Oedipus the King

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Date: 2003
Literature and Its Times Supplement 1: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Character overview; Biography
Pages: 12
Content Level: (Level 4)

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About this Person
Born: c. 496 BC in Colonus, Greece
Died: c. 406 BC in Athens, Greece
Nationality: Greek
Occupation: Playwright
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Oedipus the King

by Sophocles

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A play set in Thebes during the thirteenth century B.C.E.;first performed between 429 and 425 B.C.E.


In fulfillment of a divine prophecy, Oedipus, the ruler of Thebes, falls from the height of success and power to a position of staggering misfortune and misery.

Sophocles was born at Colonus, just a mile outside Athens, in the year 496 B.C.E. The son of a wealthy family, he was raised with every possible educational and social advantage. At age 16 he made his debut in the theater by performing in a chorus that celebrated an Athenian victory (at Salamis), and soon afterward he began composing original poems and songs. Sophocles entered his first dramatic competition at the age of 28, where he took the top prize over Aeschylus, who was then considered the reigning master of tragedy. Apart from his dramatic interests, Sophocles was quite civic minded; he held a variety of political and military offices in his lifetime, including appointments to embassies, a position as an official of a religious organization, and two generalships, one under Pericles and once under Nicias. Sophocles’ long life of 90 years spanned the Pelo-ponnesian War and Athens’s corresponding rise and fall as a great empire. He meanwhile is credited with the writing of 123 plays, only seven of which have survived intact. These plays are widely considered perfectly structured dramatic masterpieces. His tragedies (including Antigone, also in Literature and Its Times) question inexorable forces of fate that frustrate humanity’s best laid plans, and the justness of a cosmos that allows individuals and cities to experience undeserved reversals of fortune. While it too deals with such universal issues, Oedipus the King is simultaneously a response to exceptional changes experienced by Athens during Sophocles’ lifetime.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The ancient city of Thebes

The myth of the House of Oedipus, upon which Sophocles’ play is based, takes place in Thebes in the thirteenth century B.C.E. Thebes was the dominant city of Boeotia (central Greece), located in that region’s eastern part. The city had its own acropolis, or fortress, which stood on a plateau overlooking the lower city, with portions of the rivers Dirce and Ismenus on either side.

Thebes had an especially rich mythology. It was said to have been founded by Cadmus, who arrived there from Phoenicia. According to the myth, he used dragon’s teeth to sow a harvest of splendid warriors, several of which were said to be the ancestors of the Theban aristocracy. The play takes place during the Bronze Age, at which time Thebes rivaled Mycenae as the dominant city in all of Greece. Thebes’s success during this

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period is attributed to the richness of its soil, and its geographic location, which gave it access to a variety of routes between Attica and central Greece. Archaeological evidence indicates, however, that by the end of the Bronze Age, the center of the city had been “sacked, burned, and abandoned,” and Thebes never regained its former glory (Grant, p. 643). Sophocles may have intended the setting to have particular resonance for his audience, who probably saw fifth-century Thebes, a frequent military enemy of Athens, merely as a city in decline. His audience would be reminded by the play’s setting that Thebes too, had had a “Golden Age,” and that the fortunes not just of individuals, but also of cities, often rise and fall very quickly.

The Play in Focus

The plot

The play opens with Oedipus, King of Thebes, at the center of attention. He is talking to a priest who represents a group of Theban citizens begging for relief from a terrible plague. As Oedipus tries to console them, he speaks of having already dispatched his brother-in-law, Creon, to ask the Oracle at Delphi how the city might be saved. Creon returns with the oracle’s pronouncement, which is that Thebes is suffering because the murderer of its former king, Laius, lives within its walls unpunished. Oedipus curses the killer and vows to save the city by searching out this murderer and bringing him to justice. As Oedipus turns to go into the palace, the chorus begins to chant a prayer for Thebes and its recovery, but ominously worries about the repercussions of this investigation into the past. Oedipus is advised to send for Tiresius, the blind prophet, since “anyone searching for the truth, my king, might learn it from the prophet, clear as day” (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, p. 174). Under questioning, Tiresias refuses to say much. He hints that he knows some awful truth, but keeps insisting that it is better for everyone if he does not reveal it. His reticence proves too much for Oedipus to bear, and the king explodes in fury, accusing Tiresias of conspiring with Creon in a plot to overthrow him. After being pushed to the limits of his patience by Oedipus, Tiresias finally foretells a very dark prophecy for Oedipus indeed:

Blind who now has eyes, beggar who now is rich, he will grope his way toward a foreign soil, a stick tapping before him step by step. Revealed at last, brother and father both to the children he embraces, to his mother son and husband both—he sowed the loins his father sowed, he spilled his father’s blood!

