39. Oedipus the King by Sophocles (429 BC)

Plot : Plague is ravaging Thebes, and according to the oracle, bringing the murderer of the old King Laius to justice is the only way to bring relief. Oedipus vows to do so, thus realising the most dreadful curse afflicting both himself and his family.

Again my copy is the The Three Theban Plays translated by Robert Fagles and published by Penguin Books (ISBN 0140444254)

My thoughts : Finally we reach the story that made Sigmund Freud famous.

Oedipus’ life is fated to be cursed – his own father is warned that he will be killed by his son, so Oedipus is sent away to be killed as a baby. Saved from this cruelty, he inherits a far worse infamy as he does indeed become his father’s murderer, his own mother’s new husband, and the father of his own sisters. He is torn down from the heights of power and fame to the lowest : self  loathing, blinded beggar and outcast.

To quote Aristotle, this is “the most brilliant example of theatrical plot” (although he probably said it in Classical Greek). Despite all advice, Oedipus drives forward in his quest for the truth about the death of Laius and his own mysterious birth, only to discover he has unwittingly brought disaster on himself. His opening speeches are full of irony as he promises to discover the murderer and save the city, and brings his own curse down upon himself.

“Whoever he is … let that man drag out his life in agony, step by painful step”

“I am the king now, I hold the throne that he held then, possess his bed and a wife who shares our seed ….. So I will fight for him as if he were my father”

He refuses to listen to the blind prophet Tiresias’ warnings until the cruel truth hits him

“I have a terrible fear the blind seer can see”

Once the dreadful truth is revealed and Jocasta (his wife and mother) has taken her own life, Oedipus blinds himself with her brooch pins and begs to be cast out of the city. Before he leaves, he embraces his two young daughters and is heartbroken when they must be taken from him.

Favourite lines/passages:

“I’d never have come to this,
my father’s murderer – never been branded
mother’s husband, all men see me now! Now,
loathed by the gods, son of the mother I defiled
coupling in my father’s bed, spawning lives in the loins
that spawned my wretched life. What grief can crown this grief?
It’s mine alone, my destiny -I am Oedipus!”                                            Oedipus, page 242

“I’d wall up my loathsome body like a prison,
blind to the sound of life, not just the sight.
Oblivion – what a blessing …
for the mind to dwell a world away from pain”                                         Oedipus,   page 243

Diversions/digressions : Recoiling from the tragedy of Oedipus and his family, I found myself wondering about his encounter with the Sphinx, the monster with the head of a woman, the body of a lioness, wings of an eagle, a serpent tail, (but no nose as Napoleon’s soldiers had knocked it off 😉 ) Hera (or Ares) sent the Sphinx to Thebes where it asks each traveller the same riddle, (what has only one voice but travels on four legs, then two, then three?) then devours them when they fail to answer correctly. Of course Oedipus solves the riddle, hence gaining access to the City and his fate. Comes of being too clever for your own good, eh?

Personal rating : Much more satisfying and robust as a play, yet still with only one dominant plotline, I think this deserves an 8

Next : Another incestuous mother and son (or step-son) tragedy in Hippolytus, by Euripides



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