Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Review: 'Oedipus Rex' by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex I have always loved classical Greek myths and Oedipus was and still is my favourite Greek hero. He is the ultimate when it comes to the tragically flawed hero. His story is one of fate, murder, incestuous love and loyalty. 
Sophocles' Oedipus Rex has never been surpassed for the raw and terrible power with which its hero struggles to answer the eternal question, "Who am I?" The play, a story of a king who acting entirely in ignorance kills his father and marries his mother, unfolds with shattering power; we are helplessly carried along with Oedipus towards the final, horrific truth. 

Whether I entirely agree with the slightly melodramatic summary (from Goodreads) is a question for another day, I do agree with one thing: this play holds an awesome power. There is a sense of doom that hangs over the play from the very beginning. The Oedipus myth starts out with a prophecy for Laius, King of Thebes, that he will be killed by his son who will then marry his own mother. Oedipus is abandoned in the wild but found and eventually adopted by another royal family. The Oracle of Delphi however tells him he is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother and he abandons his adopted family, thinking he is protecting them. On the road he kills Laius, who travels in disguise, out of rage and then liberates Thebes from the Sphinx. As a reward, he marries the queen Jocaste and becomes King of Thebes. 

The play starts years after this when the city of Thebes is being ravaged by the Plague. King Oedipus marks himself as a great king in vowing to find a solution for the Plague, which turns out to be finding Laius' killer. Blindness seems to be a theme in this play. Oedipus is blind to all the hints that he should drop the search or at least guess at the outcome and fights until the bitter end when all he can do is admit he is at fault. This is Oedipus' 'fatal flaw' or rather his 'failing': his determination to find out the answer, even as it becomes clearer that the answer will not be good. Aristotle's belief was that the fatal flaw was what lead the hero to his doom. Oedipus is, in my eyes, a seperate case. Yes, his determination is what brings him closer to his doom yet there was nothing that he could do about it. It was Fate, it has been prophesied by the Gods over and over again and Oedipus is, after all, merely human. 

I personally love this aspect to the story. Oedipus is tragic, a lost case, and the audience cannot help but wish there was some way for him to survive this, both physically and morally. Although patricide and incest are not condoned, it is almost difficult to blame Oedipus for either. He seems to be the only character kept in the dark, the only one truly unaware of the true way Laius died and his true heritage. In many ways I wished the play would include the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx. It truly shows Oedipus' character developing. He has royalty in his blood and is a good king. He truly cares for his people and loves his wife and children, no matter how morally wrong that might seem to the audience. He punishes himself, blinds and banishes himself and at the end of the play all seems well and truly lost.  

Oedipus Rex is the first part of Sophocles' three Theban Plays. Although Oedipus breaks my heart, it is Antigone that truly steals it. I have a knack for the daughters of tragic Greek heroes, Electra is another one of my favourites. Antigone is a truly heroic and loyal character. Although she has plenty of reasons to despise Oedipus, she is loyal and stays at his side until he dies. In Antigone  she extends the same loyalty to her brothers and dies a tragic death. Both her and Oedipus' life are ruled by Fate and by the Gods and they have no choice but to act as bravely as possible.

I read the play in my Module Reader for Introduction to Drama, which means I read the play in different editions. My favourite was probably W.B. Yeats' 'Version for the Modern Stage'. It is very prosaic and emotional, without becoming too archaic and sentimental. 
'Uplift our State; think upon your fame; your coming brought us luck, be lucky to us still; remember that it is better to rule over men than over a waste place, since neither walled town nor ship is anything if it be empty and no man within it.'
I really like these lines. It shows not only the desire of the characters, and the audience, for Oedipus to succeed and be happy but it also conveys the gloom and doom that are about to hit Thebes. 

I realize this is not much of a review but rather an analysis of emotions and perceptions, but I hope there was something useful in there. I give this play...

5 Universes!!!!

I love this play and think Sophocles was a genius. It is stirring and strong and brings the audience to an impossible place. How can we sympathise with a man who killed his own father and married and impregnated his own mother? Why do we wish he could get away with it or remain unawares? This play is sure to split opinions and there are plenty of people out there who dislike it, but it is a true classic.


  1. Sophocles is definitely a genius. One of my favorite lines of all time comes from his play Ajax. I loved reading Oedipus Rex too back in high school/college. Thanks for the review!

  2. This ids one of my fave Greek tragedy after Medea

  3. It's been years, and I mean many years, since I read Oedipus. I often think that I should go back and read more classics like this.