(Oedipus, p. 185)

After the prophet leaves and Oedipus has conferred with the elders, Creon meets with the king to try to defend himself against the charge of treason leveled at him by Oedipus. He begs his brother-in-law not to jump to conclusions, but to carefully consider the facts of the case. Oedipus responds that he cannot “relax his guard a moment” and announces that he does not want Creon merely banished, but dead (Oedipus, p. 194). The chorus begs Oedipus to reconsider, and Creon warns him that “sullen in yielding, brutal in your rage—you will go too far. It’s perfect justice: natures like yours are hardest on themselves” (Oedipus, p. 198). At this point, Jo-casta the queen, who has come to make peace between her brother Creon and her husband, Oedipus, insists on being told what has happened. Upon hearing that the source of the controversy was Tiresias’s prophecy, Jocasta seeks to console her husband by relating to him a years-old prophecy that never came to pass. Apparently Laius had been told that he would suffer his death at the hands of his own son. Tortured by this prophecy, Laius and Jocasta gave their infant son to a servant, who tied his ankles and left him to die of exposure on the side of a mountain. And, Jocasta reminds Oedipus, Laius was actually killed years later, not by his son, but by

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Stories, statues, and pictures of the Sphinx existed in ancient Greece, Egypt, Assyria, and Phoenicia. A mythological creature, its name stems from a Greek word for “monster” and its gender in Greek mythology seems to have been female. The Sphinx referred to in Sophocles’ Oedipus was believed to have lived on a high rock outside Thebes. Greeks pictured the Sphinx as a winged creature with the body of a lion and the head of a woman. As was common in many versions of the myth of the Sphinx, she posed a particular danger to men, whom she carried off and devoured if they were not able to answer her riddle correctly. As Oedipus was passing the Sphinx on his way to Thebes, he was able to solve the riddle, thereby causing her to hurl herself off the rock in anger and plunge to her death. The Theban people rewarded Oedipus by making him their king, and offering him the hand of their queen, Jocasta, in marriage. Although not repeated verbatim in the play, legend has it that the Sphinx asked, What has one voice and walks with four feet in the morning, two feet in the afternoon, and three feet in the evening? The answer is “man, who crawls as a baby, walks erect as an adult, and needs a cane in his twilight years.” Oedipus himself can actually be viewed as the subject of the riddle, since, according to some, he is a young man but must use a cane due to an injury he sustained as an infant on Mount Cicatheron (Segal, pp. 36–37).

The Sphinx is not the only supernatural element that presents a challenge to Oedipus in the play. Much of the drama in the play is brought about by an oracle, a term that the ancient Greeks would use to refer to a shrine where people would come and pray to the gods for guidance. The gods were thought to communicate through select individuals known as priests, or prophets, who could reveal the gods’ will and predict the future. Sophocles presents an interesting juxtaposition between the riddle of the Sphinx, which Oedipus can solve, and the riddles of the oracles, which are not as easy for him to decipher. When Oedipus questions the prophet Tiresias, the beleaguered King of Thebes complains that instead of answers, he’s being given “riddles, murk and darkness” (Oedipus, p. 184). Tiresias taunts Oedipus, saying,”Ah, but aren’t you the best man alive at solving riddles?” and at the end of his prophecy, challenges him to “go in and reflect on that, solve that” (Oedipus, pp. 184, 1 85). The irony is that Oedipus ultimately discovers the truth and solves the mystery of his identity, and that in so doing, he brings about his own downfall and destruction.

“strangers, thieves, at a place where three roads meet” (.Oedipus, p. 201).

Oedipus, startled, questions his wife about the precise location and time of Laius’s murder, also asking her for a physical description of the slain king. Hearing that there was one witness to the crime, a shepherd, Oedipus asks that he be sent for and pours out his fears to his wife. He recounts to her how he traveled to Delphi from his native Corinth in order to consult the oracle regarding his parentage after being called a bastard at a party. Instead of answering his question about his parents, the oracle informed Oedipus that he would one day kill his father and sleep with his mother. Assuming that his parents were the people who raised him, King Polybus and his wife Merope, Oedipus fled Corinth for Thebes to insure that this awful prophecy would never come to pass. On his way, he encountered a group of men traveling by wagon who haughtily tried to force him off the road, and in his anger, Oedipus killed all of them. Oedipus recalls that this occurred at Phocis, where the three roads meet, exactly where Laius was killed. As the audience has already been informed, after killing Laius, Oedipus proceeded to Thebes, stopping

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just outside the city to destroy the Sphinx, an awful creature who was terrorizing the Thebans. For this courageous act, they rewarded him with the hand in marriage of their newly widowed queen and the position of king.

