Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Oedipus the King - Sophocles

Oedipus opens the play as the celebrated ruler of Thebes.  Some years ago, he defeated the tricky Sphinx and became a hero.  Now he is trying to find out why the town is suffering a blight on the crops.  A messenger from the Oracle of Delphi tells him that the town must find out who murdered the previous king and throw him out.  Then prosperity will return.
Oedipus tries to find out who this wretch is and then suffers the worst day in human history.  In short order he:

  • Curses whoever is guilty, even if it is his own household
  • Accuses Creon, his trusted right hand man of treachery
  • Finds out that he killed the previous king
  • Finds out that the king was his father
  • Discovers that his queen, Jocasta, is actually his mother
  • and then Gouges his eyes out.
Jocasta also commits suicide.  As I said, it's a really no good, terrible day all around.  The only problem is that there are so many unlikely happenings, one on top of the other, that the play reads much more like a modern comedy.  In fact, I can't help but think that if it was staged today, that would be the way to go.  (Comedy and tragedy are much more loosely defined things today, of course.  Still, I can't help but wonder if there were some snickers back in the day that 'Oedipus' was first put on.)

I like Sophocles writing much more than I do Aeschylus.  The characters feel more like real people.  Just about everyone has motives and feelings.  Even the bit parts, like the shepherds, feel well rounded.  (Shakespeare has the same quality.)  It feels less like a moving diorama and more like a peek at actual personalities.  
My dad pointed something out to me before I read the play.  The Oedipal Complex (if I understand it correctly) suggests that every man wants to possess his mother.  But in the play, Oedipus had no such desire.  He ended up in the (very) wrong bed because of a series of errors and mishaps.  He didn't exactly plot his way there.  (We don't cover Freud until the end of next year, so someone correct me if I've got this all wrong.)
Not that I want to let Oedipus off the hook though.  He met a cart on the road, got into an argument with the driver and simply killed the whole party of people.  He quite obviously isn't blameless.

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