By Dr Oliver Tearle
The plot of Sophocles’ great tragedy Oedipus the King (sometimes known as Oedipus Rex or Oedipus Tyrannos) has long been admired. In his Poetics, Aristotle held it up as the exemplary Greek tragedy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it one of the three perfect plots in all of literature (the other two being Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones).
Oedipus the King might also be called the first detective story in Western literature. Yet how well do we know Sophocles’ play? And what does a closer analysis of its plot features and themes reveal?
Michael Patterson, in The Oxford Guide to Plays (Oxford Quick Reference), calls Oedipus the King ‘a model of analytic plot structure’. So it’s worth briefly recounting the plot of Sophocles’ play in a short summary.
The city of Thebes is in the grip of a terrible plague. The city’s king, Oedipus, sends Creon to consult the Delphic oracle, who announces that if the city rids itself of a murderer, the plague will disappear. The murderer in question is the unknown killer of the city’s previous king, Laius. Oedipus adopts a sort of detective role, and endeavours to sniff out the murderer.
He himself is plagued by another prophecy: that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother. He thinks he’s managed to thwart the prophecy by leaving home – and his parents – back in Corinth. On his way from Corinth to Thebes, he had an altercation with a man on the road: neither party would back down to let the other past, and Oedipus ended up killing the man in perhaps Western literature’s first instance of road rage.
Then Oedipus learns that his ‘father’ back in Corinth was not his biological parent: he was adopted after his ‘real’ parents left him for dead on a hillside, and he was rescued by a kindly shepherd who rescued him, took the child in, and raised him as his own. (The name Oedipus is Greek for ‘swollen foot’, from the chains put through the infant’s feet when it was left on the mountain.)
Tiresias the seer then reveals that the man Oedipus killed on the road was Laius – the former king of Thebes and (shock horror! Twist!) Oedipus’ biological father. Laius’ widow, Jocasta, is Oedipus’ own mother – and the woman Oedipus had married upon his arrival in Thebes.
When this terrible truth is revealed, Jocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus puts out his own eyes and leaves Thebes, going into self-imposed exile so he can free the Thebans from the plague.
This much constitutes a brief recap or summary of the plot of Oedipus the King. How we should interpret and analyse its use of prophecy and Oedipus’ own culpability, however, remains a less clear-cut matter. Is Oedipus to blame for what happens to him? Or is he simply a pawn of the gods and fates, to be used according to their whim?
The answer should probably be ‘a bit of both’. Prophecies are bound up with fate, with things being predetermined. But there are obviously different ways of making them come true. In the David Gemmell novel, Stormrider: (The Rigante Book 4), the villain Winter Kay is told that he will be killed by ‘the one with the golden eye’. Thinking this refers to a particular man (who has one green and one golden eye), Winter Kay sets about trying to assassinate this imagined nemesis, and fails at every turn. Eventually, the nemesis can take no more and raises an army against Winter Kay. One of his soldiers, bearing a golden badge that resembles an eye in shape, is the one who kills Winter Kay in battle. In his dying moments, the hapless villain realises that, in seeking to avert the prophecy, he had, in fact, helped it to come true.
This is similar to the story of Oedipus the King. Oedipus heard the prophecy that he would one day murder his father and marry his mother, and so fled from his presumed parents so as to avoid fulfilling the prophecy. Such an act seems noble and it was jolly bad luck that fate had decreed that Oedipus would turn out to be a foundling and his real parents were still out there for him to bump into. But what is clever about Sophocles’ dramatising of the myth is the way he introduces little details which reveal Oedipus’ character. The clues were already there that Oedipus was actually adopted: when he received the prophecy from the oracle, a drunk told him as much. But because the man was drunk, Oedipus didn’t believe him.
But, as the Latin phrase has it, in vino veritas. Then, it is Oedipus’ hubris, his pride, that contributes to the altercation on the road between him and Laius, the man who turns out to be his real father: if Oedipus was less stubborn, he would have played the bigger man and stepped aside to let Laius pass.
What does all this mean, when we stop and analyse it in terms of the interplay between fate and personal actions in Oedipus the King? It means that Sophocles was aware of something which governs all our lives. Call it ‘karma’ if you will, or fate, but it works even if we remove the supernatural framework into which the action of Oedipus the King is placed.
Our actions have consequences, but that doesn’t mean that a particular action will lead to a particular consequence: it means that one action might cause something quite different to happen, which will nevertheless be linked in some way to our lives. A thief steals your wallet and you never see him, or your wallet, again. Did the criminal get away with it? Maybe. Or maybe his habit of taking an intrusive interest in other people’s wallets will lead him, somewhere down the line, to getting what the ancient Greeks didn’t call ‘his comeuppance’. He wasn’t punished for pilfering your possessions, but he will nevertheless receive his just deserts.
Oedipus kills Laius because he is a stubborn and angry man; in his anger and pride, he allows himself to forget the prophecy (or to believe himself safe if he kills this man who definitely isn’t his father, no way), and to kill another man. That one event will set in motion a chain of events that will see him married to his mother, the city over which he rules in the grip of plague, and – ultimately – Oedipus blinded and his wife/mother hanged.
Or perhaps that’s to impose a modern reading onto a classical text which Sophocles himself would not recognise. Yet works of art are always opening themselves up to new readings which see them reflecting our changing and evolving moral beliefs, and that is perhaps why Oedipus the King remains a great play to read, watch, analyse, and discuss. There remains something unsettling about its plot structure and its ambiguous meaning, and that is what lends it its power.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.