Oedipus holds out one hope, however … according to the eyewitness, it was thieves who murdered the king, and since “one can’t equal many” Oedipus cannot have been the killer (Oedipus, p. 208). He begs Jocasta to send for the

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The messenger’s description of Oedipus’s self-blinding can aptly be described as gruesome:

He rips off her brooches, the long gold pins holding her robes—and lifting them high, looking straight up into the points, he digs them down the sockets of his eyes, crying,”You, you’ll see no more the pain I suffered, all the pain I caused! Too long you looked on the ones you never should have seen, blind to the ones you longed to see, to know! Blind from this hour on! Blind in the darkness—blind!” His voice like a dirge, rising, over and over raising the pins, raking them down his eyes. And at each stroke blood spurts from the roots, splashing his beard, a swirl of it, nerves and clots—black hail of blood pulsing, gushing down.

(Oedipus, p. 237)

The vivid description features a punishment quite unparalleled in the Greek literary tradition. Moreover, an exploration of Athenian laws does not indicate that such punishments were the norm in Sophocles’ time. In fact, the laws regarding homicide allow for the perpetrator to be exiled, or, it a surviving relative of the victim agreed, pardoned altogether. Previous versions of the Oedipus story had ended on a much different note. In Homer’s Iliad, for example, Oedipus dies on the battlefield, and in the Odyssey, Oedipus continues his rule of Thebes (both also in Literature and Its Times). Even Aeschylus’s version in Seven Against Thebes, which ends with Oedipus’s self-blinding is quite different, in that the king is portrayed as one possessed by madness to torture and blind himself. Sophocles’ Oedipus is fully conscious, sane, and aware of what he is doing. The theatrical blinding serves two purposes in Sophocles’ play. First, it attests to Oedipus’s free will and freedom of choice, a key issue for Sophocles. Second, it demonstrates a heroic element in Oedipus’s character, his courage to gamely endure extraordinary pain and suffering.

shepherd immediately, to confirm that it was several men who killed Laius.

While they await the shepherd’s arrival, a messenger arrives with the news that King Polybus is dead and that the people of Corinth want to make Oedipus their king. Oedipus is actually relieved to hear that the man he believed to be his father is dead, so tormented was he by the oracle’s prediction that he would kill his own father. Jocasta is relieved too, and points out to Oedipus that the first part of the prophecy which he so feared turned out to be “nothing, worthless” (Oedipus, p. 214). Jocasta urges him to forget the second part as well, claiming that many men have dreamed of sharing their mother’s bed, but that it means nothing. Oedipus, however, feels that as long as his erstwhile mother, Queen Merope lives, he still must live in fear of the second part of the prophecy coming to pass. The messenger, upon hearing this exchange and wishing to put his mind at ease once and for all, reveals to Oedipus that he was a foundling. The messenger turns out to be a shepherd, who found Oedipus as an infant and gave him to Polybus and his wife, a childless couple who were desperate for a baby of their own. When Oedipus asks the shepherd for more details about where and how he was found, the man replies that it was not he, but another shepherd who actually discovered the infant, with his ankles fastened, left to die on the side of Mount Cicatheron. Frantic, Oedipus asks if this second shepherd still lives, and where he can be found, and is told by his advisor that the man is already on his way to the palace. The second shepherd and the eyewitness to Laius’s murder are one and the same.

Jocasta, coming to realize Oedipus’s true identity, asks him not to pursue this any longer, telling him that an old man talking empty nonsense is not even worthy of his attention. Failing to convince him with this argument, she finally begs him to “stop—in the name of god, if you Page 306  |  Top of Articlelove your own life, call off this search!” (Oedipus, p. 222). But Oedipus refuses to listen, insisting that he “must know it all, must see the truth at last” (Oedipus, p. 222). Jocasta, shrieking, yells at Oedipus that he is doomed and then runs from the palace. Upon the arrival of the second shepherd, Oedipus too discovers the awful truth about his identity. This shepherd admits that he disobeyed Laius, who gave orders to have the baby killed because of the awful prophecy he had received. Taking pity on the infant boy, the shepherd gave him away, hoping his new caretaker would take him far away from Thebes and give the baby another life. Oedipus did have the chance for a new life in Corinth, but in an ironic twist, for which Sophocles is famous, his consultation with the Oracle at Delphi as a young man actually brought him back to Thebes, which resulted in the oracle’s prophecy coming to pass. Oedipus, crying out that he is “revealed at last” rushes through the doors. After the chorus sings a song about the cruel nature of fate, a messenger enters to relate the news of Jocasta’s suicide and describes Oedipus’s frenzied grief and guilt at the sight of her hanging in the noose. The messenger relays a graphic account of Oedipus’s self-inflicted punishment, the gauging out of his own eyes with Jocasta’s brooches.

