THE MOST TRAGIC STORY EVER TOLD: OEDIPUS REX (OEDIPUS
The story of Oedipus belongs to Theban cycle of legends.
Thebes, the native city of Dionysus and a center of his cult, is also close
to the central oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The Theban cycle comprises the
stories of the doomed kings and ghastly, cult-oriented passions.
Tragedes on the Oedipus cycle:
Aeschylus: The Seven Against Thebes.
Sophocles: Oedipus the King; Oedipus at
Euripides: The Phoenician Maidens;
The Phoenician Women.
Andre Gide: Oedipus.
Jean Cocteau: The Infernal Machine.
Berthold Brecht: Antigone.
Jean Anouilh: Antigone.
Theban dynasty succession: Cadmus - fought a dragon; founded
Thebes; married Harmonia, daughter of Ares, whose necklace brought a curse;
in old age, they turned into huge snakes. > Pentheus - resisted Dionysus;
torn into pieces by the Bacchant women.(> Polydorus > Labdacus) > Laius
- had a prophecy that his son would kill him; exposed the baby-son. > Oedipus
- unknowingly killed his father Laius and married his mother Iocasta. >
Eteocles vs. Polynices - killed each other fighting for the throne. > Creon
- Iocasta's brother; was unreasonably strict and lost the rest of his family.
The legend of Oedipus:
1. Laius, king of Thebes, has the
oracle of Delphic Apollo: his son will kill him. So, when the queen Iocasta
has a baby-boy, the royal couple has its feet pierced (Oedipous = swollen
feet/ Gk. oida =know) and sends the trusted slave to leave
the baby on the Mount Cithaeron. The slave takes pity of the baby and gives
it to the childless royalty of Corinth: Polibus and Merope.
2. Adolescent friends in
a casual argument call Oedipus fake son. - Parents: Forget it! Yet Oedipus
goes to Delphi just to make sure; Who am I? - The oracle: You will kill
your father and breed children by your mother.
3. Coming to the the crossroad,
Oedipus decides never to return to Corinth and go to Thebes, instead. As
he was approaching the crossroad between Delphi, Thebes and Corinth, distraught
and deep in thought, in a narrow passage between two rocks he met an old
man in a chariot with a few attendants. The man shouted: "Get lost! Go
away! Away from this road! - and pushed Oedipus with his long sceptre.
Oedipus, angry, grabbed the staff from his hands and hit him on the head,
killing the old man, and also the slaves who tried to seize him.
4. No sooner than the struggle
was over, Oedipus came face to face with the Sphinx, sitting on her rock
at the crossroad. Sphinx, a winged lion with the head of a woman, asked
the riddle from those who passed by her: Who in the morning walks on four
legs, at midday on two, and in the evening on three? Her rock was
surrounded with a pile of human bones, for she ate those who could not
answer. Yet Oedipus was wise. He said: It is man! (Crawling baby - adult
- old man leaning on a cane.) So, Sphinx had to throw herself down from
the cliff, and the way to Thebes was now free. (Did he guess it 100%?...)
5. Thus having saved the city
of Thebes from this monster with her riddle, Oedipus found a hero's welcome.
As it happened, the old king Laius just lately was killed in a highway
accident on his way to Delphi, where he was to inquire the oracle, how
to get rid of Sphinx. So, the throne was left conveniently empty, and the
widowed queen was still attractive, and the young stranger seemes quite
intelligent and probably would make a good king, and so, -- the grateful
Thebes offered Oedipus the throne together with the queen Iocasta. They
lived happily and had four children: twin brothers, Eteocles & Polyneices,
and two girls: Antigone and Ismene.
6. All was well, till, many
years later, the plague suddenly struck Thebes. (Here Oed.Rex starts.)
The crowd of people came to the king's palace to beg Oedipus do something
and help Thebes, as he once had proved himself wise and the savior of the
people, - this is why he was chosen a king.
7. Naturally, Oedipus cares of
his people. He sends for the oracle of Delphic Apollo to find out the cause
of the plague. Apollo's answer is: Gods are angry, because the death of
the old king remaines unavenged. Oedipus is quite shocked at such negligence.
How it is possible no investigation of the circumstances of Laius' death
was ever carried out? - Well, the chorus explains, - it was a hard time
for us all; this Sphinx, you know; everything happened so suddenly, and
then you appeared in the city and we were busy with your coronation...
