Friday, April 22, 2022

Oedipus the King by Sophocles - Aren't you the great solver of riddles? Aren't you Oedipus?

Sophocles, Oedipus the King, performed c. 426.  A perfect work of art, although hardly the perfect play.  We have read enough to see that form of Greek tragedy had room for many things.  It is hard to separate Oedipus the King from its reception, from Aristotle and Freud, except by reading it, or presumably seeing it, and enjoying the amazing thing itself.

All of my quotations will be form the Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay translation, another of those Oxford editions matching a classicist and a poet.  Off to the side I put another famous response to the Oedipus story, Gustave Moreau’s 1864 Oedipus and the Sphinx (hanging at the Met), backstory for the Sophocles play.  Happier times, when sexy Oedipus was making out with the sexy Sphinx.  Or whatever is going on there.  Dig that creepy ravine full of corpses.

Oedipus was the great Greek monster-killing hero who won not through feats of strength or the seduction of helpful women – we’ve seen all of that lately – but through his intelligence, so he is a good choice for the invention of the detective novel by Sophocles.  The Delphi oracle tells King Oedipus that the plague tormenting Thebes will only subside when the murder of the previous king, Laios, is solved.  And Oedipus is just the man to solve a cold case:

Now I am here.

I will begin the search again, I

will reveal the truth, expose everything, let it all be seen.  (29)

And although Oedipus turns out not to be such a good detective, he does solve the case.

The perfection of the play, what makes it an exemplar, is its use – its embodiment – of dramatic irony, brilliant at every level from the plot, well known to every Greek, down to the individual lines, often written as if to make the audience wince, or howl.  Just a few lines below the detective manifesto above:

The man who killed Laios might take revenge on me

just as violently.

And Oedipus is right, the killer of Laios takes a terrible revenge on Oedipus.  One theme is about knowledge and truth.  In the first few lines, before he knows about the oracle, Oedipus says:

I am king, I had to come.  As king,

I had to know.  Know for myself, know for me.  (23)

The knowledge theme is linked to another complex system of imagery full of light and sun and sight:

KREON: Once everything is clear, exposed to the light,

we will see our suffering is blessing.  All we need is luck.  (27)

But as the clues appear (DETECTIVE OEDIPUS: “One small clue might lead to other,” 28), characters begin to doubt the light, to doubt the oracles of Apollo the sun god.  The chorus begins to get freaked out:

nobody prays to the god of light no one believes

nothing of the gods stays (63)

A theme of darkness intrudes, as when Jocasta, wife and mother of Oedipus, reassures Oedipus:

Why should men be afraid of anything?  Fortune rules our lives.

Luck is everything.  Things happen.  The future is darkness.  (66)

Another line where the audience softly, or for all I know loudly, moans in horror.  The blinding is still ten pages away in my edition.  The fact that both Kreon and Jocasta invoke luck, which Oedipus, convinced of his autonomy, rejects, suggests one line towards interpreting his terrible fate.  Jocasta turns against knowledge, too, by the end of the play.  What good did it do her?

The last time I read Oedipus the King, it was Oedipe roi, translated by Didier Lamaison, the text included as a supplement to his ingenious 1994 conversion of the play into an actual detective novel (also titled Oedipe roi), published in a line of detective novels, shelved with the mysteries in the bookstore where I bought it.  Sadly this novel is not yet in English.  It’s good.

The title quotation is from the great fight between Oedipus and Teiresias early in the play, p. 43.

The next play is Andromache by Euripides.  We have enough Euripides plays that we can observe, or invent, artistic phases, and I remember Andromache, Hecuba, and The Suppliants, all performed within three years, feeling like they belonged together.  We will see.


  1. This play really does feel like a noir story in some ways - the detective starts off wanting to solve the case to restore some moral balance, but finds himself drawn into a quagmire that he can't find a comfortable way out of with a simple solution. Early on, Oedipus says "I look at every story" - by the end of it, he's deliberately made himself unable to look at anything.

    Of course the big difference is that the audience knows the answer to the mystery. But that doesn't make it any less effective - this is as good an argument against the need for "spoiler warnings" as you can get. Amongst all the ironic lines, one that stood out was from the messenger from Corinth: "Do you know that all your fears are empty?" (Meaning all Oedipus' fears of killing Polybus and bedding Merope, his adoptive parents.) It turns out Oedipus has all the wrong fears.

    I circled back to Antigone before this since I'd missed it a few weeks ago, and it's a good companion piece. You can see why Sophocles brought back Tiresias. It had never really occurred to me before that Antigone is the half-sister of Oedipus, which adds some extra layers to her concerns over the burial of her brother. And Creon is the brother of Jocasta. Presumably we'll dig deeper into these relationships in Oedipus At Colonus.

    That Lamaison novel sounds interesting - I'm trying to brush up on my French, currently plodding my way through a Simenon - maybe I should try and find a copy of that.

  2. Dramatic irony, wow, yes, practically every line is loaded with it. I’ll add mine to dollymix’s in terms of stand out lines. When Creon tells Oedipus, “Time is the great healer, you will see (Robert Fagles Tr.).” Apparently not! All the characters that are in the know about Oedipus—Jocasta, Tiresias, the Shepherd, Creon too (I think)—they spared telling Oedipus the truth, partially for that very reason. They knew Oedipus well enough to understand that he couldn’t handle the truth, as a statesman & as a man, not for the time being, at least. There’s much to be said for allowing people to handle their own deep-seated fears & shame in their own time. Since Oedipus was great for the city, since no one could match his exploits, why push the truth on Oedipus if he wasn’t ready to handle it? Sparing him pain helps spare the city, they think. I’d say their instincts were right. The man unraveled in no time at all.

    For this reason, Jocasta is the most intriguing character to me. If I was in the detective bureau, I’d want to interview Jocasta first—fascinating character. What was *her* story? I’d want to know, what was she whispering to her brother & he to her? She reminds me of the great Machiavellian matriarchs of Rome like Livia—perhaps the real kingmakers of the old empires.

  3. The Greek myths and plays, along with Bible stories, are a big part of my aversion to the very idea of "spoilers" - "A Watched Plot Never Spoils" and so on.

    That would be fun if you could find the Lamaison novel. It is not too hard. When I read it my French was a lot weaker than it is now. Jocasta, as Stephen suggests, is quite interesting in the novel. But I especially love the moment in the play when Jocasta finds herself a step ahead of Oedipus and begs him to drop the case. Terrifying.

    I love seeing the additional examples of toe-curling irony. The play is so well-made.

  4. Some time ago there was a poetry challenge on the theme "What the oracle didn't tell you" and I immediately thought of the moment where Oedipus says "It was Apollo, friends, Apollo who brought these troubles to pass, these terrible, terrible troubles. But the hand that struck my eyes was none other than my own, wretched that I am! Why should I see, when sight showed me nothing sweet?"

    That horrifying moment is also an act of free will in a play so much about fate.

  5. That is such a moment. One of the greats.

    I saw the attraction of the plays to the modern French, the existentialists, so clearly in that moment. Life and fate are not merely tragic, but absurd, and these hard-fought moments of free will are great moral triumphs.

  6. Yes. One must imagine Oedipus free, as it were.

    There is a lot to be said about Antigone and Vichy France but I am going to put that in the Antigone post.

  7. The captcha on that post isn't working, so I'm just going to recommend Mary Ann Frese Witt's essay on Anouilh's Antigone.

  8. It worked, but I also have to approve comments on older posts. The bots have been calm lately, so maybe I can relax that a little.