Next we see Oedipus, a blind man being led by attendants, cursing himself and his fate, and begging Creon, the new Theban king, for banishment from the city. Creon reminds Oedipus that such decisions are now outside Oedipus’s control. Sending a messenger to the Oracle at Delphi, Creon waits to discover what the gods wish him to do.

Creon, taking pity on Oedipus, sends for his two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. A tearful goodbye follows. After extracting a promise from Creon that he will look after Oedipus’s sons, Oedipus is led away by the guards, presumably to live out the remainder of his life in exile. The play closes with the following song from the chorus:

People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus. He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance, he rose to power, a man beyond all power. Who could behold his greatness without envy? Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him. Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy until he dies, free of pain at last.

(Oedipus, p. 251)

Prophecy and the gods

The writings of the ancient historians, particularly Herodotus, demonstrate that oracles played a major role in Greek political and military affairs. Believed to be the means through which the gods make their will known to man, oracles were routinely consulted by statesmen and governments prior to any major policy decision, and individuals traveled to them with questions of a smaller scale as well.

At the time Sophocles gave prophecy its role in Oedipus the King, there was an intellectual revolution of sorts going on in Athens. The famous philosopher Socrates was engaging in a rationalist critique of many things, especially Athens’s religious tradition. A band of so-called philosophers, known as sophists, prided themselves on being able to win any argument, or to successfully present any falsehood as truth, and they subjected conventional beliefs and practices to increased scrutiny. These intellectual forces, combined with the suspicion aroused by a growing number of peddlers who tried to pass themselves off as seers or prophets for hire, began to make the Athenians a bit more wary of even the most established of the ancient oracles. The questions surrounding the notion of prophecy, of whether or not the gods actually existed, of whether they were the creators and caretakers of an orderly cosmos, and of whether they made their will known through oracles, were very controversial ones in Sophocles’ day. If the notion of divine knowledge and foreknowledge was discredited, the entire religious tradition was thrown into doubt. How could the gods exist, yet not know the future?

The question of what message Sophocles intended to convey in relation to this controversial religious issue is debatable. On the one hand, prophecies are “proven” true by the play. The prophecy that was revealed by the oracle did in fact come to pass, despite monumental efforts to thwart it. And in the end Oedipus, whose words can be understood to express a less-than-pious attitude when he makes statements such as “You pray to the gods? Let me grant your prayers. Come, listen to me”—is chastened (Oedipus, p. 172). As Oedipus and Jocasta question and challenge the veracity of the oracles, the chorus warns that “They are dying, the old oracles sent to Laius, now our masters strike them off the rolls. Nowhere Apollo’s golden glory now—the gods, the gods go down” (Oedipus, p. 210). Yet ultimately the traditional religious view seems to prevail, as Oedipus discovers that the prophecies were true all along; man is ignorant, seems to be the message, and knowledge of the truth belongs to the gods alone.

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Delphi was a village located on Mount Parnassus on the northern side of the Gulf of Corinth. It owed its fame to the fact that it was home to the most renowned temple of Apollo. The Oracle at Delphi was the most respected of the ancient Greek oracles; people journeyed from far and wide to consult it. not only Greeks, but people from Egypt, Asia Minor, and Italy. Their donations to the city of Delphi contributed to the region’s booming economy. The Greek city-states made such frequent and generous contributions that many of them (including Athens, Thebes, Syracuse, and Siphnos) established local offices or chapters of their treasury departments nearby. The ancients believed that the god Apollo spoke through the oracle, using a priestess named the Pythia as his mouthpiece. The priestess engaged in mysterious rituals (which included sacrifice, ceremonial bathing, and the inhalation of vapors) prior to answering a supplicant’s question, and her predictions were often phrased in a very vague and general way. This not only made it possible to apply them to a variety of situations, but also left them subject to misinterpretation. The most famous example is that of Croesus, the king of Lydia who in 550 B.C.E. asked the oracle if he should attack Persia. The response came back that if Croesus crossed a river, he would indeed destroy a great empire. Confident in his prospective victory, he proceeded to go into battle, only to have all of his forces decimated. When he accused the oracle’s prophecy of being false, the Pythia replied that her prediction had proven true. Croesus had, in fact, destroyed a great empire … his own.