There really was no clue; just one survivor; he was out of his wits from
fear. Now he is a very old man, you know...When you came to the city, he
left for his hut in the mountains and never since was back. - Never
mind, send for him.
8. For openings, Oedipus puts
a formal curse on the murderer of the old king, whoever he is. No citizen
is allowed to give him shelter or food. Oedipus assures the people, that
he will do everything within his powers, and he would take as great care
of avenging Laius as if the late king was his own father. Next, Oedipus
summons the divine powers as well, and consults the famous blind prophet
Teiresias in hope to find out the truth. The prophet advises: Drop it,
do not even try to find it out. For your own good, don't ask me of anything.
At this, Oedipus is quite irate and accuses Teiresias of being a false
prophet, or, worse even, a conspirator with murderers. - Now the old prophet
is angry: You are too young to speak to me this way; if you must know,
before the sun is down, you will find out yourself a husband and a son
and brother of your children. (Exit Teiresias.)
9. The queen Iocasta hears the
shouts and comes out from the palace, finding Oedipus bewildered and perplexed.
- What is the matter, dear? Any trouble? - Oedipus complains about that
crazy uncooperative old prophet. - Oh, dearest husband, don't believe any
prophets! They are all liars, they do not know anything! Look, once
in my youth my old husband had an oracle that he would be killed by his
own son. But - nothing of the kind! The poor baby died, cast away in the
mountains. As for Laius, - some robbers killed him at a crossroad. So much
about the oracles... Comforting words of Iocasta, actually, plant some
seed of doubt in Oedipus' mind. - At the crossroad, you say?.. -
Yes, between Thebes, Corinth and Delphi. - When did it happen? - Shortly
before you came to the city. - How did Laius look? - Well, he was tall,
about your size, some gray showing in his hair... He did, in fact, resembe
you now. Why are you asking? Tell me what is bothering you.
10. Now Oedipus is scared: the
queen's description evoked the memory of his encounter with the old man
in the chariot, whom he had left dead on the road. Could this be Laius?
The course of peripeteia (turn of events) releases the mechanisms of anagnorisis
11. At this crucial moment, the
"happy messenger' from Corinth comes with good and bad news: Bad - Oedipus'
old father Polybus is dead; good - the city of Corinth expects Oedipus
to return and be their king. Oedipus is cautious of this perspective: Once
in youth the oracle warned me that I would kill my father and marry my
mother; so, I decided never to return home, lest somehow the prophecy comes
true. - And you did pretty well in your exile! - Yes, but there is nothing
dearer than the parents' faces... - So, come and see your mother now, while
she is still alive! - As long as she is alive, I still fear the prophecy...
- You know what? I'll free you from this fear. I am a messenger of fortune,
indeed! She is not your mother; there is nothing to fear. - How so? - They
adopted you as a baby. - How do you know?! - Well, I myself, for that matter,
delivered you to your parents. I got you from some shepherd aroung here;
you were found with your feet pierced on the mount Cithaeron...
12. Hearing this, Iocasta changes
in her face: - Please, my precious one, I beg of you, stop this futile
investigation and do not ask any more irrelevant questions... With this,
the queen silently retreats to the palace, never to come out again. (Iocasta
suddenly understands everything; for Oedipus, however, it is only half
of the anagnorisis: he is pretty sure at the moment, that he had
murdered Laius, but he does not know yet, that Laius was his real father.)
At this point, Oedipus suddenly forgets about Laius
(or - it is all clear with Laius); finally, he is back to the pursuit of
his early youth: all he wants is to find out his true origin. At some point,
even the chorus tells him to back up: we will stand by you, no matter what;
let it be as it is. Yet Oedipus passion for "Know thyself' is self-destructive:
he intends to face the truth at any price. (Irony: the price = himself
and his world...)
13. The Messenger from Corinth
sees the old Shepherd approaching and recognizes the man: It is he who
many years ago had given you to me as a baby! Hey! Remember me? Remember
the baby you gave me years ago? - Look, here is this baby, the king of
Thebes! (The old Shepherd, on his part, does not appear to have any clear
recollections of the past, and tries to avoid questions, begging Oedipus
to drop the subject and let him go.) Now, once the identity of the baby
is established, the question remains: whose baby was it? Pressed by questions,
the shepherd finally reveals the fact that the baby was the son of Laius
and Iocasta: And if you are this baby, - he says to Oedipus, - then you
are definitely the most wretched man who ever lived...
