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March 05, 2010

The Oedipal Descent

Oedipus the King
Oedipus at Colonus

by Sophocles, translated by Paul Roche
reviewed by Joie

There once was a man named Oedipus Rex.
You may have heard about his odd complex.
His name appeared in Freud's index.
'Cause he loved his mother.
~Tom Lehrer "Oedipus Rex"

So is the fate-doomed man's life a tragedy. A man went from everything, kingship, a loving wife, a beautiful city, to shame, disgust, and divine punishment. Oedipus Rex (it rhymes with platypus) was doomed from the day of his birth to a fate locked with suicide, murder, incest, and death. The gods string him along through explosive denial and realization of the scale of horror his acts included. Written by Sophocles in ancient Greece and still enjoyed and wept over today in every language, the tragedy of the House of Oedipus is a timeless classic. (It helped that Freud named a certain psychological problem the "Oedipal complex")

Oedipus the King begins with a short overview of Oedipus' life until the current play. Oedipus is born with a frightening prophecy dangling over his head. The prophets of the Greek gods said he would do away with his father and in fear, his father, King Laius of Thebes, bound his feet and left him on the mountainside to die as a baby. He is rescued and lives in the city of Corinth, raised up by the king and queen there. When he learned from a prophet he is fated to kill his father and wed his mother, he flees in order to spare the man who raised him up, the man he called father.

But soon it becomes all too apparent that men cannot outwit the gods or deceive fate. He ends up near his real city of birth and kills an old man after the man nearly runs him down on a pilgrimage. That man was actually Laius, Oedipus' real father that left him to die. He ends up in Thebes where he rescues the city from a bewitching Sphinx and is crowned king. Oedipus, unaware of Fate's plan, marries the queen there, Jocasta, who is, in fact, his mother. The thread of fate is spun and the tragedy of Oedipus and his road of atonement and self-disfiguration begins.

Oedipus at Colonus speaks of the time after Oedipus has begun his path of atonement and redemption, when he rests near Athens in hopes of staying out of the bickering of the two brothers as they try to seize control in Thebes. The gracious Theseus, hero and valiant leader of Athens, offers him rest there. Soon, both sides come to try to sway Oedipus to join one or another with the blessings of gods. Old and bitter, now enlightened as well, he gives them his curses for arrogance and foolish human pride in their greatness. The play is a continuation of Oedipus the King, when Oedipus, having endured much tragedy, pain, and grief, maintains his dignity in such a way he is given the final blessing of the gods as he dies. So Sophocles presents human greatness. Tis only the dignity and humility you bear with life's sorrows.

Antigone, the final play of the trilogy, focuses on the final fall of the House of Oedipus as the arrogant Creon has seized control of Thebes after both of Oedipus' brother-sons die. Antigone, Oedipus' daughter-sister, risks her life for justice and dignity, the true forms of human greatness, to bury her dead brother. Creon conceitedly condemns her to death, falling to the same sin Oedipus fell to years earlier. Pride. When the last of the House of Oedipus falls, including Creon's own son, so begins the same realization, suffering, and redemption that Oedipus went through and Creon now faces, as Sophocles unveils his ultimate message of pride and men without God.

Students often come and go in high school, dreading the little books assigned in English that are full of cryptic symbolism, long winded details, and old English phrases of “Thou drankest my wine.” Often, there is little to no action and a bunch of confusing messages. The Oedipus plays are something else. They are to be read out loud, brimming with the intensity and emotion of the human race. The fall of the House of Oedipus is no little reading assignment. It is the tale of ages.

Posted by at March 5, 2010 02:42 PM