Monthly Archives: September 2016

Oedipus as the Modern Man

Two graduates from my high school have expressed the goal of becoming prime ministers of Canada. In order to be the best prime ministers they can be, they’re attending university to gain the knowledge and experience that will eventually help them to govern the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if those two did end up being prime ministers one day. What sets them apart, perhaps more than their determination and drive, is their curiosity: they’re curious about the problems that Canada faces, what causes them, and how to solve them. This curiosity is what audiences through time would’ve recognized not only in their political leaders but also in leaders of many intellectual fields. Curiosity is what ancient Greek audiences would’ve recognized in their own leaders – leaders like Oedipus. Like my fellow graduates, Oedipus is curious about why things are the way they are and what they could be. What sets him apart, however, is that he becomes an obsessive problem solver. Oedipus takes an excellent quality to have as a leader – curiosity – and takes it one step too far.

The play opens with a problem being presented to Oedipus. From the very beginning, we see that Oedipus takes his role far beyond that of a king: encouraged by his desperate subjects, he elevates himself almost to the level of a god. He wants to know the cause of the plague; from there, he can find a solution. As the answers he seeks seem to be further obscured by his own questions, Oedipus does not see this as a hint from fate or the gods to stop pursuing the truth; instead, he pursues knowledge with even more determination than before. Normally, in other situations, this would’ve been the appropriate course of action. In the crises that plague our world, we expect our leaders to get to the root of whatever problem we’re facing. We live in a time that upholds science as the highest authority – there are not gods or fate when in the modern world. If we cannot find an answer, we find another approach. To thrive in this world, curiosity is one of the best traits that one can possess. It’s a world that Oedipus, had he not been at the mercy of the gods or fate, would have loved.

But one cannot know everything, nor can one control every variable in a situation no matter how much information there may be. And that’s where the play’s staying power comes from. Even now, in an age where science reigns supreme and the only things that are real are the ones that are visible, there’s so much we don’t know yet and much more that we may never know. Oedipus is a lot like who we are as a culture today: we have this insatiable desire to know everything that we can, to use what we know to have as much control over our lives as possible. We hate not knowing how exactly to eliminate poverty, we hate not knowing why loved ones get cancer. It’s unacceptable to simply not know. We have to know, even if it harms us.

Oedipus had to know. Even if the knowledge destroyed him.

I don’t know if my two fellow graduates will ever become prime ministers of Canada. Maybe they’ll discover a different passion while they’re in university. Maybe they’ll drop out of school altogether to join a circus or something. What do I know?

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A Fatalistic Fatality

Throughout Oedipus Rex, the importance of fate and the role it plays, provide the structure for a debate of whether or not Oedipus is culpable for his actions. The overarching theme of fate versus freedom is one that magnifies the longevity and resonance of the tragedy.

The prophecy of Oedipus demonstrates a fatalistic attitude and society, which is in turn, a denial of free will. Although at first glance Oedipus operates under free will, his choices ultimately end in the fulfillment of his fate. This element of causal determinism serves to depict how Oedipus truly had to choice in the matter of fate.  Oedipus’ curiosity attempts to fight the universal causality of Greek society at the time, but the fatalistic societal beliefs deny the agency of humanity. So what can be interpreted as Oedipus’ somewhat conscious denial of the situation at hand is faultless because, in the end, he cannot fight the prophecy.

Oedipus is seen as a master of all things, except himself. The role of fate separates him from the gods, even though the polis of Thebes see him as such. Even the master is not above fate. The people of Thebes were so quick to proclaim Oedipus the hero and raise him to a god-like status, depicting the importance that the Greeks placed upon their gods. The gods’ served as an explanation to the unexplainable, a scapegoat, a belief system in which humans could be rid of difficult choices. In a sense, they are willingly giving up their free will.

But Oedipus fights this. Despite warnings against finding Laios’ killer, he perseveres in a quest for knowledge, in a quest to save the city he rules. This action reflects a very human quality and demonstrates a weakness of man, and the desire to know the unknowable. He is choosing free will over freedom, and yet he is still a victim of the fatalistic society he lives in. It is an act of human rebellion to reject the easy explanation.

We still struggle with fate versus free will, or more modernly, hard determinism versus hard libertarianism. This philosophical debate helps to eternalize Oedipus Rex, as our search for compatibilism is ongoing.

