I’m very excited to announce the release of my new book, Welcome to TRAGEDY: A Beginner’s Guide to Greek Drama. A single volume to introduction to Greek drama, with introductions to all of the surviving scripts by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, plus three comedies by Aristophanes. Here below are a couple samples – the Author’s preface, and the chapter about Oedipus Tyrannos (since I figure that’s the most familiar play for most readers). The book is available at https://www.amazon.com/Welcome-Tragedy-Beginners-Guide-Greek/dp/B088XQGW84/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=welcome+to+tragedy&qid=1592328265&s=books&sr=1-1
At an early age I was inoculated against any infectious enjoyment of Greek drama. Likely by some withered, clucking, turkey-necked high school teacher, and then again by some smug, turtle-necked college professor. Whatever love they had for literature was not contagious.
If you want to inoculate young people against Greek drama, start by alienating them with archaic terms like hubris and dithyramb. Make them memorize these vocabulary words for a Tuesday morning quiz, which pretty much guarantees they’ll have forgotten them by Wednesday. Drag them through some of Aristotle’s Poetics, so they can see the process by which creativity and fun can be scientifically drained out of drama. Then make them read Oedipus Tyrannos, so they can see how a dirty joke can become as dry as a church service.
Teaching Aristotle’s formula (which he based on Oedipus) and then teaching Oedipus to confirm Aristotle is a circular argument that makes for an easy-to-grade paper assignment: In two pages, prove that Oedipus fits perfectly into Aristotle’s outline. Unfortunately, it then leaves students with the false impression that, if you’ve read one tragedy you’ve read them all – and why waste time reading more stories cramped into this dull formula?
And if one should attempt to read further, Medea becomes a dreary and even frustrating intellectual exercise of trying to shoehorn a story into a pattern that doesn’t seem to fit. None of the classical Greek dramatists had read Aristotle’s instructions for writing proper tragedy – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides had all been dead for decades before the book was written. And it’s a good thing they didn’t read it, because then a study of Greek drama would be totally repetitive and boring. As we’ll see, there was a good deal of liberty on the stage of Dionysus.
I’ve never had an interest in Greek drama, but in the last couple of years, people I respect have looked at me and made inside-jokes about Greek plays on the assumption that I’d pick up the reference. I didn’t, and got tired of explaining that I’d been inoculated at an early age, so decided to take it on as an independent study. This turned out to be more fun than I’d expected, because I’ve been going to the theater more lately, and generally find modern plays to be as rewarding as getting thwacked with a rolled-up newspaper and having my nose rubbed in feces.
I’m tired of watching pathetic little plays where pathetic little people fail in pathetic little ways. The number one rule for Greek tragic heroes and heroines seems to be “If you’re gonna fail – fail big. Take a whole kingdom down with you. Really screw it up on such a grand scale that even the gods will scratch their heads.”
I would have been so happy to find a slim, single-volume guide to Greek drama where all of these plays were introduced concisely in a conversational tone. I wanted to be welcomed as a mildly curious beginner. I didn’t find the book I was looking for, so I read all of the plays and several hundred pages of commentary and wrote this. A lot of the stuff I read was insanely dull, filled with obscure vocabulary words and scholar-code, and I’ve done my best to present my findings in a way that will be easy to read.
Now, next time someone makes an inside joke about Greek Drama, I’ll be able to respond. Unfortunately the response will be obscure and alienating, and I’ll realize too late I’d be better off if I’d just stared blankly. Ironically the more we learn about a topic, the harder it is to communicate about it. My hope is that, as an enthusiastic amateur, I’ve learned just enough in this last six months to write an easy-going introduction for mildly curious beginners.
Sophocles, 427 BCE
Title : The name “Oedipus” means “swollen foot,” which is explained in mythology with the story of an ill-omened baby being pierced through the ankles and left out to die, although it more likely derives from an ancient superstition that a king as mediator between the earth-world and sky-world must have one foot that never touches the ground. Or maybe it just meant gout.
