Tag Archives: Oedipus the King

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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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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From Oedipus to Mr.Kane

Before jumping into Arts One, I took a few FIST100 lessons and studied Citizen Kane, one of the greatest productions in the world. After reading Oedipus the King I realize it’s similar with Citizen Kane in story, structure and the way it connects to “seeing and knowing”. Both of them convey that, seeing cannot directly equal to knowing. As it’s incomplete without exploration.

Although Oedipus might disagree, what he sees is fragmentary. For example, the parents he can see are Polybos and Merope, who in fact not belong to him. When he finally finds out the fact he says “I, Oedipus, I am the child of parents who should never been mine.” (P77 Line 1494-1496)* Then he finds the truth of murder, his wife and the plague of his city. The shepherd’s narration reveals the crimes of Oedipus and supplies what he could not see. Actually, supplements provided by different roles gradually disclose actual meaning of the oracles. With these supplements, Oedipus and audience (even they know the storyline previously) are able to approach the truth.

Citizen Kane is also a movie composed by memories from different people. Kane’s guardian records his childhood, the colleagues witness the growth of his business, Susan remembers their marriage and the butler knows how this wealthy and influential man spends rest of his life in loneliness. The unique charm of this movie comes from the complexity of its structure. Audience could easily state that they know enough information about this man at any point. But after a new narration, they realize there could be something more. Various versions of Kane’s life accumulatively draw up his image.

The common part of Mr. Kane and Oedipus is that they used to have everything but finally lose. Tragedies happen because they trying to pursue some unreachable goals. For Oedipus, that goal is to break the oracles and control his own life. For Mr. Kane, that goal is to love and beloved. Another typical case is Great Gatsby, a character immediately jumps  into my mind every time I study the play. The American dream of Gatsby seems so near yet so far and he fails to achieve that as well. Tragedy is a form to present beauty, which is desperate but magnificent. The identical fates and failures of these characters obviously demonstrate the beauty of tragedy.

The way Oedipus the King and Citizen Kane manage to tell a story is analogous. Under the leading of a mystery thread (for the play the thread is Liao’s death, for the movie is Kane’s last word), clues from diverse perspectives are given one by one. However, in this process, audience who can see everything will never “know” the truth until the last moment. Just like Oedipus has never questioned himself until the shepherd finally confirms everything.

This is the myth of seeing and knowing. We could never know whether seeing is enough for us to know. If we make conclusions in the half way and consider that as “knowing”, we lose the opportunities to approach truth. We have to see more, to investigate more from multiple dimensions. It’s journey start with a single clue but probably never end.


*The paginating is base on kindle version


From Selina: Thank you for reading to this line! Please feel free to tell me if there is any unclear expression or inappropriate grammar in the post. As I am still learning English writing, your opinion will be extremely helpful for me. You could either leave a comment or send me an email (especially when you want to discuss the viewpoint) : SelinaLiuya@outlook.com I really appreciate your kindness and patience.

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Six Obols None the Richer

C.S. Lewis was mentioned in the lecture today, which reminded me, of all things, of a song from a 90s teen movie. The movie is She’s All That (Pygmalion in high school, not stellar), and the song is ‘Kiss Me’. It’s a silly love song (…and what’s wrong with that?…), but I like it and find it touching. Anyway, the band responsible for this ditty is Sixpence None the Richer, and they are named after a passage from Mere Christianity, a book that set the man we know and love as the creator of Narnia in the role of lay theologian. The passage, in this case, is a metaphor. A boy asks his father to give him sixpence, so he can buy a present…for his father. The father is happy to receive the gift despite gaining no corporeal benefit by it. Lewis’s analogy is that man should serve God humbly, because He is the source of their ability to do so in the first place (giving us the resources to serve just as the father gives his boy the sixpence). Which brings me to lines 1105-1159 (pg. 62-63), where the Chorus waxes contemplative about the gods.

Now, I read this passage as the Chorus coming to a painful realization about fate, divinity and life itself (I’ll try to refer to it/them in the singular from here on in, as they’re more of a construct representing the older, male, established citizens of Athens that defined the culture). The Chorus starts by invoking the laws made in heaven, not earth, controlling and limiting their actions, laws made not by men, but deathless gods. Think about this for a second: the laws that govern the lion’s share of expectations and standards, to which dozens of rituals and sacrifices are made, and to which the penalties include both human damage (exile, death) and the looming fear of divine retribution (lightning strikes, plagues), are being made by immortal dilettantes who rarely if ever are in a position to feel any of their consequences.

If you think this sounds like tyranny, it seems like the Chorus agrees with you, as in the next set of lines they describe the arrogance of these dictators and hope for their fall, and quickly back up to ask for solace as honest men. The supplication to Apollo (the god of medicine and plague, who would be theologically responsible for the illness ravaging the city) seems more sarcastic at this point, as these (presumably) honest men get riled up about how evil men can escape retribution, while they’re living in terror.

