Even before you read Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, you’ve already heard the story and processed its inherent ickiness and general unlikeliness, which makes it impossible to come at the text fresh, with no preconceptions. You can’t even really experience the tragedy of it, because you know the outcome even as the first scene settles in. Oedipus may not know where he’s headed, but you and the rest of the audience sure do, and you end up reading the whole thing from between the fingers of your hand, shielding your eyes from the proceedings.
Oedipus kills his father, marries his mother, and proceeds to discover these facts for himself over the course of the horrifying play. Oedipus is a just ruler and a righteous man, and each step he takes toward the truth is inevitable for his character, which is what makes it so excruciating to watch as the whole thing unfolds.
The setup of the story is a bit rococo, unfolding across several scenes where we learn that Oedipus only recently became king of Thebes, having solved the riddle of the Sphinx, which had sat as a curse upon the land. I guess it was a pretty good way to become a king back then, to come along and help lift a curse on a city, and Oedipus earned his title fair and square. But the good times only last for a while before the city is beset by a new curse, which could only be lifted, turns out, when the killer of the former king is found.
The story was that the original king had been on a journey when he was killed by a man he met on the road. Seems like a tough crime to solve after all these years. But then Oedipus reels out his backstory a bit. We learn that when he was traveling to Thebes, he came upon a man at a crossroads, they fought over who would yield, and Oedipus ended up killing him, which seems pretty harsh on Oedipus’ part, frankly, but I guess life was tougher in old Greece. And I suppose this is when the people in the original audience went, Uh-oh.
The stack of confounding circumstances thickens from there, with Jocasta, the late king’s widow and the current king’s wife, admitting that she had had a kid with the former king whom they sent off to be murdered when it was prophesied that the kid would grow up to kill the king. And of course this story jogs the memory of Oedipus, who mentions having fled his own hometown when he was told that he was destined to kill his own father. Uh-oh, indeed.
Like I said, it’s rococo. But it’s all in the service of the deadliest trap any character has found himself in since the invention of drama. Through his own diligence, honesty, and determination to be a good leader to his community, Oedipus doggedly uncovers the darkest of crimes and one of the worst stains that a man could bear, to kill his father and lay with his mother. It’s not just wrong, it’s icky.
The gravity of the offense is quickly reflected in Jocasta, who promptly kills herself offstage, which is itself a kind of relief, and we fully get that she needs to do that. Oedipus, on the other hand, responds more profoundly by poking his own eyes out, refusing to look again upon this world but remaining as a witness to his own abomination. I’m sure the audience would have been happier on their way out of the theatre if Oedipus had killed himself as well, but Sophocles knew justice was rarely so clean, and it was best to leave Oedipus in place to hector us, a reminder of how cruel the gods, and life, can be, rendering us helpless in the face of our own internal rot. The inevitability of Oedipus’s discovery in the play makes it an exquisite torture for the viewer, even one who knows what is coming. But the power isn’t watching a character unwittingly pursue his own downfall. The power of the story is watching him realize that he was the problem all along, that his own destruction was written into him from birth, and despite all his best intentions and fate-defying counter-maneuvers, he could never outrun the reality of who he actually was.
Excerpt from Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles
Oedipus Iocasta, dearest wife, why hast thou summoned me forth from these doors?
Iocasta Hear this man, and judge, as thou listenest, to what the awful oracles of the gods have come.
Oedipus And he—who may he be, and what news hath he for me?
Iocasta He is from Corinth, to tell that thy father Polybus lives no longer, but hath perished.
Oedipus How, stranger? Let me have it from thine own mouth.
Messenger If I must first make these tidings plain, know indeed that he is dead and gone.
Oedipus By treachery, or by visit of disease?960
Messenger A light thing in the scale brings the aged to their rest.
Oedipus Ah, he died, it seems, of sickness?
Messenger Yea, and of the long years that he had told.
Oedipus A las, alas! Why, indeed, my wife, should one look to the hearth of the Pythian seer, or to the birds that scream above our heads, on whose showing I was doomed to slay my sire? But he is dead, and hid already beneath the earth; and here am I, who have not put hand to spear.—Unless, perchance, he was killed by longing for me:970 thus, indeed, I should be the cause of his death. But the oracles as they stand, at least, Polybus hath swept with him to his rest in Hades: they are worth nought.
Iocasta Nay, did I not so foretell to thee long since?
Oedipus Thou didst: but I was misled by my fear.
Iocasta Now no more lay aught of those things to heart.
Oedipus But surely I must needs fear my mother’s bed?
Iocasta Nay, what should mortal fear, for whom the decrees of Fortune are supreme, and who hath clear foresight of nothing? ‘Tis best to live at random, as one may.980 But fear not thou touching wedlock with thy mother. Many men ere now have so fared in dreams also: but he to whom these things are as nought bears his life most easily.
Oedipus All these bold words of thine would have been well, were not my mother living; but as it is, since she lives, I must needs fear—though thou sayest well.
