Oedipus the King (The Theban Plays #1) by Sophocles

Oedipus Rating:

Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex) did a brilliant job in voicing the title role of Oedipus in what I found to be an ‘easier’ to understand translation by Duncan Steen for the full cast audio.

I’m glad I’ve finally read the famous, fabulously sensational story of incest and patricide about the man who kills his father and marries his mother, after encountering Freud’s derivative Oedipus Complex in psychology class a decade ago.

Sophocles showcases the limitations of prophecy in stating the destination without providing details of the journey, and therefore a way to avoid the outcome. Had Oedipus’s father not been told of the prophecy, would Oedipus have still fulfilled it? Laius would never have ordered his son to be ripped from his mother and left to die on a hillside had he not not known of the prophecy; and Oedipus would’ve grown up knowing his parents whereupon the Westermarck effect would come into play. So, is the Delphic oracle at fault here? Should he take some modicum of responsibility for Oedipus’s crimes by putting him on the path to committing them? Every cause has an effect and every effect, a cause.

Coincidence or fate? Again, if Oedipus hadn’t been informed of the prophecy he wouldn’t have met his real father on that crossroads, but as soon as he did, his fate was sealed.

I liked the symbolism of the action at the three-way crossroads. King Laius and his entourage tried to push Oedipus off the road which resulted in a skirmish to the death. Oedipus prevailed by killing all but one of his attackers who escaped. However, the deaths were reported as a robbery homicide – to save face, perhaps? Obviously the king wasn’t well guarded if one man could slay him and all of his men. If Oedipus is right and the king’s men instigated the incident, was killing them self-defence? Oedipus is presented as an honest and honorable king who takes great pride in his good character. I doubt he’d lower himself to robbery when outnumbered and afterwards feel no guilt over his ‘youthful misdeed’ when his latter guilt cripples him.

Free will only applies to the control of one’s own actions and the ability to influence that of others’. Oedipus is unable to exert enough control over his life to make informed decisions when he’d been lied to about his identity so it’s difficult to blame him for crimes he’d committed unwittingly. Rather than a heinous criminal, Oedipus is painted as a pitiable figure. Self-inflicted punishment is meted out instead of the judgement and execution of societal justice, because no can hurt you more than yourself. Self-condemnation, self-mutilation and self-banishment from his home is punishment enough.

Ignorance and an inability to look beyond the superficial is expressed as a disadvantage of the ability to see, while blindness confers insight into the truth of things with a painfully sharp clarity. Oedipus mocks Tiresias for his blindness, claiming it hinders his ability to see the truth. Tiresias hits back, mocking Oedipus with a statement representing the exact opposite. Yet Oedipus, upon realising the truth of his actions, dashes out his own eyes in anguished horror after witnessing the dead swinging body of his shamed wife and mother, his psychological pain seemingly blotting out the physical.

I completely understand why this is a beloved classic. I’m sure I could get more out of it with each listen or read. I have only one complaint: I didn’t really understand the Chorus. On the audio, many people spoke those words in unison and I thought this obscured the pronunciation, however, I did seek out a free ebook edition online to re-read those parts and they still made little sense to me.

*Free audio from Audiobooksync’s annual summer event.

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2 thoughts on “Oedipus the King (The Theban Plays #1) by Sophocles

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