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Jocasta’s role and character development

Jocasta first enters the play at the height of the quarrel between Oedipus and Kreon. She immediately slips on the role of peacekeeper, attempting to appease the two. The manner in which Jocasta addresses Kreon and Oedipus, and they in turn her, is resemblant of the relationship between a mother and her children – she at first admonishes them for “petty personal bickering” and tells them that they “should be ashamed”. Kreon attempts to explain their situation and leads off with “Jocasta, …” and Oedipus follows with “I caught him plotting against me, Jocasta”, acting as two quarrelling children might. This is the first instance in the play where Jocasta’s role as Oedipus’s lover merges with that of a mother, alluding to Oedipus’s past and simultaneously foreshadowing the truth that he is about to discover.

Jocasta’s predicament resembles Oedipus’s in the irony in her fate – the root of all of her (and Oedipus’s) suffering can arguably be discovered in the action that Laois and her took upon hearing the oracle’s prophecy. The audience finds out about their abandonment of Oedipus when she mentions it like a trivial detail, in a very ironic explanation as to why she does not believe in the prophecies of Oracles. Jocasta blames Laois for Oedipus’s fate as a young child (“when Laois had his feet pierced…”) and, although she seems to feel some guilt or at least sadness about the event – “my poor child”, Jocasta tells the story unapologetically. This event in Jocasta’s past mirrors the role that Oedipus’s unconscious murder of Laois plays in his life – both characters underestimate the importance of their transgressions.

Jocasta is the first character in Oedipus the King to truly understand the circumstances of Oedipus’s past and how he unconsciously fulfilled the prophecies told of him, but even before her ‘big revelation’ sometime between pages 68 and 70, the audience sees how she puts together the pieces of the puzzle, however unbeknownst to her. This ties into the emotional development that Jocasta undergoes throughout the play. Early on she declares, upon being prompted to leave: “not before I know what has happened here”.  On page 57 she tells Oedipus that Laois was “built something like you”, and we see her enter a stage of fear and denial shortly thereafter as she says “you frighten me” and “I’m afraid to ask” – although she does not know the complete truth yet, Jocasta is beginning to fear Oedipus’s impending revelation and the implications that it holds for her.

The queen is ecstatic when she learns of Polybos’s death because (she believes) that it proves the prophecies to be false. “The sky has cleared” Jocasta says, ironically, because it is the discovery of Polybos’s death that leads into the truth about Oedipus’s early years that the queen is attempting to forget. Jocasta stays quiet throughout the dialogue with a messenger where it comes to light that Oedipus was not really Polybos’s son and that he was found with his feet tied together, which is also where the audience can place the moment of her revelation. At this point, Oedipus becomes more frantic as he senses that he is close to the truth, but Jocasta on the other hand completely changes her attitude. “What man? Forget about him”, she implores, attempting to stop Oedipus from discovering the truth that has just dawned on her. Her motivations for this are made clear when she declares “Isn’t my anguish enough” – she wishes to spare Oedipus of the pain that the truth carries for him. Upon failing to do so, Jocasta becomes deeply sorrowful. Her lack of anger towards Oedipus for his patricide makes it clear that she holds herself and not him responsible for the tragic events in his life. This feeling of guilt culminates in Jocasta’s suicide, for she has no-one left to blame but herself.


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It’s a 430 B.C. Guy Thing

Gender roles in Thebes fit like puzzle pieces: men are like warriors, and women are like wives. When the City of Thebes is overcast by an awful plague, the Chorus begs their mighty King, Oedipus, to save the day. “… with the shrieks of women, living women, wailing. You are a man, not a god-I know. We all know this, the young kneeling before you know it too, but we know how great you are, Oedipus, greater than any man.” (30-36). The chorus is praying for Oedipus to adhere to the cries of women and children, implying that it is a man’s duty to take care of them. Women in Thebes virtually belong in the same category as children, meaning they can’t live without the protection of men. Luckily, Oedipus is a strong, persistent, and sometimes aggressive character, who won’t pause for anything until justice is served. These attributes, commonly used to describe men, play a prominent role in the outcome of the play. These powerful gender stereotypes lead me question to how the play would differ if a woman were the lead role.
To explore this possibility, I look at Oedipus’ wife, (and mother), Jocasta. If she were the city’s only hope, would she be capable of completing the task? To save the city she must search for the killer of her husband and avenge him. Yet, given her reaction to Oedipus’ relentless pursuit for the truth, she wanted nothing more than for him to stop. So the odds of Jocasta ridding Thebes of the plague are not likely. “No, Oedipus! No more questions. For god’s sake, for the sake of your own life! Isn’t my anguish enough- more than enough?” (1061-1064). The difference between Jocasta and Oedipus in this situation is that Jocasta would rather not discover the truth, whereas Oedipus can’t go on another second without knowing. Oedipus blames Jocasta’s sour reaction on shame, maybe even saying a woman can’t handle it like he can.
Jocasta feels so disgusting when the truth about her family is discovered that she kills herself in the same bedroom where she slept with her son and her son’s father. She ends her life dramatically, but is quickly look past a bit later when Oedipus stabs his eyes out in the same room. Oedipus can’t let go of his masculinity, even in the most extreme situations. He has to be the star of the show.
In the end it wouldn’t be a question of if you feel bad for Jocasta, because she never acted aggressively or with cruel intentions. But, in the real play, it is a question of if you feel bad for Oedipus because his characteristics contradict those of a victim.
If Jocasta were the lead role, my guess is that the truth would be kept a secret. She most likely would have fled the city forever without telling anyone. Jocasta seemed to be good at keeping things hidden. So, relentlessly threatening people to find out the truth and then stabbing your eyes out is probably just a stereotypical guy thing.

