Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Oedipus Rex

Delahoyde & Hughes


Oedipus Himself:

  • What is wrong with Oedipus? Does he have a character flaw?

Oedipus is rather impressive as a leader. He wants to take everything on himself. When it’s suggested he send for a prophet, he’s already done it, for example. Ironically, he doesn’t follow through with how all this applies to him, how he really is responsible for it all. Notice (in most translations) how he uses the personal pronoun “I.” He seems full of himself, but there’s a blind spot in the middle of all this pomposity.

A very telling instance of what’s wrong can be detected in the whole notion of the riddle of the Sphinx. Here’s Joseph Campbell’s discussion of the riddle:

The Sphinx in the Oedipus story is not the Egyptian Sphinx, but a female form with the wings of a bird, the body of an animal, and the breast, neck, and face of a woman. What she represents is the destiny of all life. She has sent a plague over the land, and to life the plague, the hero has to answer the riddle that she presents: “What is it that walks on four legs, then on two legs, and then on three?” The answer is “Man.” The child creeps about on four legs, the adult walks on two, and the aged walk with a cane.

The riddle of the Sphinx is the image of life itself through time–childhood, maturity, age, and death. When without fear you have faced and accepted the riddle of the Sphinx, death has no further hold on you, and the curse of the Sphinx disappears. The conquest of the fear of death is the recovery of life’s joy.
(The Power of Myth, 151-152)

But! Has Oedipus faced the riddle? It looks as if Oedipus simply “got the right answer”! Immediately one imagines the parade and hoopla accompanying this first deliverance of Thebes, leading to Oedipus’ treatment as savior now again, a role in which he thrives.

This is the Greek notion concerning arrogance from pride or passion — a human being not knowing his or her place as a mere human being. The riddle of the Sphinx actually should jar one back to humility, should align the consciousness with the rather humble condition of being human. But again, I don’t think Oedipus sees this at all: to him it’s just a matter of “getting the right answer” — the difference between doing really well on the midterm vs. actually learning something.

The Chorus:
The chorus here serves to provide a more generalized view of the situation and to key us into the larger consequences of the problem besides the mixed-up life of one or a few characters. It can provide more than the set-up, but additionally some analysis and comment. More modern uses of the “chorus” can be found with the Supremes-esque singers in Little Shop of Horrors and perhaps the mice in Babe.

The Drama:
Interestingly, no significant action takes place on stage. We hear about dramatic spectacles second-hand. Also, there’s no real suspense since the story is well-known to its original audience. But spectacle is not what Greek drama is about. (The Romans on the other hand launched productions in which all the gory bits are conducted on stage — but that figures.)

  • Why not show the gory parts on stage, since it certainly could have been done?

This is not a case of the cheesy “back in the old days of radio you had to use your imagination not like today when everything is handed to you on a silver platter you damn spoiled post-war delinquents” syndrome. Instead, the point here is that the real effect of the play is not the maiming nor the suicide but rather the “realization” itself as the true tragic horror. It’s a psychological drama.

We have a darker vision here than in the epics. Fate again supersedes the gods, but here there don’t even seem to be any gods, certainly not ones that we can appeal to for their intervention. Here it’s just the human and his or her fate, which is stark, harsh, and frighteningly detached. (This play is sometimes used to generalize a pronouncement that all Greeks considered humans to be puppets.)

  • According to this play, is there a cosmic justice operating? Or is life just an arbitrary misery?
  • Oedipus is an example of what?

Perhaps the bigger they are the harder they fall. But happily, for all the grisliness of the story, Oedipus emerges with a tad of dignity. Insofar as he is to represent us all (Sophocles typically focuses on a general human type), the tragedy is modified somewhat by the final awareness.

There is the heavyhanded business of the literally blind “seer” vs. Oedipus’ metaphoric blindness, and then all the “light” and “darkness” interplay. But there are many other true dramatic ironies in this play also. The important matter here is to distinguish true dramatic irony from what the media like to bandy about smugly as ostensible irony, which is usually nothing more than coincidence, or not even that. Here’s an example from Walter Scott’s “Personality Parade” in Parade Magazine:

Q. How old was Rita Hayworth when she broke into films? Who were the men in her love life besides those she wed? — Titiana M., Detroit, Mich.
A. Hayworth was 16 when she was hired by the Fox studio in 1935. Between her five marriages, she was romantically involved with Victor Mature, Errol Flynn, Howard Hughes, David Niven and others. Her affair with Mature, she once confided to a reporter, “is one I’ll always remember.” Ironically, Hayworth came down with Alzheimer’s disease, which deprived her of her memory.

The first two sentences of the “A” answer the questions. The rest is bitchy bullcrap being passed off as fate. Her Alzheimer’s is not “irony.” It’s not even coincidence; really it’s just a misfortune. There was no irony involved in the situation surrounding Hayworth’s statement about Mature. So Walter Scott is a jackass, and so are a host of media people invoking “irony” to pass off their manipulations irresponsibly to the public.

Works Consulted

Campbell, Joseph, with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. NY: Doubleday, 1988.

The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Volume I. 6th ed. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1992.

SophoclesOrpheus: Greek Plays