Iocasta Howbeit thy father’s death is a great sign to cheer us.
Oedipus Great, I know; but my fear is of her who lives.
Messenger And who is the woman about whom ye fear?
Oedipus Meropè, old man, the consort of Polybus.
Messenger And what is it in her that moves your fear?
Oedipus A heaven-sent oracle of dread import, stranger.
Messenger Lawful, or unlawful, for another to know?
Oedipus Lawful, surely. Loxias once said that I was doomed to espouse mine own mother, and to shed with mine own hands my father’s blood. Wherefore my home in Corinth was long kept by me afar; with happy event, indeed,—yet still ’tis sweet to see the face of parents.
Messenger Was it indeed for fear of this that thou wast an exile from that city?
Oedipus And because I wished not, old man, to be the slayer of my sire.
Messenger Then why have I not freed thee, king, from this fear, seeing that I came with friendly purpose?
Oedipus Indeed thou shouldst have guerdon due from me.
Messenger Indeed ’twas chiefly for this that I came—that, on thy return home, I might reap some good.
Oedipus Nay, I will never go near my parents.
Messenger Ah my son, ’tis plain enough that thou knowest not what thou doest.
Oedipus How, old man? For the gods’ love, tell me.
Messenger If for these reasons thou shrinkest from going home.
Oedipus Aye, I dread lest Phoebus prove himself true for me.
Messenger Thou dreadest to be stained with guilt through thy parents?
Oedipus Even so, old man—this it is that ever affrights me.
Messenger Dost thou know, then, that thy fears are wholly vain?
Oedipus How so, if I was born of those parents?
Messenger Because Polybus was nothing to thee in blood.
Oedipus What sayest thou? Was Polybus not my sire?
Messenger No more than he who speaks to thee, but just so much.
Oedipus And how can my sire be level with him who is as nought to me?
Messenger Nay, he begat thee not, any more than I.
Oedipus Nay, wherefore, then, called he me his son?
Messenger Know that he had received thee as a gift from my hands of yore.
Oedipus And yet he loved me so dearly, who came from another’s hand?
Messenger Yea, his former childlessness won him thereto.
Oedipus And thou—hadst thou bought me or found me by chance, when thou gavest me to him?
Messenger Found thee in Cithaeron’s winding glens.
Oedipus And wherefore wast thou roaming in those regions?
Messenger I was there in charge of mountain flocks.
Oedipus What, thou wast a shepherd—a vagrant hireling?
Messenger But thy preserver, my son, in that hour.
Oedipus And what pain was mine when thou didst take me in thine arms?
Messenger The ankles of thy feet might witness.
Oedipus Ah me, why dost thou speak of that old trouble?
Messenger I freed thee when thou hadst thine ankles pinned together.
Oedipus Aye, ’twas a dread brand of shame that I took from my cradle.
Messenger Such, that from that fortune thou wast called by the name which still is thine.
Oedipus Oh, for the gods’ love—was the deed my mother’s or father’s? Speak!
Messenger I know not; he who gave thee to me wots better of that than I.
Oedipus What, thou hadst me from another? Thou didst not light on me thyself?
Messenger No: another shepherd gave thee up to me.
Oedipus Who was he? Art thou in case to tell clearly?
Messenger I think he was called one of the household of Laïus.
Oedipus The king who ruled this country long ago?
Messenger The same: ’twas in his service that the man was a herd.
Oedipus Is he still alive, that I might see him?
Messenger Nay, ye folk of the country should know best.
Oedipus Is there any of you here present that knows the herd of whom he speaks—that hath seen him in the pastures or the town? Answer! The hour hath come that these things should be finally revealed.
Ch. Methinks he speaks of no other than the peasant whom thou wast already fain to see; but our lady Iocasta might best tell that.
Oedipus Lady, wottest thou of him whom we lately summoned? Is it of him that this man speaks?
Iocasta Why ask of whom he spoke? Regard it not… waste not a thought on what he said… ’twere idle.
Oedipus It must not be that, with such clues in my grasp, I should fail to bring my birth to light.
Iocasta For the gods’ sake, if thou hast any care for thine own life, forbear this search! My anguish is enough.
Oedipus Be of good courage; though I be found the son of servile mother,—aye, a slave by three descents,—thou wilt not be proved base-born.
Iocasta Yet hear me, I implore thee: do not thus.
Oedipus I must not hear of not discovering the whole truth.
Iocasta Yet I wish thee well—I counsel thee for the best.
Oedipus These best counsels, then, vex my patience.
Iocasta Ill-fated one! Mayst thou never come to know who thou art!
Oedipus Go, some one, fetch me the herdsman hither,—and leave yon woman to glory in her princely stock.
Iocasta Alas, alas, miserable!—that word alone can I say unto thee, and no other word henceforth for ever.Public Domain. Translation by Richard Claverhouse Jebb.