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No half measures!

During discussion around Odeipus’ guilt I found it interesting when it was suggested that Oedipus was guilty of criminal negligence (I’m very sorry I don’t remember whose idea this was). I found this to be a very compelling argument because in my mind, Oedipus doesn’t do nearly enough to prevent the horrible prophecy from coming true.

It might be arrogant for me to think that Oedipus could have done anything to prevent his dark destiny, but I would argue that it is far more arrogant for him to take such small steps in avoiding it. Indeed the only way he tries to prevent the prophecy from coming true is to move away from his hometown. For a man as supposedly smart as Oedipus, this seems like a rather feeble attempt to thwart the will of the gods. He didn’t even  receive a vague ” Your future holds great peril”-esque prophecy. He was told exactly what would happen and as such should have taken the necessary steps to avoid it.

If, while working at an airport, you get a message that a specific plane will explode that day, it would be reasonable to cancel the flight. If at that point Zeus sends a lightning bolt to destroy your plane while it’s on land then no one would hold you responsible. If however you take the Oedipal route and only give the plane an extra 5 minute spot check, and the plane explodes in flight, you would clearly be to blame.

As the unlucky recipient of an incest prophecy it might just be a good idea to avoid sex. Now if this is too tall a task perhaps Oedipus could have at least confined his romantic pursuits to women who were less than 10 years his senior or perhaps even younger than himself. This would be less foolproof though as the greek gods wouldn’t have had much of a problem making a woman appear younger. Nevertheless it would probably be more effective than a zip code change.

In a similar vein, not killing men old enough to be your father, or even avoiding murder altogether would be a great way to avoid patricide.

Even in a world where godly intervention is commonplace, human beings have a responsibility to avoid causing bad things to happen. If and when their efforts fail they can curse the gods and lament their misfortune but in order to do so they first have to put in an honest effort to prevent it.

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Ignorance is bliss?

Human beings are creatures of habit: We fight, question, and challenge. Seek power, freedom and knowledge. In the case of ‘Oedipus the King’, Oedipus embodies all these traits in the play as he attempts to defeat fate, save his people, and bring justice to his kingdom. However, feats such as these would be deemed far to great for any man. Thus leading us to the inevitable ending of the play where Oedipus fails to beat fate and in a sense the gods at which point he is left; stripped of his power, blind and crippled.


Nevertheless, this inevitability is challenged throughout the play when characters such as Jocasta and the Shepherd beg Oedipus to stop his investigation because his discovery of the truth is what will lead to his downfall. Finally leading to the key argument I’d like to discuss: “If Oedipus remained ignorant, would he still have failed?”


There were many different traits to the play that display that an ignorant approach to the problem could have led to a different result instead of Oedipus’s pre-determined failure and suffering. One of the forms this is shown through is the play’s Sophoclean approach wherein Oedipus brings himself closer to failure each time he gets closer to the truth, ergo the higher we climb, the harder we fall. This foreshadowed failure is even displayed by Oedipus himself in lines 1472-74 “And I, I am afraid to hear them… but I must”. At this point of the play it is clearly indicated that Oedipus has a choice to walk away from his investigation, however Oedipus claims that he can’t which stems from his human nature to question and seek knowledge even when he knows himself it will bring him great misery. Secondly, the moral of the paly is to accept that not everything is controllable, which is why we are given a character such as Oedipus who displays a great amount of hubris and attempts to succeed in areas in which he believes the gods have failed in because he thinks of himself as powerful as the gods. This leads to the ironic discovery that Oedipus is the master of all things, except for himself. Which is why Oedipus’s greatest weakness is himself; if not for his desire to question, fight and challenge fate, Oedipus may still have been able to retain his power as king.

