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Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus is a play about one man’s actions, both intentional and unintentional, and the necessary punishment for those actions. Regardless of whether he was manipulated by the gods or self-motivated, Oedipus must take responsibility for his deeds and their consequences. His reaction to the course his life has run is an important reflection of ancient Greek society. The play blurs the line between a shame-based culture and a guilt-based culture. Scholars argue that in the 5th century B.C., when the play was written, the Greeks were transitioning from the former to the latter. In order to understand how Oedipus Tyrannus represents this, it will be necessary to better define shame, guilt, and responsibility as the Greeks viewed them. Specifically, it must be shown how the character of Oedipus demonstrates all three of these concepts in a way that would have likely conflicted Sophocles’ audience.
Oedipus was destined by the gods to kill his father and sleep with his mother. When given knowledge of this, he ran away from his city and family in order to escape this fate. Later, he became the tyrannus of the city of Thebes, rescuing it from the curse of the Sphinx and marrying the widowed queen. In Oedipus Tyrannus, a plague has struck Thebes, and the just king resolves to find the murderer of Laius, the former ruler, in order to rid the city of miasma, or “pollution.” In the course of his investigation, he discovers that it was he who killed Laius in a fit of rage during his early wanderings, not knowing his identity. He also finds out that he was adopted, and that Laius and Jocasta are his real parents. Oedipus realizes, with horror, that he has unwittingly fulfilled his destiny, killing his father and bedding his mother. In an act of deep contrition, Oedipus gouges out his eyes and asks for exile from the city.
The character of Oedipus is not entirely evil, and, in fact, has very good intentions. He leaves his home in order to avoid acting out the terrible prediction of the oracle. He saves the city of Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, and tries to save them again by solving the Laius murder mystery. However, Oedipus has a rather quick temper, and it causes him a lot of trouble. Most importantly, it causes him to unknowingly kill his father over a minor road dispute, which sets all the other events into motion. Later, during the murder investigation, he flies off the handle at his brother-in-law, Creon, accusing him of plotting to overthrow him, despite the irrationality of the accusation. By the time Oedipus inflicts his self-punishment, he has committed wrong actions that were both intentional and unintentional.
The Greeks’ basic definition of shame was not all that different from the modern definition. Williams says that “the basic experience connected with shame is that of being seen, inappropriately, by the wrong people, in the wrong condition (78).” Aidos, “shame,” does not always literally require an observer, but the idea of an observer (Williams 82). Oedipus blinded himself because he could not handle seeing the looks of disdain in the eyes of others regarding his actions, but even as a blind man he chose to exile himself, because he could not handle even imagining those looks of disdain. This view of shame stays relatively true to the way we experience it. However, there is no Greek word directly equivalent with guilt (Williams 88). Rather, guilt is defined in relation to shame. Whereas shame is a result of the public’s negative opinion of basic character traits revealed by one’s actions, guilt is an internal remorse about how one’s actions have affected others. Williams says, “What I have done points in one direction towards what has happened to others, in another direction to what I am” (92). Thus, Oedipus also faces guilt over the curse his actions have placed on Thebes, as well as the way he treated Creon. A lifetime of internal guilt should be punishment enough, but it is compounded by a lifetime of external shame. The relationship between his shame and his guilt is important to Sophocles’ commentary on Greek society and will be discussed later.
E.R. Dodds argues in his book, “The Greeks and the Irrational,” that the ancient Greeks operated first primarily under a shame-culture.
In the Archaic Age the mills of God ground so slowly that their movement was practically imperceptible save to the eye of faith. In order to sustain the belief that they moved at all, it was necessary to get rid of the natural time limit set by death (Dodds 33).
Sometimes people were never punished in their lifetime for evil deeds. In order to retain some faith in the justice of the gods, the Greeks invented the concept of miasma, “pollution.” The shame of an evil action would be passed down to offspring, thus polluting an entire family line, or, in the case of a royal family, an entire city (Dodds 33).
In Chapter 11 of The Odyssey, there is a version of the Oedipus story told in which Laius raped a young boy, thus cursing Oedipus and his descendants. In Sophocles’ version, the audience never finds out exactly why the gods would grant him such a cruel fate. It is unclear whether the miasma originates in Oedipus or in an ancestor. Regardless, under this system a seemingly innocent person could be punished for the sins of their parents.
