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Critical Lens Essay Oedipus The King

Aristotle considered Oedipus Tyrannus the supreme example of tragic drama and modeled his theory of tragedy on it. He mentions the play no fewer than eleven times in his De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705). Sigmund Freud in the twentieth century used the story to name the rivalry of male children with their fathers for the affection of their mothers, and Jean Cocteau adapted the tale to the modern stage in La Machine infernale (1934; The Infernal Machine, 1936). However, no matter what changes the Oedipus myth underwent in two and a half millennia, the finest expression of it remains this tragedy by Sophocles.

Brilliantly conceived and written, Oedipus Tyrannus is a drama of self-discovery. Sophocles achieves an amazing compression and force by limiting the dramatic action to the day on which Oedipus learns the true nature of his birth and his destiny. The fact that the audience knows the dark secret that Oedipus unwittingly slew his true father and married his mother does nothing to destroy the suspense. Oedipus’s search for the truth has all the tautness of a detective tale, and yet because audiences already know the truth they are aware of all the ironies in which Oedipus is enmeshed. That knowledge enables them to fear the final revelation at the same time that they pity the man whose past is gradually and relentlessly uncovered to him.

The plot is thoroughly integrated with the characterization of Oedipus, for it is he who impels the action forward in his concern for Thebes, his personal rashness, and his ignorance of his past. His flaws are a hot temper and impulsiveness, but without those traits his heroic course of self-discovery would never occur.

Fate for Sophocles is not something essentially external to human beings but something at once inherent in them and transcendent. Oracles and prophets in this play may show the will of the gods and indicate future events, but it is the individual who gives substance to the prophecies. Moreover, there is an element of freedom granted to human beings, an ability to choose, where the compulsions of character and the compulsions of the gods are powerless. It is in the way individuals meet the necessities of their destiny that freedom lies. They can succumb to fate, pleading extenuating circumstances, or they can shoulder the full responsibility for what they do. In the first case they are merely pitiful, but in the second they are tragic and take on a greatness of soul that nothing can conquer.

A crucial point in the play is that Oedipus is entirely unaware that he killed his father and wedded his mother. He himself is the cause of the plague on Thebes, and in vowing to find the murderer of Laius and exile him he unconsciously pronounces judgment on himself. Oedipus, the king and the hero who saved Thebes from the Sphinx, believes in his own innocence. He is angry and incredulous when the provoked Teiresias accuses him of the crime, so he jumps to the conclusion that Teiresias and Creon are conspirators against him. As plausible as that explanation may be, Oedipus maintains it with irrational vehemence, not even bothering to investigate it before he decides to have Creon put to death. Every act of his is performed rashly: his hot-tempered killing of Laius, his investigation of the murder, his violent blinding of himself, and his insistence on being exiled. He is a man of great pride and passion who is intent on serving Thebes, but he does not have tragic stature until the evidence of his guilt begins to accumulate.

Ironically, his past is revealed to him by people who wish him well and who want to reassure him. Each time a character tries to comfort him with information, the information serves to damn him more thoroughly. Jocasta, in proving how false oracles can be, first suggests to him that he unknowingly really did kill Laius, thus corroborating the oracles. The messenger from Corinth in reassuring Oedipus about his parentage brings his true parentage into question, but he says enough to convince Jocasta that Oedipus is her son. It is at this point, when he determines to complete the search for the truth, knowing that he killed Laius and knowing that the result of his investigation may be utterly damnable, that Oedipus’s true heroism starts to emerge. His rashness at this point is no longer a liability but becomes part of his integrity.

Learning the full truth of his dark destiny, his last act as king is to blind himself over the dead body of Jocasta, his wife and his mother. It is a terrible, agonizing moment, even in description, but in the depths of his pain Oedipus is magnificent. He does not submit passively to his woe or plead that he committed his foul acts in ignorance, though he could be justified in doing so. He blinds himself in a rage of penitence, accepting total responsibility for what he did and determined to take the punishment of exile as well. As piteous as he appears in the final scene with Creon, there is more public spirit and more strength in his fierce grief and his resolution of exile than in any other tragic hero in the history of the theater. Oedipus unravels his life to its utmost limits of agony and finds there an unsurpassed grandeur of soul.

Psychoanalysis Analysis - Oedipus the King by Sophocles


Remember Oedipus? The king who unknowingly married his mother, Jocasta, after having unknowingly murdered his father?

So many scary accidental deaths in Oedipus the King.

Anyway, yeah, you know Oedipus. After he committed these crimes, he then blinded himself and went into exile in order to serve himself up some justice.

Then Freud got wind of him. And this poor guy's story was so central to psychoanalysis that Freud made his name into an adjective, "Oedipal." He also used it to name the most important of all the psychoanalytic complexes: the infamous "Oedipus Complex."

The caricatured version of the "Oedipus Complex" goes something like this: every man wants to marry his mother and murder his father. (Women are sometimes said to suffer from an "Electra Complex." But that was, for the unenlightened and sometimes outright misogynist Freud, another story.)

Of course, there's an element of truth to that caricature—it does get at something essential about the Freudian account of infantile development and adult conflict. But it drastically simplifies what, in Freud's founding formulation, is a very complex complex.

For Freud, Sophocles' tragedy shows the strength of unconscious forces in human life. What Freud added to the classical reception of the play was a sense of just how generalizable this story was.

Just because Oedipus's crimes look larger than life doesn't mean that they're not true to life. As in, a part of everyday, modern life. We are all propelled by forces that remain unseen—unless, we undertake the urgently necessary work of psychoanalysis.

Working to understand the unconscious, and our repressed desires, is the only thing that can help us avert repeated tragedy. But it's no guarantee. Freud always warned that no matter how hard we work to understand ourselves and our society, a happy ending can never be ensured.

We guess Sophocles wasn't the only one with a pretty tragic worldview…


[Teiresias, addressing Oedipus:] I say that with those you love best
You live in foulest shame unconsciously
And do not see where you are in calamity.


Ouch. David Greene's translation of these lines helps us to see just how much the Sophoclean scenario anticipated psychoanalysis. Clearly, so much of Freud's science is modeled on this tragedy.

Ah, it's nice to once again appreciate the literariness of psychoanalysis. Good old Dr. Freud was nothing if not learned.

Anywho. The prophet Teiresias predicts Oedipus's downfall here by claiming that the king, still on the throne at this moment in the play, "live[s] in foulest shame unconsciously." So his problem is that he's got no awareness of what he's doing.

And what was he doing? Totally violating his society's most primal and powerful taboo. (That's the incest taboo, FYI.)

It's supposed to be ironic, of course, that while Oedipus is still sighted he "[does] not see" the truth of his situation. And later, when he blinds himself? That's because he does finally see that awful truth.

Note how these lines are actually positioning Oedipus as a victim—as someone not totally responsible for his actions. He has done all that he has done unknowingly. "Unconsciously." He's at the whim of fate.

But the play's lesson is that fate is not always kind enough to make sure we're clued into what we're doing. We can and often must be made to pay for crimes committed while we weren't looking. Well, really, while we weren't seeing.

What's saddest about this whole storyline, we think, is actually the way that fate separates Oedipus from "those [he loves] best." The king's love is no less true for being foul, and yet this love will not be spared from the "calamity" that's fast approaching Thebes.

Hug your loved ones, Shmoopers. Life is hard sometimes. Our unconscious minds are always stuck up there in our heads, working against us in unpredictable ways.