We all know the basics: Oedipus offed his father and married his mother.
Oedipus the King, though, isn’t about the incestuous prophecy, but instead about Oedipus’ relentless pursuit – no matter the cost – of the truth, what he does with that truth and how he’s treated in spite of it all.
More than the story of ancient myth and its piecemeal modern echoes – thank you, Herr Freud – Sophocles gave us the measure of the man: integrity unmatched, good intentions to the last, a sense of justice that places no king above the law.
It’s a shame we only remember the sullied reputation.
The myth of Oedipus starts with the prophecy that he was fated to kill his father and take his mother to bed. Oedipus’ mother, Jocasta, knew of the prophecy at her son’s birth, and she attempted to turn fate the other way when she handed her son to a shepherd who in turn was to have the infant killed. This shepherd instead passed the baby to another shepherd who took Oedipus to grow up in the noble house of Polybus and Merope in Corinth.
When Oedipus hears the prophecy, he gives up everything in his attempt to flout the criminal sentence destined for him. He leaves what he knew to be his home, Corinth, and his known parents, Polybus and Merope, and believes he’s escaped when he marries Jocasta, then a widow after Oedipus kills a traveler (his actual father, King Laius of Thebes) at a crossroads to the city. At this point in the myth, he is none the wiser.
In true operatic style, though, we as spectators know he’s doomed because we know of the shepherd’s betrayal of Jocasta’s orders. We know that despite his conscious innocence, Oedipus is guilty.
Like the undoing of Macbeth, Oedipus suffers the consequences of his own actions, but unlike Macbeth, who thirsts for power, Oedipus pursues a noble goal when he claws toward truth.
Oedipus the King (more commonly titled Oedipus Rex) is the probe into King Laius’ murder, still a mystery nearly a decade after the fact and reopened when the oracle at Delphi reveals that avenging the former king’s murder is the only way to root out the corruption and plague then besieging the city of Thebes.
Oedipus is the tragic hero par excellence. His resolve in searching for truth only lifts him higher, and that moment of discovery is harrowing.
all come true, all burst to light!
O light—now let me look my last on you!
I stand revealed at last—
cursed in my birth, cursed in marriage,
cursed in the lives I cut down with these hands!
In his introduction, Robert Fagles avers that a play’s actors must have agency and free will for the drama to resonate. It’s a direct confutation of fated action, and Sophocles heeded the rule. The prophecy is central to the myth of Oedipus, but it’s the man’s action, his persistence in seeking the truth, that makes up the action of Sophocles’ play: Oedipus impugns himself so that the truth may live.
Oedipus at Colonus, taking place long after the events of Oedipus Rex and when the hero is an aged man, bent and blind by his own hand and an exile to Thebes, shows Oedipus tempered by time and hollowed out by merciless abuse.
Oedipus’ actions in uncovering the truth at all costs and his willingness to suffer for crimes he was guilty of only unconsciously are met with a startling lack of justice, mercy or compassion by all except his daughter, Antigone, who will herself later suffer for her good heart.
It’s in Oedipus at Colonus that we see the hero as a man unjustly reviled. He hears of the war between his sons. He finds asylum in Colonus at the insistence of its king, Theseus, but no justice in Thebes, where his brother in-law Creon now holds power.
He tells his story, almost as a sinner tells his confession: self-incriminating and bent on penance but asking all the while for forgiveness.
And we know that not only is he not wholly at fault for his crimes, but also that he willfully convicted himself to bring those crimes to light. It is so easy for us to suffer with him.
Oedipus, as Sophocles rendered him, is the democratic ideal: honesty, justice, humility, mercy, temperance, firmness, intelligence. And taken advantage of by those without a democratic bone in their bodies.
That Tiresias, the blind Theban seer, is pulled every which way, ragdoll fashion, for the political gain of all and sundry; and that Antigone, in her compassion for her brother Polynices and her father, is sentenced in Antigone to the liminal life of one buried alive, heightens the drama in its rebuke of power for the sake of power.
Though largely a bridging play between the high drama of Oedipus Rex and the tragic end to the myth we find in Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus has its strength in the calm, confession-box way that it insinuates Oedipus into our hearts. That and the fact that Antigone would lose its force without the injustices shown us in its prequel.
Though this edition from Penguin yields a strange organization – Antigone is first of the three plays included in this edition but is the last chronologically in the myth of Oedipus – it’s a minor complaint of an otherwise beautiful verse translation by Robert Fagles, the man whose painstaking work with Homer’s and Virgil’s epics have cemented him as the go-to guy for the Greek and Roman canon.
Apart from their merits as excellent dramas each, the Sophoclean plays are vindication for the hero who never received justice. The true irony is that most us only recognize those parts to the Oedipus myth that Freud emphasized: our popular understanding of the man who gave everything for honesty such that his adopted yet beloved Thebes would bleed no more is predicated on something that, while not a lie, is certainly much less than the whole unbiased truth.
The Three Theban Plays: Antigone – Oedipus the King – Oedipus at Colonus
Sophocles · c. 441-406 BC
Robert Fagles translation · Penguin, 2008 · 430 pages, paperback