14. Now comes the full anagnorisis:
cries are heard from the palace: queen Iocasta is dead. She hang herself
in the bedroom which she had shared with father and son. Oedipus rushes
inside and finds her body; grabs the pin from her dress and pokes
out his eyes: after what he has committed, he feels, he must not
see the sun.
Soon he appears, blind, at the entrance of the palace (anagnorisis
~ epiphany of horror) -- to go to exile (catharsis).
Notice that the Greek
tragedy nearly always includes some sort of trial or investigation. -
so the story of the daughters of Danaus; the Eumenides; Oedipus. In essence,
is a detective story. There is a tragic guilt involved:
which may be involuntary and yet causes the public miasma
- pollution, communal participation in the guilt. The irony of the tragic
investigation consists in a paradoxical turn-around of the initial assumptions
(Aristotelean peripeteia). Investigation leads to identifying the
true source of affliction (anagnorisis). Once identified, the source
of affliction (=miasma, pollution) is expelled (catharsis).
Thus, tragedy is a cathartic (purgatory) genre, with the cathartic trial
as its core.
Oedipus pursues two seemingly irrelevant quests:
- wants to know himself.
- investigates the murder he must avenge.
He goes to Delphic Apollo with precisely this mission; to fulfill
the Delphic precept: Know thyself. Yet the harder he tries to know
himself, the farther he runs from himself, and the more inevitably he brings
about the very prophecy he is trying to escape.
It is confronting something totally
external - solving an old crime - that leads him back to his own track.
Now Oedipus, finally, knows himself; - but the irony of Apollo is that
the knowledge of the self is only achieved by self-destruction.
An additional elegance of the Oedipus Rex
is the irony which makes the two Apollonian principles - Know thyself
and Nothing exessively - collide within the tragedy: it is Oedipus'
excessive strife to know himself which brought his fate upon him.
The end of the story of
the house of Oedipus:
Oedipus, now blind and wretched, leaves the power
to the brother of the late queen, Creon, and goes to exile. His daughters,
Antigone and Ismene, follow him to the end. Athenian king Theseus gives
refuge to Oedipus and the girls. Oedipus' death is a mystery, and
his resting place will protect Athens (Sophocles, Oedipus in Colonus).
His daughters return to Thebes, and Antigone is about to marry son of Creon,
Oedipus' sons quarrel. Eteocles exiles Polyneices,
who then raises an army with seven prominent chieftains against his native
Thebes (the war of SevenAgainst Thebes) in an attempt to regain
power. The brothers kill each other in combat. The empty throne is left
to Creon, who now becomes the new king. He orders the hero's funeral to
Eteocles, defender of the city, while leaving the body of Polyneices
out in the open air, and forbids to bury him under severe punishment.
Antigone, the sister of the deceased, secretly performs his funeral rites.
The king Creon, shocked by the disobedience of a young girl, his own niece
and daughter-in-law-to-be, locks her in a cave to die, in spite of the
intercession of his son Haemon, fiance of Antigone.
Warned by divine omens and the old prophet Teiresias,
the king finally changes his mind and opens the cave. - Too late:
Antigone hanged herself with her girl's belt, and Haemon having found his
bride dead, curses his father, spits in his face and kills himself in his
sight. (Death of the lovers in or near a tomb - a sort of Pyramus and Thisbe
in Ovid; Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare denouement?) Hearing these news,
Creon's wife kills herself too, cursing her husband. So, Creon turned out
to be a looser all-around. (Sophocles, Antigone.)
WHO IS WHO IN THE OEDIPUS-COMPLEX ?
||The paradigm of all men ___
||Oedipus' mother ___
||Oedipus' father ___
||Oedipus' foster-parents ___ ___
||Oedipus' wife ___
||Oedipus' sons ___ ___
||Oedipus' daughters ___ ___
||He attacked his native city ___
||She was locked in the cave ___
||Queen's brother, the new king ___
||Antigone's suicidal fiance ___
||Enigmatic monster ___
||Blind prophet who saw too much ___
|| He caused the downfall of Oedipus ___
||He gave the last refuge to Oedipus ___
||He wrote tragedies on Oedipus ___
||He built his theory on Oedipus ___