Then, the chorus has its Batman moment. The realization where they look at the situation and go ‘hey, I can do something’, specifically just refuse to waste their time on the gods that are jerking them around. They even go so far as to question the authority of Zeus, which is miles past stupid and verging into suicidal in a world where divinely-empowered lightning strikes are a justified fear. The ending line is the ultimate challenge: ‘nothing of the gods stays’. If immortals aren’t capable of making their actions last, what does that say about their competency, or their existence?

The Chorus’ impression of faith, then, seems like the reverse of Lewis’. They pay their tributes, sacrifice their animals, give their time to rituals of devotion, all to continue going about their lives, constantly praying for boons from entities to whom they may as well be overgrown mayflies. They give and they give, and the gods may not even care, because what can humans do? I read this as the kind of life-shattering revelation that comes with questions like “Have I ever really loved my wife?” “Have I wasted my life on this job I hate?” “Have I failed as a father/husband/brother/son?” The Chorus has paid their tribute, and from this passage, it seems that they want their money back.

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On Phalluses and Satire and Sitcoms

Last class, we discussed the origins of Greek tragedy from the very phallic-heavy fertility ritual of the diathyramb into an entirely new form of storytelling that used new techniques such using actors to show events taking place rather than solely relying on a choir through the course of two centuries (from 7th century BCE to 5th century BCE) by dramatists and playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. This has made me rather curious to find out a bit more about how the other two ancient Greek theatrical genres, the satyr play and comedy, developed. After doing some research into this subject, which I found rather interesting, I thought I would share some of my findings with you.

The satyr play was an early form of burlesque/tragicomedy which was often performed after serious tragedies to lighten the mood. It was developed by Pratinas of Philus around 500 BCE after he combined the newly developed form of tragedy with the earlier diathyramb out of which tragedy originally developed by retaining the religious connection to Dionysus. The City Dionysia festival, which was held in the honour of Dionysus, required each entrant to the dramatic competition to submit one satyr play along with three tragedies. These plays featured a chorus of bawdy satyrs singing rowdy and sexual songs and dance wildly around the stage waving about phallic props all the while the heroes of the story (e.g., mythic heroes like Odysseus and the gods) carried themselves in a dignified manner befitting a tragedy. Very few examples of these plays have survived, the only complete example being The Cyclops by Euripides and this genre of theatre more or less died out with the end of the Classical Greek civilization.

Greek comedy is often divided into three general eras, Old Comedy (archaia), Middle Comedy (mese) and New Comedy (nea) for academic purposes, although in many cases the distinctions are completely arbitrary, especially concerning Old and Middle Comdey. Old comedy, with Aristophanes being its best representative, was primarily focused on political satire and the lampooning of public figures (such as Socrates in The Clouds) in addition to the use of innuendos related to bodily functions and sex. s. Middle Comedy is largely lost, with only a few fragments of texts remaining. Unlike Old Comedy, they did not mock public figures or politics but instead used a wide variety of stock comic characters, such as courtesans, philosophers, lazy vagrants, arrogant soldiers, and conceited cooks. They are more involved with the affairs of the common people than Old Comedy rather than celebrities and politicians. New Comedy emerged after the death of Alexander the Great, during the reign of Macedonian kings in Greece before the Roman takeover. Plays from this era tended to focus on people’s everyday problems with relationships, family life, and social interactions rather than politics and public life or tales involving gods and the supernatural. Put another way, Old Comedy is like Saturday Night Live or the British radio/TV impressions show Dead Ringers, Middle Comedy is a bit like comedia dell’arte, while New Comedy is like Friends or All in the Family.

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“How could you quench the fire of your eyes?”

… asks the leader of the chorus upon learning of Oedipus’ self-blinding (P85, line 1729). Such poetical phrasing is what we’d expect of the chorus, of course. In Greek tragedy the dialogues constituting the episodes were prosaic in comparison with the loftier, lyrical style of the choral stasima. After all: the chorus emerged out of songs, specifically improvised songs chanted in honour of Dionysus. (The dithyramb.)

We would be too quick to dismiss the chorus leader’s wording as simply metaphor, though. There’s something to be learned here about the way the Ancient Greeks understood vision.

When Sophocles composed the play, around 429 BC, evidence suggests that competing theories of vision existed. (I’ll get to these competing ideas in a moment.) What wasn’t at issue at the time was that the eye consisted of “internal fire.” For the Greeks, four elements — air, water, earth and fire — composed the entire universe. And the eyes, the Greeks held, were composed of the element fire.

