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Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus: A Map of the Soul

by Vincent M. Badger

In Oedipus Tyrannus, Sophocles shows the interplay between particular citizens of Thebes. Thebes was a real Greek city, but Oedipus was purely mythological, and in the play, Thebes is supposed to be part of the myth. Oedipus and Thebes are intimately related: we may understand the play as a portrait of Oedipus' city at a crucial moment in the city's life, or as a portrait of Oedipus at a crucial moment in his life.

A portrait--a picture--is of course different from a play, having no entrances or exits, no changes of time or place, so must by its nature conform to the classical unities. But some pictures may also tell a story, like Winslow Homer's picture of the former mistress visiting with the former slaves, or the tired fox being stalked by ravens in the snow. Oedipus Tyrannus, which tells a story, may be seen, correspondingly, as a portrait of the "psychological moment."

Aristotle describes Oedipus Tyrannus as "amazing": here there are no villains, and the only mistake is caused by the limits of human understanding. There is one act of wrongdoing that could be called the source of all the present ills, and that is the killing of Laius a long time ago, by a young man in a far-off "place where three roads meet." But even then there was no first degree murder, no malice aforethought, just a quarrel between two travellers standing up for their rights. Not one of civilization's high points, to be sure, but neither clearly understandable as the cause of a plague many years later in Thebes.

The morality of the universe, if it exists, is hidden from us, and is not revealed by Sophocles. It is like the conflict presented by Coleridge when he tells of the curse his mariner incurs by shooting the albatross, between a man trying to be good--or at least not intending to be bad--and an incomprehensible, apparently amoral universe.

Oedipus Tyrannus is a mystery play, showing to the characters on the stage the inexorable unfolding of a truth we knew from the beginning. It is fascinating that the very qualities that have raised Oedipus to his leadership position--his intelligence, dedication to the truth, energy and perseverence--prove to be his undoing. It is also "amazing" that Oedipus attacks--with brooches taken from his wife and mother's body--the eyes that were known for seeing through reality's confusion to the truth.

It is a kind of courtroom drama, the story's violence and temporal and spatial range reduced to the testimony of reluctant witnesses. Sophocles' play is peculiarly suited for a television production.

The only way for Oedipus to avoid his ruin would have been to eschew from the beginning the very qualities in himself that brought him honor and glory--his greatness--not only in the eyes of others but in his own eyes. His so-called "pride," that we are told is his "fatal flaw," is nothing more than his confidence that he has nothing to be ashamed of, that he is not himself the cause of the evil afflicting Thebes.

Sociologically, Oedipus Tyrannus displays the interactions between various characters. But it may also be understood psychologically, as the portrait of an individual human soul--Oedipus, Jocasta, Teiresias and the rest being the embodiments of certain hopes and fears, elations and depressions, certain states of mind, or places in the psychological map of the man and his city.

Oedipus Tyrannus, though not a painting, may be studied as if it were a painting or map of the soul. After first reading or seeing the play, we may go back to study the moments that fascinate us: Oedipus' pride at the city he rules (his kingdom) and in himself as its ruler, as he confidently views the beginnings of the inquiry that will bring him down; his dogged pursuit of leads, and brilliant, relentless questioning of witnesses; the moment Jocasta comes to see the horrible truth; or Teiresias begging Oedipus to stop his search. The story unfolds inexorably, giving the play a stationary, unchanging--yet always changing--quality, and everlasting fascination.

Oedipus Tyrannus, which survived the dark ages and the Industrial Revolution, survives the Internet deluge, too. It is an "ever-fixed mark," by which later, more ephemeral works and productions can be judged.

About the author

Vincent M. Badger, a retired lawyer, has been afflicted for many years by multiple sclerosis. He graduated from Yale (B.A. 1966), and the University of Chicago (J. D. 1971). He is confined to a wheelchair, cannot talk or hold a book, and can only type with the two little fingers of one hand. But, he says, "I thank God for my Macintosh and the Internet."