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Oedipus Rex; a story adored and preserved by the perverse and the decadent

Homo sapiens is, as far as the mountain of evidence given to us by history suggests, a species of animal that quickly and easily becomes bored. Like a great many of the lesser creatures that we share our world with, when bored we either seek entertainment or become destructive; and in some extreme and famous cases (think Bonaparte), both. Which brings us to the point; Oedipus was not guilty of anything more than being prophesied to do exactly what he did, before he was even a twinkle in his father’s eye.  Whether right, wrong, or otherwise, his exact fate was foretold and none of his vain attempts to escape it did anything more than draw it closer. The problem therein lies in that we, as a species, gravitate most to stories that could be told of ourselves; images and words that we can vicariously live through to escape the dull, humdrum drudgery of our lives.

What, then, would the story of Oedipus say to a prospective patricide or mother-plougher?

Put into, say, the shoes of Emperor Nero a half-millennium later. Nero, as the adopted son of an Emperor, was taught the Greek Classics in word and theater from childhood and enjoyed the luxury of being the proprietor of the Imperial Box in the Colosseum,  Circus Maximus, and Grand Amphitheater (we do know, according to Pliny the Younger, that he would often take month-long trips what is now Nimes simply to watch his favourite troupes of actors congregate and perform for several days). He would, of course, have watched such a grand classic as Oedipus several, if not multitudes of times. Nero, of course, stood idly by as his mother poisoned his adopted father (and his brother Britannicus, the prior heir-apparent) and made frequent visits to her bed thereafter. Eventually, he grew tired of Agrippina’s intrigues and had her killed, drowning his soul ever deeper into the abyss. Yet, he remained mostly sane and hale for another decade, free of guilt in his words and deeds according to Pliny the Elder. Could he simply have interpreted, through the story of Oedipus, that his own actions were the will of Jupiter no matter how heinous they were, or might have been? That he was not at fault for succumbing to the leys and paths of fate? Nero, like many others, simply took the story of Oedipus a tad too seriously.

And let us examine another great patricidal name of history: Karadorde Petrovic of Serbia, the first Balkan-born man since Skanderbeg to defeat the Ottomans in pitched battle, and the inventor, one might say, of the concept of a free, independent Serbia. Fearing his father might betray him (a fleeing fugitive, guilty of murdering an Ottoman Aga who looked at his wife suggestively) to Ottoman authorities as they fled to Austria, he simply murdered Old Man Petrovic as he slept. No qualms, no regrets. Patricide, pure and simple, an action that Karadorde never let blemish his cause as he emulated Skanderbeg and fought both for and against the Ottomans over the course of his storied life. Replying to accusations of willful patricide to a defeated Dahi at the height of his uprising, he said: “Deus eam voluit.” God willed it. Fate, as it were, willed it. To a great extent, much the same argument put forth by Nero in reasoning his actions to others: I am a tool of fate, no more. My actions are not my own, no more so than Oedipus chose to happen upon his father at a crossroads and engaged in a deadly scuffle with the man. Right, wrong… who but Zeus, Jupiter, or God might make that judgement?

These are but two examples; how many decadent aristocrats have fallen into the Oedipal trap of callous apathy, of putting aside their morals by reasoning that their fate is simply what some deity hath laid down as their prophesied path? Macedonia, Sparta, Athens, Carthage, Rome, Ming China, Byzantium, The Holy Roman Empire, Portugal, Spain, France, The Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Soviet Union… the great hegemonic powers of the world all began and ended their decline into decadence when the aristocracy, the one-percenters of the imperium began wasting away in bloodthirsty, beastial excess. Excess, I say, that is fueled by stories such as Oedipus Tyrannus – or Oedipus Rex, one might equally argue – being recounted in body and word, era upon era upon generation upon generation, for simple entertainment. One must needs remember, after all, that the stories we read often and easily influence our character. And our character, in a vicious cycle, shapes what stories we tell of ourselves with our very deeds. Oedipus Tyrannus fa Rex is a story that exonerates patricide and incest as a thing of simple, uncontrollable fate; would people in latter times drawn to such things have not found considerable relief in that proposition? I say yes, yes they did. And still do, in some cases, today. Ave.

