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Considered by many as the greatest of classic Greek tragedies, Oedipus the King (“Oedipus Tyrannus”) by Sophocles (495?–406 B.C.E) is set in the remoteness of ancient Greece and has come down to us in the form of a tragic myth allegedly inspired by true events and actual characters. Yet to the people of ancient Athens, Oedipus the King represented “figures who fell into disaster from positions of power and prestige,” and as human beings “became susceptible to a lethal mixture of error, ignorance and violent arrogance” (Martin 134). The Greek philosopher Aristotle referred to this play continually in his Poetics, pointing out features of the ideal tragic poem, and in the later years of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud adapted this myth as the basis for one of his most controversial psychoanalytic interpretations, being the “Oedipal Complex.”
The Sopholcean interpretation of the myth of King Oedipus of Thebes seems to lie within the horror and fascination of the unspeakable that rests at the heart of the play. When Oedipus emerges from his palace in the final scene of the play, he is blind; his mask is stained by the blood of his father King Laius; he has committed incest with his own mother, only to realize that his children are his true brothers and sisters. As Stephen Berg notes, at this point, Oedipus “is no longer a man. He is a thing, “this cursed, naked, holy thing” (15). With this, Oedipus has become the symbol of something both sacred and cursed and at the end of the play, Sophocles, the ultimate Greek tragedian, has extended this curse far beyond ordinary life and well into the natural world of the ancient Greeks who viewed Oedipus as the quintessential tragic hero/figure, yet at the same time the common everyman of society filled with piety, arrogance and tyranny which according to Sophocles is the “tyrannos (the tyrant king) who sleeps in the souls of all men” (Berg 17).
In the case of Aristotle, Oedipus the King was interpreted not only as a powerful myth but also as a source of what defines true tragedy. For Aristotle, this connoted “an imitation of an action, not of narrative, that is serious and complete and through pity and fear, the proper purgation of these emotions is effected” (Martin 136). Thus, the central character of a tragedy like Oedipus the King must emote some sense of being virtuous despite having feelings of pity and fear for his eventual downfall which creates in the reader or the viewer a kind of outrage. Also, such a character cannot revel in evilness; he must be one “who is not outstanding in virtue nor full of righteousness but through a fatal flaw (hamartia) meets his end” (Woodard 178).
In addition, as a myth based on Greek legend, Oedipus the King, as far as Aristotle was concerned, is a prime example of a conflict between the hero (protagonist) and a superior force, such as destiny or the fates of the Gods. In ancient Greek culture, this idea was paramount to how mortal man interacted with the Gods and helped to remind the citizens of Athens that the successes and failures of life engendered problems of a moral complexity far too formidable to be taken casually or arrogantly.
With the advent of the twentieth century, the interpretation of Oedipus the King took on new meaning, especially through the formulation of Sigmund Freud’s “Oedipal Complex,” a result of his own efforts in self-analysis in the autumn of 1897. As Richard Webster points out, Freud had recognized “that his father was innocent” and through vivid memories recalled “sexual wishes about his mother on the occasion of seeing her naked” and had “discovered in himself the passion for his mother and the jealousy of his father” (253), a statement that fully reflects the problems and anxieties of Oedipus himself for his mother (his wife) and his father whom he had unknowingly murdered.
In his own words, Freud’s psychoanalytical approach to children were confirmed “by a legend that has come down to us from classical antiquity,” being Oedipus the King. In his essay entitled Oedipus Rex, Freud, after a somewhat lengthy extrapolation of the play, maintains that Oedipus the King is “a tragedy of destiny.” As an interpretation, Freud continues with “the tragic effects (of the play) is said to lie in the contrast between the supreme will of the Gods and the vain attempts of mankind to escape the evil that threatens them” (Woodard 102).
Furthermore, according to Freud, there appears to be an indication in the text of Oedipus the King that the legend of Oedipus sprang “from some primeval dream material which had as its content the distressing disturbance of a child’s relation to his parents owing to the first stirrings of sexuality” (Rickman 219). At the point where Oedipus has begun to feel troubled by his recollections of the oracle in the beginning of the play, Jocasta (his wife and mother) consoles him by referring to a dream. Thus, Oedipus the King “is the reaction of the imagination to this dream, and just as this dream is accompanied by feelings of revulsion, so too the legend must include horror and self-punishment” (Woodard 104).
In conclusion, it is quite clear that Oedipus the King, whether interpreted by Sophocles, Aristotle or Sigmund Freud, forces us to recognize the compelling influence of destiny, for the destiny of Oedipus “moves us only because it might have been ours, the same curse upon us before our birth as was laid upon Oedipus” (Rickman 220).
Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.
Rickman, John, ed. A General Selection From the Works of Sigmund Freud. New York: Doubleday, 1957.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Trans. Stephen Berg. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Webster, Richard. Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
Woodard, Thomas, ed. Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966.
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