Oedipus Tyrannos (in Latin, Oedipus Rex) is generally translated “Oedipus the King,” but the Greek tyrannos is a more specific legal term for someone who rules without having inherited a dynastic royal title. It’s from this word we get the English “Tyrant,” but we use the word judgmentally, about oppressive dictators, whereas the Greek word is neutral, like our word “president.” In calling the play Oedipus Rex, “Oedipus the King” we lose the irony of its title: Oedipus was the firstborn son of the previous king and therefore the rightful inheritor, but not knowing this he became the ruler by saving the city and marrying the queen. Then the realization that he was rightful king all along comes simultaneously with the revelations that destroy him. However, calling the play “Oedipus the Tyrant” today wouldn’t work, since the play establishes that the population of Thebes thought he was doing just fine.
Premise : The city of Thebes will be destroyed unless the killer of its former ruler is punished. Oedipus investigates.
Oedipus – Ruler of Thebes who must avenge the former ruler’s murder +
Jocasta – Oedipus’ wife, later revealed to be his mother +▼
Creon – Brother of Jocasta +
Tiresias – Soothsayer, reveals a vague outline of the back-story +
Priest of Zeus – Explains the plague
Messengers – Reporters of offstage action
Shepherd – Reveals that Oedipus was the abandoned baby
Antigone and Ismene – Daughters of Oedipus and Jocasta (non-speaking roles) +
Chorus of Theban Elders
(+ appears in multiple plays, see Character Index, ▼ dies in this play)
A Murder Mystery
Oedipus Rex is a murder mystery in which the detective doesn’t know he’s the killer. But unlike other mysteries, this one was written with the assumption that the audience knows the outcome before the play begins. And even in modern times, if you asked high school graduates “who killed Oedipus’ father?” they’d likely know it whether they’d ever read the play or not.
The real story of Oedipus takes place in the past – the Theban royal couple Laius and Jocasta abandoned their infant son to die, fearing a prophecy that he would kill his father. The baby was adopted by the king and queen of Corinth, but then exiled himself to escape a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In a fit of road-rage at an intersection he killed a man (Laius, his biological father), then rescued Thebes from a terrorist Sphinx, married the queen and became ruler. Then Oedipus waited for the Corinthian king and queen to die so he would have successfully escaped the prophecy. But a new apocalyptic terror has come to haunt Thebes, and everyone will die if Laius’ killer is not exposed.
In theatrical study this would all be back-story, but the plot of Oedipus (which takes place on the day Oedipus learns the Corinthian king is finally dead) is driven by exposition, the past is central. Tom Driver wrote: “Formally, then, the present embraces the past. Yet as the play proceeds this formal arrangement is reversed. In a play shot through with irony, the basic irony is this: while the form of the play shows the past enclosed within the present, the action shows that in reality the present is enclosed within the past.”34 The old prophecies are firmly in control, no matter how Oedipus tries to outrun or out-think them.
Oedipus is tragically willful: he once killed a driver at an intersection insisting he had the right-of-way. And at every intersection of the play he drives forward, even when the road-signs and passengers tell him to turn back, he’s on a collision-course with destiny. He does once ask for directions, from a blind man, but he brutally refuses to accept them.
He prides himself on his detective skills – he once rescued Thebes from the Sphinx by defeating its riddle. The play doesn’t tell us the riddle, but apparently assumes we know (Q: What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three in the evening? A: Man, who crawls in infancy, walks in adulthood and then needs a cane in old age). It’s odd that Sophocles leaves the riddle out, since like the play it collapses past, present and future into a single day, and also contains ironic connections to Oedipus himself, whose feet were bound together when he was abandoned as a baby (making him unable to crawl) and who will presumably need a stick to feel his way around after blinding himself. But for the dramatic purpose of Oedipus Tyrannos, all we need to know is that he saved the city by solving a riddle once, and come-what-may will save the city by solving a riddle again. The Sphinx (meaning “Throttler” or “Strangler”) which Oedipus defeated in the past was a mythical chimera, a composite monster.35 The solution to the play’s current riddle is yet another sphinx: Oedipus himself, husband of his mother and sibling of his offspring, is also a composite monster.
