Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, trans. by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald

oedipus“The Oedipus Cycle” is made up of three plays by Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. I cannot remember at this moment what motivated me to read or reread these plays; something else I read, no doubt. I remember Greek tragic drama very fondly from high school, where Mrs. Smith inspired me in many of my present-day literary loves (hello, Hemingway and Homer).

This triptych concerns the mythic curse on the House of Thebes, which I will retell quickly in my own words. Ahead: spoilers. Oedipus was both to the Theban King Laius and Queen Jocasta, but upon his birth, an oracle prophesied that this baby boy would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. Wishing to avoid this fate, Laius took the boy out in the woods, pierced his heels and pinned them together, and left him to die. Now, this is no way to avoid the fates. Oedipus was raised by a foster father and mother who claimed him as their own, until as a young man he heard this prophecy given, and not wishing to fulfill it against the parents he knew and claimed, he fled them. Along the road on his travels, he came across an older man who wouldn’t yield the road as Oedipus thought proper. They quarreled, and fought, and Oedipus killed the older man (guess who this will turn out to be). He continues on the road to Thebes, a city-state that has just lost its king to a mysterious murder; he solves the riddle of the Sphinx, marries their queen, and happily begets four children.

When Oedipus Rex (or “Oedipus the King”) opens, King Oedipus is struggling to relieve his city of a plague. He must appease the gods, and the oracle tells him the way to do this is to finally avenge the former king’s murder. He agrees that Laius deserves justice – ironically volunteering to serve as his child should: “I say I take the son’s part, just as though / I were his son…” (as translated in my edition by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald). And Oedipus curses the murderer, or anyone who would hide his identity, with death or banishment. This will have consequences. The action of the play, the tension and emotion, resides in Oedipus’s earnest cursing of the murderer who turns out to be himself; adding incest to his unknown crimes is too much for him, as his queen (wife, mother) kills herself and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and puts himself at the mercy of his brother-in-law, Creon. Here the play ends.

There is some ambivalence, at least for me, in identifying the fatal flaw or crime of the tragic hero in this play. (It will be much clearer in Antigone.) Oedipus is indeed guilty of murdering his father and marrying his mother – terrible crimes, to be sure – but he did both unknowingly, and to his knowledge had every right to kill (in self defense) and marry. I think his fatal flaw is at least shared by his parents: the crime was in trying to avoid the predestined fate assigned them all by the gods. This you can’t do! One wonders, if Oedipus had been raised at home, how these things would have come to pass; clearly differently, as he would have known his parents. Presumably he would have been more at fault. But at any rate, the point is made that it is futile to avoid the fate assigned you by the gods. Perhaps his limited responsibility here is what earns Oedipus a somewhat reduced sentence – of which, more in the next installment.

I enjoyed this play for its feeling. The characters are passionate, emotional, and all of this is well evoked by the somewhat dramatic (but this is drama, after all!) but very understandable language. I think Fitzgerald’s translation is excellent; I find it moving, and the atmosphere of building doom and foreboding is exquisite.

Coming up: the next two plays.

Rating: 7 places where 3 roads meet.

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for this review.
    There are not many about this book her on wordpress.
    I only read Jean Anouilh’s Antigone,so I definitely will buy the book.
    I might as well buy the tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides!

  2. […] is the third play in a trilogy. Please see my write-ups of the first two: Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at […]

  3. I agree, Oedipus\’s pride is still there! He is lamenting about fianlliy going into the wilderness dramatically. He seems to want to keep his pride and be punished. He wants to keep something that he still has.

  4. […] This is the second play in a trilogy; see the first, Oedipus Rex, here. […]

  5. […] the Pea, Hans Christian Andersen White Fang, Jack London The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne Oedipus Rex, Sophocles Frankenstein, Mary Shelley Paradise Lost, John Milton The Time Machine, H.G. Wells […]

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