Classical Notes: Oedipus' fate was in his genes - and he knew it

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The Independent Culture
IT IS no longer fashionable to want to kill your father and sleep with your mother. In Freudian terms, the ancient myth of Oedipus is today looking a little tired, though of course we do owe the founder of modern psychology some thanks for being able to say boo to taboos. Today, Oedipus would have counselling and sell his story to the tabloids.

It is time for Sophocles' great play - arguably the greatest in all Greek drama - to step out from behind the 20th-century fantasy. When it was first performed in 430 BC (in the amphitheatre still to be seen at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens) the audience knew the basic story. They also knew the psychological stuff if a throwaway line that Sophocles gives to Jocasta, the wife of Oedipus, is anything to go by: "Don't worry. You're not the first man to sleep / With his mother - in his dreams . . ."

In fact, Sophocles was using the already ancient legend of Oedipus to explore something more primitive than even the unholy impulses of mummy's boys everywhere. In the story which all Athenians knew, a shepherd comes down from the mountain with a baby. He gives it to the king and queen of Corinth who have no children of their own. So Oedipus the foundling makes good. He is brought up as a prince, unaware that he has been adopted, unaware that his real parents abandoned him as a baby to die, for fear of a prophesy that he would kill his own father. Learning of the prophecy himself, Oedipus thinks he is fated to kill the king of Corinth and to marry the woman he presumes to be his mother.

He leaves home, taking the road for Thebes. On the way five men travelling with a chariot try to push him off the road, and armed just with a stick, he gives them all a brief lesson in the art of violence. Only one escapes alive. Nearing Thebes Oedipus encounters an evil supernatural presence called the Sphinx who will kill him if he fails to answer a riddle. Oedipus remains unspooked, and his wits are as quick as his hands. Having lifted the curse of the Sphinx, he is rewarded with the hand of the newly widowed queen of Thebes, and the throne of the late king. He rules for 15 years, and has four children.

It is at this point that Sophocles' Oedipus the King begins. Originally acted from behind masks (and therefore ideal for transfer to the modern audiobook or radio play) it plots the course of a homicide investigation with a series of flash-backs. Thebes is in the grip of plague. The oracle at Delphi warns of a murderer within who must be expelled. Oedipus himself drives the search forward with ferocious energy, amidst an atmosphere of hysteria and paranoia.

Of course, we know who did it. The power of the play, 2,500 years after it was written, is that Oedipus is guilty, but that he has had no chance to escape his destiny. This was not, as so often in Homer, a case of the gods having a bit of fun. For Oedipus has been set up in another way: his fate is deeply etched in his genes.The guilt of Oedipus is not that of individual, moral or psychological failure; it constitutes a more tribal, even genetic transgression.

This makes it a far more modern play than we, in a trans-Freudian age, often realise. The more we learn about genes, the more we discover that we, even with the best intentions (like Oedipus), are driven to our fate.

It was signposted even more clearly for the original audience. The name Oedipus means "swell-foot" - and refers to the marks on his feet from the manacles put on when, as a baby, he was left on the hillside to die. But for the ancient Greeks the name Oedipus rang with another meaning: oida, which means "I know". His fate was in his genes - but his tragedy was that he knew it.

Duncan Steen has translated Sophocles' 'Oedipus the King' for a new recording released by Naxos AudioBooks (two CDs, pounds 10.99; two cassettes, pounds 8.99)