The dispute was over whether this fire made vision possible by means of emission — a kind of flaring outwards towards objects, if you like — or if the reverse was the case: that something representative of the object entered the eye, where it was then processed into visual perception. The former theory was championed by no less than Ptolemy and Euclid; and was also held by our soon-to-be friend Plato. A complex form of intramission, as the latter general theory is called, is what we, of course, still hold today. Aristotle was of a similar mind to us in believing that the experience of vision was worked out in the eye, which was the final destination of rays entering from outside the body.

The chorus leader’s question doesn’t tell us which view Sophocles subscribed to. (Unless you’ve found further evidence in Oedipus Rex, perhaps?) That blinding constituted the destruction of fire, however, is very likely exactly what Sophocles believed.

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Screwed Either Way

My impression of the story of Oedipus, at least at this point, is that the man starts the play in a situation of immense pressure, and that makes his demise is circumstantially inevitable. As a benevolent king, he cares about his people, and takes it upon himself to solve their problems. It would make some sense, then, that at least one of the issues that would surface down the road would be the death of his predecessor on the throne. After that, it’s all downhill…

In many ways, he’s a victim of the expectations he’s set for himself. When your debut involves sending a riddle-loving monster to Hades without lifting a finger, people are going to put stock in what you say even without the office of absolute monarch. I’m not sure whether to argue for fate here; Greek drama favors influences beyond the sphere of human influence (either through all-powerful fate or godly intervention), but I personally don’t, and the text is deeply rooted in the ambiguity of fate and free will. Oedipus is offered at least three solid outs: first by Kreon asking if he would like to discuss the oracle’s prediction in private, then Teiresias’ obstinacy, and finally Jocasta’s attempt to cool him off after she puts things together just ahead of him. I wouldn’t count the shepherd, because Oedipus is monomaniacally committed enough at that point to use violence to find the answer he’s looking for; still, both Teiresias and Jocasta know what situation they’re objecting to, and so does the audience. Oedipus has a few reasonable points on the side of letting things be, but he doesn’t (well, really can’t) take them. Fate or not, his position dooms him.

In Professor Crawford’s lecture earlier today, he brought up the point that there is a negative side to enlightenment, which Oedipus personally experiences at the catharsis. He experiences this because he finds the truth. He finds the truth, more or less, because he’s got a fair bit of brainpower and an at least equivalent amount of arrogance, essentially situational tunnel vision. Thebes seems to have a bad run with stupid monarchs (Pentheus from The Bacchae has his head so far in the sand he hears the ocean in surround sound), but Oedipus counterbalances his foolishness with the drive and intellect to actually follow through on proposals, which are made as if to a god. Assuming the oracle is an accurate source of information, some ill of Thebes, plague or not, would be blamed on Laios’ death and the apparent stain that left on the city’s fate, and the limping king would have to play detective. Refuse, and fail as a monarch (although it’s doubtful that his pride would even allow the option); follow through, and lose everything. Oedipus dug his own grave well before the start of the play, and by the end, he’s ready to jump in.

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Oedipus – The Black Sheep of Thebes

The idiom “Black Sheep” is used to represent a member of the family or group who is the least reputable. In other words, the traits or behavior of this individual may not be that of which meet the group’s ideal standards and are therefore considered to be disgraceful.In the case of Oedipus’s twisted relationship with his family, he is the black sheep.

A prophecy stated to his parents that he would be the cause of both tragedy and turmoil:  a son murdering his own father and breeding with his beloved mother. This immediately led to the conclusion of disposing Oedipus as an infant, in order to prevent such possibility from occurring and  disrupting the kingdom and family’s opportunity to thrive.  Despite all efforts, the prophecy remained and gradually unraveled as Oedipus grew up to be the king of Thebes. Apollo realized Oedipus would have a negative influence on Thebes to some extent when he described the plague as a “disease that wastes all of you”(p.27).  Simply meaning, Thebes would continue to be riddled with plague and lack the ability to recover so long as Oedipus remained as its ruler.

When the truth of Oedipus’s origin is revealed, the ridiculousness of the prophecy presented before him causes him to pierce his own eyes and become blind. Sophocles describes Oedipus’s blood as a “black storm” (p.82) as if his bloodline is to be represented as a curse which muddies the host and all those around him. Furthermore, Teiresias calls Oedipus a “murderer” (p.40) which illustrates he is guilty for his lack of knowledge when he first committed incest and fulfilled the prophecy at last. It is also ironic and quite tragic how Oedipus desired “justice and vengeance” (p.291) for all of his people, and yet the truth revealed about his origin was much darker and unfair for his children than his own blindness. While Oedipus carries the burden of realizing he is the cause of his own misfortune,  it is his offspring who are forced to confront the reality of where their bloodline truly originates from. Even after his banishment and the plague vanishes, his children must carry the reputation of being disgraceful products of incest for a lifetime.

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