All you need to know about the books you meant to read


by Sophocles

Plot: A deadly pestilence sweeps Thebes. The Delphic oracle pronounces that there will be no respite until the murderer of King Laius is brought to book. Laius's successor, Oedipus, promises to explore the truth. The blind seer Tiresius is summoned. He claims that Oedipus is the villain. Oedipus believes Tiresius to be in league with his brother-in-law, Creon. Laius's wife Jocasta is now married to Oedipus. She describes her husband's demise: Oedipus is reminded of the time he killed a stranger, in the earliest recorded incident of road rage.

A messenger from Corinth tells Oedipus that his "father'', Polybus, has died. Oedipus is unwilling to return home: in his youth, the oracle had foretold that he would slaughter his father and marry his mother. To allay Oedipus's qualms, the messenger reveals that Oedipus is not Polybus's son: he was found, as a baby, on a mountain-top by a shepherd. Oedipus switches the investigation from "Who killed the king?'' to "Who am I?''

The shepherd is cross-examined. Laius and Jocasta had abandoned their son, Oedipus, to avoid the oracle's curse: they had learned that their son was destined to become an incestuous patricide. The House of Thebes continues its path of damnation. Jocasta commits suicide. Scorched by the truth, Oedipus blinds himself with his mother's/wife's brooch.

Theme: Oedipus is entangled in problems of free will and predestination. The gods have doomed him to commit the vilest crimes: despite his own courage and the efforts of his parents, there is no escape. His self-mutilation recognises that guilt is unrelated to intention.

Style: Sophocles's dense noble language is hard to translate (no English version matches the brilliance of Pope's Iliad or Browning's Agamemnon) but nothing can dull the mathematical precision of the plot.

Chief strengths: To remind humanity of its ignorance and helplessness. The gods are unfathomable. Neither fair not just, they must be revered or feared. Despite mankind's pride in the powers of reason, the universe still remains an inimical environment, strewn with snares.

Chief weaknesses: If approached from the Judaeo-Christian tradition of sin and redemption, the play is entirely senseless.

What they thought of it then: Aristotle took Oedipus Tyrannus as the model for tragic drama: the play's power is generated by Sophocles's scrupulous adherence to unities of time, place and action.

What we think of it now: The keystone of Western drama.

Responsible for: Cut-price imitations by Seneca, Corneille, Voltaire, Cocteau and Gide. Provided Freud with the opportunity for leaving the medical profession and re-inventing himself as a "psychoanalyst''.

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