedes it; but it contains generalizations which have little apparent relevance either to Oedipus or to Creon. The question which the Chorus seem to be asking is this: “If Athens loses faith in religion, what significance is there in tragic drama, which exists as a part of the service of the gods?” In short, while Sophocles did not claim that the gods were in any human sense just he yet held that they were entitled to human worship. Nor should we think these two opinions to be incompatible. Disbelief in divine justice as measured by human standards can perfectly well be associated with deep religious feeling. Sophocles would have agree that men find some things unjust, other things just, but that in the eyes of God all things are beautiful and good and just. There is an objective world-order which man must respect, but which he cannot hope fully to understand.
“Hamartia” or Tragic Error
Aristotle used the word “hamartia” to mean simply a mistake, but critics have always tended to interpret “hamartia” as a moral weakness or sin. Aristotle’s ideal form of tragedy is simply one in which the destruction of the hero or heroine is caused by some false step taken in ignorance. This false step may be either a crime like Clytemnestra’s or a mere miscalculation like Dejanira’s. It is only a craving for poetic justice that interprets Aristotle’s view to mean that the tragic disaster is due to a moral defect or a sin. Yet even Aristotle felt that the misfortunes of the absolutely righteous characters were too shocking for the tragic stage.
Representing the Ways of Life, Not Justifying Them
Sophocles is concerned not to justify life’s ways but to show them. He finds no difficulty in representing even the downfall of a man doomed before his birth, in the very moment he was begotten. Oedipus has a pride, a hot temper, an imperiousness, that serve to make us dread his fall; but it is significant that his fall is not caused by these faults. The ruin of Dejanira comes only from her excessive trustfulness; Antigone’s from her unflinching sense of duty. Still less in Euripides is there any justifying of the ways of God; often they are openly denounced, and the tragic error is sometimes not moral, sometimes absent altogether.
Tragedy At Its Best
At its best, tragedy is a story of human blindness leading human effort to defeat itself—a tragedy of error. The hamartia is the tragic error; the peripeteia, its fatal working to a result the opposite of that intended; the anagnorisis, the recognition of the truth. The error may or may not be moral. And its dramatic importance is not based on any conception of life’s justice, but on the purely artistic and logical consideration that it is neater, formally, that calamities should begin at home the universe may proceed by law: but it seems heedless of justice. For its laws are those of cause and effect, not of right and wrong. Similarly in the theatre there may or may not be justice, but there must be law if we are to feel that inevitability which a play needs in order to convince. And the peculiar virtue of the tragedy of error is that it is convincing in its logic, neat in its form, poignant in its irony. It remains not the only kind of tragedy; but, as Aristotle says, the best.

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