Grene (2010), “Oedipus the King” [Sophocles]


Sophocles’ Oedipus the King offers the expected elements of a Greek tragedy. In this case, it involves the tragic character who manages to have a collection of incredibly bad events happen to him. The common understanding of Oedipus the King is the idea that he kills his father and marries his mother.  However, after careful consideration of the text, it can be strongly argued that while this oracle was fulfilled, Oedipus was largely ignorant of its occurrence. Perhaps, his ignorance is Sophocles’ way to play on the frequency of “blindness.” I do not think that at any point there was consent to kill his father. Its almost as if the people surrounding Oedipus are aware of the oracle, but largely dance around their knowledge or simply deny its existence. While Teiresias is blind, he is presented to be omnipotent of all going on around him, even amid criticism. Conversely, Oedipus is presented to be witty and intelligent. Oedipus resolves the riddle of the sphinx and is the one beloved by citizens of Thebes. However, below the surface, Oedipus is the boastful and over-compensating one. The one prevalent flaw is anger, but this may be another play on the idea of blindness—”blind rage.”

Another common theme in this story is the idea of the “castaway,” that is to say the notion that when someone does something wrong, they go away either due to guilt or self-imposed exile or a combination thereof. After the death of Laius, the old shepherd goes away into self-imposed exile, perhaps because of guilt. At the conclusion of the story, Oedipus is presumed to be headed for a place where his deepest pangs remain unheard by anyone. This creates the idea that the scorned just “go away.” That is, they disappear out of sight and out of mind. Maybe this was the intended way to clean up lose ends in this story, or maybe it was the intended way to consistently deal with the scorned, or what later will be classified as the mentally disabled. Initially, there was the idea of exile, but that evolved into confinement, as elucidated in Foucault’s Madness and Civilization (1961) and Birth of the Clinic (1963). Arguably, Oedipus was not mentally ill at the outset of this narrative, but at its conclusion there is no doubt he entered a disturbed state, but then again who would not be had they been on the wrong end of the oracle.

/Full Text of the Oedipus the King review.

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