Oedipus Rex

By Sophocles

Freud's Interpretation ("Oedipus Complex")

A different kind of interpretation is given by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the father of psychoanalysis, who saw in the story of Oedipus an answer to the problem of neurotic guilt, which he formulated in his theory of the "Oedipus complex". The general understanding of the "Oedipus complex" is the abnormal love for a mother and hate for a father or vice versa. However, the meaning of the term as such reaches far beyond that original definition as the Oedipus complex is considered to be "one of the prime motivating forces behind many psychological disorders and aberrant reactions".

In Oedipus Rex, Freud rightly understands that the portrayal of the gods was not intended to be an accusation of divine powers. Although they force an immoral sin upon Oedipus, who thus ignorantly sets aside the responsibilities to the social law and moral code, Sophocles was too much a pious man to question the gods' rightness. His intention was primarily to demonstrate the gods' endless power; he declares it the highest morality to bow to the will of the gods. Freud's understanding, however, is that the gods force upon Oedipus a crime, which would naturally have been prevented by his moral instinct. He then goes further to draw a parallel between the god/oracle and the audiences' unconscious. During the course of the play the audience according to Freud would detect the Oedipus complex in each individual who would repress the abhorrent thought into the unconscious (back to where it came from). Freud realises some psychological truth in this as he explains in his "General Introduction of Psychoanalysis": "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 discern no foundation".

However, Freud draws his psychological conclusion not only from the content of the play (marrying one's mother and parricide) but also from the play's structure. Sophocles displays Oedipus' deed gradually by skilfully prolonged enquiry, and reveals the truth step by step, constantly digging deeper into the matter. From this point of view the play carries a certain resemblance to the course of psychoanalysis. While Oedipus discovers the truth by a gradual procedure of detective work, the unconscious in psychoanalysis is set free by recollection of the essence of a matter in a fairly similar way.

Existentialist interpretation

Many scholars have tried to find some fault in Oedipus' behaviour to explain his suffering. But there is no moral fault or crime that could be deducted from Oedipus' character. The existentialist interpretation asserts that Sophocles was in no way concerned to tell a crime-punishment story. As opposed to most other tragedies, in which the structure embodies a crime-punishment sequence, Oedipus is not guilty of any offence - he is only ignorant. He has thus committed no such offence and the question of "why" is thus a failure on Oedipus' side that can only be understood as an existential whole. As Richmond Y. Hathorn says, Oedipus failed to recognise his own involvement in the human condition, he failed to realise that not all difficulties are riddles to be solved by pure intellect and reason. For, although in the end he knows the whole truth, there is no answer to the reason for his suffering. The Existentialist holds the opinion that "there are mysteries, which are not to be explained or solved at all but which are simply coped with by engagement, active or passive, of the whole self". Oedipus' severe punishment and suffering is thus the only means by which the gods are able to liberate such understanding of things.