The Pythia would enter a trancelike state before uttering a prophecy. Plutarch (c. 46-c. 120), a high priest of the temple, is one of several ancient sources who believed in the prophetic powers of the oracle and in the Pythia’s being its mouthpiece. Most directly, he said, her trance was induced by vapors, or gases, which erupted from a chasm at the site and inspired her to be possessed by the gods. When subsequent archaeological investigations failed to find a chasm or any other geological feature that would produce vapors, the ancient sources were discredited, and alternative explanations sought for the Pythia’s trance-like state. These included self-inducement via potassium cyanide (from laurel leaves which were chewed as part of the ritual) or an emotional, ecstatic trance arising from the power of suggestion. Recently, however, a four-year study proved that the ancients were quite right. A team of scientists, who have found fault lines at the site of the Oracle, confirm the presence of gases with narcotic/euphoric effects—such as ethane, methane, and ethylene—in the waters of a nearby spring. The emissions, produced by the bituminous limestone, would be very similar to the vapors described by Plutarch. They explain the Pythia’s trance. “Our research,” concluded the investigators,”has confirmed the validity of the ancient sources in virtually every detail” (Boer, p. 710).

Yet the audience is not left with the feeling that this traditional view is entirely satisfactory. Is the story of Oedipus’s tragic downfall evidence that the gods created and maintain a just and well-ordered cosmos? Despite efforts by some scholars to uncover some awful flaw in Oedipus’s character in an attempt to prove that he received his just desserts, most readers still find him an extremely sympathetic character who does not merit the suffering that befalls him. According to this view, even if the gods do exist, they are cruel and arbitrary and so leave no place in the world for meaningful human action. The other alternative, however, that there are no gods and no prophecies, and hence no design whatever to the universe, is equally unappealing. Before Jocasta realizes that the prophecy Page 308  |  Top of Articlehas come true, she is a proponent of the latter, chaotic view. She poses to Oedipus a rhetorical question: “What should a man fear? It’s all chance, chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through the dark. Better to live at random, best we can” (Oedipus, p. 215). Is this world view to be preferred to one of divine injustice, wherein the means and motives of the gods exist, but are inscrutable to man?

So where does Sophocles stand on the issue? Like most great works of literature, Oedipus the King does not settle the issue definitively, but rather presents us with “a kind of dialogue between the older and newer ways of looking at the world. Indeed, much of the creative energy in Periclean art derives from this transition between different conceptions of reality” (Segal, p. 11).

Predestination v. free will:

A staple notion in Greek tragedy is the belief that all human actions are guided or determined by “fate.” This unseen force may refer to the gods and their plans, or to some other unfathomable workings of the universe, but to refuse to submit to it was considered hubris, a sin of pride and arrogance. The issue of destiny was raised by all the Greek tragedians; Sophocles’ own treatment of it presents an interesting contrast to that of some of his contemporaries.

Some scholars argue that in the plays of Aeschylus, for example, the characters seem impelled to act in certain ways as a result of the gods’ power and influence. For example, when Aeschylus’s Oedipus blinds himself, it is because a divine spirit or daimon drove him to it (Segal, pp. 54, 134). In Sophocles’ drama, all the characters are portrayed as having the freedom to act. At each stage of Oedipus the King, the characters make choices. Yes, these choices have the effect of making the gods’ prophecy come to pass; still they are, in Sophocles’ view, to some degree a function of man’s free will, of his own passions and desires. Oedipus, for example, lets his temper get the better of him at the crossroads and kills an entire wagonful of people, thus fulfilling the first part of the prophecy.

So too is Oedipus’s tragic downfall from a heroic king to a blind and exiled beggar a function of his own action. Contrary to advice from Tiresias and Jocasta, who at several points urge caution, restraint, and the abandonment of his investigation into the past, Oedipus relentlessly forges ahead, a man of action fixated on solving this old mystery. Of course, Oedipus has noble motives; he begins his quest for the killer out of civic mindedness, to purge Thebes of its guilt and the resultant plague. Moreover, there is something admirable and heroic about his single-minded pursuit of the truth at any cost. Nonetheless, had Oedipus chosen to simply let the matter lie, his sins would never have been discovered, and his life could have continued undisturbed. After Oedipus has blinded himself and is lamenting his situation, he admits,”I’ve stripped myself, I gave the command myself (Oedipus, p. 243).