How Complex Was Oedipus’ Marriage, Really?
Readers may expect eroticism in Oedipus, because the play’s title has become synonymous with Sigmund Freud’s theories on unconscious sexual desire, but if Oedipus has any yearning at all for Jocasta, it’s buried too deep to see it in this play. She does act maternal toward him, in the way that the wife of any obsessively focused man must help him remember the little things, and when she figures out the big secret (just before he does) she tries to protect him from this crushing realization.
The play contains only a single fleeting reference to a Freudian “Oedipus Complex,” when Jocasta tells her husband that life is only ruled by random chance, and nothing can be predicted. She then matter-of-factly says “Do not fear this marriage with your mother. Many men have dreams, and in those dreams they wed their mothers,” and Oedipus blandly answers “You are right,”36 which makes us momentarily wonder about the woman he thought was his mother (whom he immediately says he wishes were dead, so he won’t have to worry about marrying her).
Jocasta is clearly not some withered old crone, she’s likely thirteen or fourteen years older than Oedipus – their ages are not given in the play, but he could be as young as his early thirties and she could be in her mid forties. She’s energetic and sharp, but Aphrodite lurks nowhere in the background of this play. Oedipus speaks of sex only in farming terms, his mother/wife as a piece of land that had been plowed by both his father and himself: “a field that had brought forth two harvests – him and his children.”37 The chorus mixes this metaphor with the docking of a boat: “For you the same wide harbor lay open as son and husband fathering children – how, how could the furrow sown by your father bear you in silence so long?”38 Other than these euphemisms (and the fact that Oedipus and Jocasta have four children), the play gives us no sense of their attraction. At the midpoint, while the chorus sings the half-time song, Oedipus and Jocasta go home together and return five minutes later, but it’s doubtful they snuck off for a quickie.
Did Oedipus have an “Oedipus Complex?” It doesn’t seem so. Oedipus did not seek out the queen Jocasta because he was hot for her. Marrying the former ruler’s widow was part of the rise to political power, like Aegisthus in the Oresteia – these royal successions seem to preserve an old memory of queens who ruled for life and had replaceable male consorts.
Once he learns that he’s impregnated his own mother, Oedipus does feel guilty and ashamed, and what had been a healthy marriage instantly turns into something nightmarish and gruesome. When he finds Jocasta has hanged herself, he tears off the brooches that pinned her garments together and plunges the needles into his eyes. His dead mother’s naked body is the last thing he sees before going through the rest of his life blind.
Oedipus and the gods
At the midpoint of the play, while his world is being turned inside-out, the exasperated Oedipus shouts out “Whoever took all this to be the work of a savage god would speak the truth!”39 Where are the gods in Oedipus? Offstage giggling, it seems. The audience sees the play from the gods’ perspective – since the story was already well known, spectators could simultaneously see the past, present and future, while Oedipus blindly bumbled around trying to assemble the past. Destroying his eyes at the end was just a formality.
The surprise twist at the end of Oedipus Tyrannos is that Oedipus wins! He accomplishes precisely what he set out to do: deduces and punishes the former king’s murderer, and saves the city! But there’s no victory party – the gods rob him of any joy in success. He is a true hero, a savior, and yet he’s truly tragic, ground in the gears of a trap he can’t see until it’s too late.
Miscellaneous : Oedipus Tyrannos (bundled with two other tragedies and a satyr play) was the second-place entry in the dramatic competition of its year. Sophocles was beaten by Philocles, nephew of celebrity playwright Aeschylus. What this masterpiece was we don’t know, Philocles’ works have not been preserved, so we can’t judge for ourselves whether he wrote something better than Oedipus. All we really know about Philocles is that his uncle had industry connections.