Oedipus Rex

By Sophocles

Themes and Issues

Very few critics have valued Oedipus Rex so little as Voltaire did. He criticised points of structure and even dismissed the play as inferior and absurd. Most people have found profound meaning in Oedipus Rex, which has given us a rich variety of interpretations ranging from the classical critics of Aristotle, who thought it the ideal tragedy, to the more complex explanations of the 20th century. Different viewpoints show that meaning has been found not only to lie in religious ritual and in the intellectual life of the 5th century, but also in the moral law and in the unconscious. The following are explanations of the general meaning of the play as well as some of the important issues raised in the 20th century. These are by no means exclusive but they hopefully offer a wider range of thoughts about the play. Due to the variety of interpretations some ideas may seem to be contradictory, which results from the diversity of critics cited.

Universal meaning

Once we realise that Oedipus' fulfilled the oracle not knowing who his real parents were, it becomes clear that exactly this innocence and ignorance of his raises the facts of a purely fated destiny to a horribly tragic story. However the play needs to be looked at from a much more detached viewpoint. There must be a meaning within the play, which is more profound than simply realising the undeserved suffering. In Sophocles' opinion drama is an instrument, through which men reach a sublime knowledge. Accordingly, Oedipus Rex seems to have the message "realising fate is to realise man's powerlessness against a superior authority". One can take this thought even further and interpret specific aspects of the whole in a more abstract sense. For, the extent of suffering, which Oedipus' has to bear, indicates that the play's meaning can only be fully grasped if we understand its extremes in the context of something universal. Oedipus is chosen out of millions of people to innocently undergo the worst of fates. Since he alone is fated, right from the very beginning of his life, to bear the whole world's suffering Oedipus can be seen as a symbolical figure - a personification of human suffering. It becomes clear that the play gains a much more profound meaning, if we understand the main character as well as the gods as personification of something universal. Let us suppose Oedipus to stand for "human suffering" and the gods for the "universe of circumstances". Immediately the play's content (i.e. Oedipus' unfair treatment) is lifted and raised to a higher level of understanding. The story itself gains universal significance and once we see in Oedipus no longer the suffering individual but the personification of an abstract experience, his innocence becomes less relevant and primarily serves for purely structural devices of the play. From this point of view the play reveals itself to have given dramatic expression to the universe of circumstances embodying human suffering.

Importance of oracles and inevitability of fate

Up to the 5th century the importance of oracles and religion in general had been indisputable. The increasing number of sophists, however, turned the awareness of things into a different, more reasoned direction. Criticism on oracles was especially common at the time of the Peloponnesian War, which overlaps with the first production of Oedipus Rex. Numerous oracles had been produced of which only one (according to Thucydides) had turned out to be true. In his Philoctetes (produced in 431) Euripides declares that prophecies were no more than mere delusion. Generally the respect for prophets and seers was diminishing to a level of caricaturing them on the comic stage. Oedipus Rex shows in a most pitiful and horrible story the inevitability of fate, foretold by an oracle. Both his parents and Oedipus have tried to evade the fated destiny but all attempts fail at the power of the gods. Under the sophists' attack of reasoned questioning and inquiry the ancient tradition of oracles was threatened to become extinct. In this atmosphere Sophocles made a statement with Oedipus Rex about the infallibility of oracles, which he believed to be a basic fact of religion. It becomes clear that although Sophocles portrays the gods unfavourably and gruesome, he has no intention of criticism but shows an intense reverence to divine authority.

Freedom and Necessity

Oedipus' fate is clearly inevitable and the power of the gods is unquestionable and yet there is still an act of free choice for Oedipus. The gods have determined his future and yet they have not forced on Oedipus the knowledge of what crime he has committed. He could still have died not knowing what he has done. It is exactly this that fascinates us: that Oedipus chooses from his highest motives a series of actions, which will lead to his ruin. His sense of duty as the king and his pity compelled him to help the people of Thebes at the time of the plague. He consults the Delphic oracle, which is the first step to find out the truth about his horrible deed. When the answer came from Apollo that he ought to investigate the murderer of Laius, he could have neglected the word of god, but his sense of piety and justice required him to act. Teiresias, the herdsman and Jocasta each tries to stop him from his inquiry but he cannot live with such a dark mystery overshadowing his life. He also need not have urged the reluctant herdsman so forcefully but both his curiosity and his desire for unveiling the truth made him persistent to uncover the ignorance in which he had lived so long. No oracle has fated him to find out the truth. What ruins him is his free will to discover the facts on grounds of his loyalty to Thebes, his pride, curiosity and overall his longing for truth.

Innocent suffering

One of the first questions that springs to mind when reading the story of Oedipus is why does an innocent man has to undergo such undeserved suffering? How can Sophocles be a truly pious man if he portrays such an agony for mankind, for which divine powers are responsible? What intention lies behind such a hopeless message? The answer seems easy as long as we do not look at the play through Christian spectacles but apply Greek 5th century standards. To the Christians it is an essential part of piety to believe that God is just. Not so for the Greeks. When reading the Iliad, for example, or in fact most Greek tragedies, it becomes clear that the gods are not at all "good and just". Instead, very often the gods treat the human race most cruelly being primarily governed by selfish principles (such as revenge, pride or displaying power). Innocent suffering was in fact a reoccurring theme in Greek literature. This, however, is not an answer but only an explanation why Sophocles was able to portray the gods in such a bad light. The answer to such questions of undeserved suffering goes much deeper into religion and into man's psychology than one might expect at first sight.

There are a wide range of stories in religious mythology that rely on this very point: undeserved suffering. Some medieval Jews are said to have believed that God had given one just man to each generation, who suffered a terrible fate through no fault of his own, knowing that his suffering is unjust. The misery of such an innocent man was thought to somehow lighten the burden of the rest of mankind. Many other Greek tragedies similarly depend on a certain amount of innocence in the main character's part as, for example, Antigone, Hippolytus, or Ajax as well as in later literature such as in Shakespeare's Hamlet or in The Trial by Kafka. Such numerous examples raise the question why undeserved suffering is such a popular theme. Thomas Gould answers this question with the Passion of Christ, which is a disputable and impudent and yet an illuminating example. Passion means something that is done to Christ as opposed to something that he did and can thus be compared to the supernatural powers, which originate the suffering in Oedipus Rex. From the Christian point of view Christ was entirely undeserving of such humiliation and suffering. Additionally he was thought to experience these sufferings with pain and anguish. As the Bible says Christ has sacrificed himself innocently for mankind. For, if we believe that Christ had died on the cross without any unpleasantness, we would not have been moved to such an extent. In fact we know that he feared, just for a moment, that his father might have abandoned him and the fact that Christ had to undergo such pain and fear, though he deserved nothing but good, is believed to psychologically relieve the rest of mankind from guilt. The same attempt of explanation can be applied to Oedipus. He innocently had to undergo the worst of agonies and for comparative reasons the average spectator would assume his own fate to be much easier to bear. Unmerited misery, in Thomas Gould's view at least, is thus more than simply a reinforcement of the audience's pity. From a psychological angle there awakens a feeling of relief concerning one's own fortune.