An interesting question is raised: was Oedipus truly guilty, or merely a victim of bloodguilt and “ate”, “divine temptation” (Dodds 2)? In previous versions of the tale, he is clearly the latter. One effect of the shame-culture was that “the weight of religious feeling and religious law was thrown against the emergence of a true view of the individual as a person, with personal rights and personal responsibilities.” Oedipus would have been seen in the Archaic Age as merely a tool through which moral debts were exacted (Dodds 34). Sophocles does not see things in such black and white terms. Oedipus spends most of the fourth stasimon of Tyrannus alternating between blaming himself and blaming the gods. He calls himself “the destroyer, the curse,” but also “the man the gods loathe most of all” (1345-1346). In lines 1330-1331, he blames Apollo (the god through whom the oracle predicted his fate) for his agonies, but in line 1382 he says that the gods merely exposed his own impiety. He believes that “evil festered beneath” his skin from birth (1396), and because of that the gods came to hate him (1518).
Was Oedipus an innocent person forced to enact a fate chosen for him by the gods, or was he an inherently evil man who brought about his own sad consequences? Not even Oedipus seems to have a clear answer to that, and neither would the audience. He could not have known that the man traveling on the road was both the king of Thebes and his father, but he also could have stopped himself from killing him. He could not have known that Jocasta was his mother, yet he also could have stopped himself from taking her to bed. Oedipus seems to blame himself for his own ignorance, yet blame implies an understanding of ignorance, which is, in this case, a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, he gouges out his eyes as penance for actions he did not understand at the time he committed them. This is a very troubling play to this day, and would have been especially so for the ancient Greeks. The audience would leave the play wondering if a man should be punished for events beyond his control, events that were in his control, or both. We know that eventually, the guilt-based system of morality takes precedence over the shame-culture in Greek society, and individuals were much more often judged for their own actions, not those of their kin. Oedipus in this play characterizes the struggle between the two that was occurring in Sophocles’ day.
While a great deal of Oedipus’ suffering in the fourth stasimon seems linked to his shame over what has happened, it is his guilt that truly motivates his punishment. His aidos was for his actions, seemingly caused by ate. His guilt was for the consequences of his actions, regardless of their motivation, and it is for this he takes full responsibility.
Everywhere, human beings act, and their actions cause things to happen, and sometimes they intend those things, and sometimes they do not; everywhere, what is brought about is sometimes to be regretted or deplored, by the agent or by others who suffer from it or by both; and when that is so, there may be a demand for some response from that agent, a demand made by himself, by others, or by both (Williams 55)
Oedipus demands blindness and exile for himself as a result of the consequences of his actions. Even though he did not intend these consequences, he must take responsibility as the agent of them in order to appease his own guilt. It did not matter to the Thebans that he was, in essence, a tool of the gods. Their city was polluted, and someone must be punished and exiled in order to achieve catharis, or “purification.” Miasma is miasma, regardless of intent, and Oedipus fully understood this. This is what Williams calls “responsibility without causality” (57). In the modern justice system we have terms like involuntary manslaughter where intention is taken into account; in the Greek world a person would stand on trial based upon action only, and when intent is not taken into account, Oedipus’ crimes seem gruesome. The justice of the gods is tragic and seemingly not always just.
Sophocles was, perhaps, the final major supporter of the Archaic Greek worldview (Dodds 49). This worldview was one where the actions of one person could pollute an entire bloodline. It was one in which the gods could, and quite often did, manipulate the hearts and minds of humans to bend to their whims. However, Oedipus Tyrannus was also quite progressive, in that its main character takes responsibility for the consequences of his actions, instead of hiding behind causality as an excuse. Blinding and exiling himself was Oedipus’ attempt to end the miasma he created under the influence of fate. The audience of Sophocles would probably have admired Oedipus for taking responsibility for his actions, and felt sorry for his tragic life being the “dike”, or “balance,” of some cosmic equation. They would, no doubt, have accepted it as the way things were, but the cognitive dissonance this play causes would likely plant a seed of doubt in their minds. The age of Greek rationalism was soon to come, and the shame-based culture would give way to a more democratic form of justice based on individual responsibility.
Dodds, E.R.. The Greeks and the Irrational. 5th ed. Los Angeles: University of California P, 1966. 1-63.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagels. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. 249-270.
Sophocles. Oedipus Tyrannus. Theban Plays. Trans. Peter Meineck, and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003. 61-124.
Williams, Bernard. Shame and Necessity. Los Angeles: University of California P, 1993. 50-102.
Kitto, H.D.F.. Greek Tragedy. 6th ed. New York: Methuen, Inc., 1981. 138-150.
Vellacott, Philip. Sophocles and Oedipus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan P, 1971. 101-244.
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