Friday, November 8, 2013

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

I've been meaning to write this post for quite some time now. Since Oedipus Rex (or Oedipus the King) is on my Classics Club list, I feel like it's only right to write about it.

But it's something I want to write about.

If you read my post about ancient literature, you know that I was less than thrilled with this and various other works that represent the grand ol' ancient world. Now, usually I prefer the literature of a time/place to just about anything else it has produced. But that certainly isn't the case with the Greeks and Oedipus Rex.

I gave everything I had to like this play. I read it and discussed it with my class, and I went and saw a live stage version of it. But nothing could make me enjoy it. In fact, it was hard to appreciate it on any level.

Maybe it's just that Sophocles and I simply don't have a connection. Maybe I'm just not old enough to appreciate it. Maybe I'll read it again in twenty years and then love it. I certainly hope so.

But for now, this pretty much sums up my reaction to Oedipus Rex: All these things happen that are supposed to be exciting, but I'm just bored and grossed out.

Now that I think about it, that's actually a pretty amazing feat. If that's what Sophocles was trying to accomplish, then I applaud him.

Does anyone out there have words of wisdom that can convert me to this work of genius?


  1. I think of Oedipus' story as a couple of things. First, it's the Greeks experimenting with their worst nightmares. What is the absolute worst thing that could happen to a man?

    Second, and related, it's part of their 'don't call yourself happy till you're safely dead' philosophy. Oedipus is the guy who has it all--he's clever, he's rich, he's got a kingdom and a family, he's incredibly lucky in everything he does--he is living the ideal life for a Greek. He is virtuous and generous and embodies all the Greek ideals. And it turns out that he has unwittingly committed the worst crimes a person can commit. He has poisoned his country, which is now under a curse. His children are cursed. The only way to fix anything at all is for him to maim himself and live in exile and poverty for the rest of his life. He pays by becoming the lowest of the low. So...don't get cocky--it could happen to anyone. And don't think you have much control over your destiny, either.

    1. I really like those ways to look at it. I did have an interesting discussion about this play, and I can see why people would like it, but for some reason it just didn't do it for me. But it does have some interesting aspects to it, like you said.

    2. Well, I wouldn't say that I *enjoy* it like I do the lovely Elizabeth Goudge novel I just read. But it's interesting. :)

  2. The Greeks often show how one's fate is inescapable; the only choice one has is to die with honour and fame. Sadly, and considering this is a tragedy, Oedipus does not accomplish this feat.

    I'm drawing from what I remember and from other reviews but there are many interesting comparisons in this play. Oedipus is a brother and father but also a son and husband; he is a king, yet he is a criminal; he is Thebes' champion yet infects the town because of his deeds.

    Did Oedipus deserve the fate that was given him? It's a good question. One reviewer said that Oedipus could see, but was blind to what was in front of his face, while Tiresias could not physically see yet he could "see" what Oedipus could not. Very interesting …...

    I think the way in which the play should grab the reader, is that while you are horrified by what Oedipus has done, you are also equally horrified that he is completely helpless ……. while he participated in the acts, he did not willfully or knowingly do them and ends up a pawn in the hands of fate.

    I read "Antigone" with my daughter last year, which I believe is third in this series (Oedipus at Colonus being the second) and found it equally fascinating. It brought up many questions, such as, in an important situation, should one follow the rules of the state if they conflict with what is right?

    Sophocles brings some important issues to light. However I can understand the learning curve in being able to appreciate some of the Greek writing. You have to shed a modern mindset, so to speak, and don a Greek one, which is not easy to do if there is no historical background. I hope you can give it another try later on in life; you may have a different reaction.

    BTW, I just stumbled upon your blog and really enjoy your posts!

    1. Thank you for your comment! I think it helped me articulate what exactly it is I don't like about this play...

      Probably one big reason, like you said, is that I have a hard time getting rid of my modern mindset. I try very hard to do that with classics, but for this one it was harder for me because the play didn't draw me into the world of Oedipus. It was too fantastic to accept as realistic, but it wasn't meant to be fantasy, so it's hard to willingly suspend my disbelief. Also, there are several issues that it doesn't really address. For example, why Oedipus is so condemned for mistakes that weren't totally his fault--and also why he wasn't condemned for mistakes that WERE his fault (i.e., killing a random guy in the middle of the road for no good reason). I guess a big part of it is that it's Greek and the Greeks already understood/believed this stuff, so the author didn't feel the need to explain it. I would like to approach this work as philosophical, but it doesn't actually explore the philosophical issues enough for me. I think that this, as with any work of literature, can raise good questions, but it didn't explore them as much as I would have liked.

      Plus, since almost everything happened offstage or in the past, I wasn't really all that horrified. Just grossed out. But I guess the Greeks would have been used to that.

      I read a French version of Antigone and I really liked it (although I have no idea how similar it is to the original). The characters in that one mainly just had interesting discussions/arguments about the issues in the play. I would have liked to have seen more of that in Oedipus.

      Thank you for the kind words about my blog. :) I like your screen name!

    2. I love the ancient Greeks and find them fascinating, but you're right; you do need to get familiar with their culture and mindset to truly appreciate their writing.

      I was lucky enough to read The Iliad with a group where a couple of the members were either professors or had a good knowledge of ancient Greece, so they really helped me understand Achilles rage and actions. Consequently I read some more Greek history and was hooked.

      I'm so jealous/impressed that you can read high level books in French. My French is good enough for children's books and even then it is a slog. You are inspiring me to challenge myself with a Le Petit Nicolas. That is a classic! After that, perhaps the sky is the limit! :-)

    3. I should probably clarify, that was over a year ago and I've barely spoken a word of French since then! Hopefully someday I'll get my French back. And it was a difficult read back then (I read it for a class; I never would have tried to read it on my own). Le Petit Nicolas is a wonderful (and easier) one!

      I think I need some time to come to appreciate the Greeks. I love Greek art and I do like learning about Greek culture, but I don't have the same connection with it as I do with other time periods and cultures. Maybe I just need to find the right teacher.

  3. I don't have any words of wisdom for you, I'm just writing to tell you that I FEEL YOUR PAIN! :) I also tried to like it so much, and no literary analysis I read helped me... The story itself IS powerful, but the way it is told, or rather wept about by the irritating choir is so... specific, that it's really hard to genuinely like for a modern reader. So... don't worry! :)

    1. Thank you! :D Sometimes I just do everything I can to like something and I just CAN'T. Hopefully someday I'll be able to like it...but today is not that day.