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Oedipus Rex does not deserve our pity

In his Poetics, Aristotle explains that the ideal tragedy requires a conclusion that evokes a cathartic response. Aristotle argues that in the face of a successful tragedy, an audience
“who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus”
For this to be true, Sophocles would require an audience to feel extreme pity at the tragic downfall of the titular character. Oedipus’ character exemplifies a heroic king during the opening scenes, a necessity if an audience is to find him worthy of pity after his tragic downfall. He seems to be imbued with intelligence beyond that of regular Thebans, and is respected universally amongst his subjects. In the opening stage directions, part of this is made clear,
“A delegation of Thebans… carry suppliant boughs… From inside the palace, limping, OEDIPUS comes through the palace doors and stands at the top of the steps…He is dressed in gold and wears a golden crown.”
The use of costuming and proxemics puts Oedipus not only at the center of the stage, but also immediately reveals him to be of supreme importance and authority. Not only does he have power, but Oedipus reveals in his opening dialogue with the Priest that he empathetic and caring for his people, asking the man at his feet,
“Why are you kneeling? Are you afraid, old man? What can I give you? How can I Help? Ask. Ask me anything. Anything at all. My Heart would be a stone if I felt no pity or these poor shattered people of mine.”
Oedipus is built up in his regal authority and intuitive reasoning, developing him- Aristotle would claim- as the ideal tragic hero.

The argument that Oedipus exemplifies tragic heroism does not reflect the true nature of Oedipus’ character. Oedipus is less a ‘tragic hero’, and more a deeply flawed individual, overpowered by hubris and anger, undeserving of pity or respect. To prove this, it must be made clear that Oedipus’ character is dominated by vice.

Oedipus Tyrannous does not have enough redeeming character traits to be pitied. This is revealed through his hubris (excessive pride), unchecked anger, and irrationality. During his opening monologue, he exclaims “everybody everywhere knows who I am: Oedipus, King.” This is necessarily a problematic claim. Either it is factually accurate, and is thus superfluous (footnote 1), or is untrue, and thus Oedipus is overstating his worth- but in either sense it is egotistical and arrogant. This hubristic statement foreshadows Oedipus’ hamartia, and his continued self-aggrandisement becomes quickly tiresome. An audience can’t feel pity for a character with such grandiose opinions of his own abilities. Oedipus also repeatedly succumbs to a hot temper. In his analeptic description of killing Laius, he concedes that he failed to manage his fury;
“the old man himself wanted to thrust me out of the road by force. I became angry and struck the coachman who was pushing me…as I passed he [the old man] struck me from his carriage, full on the head with his two pointed goad…And then I killed them all.”
To have such limited respect for human life is an indictment on Oedipus’ character. To have murdered over such a small offence is entirely unreasonable, and reveals how ill-tempered he truly is. Oedipus continues to reveal his vices in his consistent unfounded blaming of various innocent characters. Having been told that he murdered Laius by Tiresias, he accuses Creon of an attempted coup;
“Creon, the soul of trust, my loyal friend from the start steals against me… so hungry to overthrow me he sets this wizard on me, this scheming quack, this fortune-teller peddling lies, eyes peeled for his own profit–seer blind in his craft!”(footnote 2)
This furious response is not only illogical, as argued by Creon (footnote 3), but also impious. Tiresias is a respected seer; never condemned by the chorus (footnote 4), and is purported to channel the words of the Gods through bird-lore. For Oedipus to claim that he is ‘blind in his craft’ is cruel, but more importantly for a 5th Century Greek audience, irreverent. Given his myriad character flaws and offensive behaviours, Oedipus is not a tragic hero and does not evoke any pity.

(1) Superfluous because, if it is true, then to exclaim it is not necessary
(2) This quote isn’t from our text, just a version I found online… I will buy the actual translation and substitute in the relevant quote
(3) Creon’s logic is as follows (written from his perspective); I am the brother of the queen, and thus have power, wealth, and authority. I don’t have to make hard decisions like Oedipus, as king, and thus I have all the benefits of being king without the stress and worry. To excite a coup against the King would be illogical.
(4) The moral guide in Greek theatre

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Where to get help with your writing …

You’ll do a lot of writing in Arts One, and it’s the academic essay you’ll be writing most. My expectation is that you strive to write well-organised essays and with good English grammar. I’m not the only resource to help you improve your writing, though. UBC has a Writing Centre, which offers resources to help you improve, including tutoring. I may encourage you to work with the Writing Centre at some point, and in some cases I might expect you to.

The Writing Centre Website: Writing Centre

You can make appointments to work with a tutor through this site: Appointments

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