Saturday, July 28, 2012

Oedipus the King by Sophocles

Oedipus the King in The Complete Plays of Sophocles trans. by Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb 
Originally published: 429 BC
Bantam Classic Edition: 1982

Rating: 4

I agree completely with this synopsis in the introduction by Moses Hades: "Oedipus is a masterful play; but what gives it conviction and force is that plot and characterization combine in mutual support to produce the overwhelming tragic power which is the essence of the drama.  The construction is flawless.  Each new episode flows naturally out of what has gone before, and each is made plausible by the character of its participants."

Because of Oedipus' paternalistic feelings towards his kingdom, he vows to do whatever it takes to stop the plague - little knowing it would cost him everything.

Fate is a key and recurring theme in these ancient works.  And that no one, not even a god, can by-pass her.  So the inevitability of Fate's decree - be it the founding of Rome by Aeneas or the death of Hector at Achilles' hand or the eventual return of Odysseus to his home - hooks the reader, who wants to see how Fate will have her way.

It is difficult to describe the tension that builds while reading Oedipus.  I have OMG (oh my God) written in the margins at various places and physically felt Oedipus' disbelief and growing horror when hit by the truth of his lineage, his marriage, his children, his Fate.

Tragedies by the ancient Greek playwrights and Shakespeare seem to always have suicides.  The reasons vary: for lost honor in Sophocles' Ajax; for love in Romeo and Juliet; out of guilt and madness in Macbeth; out of grief over a lost love and father in Hamlet; and in Oedipus, to flee from the unbearable truth.

The chorus has the last word and it is a doozy:
Dwellers in our native Thebes, behold, this is Oedipus, who knew the famed riddle and was a man most mighty; what citizen did not gaze with envy on his fortunes?  Behold into what a stormy sea of dread trouble he has come.  Therefore, while our eyes wait to see the destined final day, we must call no one happy who is of mortal race, until he has crossed life's border, free from pain.


  1. This tragedy is a shocker. It's been awhile since I read it, but I can't imagine a worse fate!

  2. I know what you mean about feeling it physically! I was surprised at my own visceral reaction to The Big Reveal. As a reader I know what's coming, the tension's building, it's building, a small respite when O's talking to Jocasta, then the messenger says, "Not to worry, Polybus wasn't your father..." Arrrgh!