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Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles

In Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, Oedipus Tries to Avoid His Fate


Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oedipus and the Sphinx

"The dream of having sexual intercourse with one's mother was as common then as it is today with many people, who tell it with indignation and astonishment. As may well be imagined, it is the key to the tragedy and the complement to the dream of the death of the father. The Oedipus fable is the reaction of phantasy to these two typical dreams, and just as such a dream, when occurring to an adult, is experienced with feelings of aversion, so the content of the fable must include terror and self- chastisement."
From Interpretation of Dreams, by Sigmund Freud

Freud's Oedipus Complex

Freud's Oedipus Complex is based on a supposedly deep-seated and common male desire to sleep with one's mother. The term comes from the most famous tragedy by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex (also known as Oedipus the king or Oedipus Tyrannus), one that Aristotle, a century later, held up as the paradigm of dramatic virtue. Despite the importance of this play, nowhere in the Oedipus Rex do we encounter this desire to kill one's father or to commit knowing incest. All we have is a dream:

Jocasta:How oft it chances that in dreams a man
Has wed his mother!
He who least regards
Such brainsick phantasies lives most at ease.

Oedipus the King

Murder and Marriage

What we see instead of desires to kill one's father and marry one's mother are the twin facts of killing and marrying. Desire may or may not be there, but the deeds were done. Killing one's father, the head of the oikos, is a most serious crime in Athens. In Athena's vindication of Orestes, the Furies had been pursuing Orestes because he had murdered his mother, but Athena decided that murdering one's mother was not so bad as what Orestes' mother had done, and that Orestes was justified in killing the murderer of the head of the household. Having sex with one's mother is pretty horrendous, too, for a Greek male.

Incest and Parricide

Oedipus and his mother try not to commit patricide/incest. When the oracle reveals the future murder/marriage:

An oracle
Once came to Laius (I will not say
'Twas from the Delphic god himself, but from
His ministers) declaring he was doomed
To perish by the hand of his own son,
A child that should be born to him by me.

Oedipus the King

Jocasta makes arrangements to have her infant son killed. When Oedipus hears the same message:

But other grievous things he prophesied,
Woes, lamentations, mourning, portents dire;
To wit I should defile my mother's bed
And raise up seed too loathsome to behold,
And slay the father from whose loins I sprang.

Oedipus the King

Oedipus leaves the home of the woman whom he mistakenly believes to be his mother. But however much Jocasta and Oedipus try to manipulate the situation, mother and son are fated, doomed.

Aristotle's Imperfect Hero

Aristotle says it's important that the hero of tragedy not be too perfect, someone who tears too hard at our heartstrings when he suffers; but, likewise, he must be noble or else we won't care what happens to him.
"Since then the structure of the best tragedy should be not simple but complex and one that represents incidents arousing fear and pity -- for that is peculiar to this form of art -- it is obvious to begin with that one should not show worthy men passing from good fortune to bad. That does not arouse fear or pity but shocks our feelings. Nor again wicked people passing from bad fortune to good. That is the most untragic of all, having none of the requisite qualities, since it does not satisfy our feelings or arouse pity or fear."

Oedipus tries to take charge and do the right thing. Over and over again he makes moral choices and promises. The more he tries to avoid or make amends for wrong, the tighter the slipknot around his neck. "Stop! Don't do it!" the reader/audience wants to shout. "Don't leave home. Don't make lofty promises." But Oedipus can't hear. Oedipus' senses misperceive each important clue. He hears only parts of messages. The blind seer Tiresias could see the events of Oedipus' life more clearly than the sighted king. By the time Oedipus emulates Tiresias, it's too late.

Next page Hamlet vs. Oedipus Page 1, 2

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