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Oedipus Rex

by Sophocles

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Perhaps the greatest achievement of Sigmund Freud was to convince the world that Greek mythology was actually a map of the human subconscious. The essentially literary nature of his work is underscored by the fact that most readers will be more familiar with Oedipus as a complex rather than a tragic hero. It’s too bad, really, because Oedipus is a remarkable character (who, by the way, did not suffer from the Oedipus complex—he was rightly horrified when he discovered that Jocasta was his mother).

If the details of the play—a boy escapes infanticide only to murder his own father and marry his mother—remind us more of daytime television than high tragedy, it is a testament to how far we have fallen. For the Greeks, this was an unspeakable situation, and the reaction of Oedipus, who blinds himself and goes into exile, was not at all exaggerated. Today, one supposes, he would be recommended for therapy.

The ancient pagan notion of fate is beautifully expounded here. It is inevitable, inescapable and utterly malevolent. The evil prophesied at the birth of Oedipus cannot be avoided; in fact, the escape attempt itself becomes the means by which the prophecy is fulfilled. Christian readers will react to this concept in different ways, some emphasizing human freedom in contrast to pagan determinism, others highlighting God’s loving providence over against malevolent fate. Either way, the drama is wrenching and, considering the Greek penchant for doing the bloody stuff off stage, surprisingly effective.

by J. Mark Bertrand