Sources and literary context

The source for Sophocles’ play was the storehouse of myths and legends that circulated among the ancient Greeks. The story of Oedipus, like that of other myths, was already very well known to the Athenians, and had been treated by other playwrights prior to Oedipus. So the audience was familiar with the characters and the basic plot. What the playwright offered was a new perspective and fresh presentation of the myth. Sophocles chose to have the dramatic action turn on Oedipus’s moment of “discovery”: the tension in the play builds as Oedipus investigates what’s happened to Laius the King, and climaxes as he realizes the awful truth that he has, unknowingly, fulfilled the oracle’s awful prophecy. Casting Oedipus in the role of investigator, and making him the engine of the discovery was an innovation of Sophocles: in several other versions of the myth, including Homer’s, the truth is simply revealed to Oedipus via some sort of divine agency.

Sophocles’ dramas, including Oedipus the King, were innovative for their time. Among his legacies to the world of drama are the various technical improvements Sophocles made to the theater, which were very well-received by the ancient Greeks. These included the enlargement of the chorus, and the addition of painted scenery. By far the most significant improvement, was the addition of a third actor to drama. This was a crucial development in the history of the theater, whose beginning has been traced to an Athenian named Thespis. Thespis added speech by an actor to the song and dance of the chorus. The introduction of a second actor, by Aeschylus, changed the narrative style into one that featured the dramatic relationship. Sophocles’ addition of a third actor greatly enlarged the scope of dramatic possibilities.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

Sexual license, a male prerogative; incest, a taboo

Sources agree that although attitudes toward

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sexual practices were quite liberal in ancient Greece, this freedom existed only for the males. Married men were expected to keep their wives happy enough so that they would produce and rear as many healthy children as possible. As long as this was accomplished, the men were free to engage in sexual relations outside marriage. They might frequent male or female prostitutes known as courtesans or engage in relationships (often emotional as well as sexual) with young boys. Women had no such freedom. Fathers sought to have their daughters married at an early age in order to guard their chastity, and once married, women in ancient Greece did not have active social lives outside the home.

Liberal attitudes to men’s sexual practices did not extend to incest. Sexual relationships between parents and their children, such as the one between Oedipus and his mother Jocasta, were strictly forbidden (although the ancient Greeks did not consider relations with more distant relatives incest; cousins could marry). Other Greek literature portrayed incestuous unions as resulting in the birth of hideous monsters, such as the sphinx (Hesiod’s Theogony), or depicted incest as a deplorable practice accepted by barbarians or “non-Greeks” (Euripides’s Andromache).

Plato’s Republic (also in Literature and Its Times) provides additional insight into what the attitudes toward incest were. In his famous treatise on the most ideal organization of the state, Plato introduces the idea of communism of women and children. Private families will be abolished, as men and women will simply pair Page 310  |  Top of Articleoff according to lots that they draw for the sake of procreation. The state has much invested in the quality of its future citizens, so individuals will only be paired with mates who will produce the most desirable offspring and citizens. Once the couple is successful in reproducing, the union is abolished, the man and woman go their separate ways, and the offspring are taken away to be raised by the state in a public nursery. The goal is for members of these “families” not to even recognize each other, so that everyone will consider all fellow citizens as their parents, siblings, and so on. Once “individuals are beyond the age of procreation,” according to Plato, they are “left to have intercourse with whomsoever they wish, except with a daughter, a mother, the children of their daughters, and the ancestors of their mother, a son, a father, the children of their sons” and so on (Plato, p. 140). But even for these older individuals, the one prohibition regarding sexual partners is against incest. Since family members will not be able to recognize each other, Plato devises a system whereby any two mates will consider every child born seven to ten months after their mating their son or their daughter. All children born in that time period will consider each other siblings. Finally other familial relationships, such as grandparents, will be designated in a similar manner.

Athenian theater in Sophocles’ day

As opposed to the very secular nature of theatergoing for modern audiences, Sophocles’ dramas and those of his contemporaries were performed at festivals for the god Dionysus. These festivals took place twice a year, in the spring and winter, and they lasted for several days. Plays began as simple religious rituals, wherein the chorus presented songs. In the year 534 the poet Thes-pis introduced an actor (hypokrites, meaning answerer or interpreter) who could deliver speeches of his own, as well as interact with the chorus. The festivals were state holidays, including religious rites such as prayer and the sacrifice of a goat or lamb; attendance was considered not an optional matter but an important civic responsibility.

While modern audiences subscribe to notions like separation of church and state, the ancient Athenians mixed religion and civic affairs. The state, in fact, subsidized performances by giving citizens the money to purchase their tickets, after obliging wealthy citizens to make contributions that would finance the performances. In addition to the important religious rites, there were political components to the festivals, such as the presentation of children orphaned by war and brought up at Athens’s expense, or the display of silver tribute paid to Athens. Also the state answered various honors and distinctions to individuals during the festival. In keeping with the fact that Athens was a democratic regime, the state opened the festivals to all citizens (this would have excluded slaves, but not women, say some scholars; though not considered citizens of Athens women could attend). Even the incarcerated were granted bail in order to attend. Three playwrights presented their plays on three consecutive days, and won either first, second, or third prize. Athens’s democratic structure was evident in the way in which the competition was organized. The citizenry at large selected ten judges to decide which plays would be awarded prizes, and the ten, it seems, took their cues from the reactions of the audience. The context of the theater in Sophocles’ Athens is thus imbued with a political significance: “Drama was special to Athens as an intrinsic and key institution of the democratic city of the later fifth century…. Audiences sat through the day from first light on, expected to reflect and concentrate, as part of their role as citizens of Athens” (Beard, p. 88, italics Beard’s). In the case of Oedipus the King, the performance might cause audiences to reflect on questions regarding the reliability of prophecy and its appropriate role in society, or the characteristics of an ideal ruler.

Oedipus the Tyrant

Other translations of the title “Oedipus the King” include Oedipus Tyrannus, or Oedipus the Tyrant. Although most scholars agree that the term tyrant did not have as pejorative a connotation in Sophocles’ time as it would later acquire (starting in about the fourth century B.C.E.), the term did refer to one who did not have a legitimate basis for his power. Oedipus would be considered a tyrant in the strict sense of the term because he did not come to power via a natural succession to the throne, as a king would have. Other “illegitimate” rulers (Polycrates of Samos, Peisistratus of Athens) came to power by plotting or by force and, lacking constitutional or hereditary authority, were indeed ruthless in their attempts to hold on to their power.

The question of whether or not Oedipus is a tyrant has been a subject of seemingly endless debate by scholars and readers alike. There are those who argue that Oedipus epitomizes the Athenian ideal of the Golden Age. He is intelligent, confident, courageous, energetic, and proactive. These are all qualities referred to by Page 311  |  Top of ArticlePericles in a speech recounted in Thucydides’s chronicle of the Peloponnesian War. Known as the Funeral Oration because its occasion is a memorial service for those men who died in the first year of battle, Pericles recounts these virtues as qualities that Athens and the Athenians posses in comparison to their enemy, Sparta. According to one view, Oedipus as portrayed by Sophocles is the fulfillment of Perciles’s idealized vision. Others disagree. They point to Oedipus’s frequent outbursts of temper, his seeming inability to moderate his emotions, and his relentless suspicion of those around him (bordering on paranoia) as evidence that Sophocles intended to portray him as a tyrant. In fact, at one point the chorus, usually quite favorable towards Oedipus, chides him with a warning:

Pride breeds the tyrant—violent pride, gorging, crammed to bursting with all that is overripe and rich with ruin—clawing up to the heights, headlong pride crashes down the abyss—sheer doom! No footing helps, all foothold lost and gone.

(Oedipus, p. 209)

Even if we assume that, through Oedipus, Sophocles intended to warn others about the dangers of tyrannical rule, it is uncertain whom he might have regarded as the real-life tyrant. Pericles is a possibility, since many were critical of his use of power. Thucydides, for example, wrote that although Pericles’s Athens was a democracy in name, it was in effect ruled by one man. Another possibility is that one can equate tyrant with the city of Athens itself, which at the height of its power ruled its “allies” quite ruthlessly, having to quash several revolts by other city-states who refused Athens its tribute or other support. Finally, the tyrant may represent the closed, militaristic, autocratic regime of Sparta, with which Athens was at war.

The Peloponnesian War

While some literary critics argue that Sophocles’ plays focus more on the struggles of individual characters than on the political or social events of his day, Sophocles no doubt intended several of the issues raised in Oedipus the King to resonate in a particular way with his audience, in light of the events going on around them. Fifth-century B.C.E. Athenians had witnessed their city’s ascension to a position of economic, military, intellectual, and social dominance in Greece under the leadership of the controversial but extraordinarily talented and effective statesman, Pericles. War broke out with Sparta in 432, a few years before the staging of Oedipus the King, and it would continue for two decades. Initially Athens was the most powerful of the city-states, but by the time Oedipus was first performed, the Peloponnesian War had begun to take a grim toll. Athenians had crowded together behind the walls of the city during an invasion by Sparta, and that, together with the overcrowding caused by war refugees pouring into Athens from outlying areas invaded by Sparta, such as Attica, resulted in the outbreak of an awful plague. Lasting for several years, the disease claimed a quarter of Athens’s population, one of its most mourned victims being Pericles himself (who probably died about a year before the first performance of the play). How appropriate, then, that its first scene should consist of Oedipus’s comforting citizens who have to come to him for relief from the terrible sickness that holds their city in its deathly grip!

Our city—look around you, see with your own eyes—our ship pitches wildly, cannot lift her head from the depths, the red waves of death…. Thebes is dying. A blight on the fresh crops and the rich pastures, cattle sicken and die, and the women die in labor, children still-born, and the plague, the fiery god of fever hurls down on the city, his lightning slashing through us … plague in all its vengeance, devastating the house of Cadmus!

(Oedipus, p. 160)

Thucydides, whose account chronicled his experience as a general during the war, described Athens’s desperate suffering during the plague in terms very similar to those Sophocles uses in this first scene.

Not many days after their [refugees] arrival in Attica the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places previously … but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.

(Thucydides, p. 94)

Oh my children, the new blood of ancient Thebes, why are you here? Huddling at my altar, praying before me, your branches wound in wool. Our city reeks with the smoke of burning incest, rings with cries for the Healer and the wailing for the dead…. Why here and kneeling, what preys upon you so? Some Page 312  |  Top of Articlesudden fear? Some strong desire? You can trust me. I am ready to help, I’ll do anything. I would be blind to misery not to pity my people kneeling at my feet.

(Oedipus, p. 159)

Another parallel between the experience of the Athenian audience and the citizens of Thebes in the play is the loss of an incredibly competent and revered leader. Just as Pericles had succeeded in raising Athens to the height of her glory, so had Thebes prospered and thrived under Oedipus, who had rescued it from the clutches of the malevolent Sphinx. Yet both cities tragically lost their beloved leaders due to events thought to be beyond human control, demonstrating the pre-cariousness and uncertainty of existence.

Reception and impact

Sophocles’ talent was lauded by audiences in his own day. Out of the 120 plays that he authored, 96 won prizes at festivals. While Oedipus the King only won second prize at the festival in which it figured, posterity has proven a more favorable judge. About a century after the debut of Oedipus the King, Aristotle’s Poetics repeatedly referred to the play as a masterpiece of tragedy and cited it as a model for all playwrights to follow. The headmasters of Athens’s leading institutions of learning, the Academy and the Lyceum, both agreed that the work of Sophocles surpassed that of his contemporaries Aeschylus and Euripides, and that Oedipus the King was the finest of Sophocles’ plays.

During the Roman empire Oedipus the King made several appearances in versions written and/or produced by Julius Caesar, Nero, and Seneca. After that, the work of the tragedians seems to have faded from popularity until the sixteenth century, when the manuscripts of Greek tragedies began circulating again in Italy. Of these manuscripts, Sophocles’ were the first to be reprinted.

The most famous modern reference to the play is its use as the cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory by Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s (see On Dreams , also in Literature and Its Times). According to Freud, childhood and family relationships are driven primarily by sexual urges of the children for their parents, particularly little boys for their mothers. Dubbed “the Oedipus complex,” this theory has been discredited as a basis for psychoanalysis on an individual level and thus is no longer popular in psychoanalytic circles. Still, the theory’s intellectual contribution cannot be minimized. In fact, some researchers argue that the Oedipus complex helps account for certain attitudes towards incest, when considered alongside other theories (of evolution and sociobiology). One scholar suggests Freud himself “might extract a certain intellectual excitement from the debate surrounding the Oedipus complex” and quotes the following passage from a letter Freud wrote:

Mediocre spirits demand of science the kind of certainty which it cannot give, a sort of religious satisfaction. Only the real, rare, true scientific minds can endure doubt, which is attached to all our knowledge.

(Freud in Bower, p. 116)

After reading Oedipus the King, one is left with the impression that Sophocles felt about drama the way Freud did about science. Perhaps that attitude is one of the reasons Sophocles’ plays are so timeless and why audiences to this day remain attracted to the character of Oedipus.

—Despina Korovessis

For More Information

Baldry, H. C. Ancient Greek Literature in its Living Context. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Beard, Mary, and John Henderson. Classics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Boer, J. Z., J. R. Hale, and J. Chanton. “New Evidence for the Geological Origins of the Ancient Delphic Oracle (Greece).” Geology 28, no. 8 (August 2001): 707–10.

Bower, Bruce. The Oedipus Complex: A Theory under Fire. In Readings on Sophocles. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997.

Demand, Nancy. Birth, Death, and Motherhood in Classical Greece. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Grant, Michael. A Guide to the Ancient World: A Dictionary of Classical Place Names. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1986.

Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Alan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1968.

Sealey, Raphael. A History of the Greek City States, 700–338 B.C. Berkley: University of California Press, 1976.

Segal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Richard Crawley. London: Orion Publishing Group, 1993.

Woodard, Thomas, ed. Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1966.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875200043