An Oedipus for our time


Let us try to set a scene: it is a spring morning, with a blue sky overhead and the wide expanse of the sea in the distance; there is the promise of a fine day to come. Crowds of people are making their way on foot through narrow streets, though as this city has never known motor vehicles the locals might find them perfectly adequate. A first glance might lead the casual observer the think this is just some backward, third-world place, and the venue at which the crowds are gathering – an open air amphitheatre – would not seem anything special. However, should the visitor lift his or her eyes above the milling crowds, they would get a very different impression, because a line of striking buildings – architectural masterpieces in any age – adorn the rocky outcrop in the centre of the city. This place is something special, and now the visitor might think they have stepped into the pages of a book and arrived at some mythical or fairy-tale city. But, before we get carried away, perhaps we should find out a little more.

We are actually in Athens in the spring 401BC, during the festival of the Dionysia. The crowd of up to fifteen thousand people is gathering at the theatre on the the southeastern slope of the Acropolis. They are probably mainly men, possibly exclusively so, and this is where our modern day visitor might put their initial wonder at the place to one side, and start to take stock of what they are seeing. There is not much sign of female emancipation to be seen – in fact quite the opposite. And our visitor would be further dismayed to learn that the large number of ‘servants’ in evidence actually have fewer rights then we give to our animals. Perhaps now he or she might be thinking that, far from being a fairy-tale, this place is rather some grim dystopia. But, at least the slaves are being allowed in to watch the theatrical performance, so perhaps we should suspend judgement for a while.

For this is to be no ordinary theatrical production. For a start there is the string of illustrious names who may well have been in the audience: Socrates and Plato the philosophers, Thucydides the historian and Aristophanes the comic playwright. But, more than that, there is the significance of the occasion: this is to be the first performance of the the final play by the legendary Sophocles, written four years previously and now produced posthumously. These will be his parting words to them, spoken from beyond the grave, and he is going to raise issues which have been considerably exercising their minds over the past couple of years. If his previous plays are anything to go by, they will leave the theatre with much to think about: probably a clearer view of their recent history, and possibly some different ideas of where they should be heading in the future. As the sun warms the amphitheatre and the sense of expectation rises in the crowd, and while the members of the chorus limber up nervously, something truly amazing is happening: a nation is consciously, and quite deliberately, taking time to reflect on the previous three decades of its history.

After the performance life will return to normal: the democracy will get back to its daily business (and for full citizens this was a real democracy, which for all its faults shows up alarming failings in our own present-day, pale imitations); farmers will go back to their fields; businessmen to their commercial ventures and ordinary citizens to the sort of mundane lives in which most of us are generally engaged. But something will be different, something which perhaps few cultures achieve with genuine success: they will be doing these things in the full knowledge of who they are, what they have done and how they have arrived at that spring day in 401BC.

In one sense their recent history can be summed up in a single word, ‘war’ – almost thirty years of the most terrible war to ravage the Greek world, where as Thucydides points out, even the words people used took on different meanings. Athens, the ‘shining city on the hill’ which had taken the lead in throwing back the huge might of the invading Persian empire, had been dragged down into a sordid war of attrition with its Peloponnesian neighbours. And it had lost – largely through a number of catastrophic errors it had made. And, worst of all, along the way it had lost its moral compass and, as some of the audience in 401BC would probably have admitted, it had deserved to lose.

Some time around 406BC, with eventual defeat looking inevitable, Sophocles began to write his final play, Oedipus at Kolonos. It was to be the third of a set of plays about the misfortunes of a mythical ruling house of Thebes, of which King Oedipus was the most famous member. He was almost ninety years old when he started writing it, and one can only wonder at what was going through his mind as events in the real world went from bad to worse. It was probably just as well that he did not live to see the final disasters, with the enemy blockading the city. At that point it seemed quite possible that Athens would be torn to the ground and its people massacred or sold into slavery: not that they could have complained – they themselves had committed equally horrendous crimes.

In outline the plot of Oedipus Tyrannos is as follows: Oedipus, as king of Thebes, is asked by his people to find a solution to a devastating plague which is afflicting them (just as a similar plague had devastated Athens after the outbreak of war). Oedipus is informed of a prophecy which states that the only way to end the plague is to find the killers of Laius, the old King, who was murdered by unknown assailants outside the city many years before. He informs the people that he will solve the crime, but the first hints of the tragedy at the heart of the play come when he speaks to Tiresias, the blind prophet: Oedipus will find out by the end of the play that it was he who killed Laius and, worse than that, the old man was actually his father. To compound his misery he will find out that his wife Jocasta is in fact his mother, and their children cursed by the unnatural union. As events spiral down into the final nightmare, the central narrative of the play becomes clear – the strong and popular leader, who has vowed to solve the city’s ills, discovers that he is himself the problem.

It is easy to get stuck in the terrible outpouring of grief at the end of the play, and lose sight of what it is actually about. As Henry Kitto pointed out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, if you see that simply as a play about a character who dithers moodily before wandering into an ending where all the main characters end up dead, you are missing the point: Shakespeare was a master craftsman who knew exactly what he was doing in constructing the play. He takes a simple idea – a terrible secret at the heart of the Danish state – and plays it out to its logical conclusion.

The same is true with Sophocles and Oedipus Tyrannos: here was a playwright at the height of his powers writing about issues of fundamental importance to the Athenian people, and presenting them in a dramatic construction which would have simultaneously entertained and enlightened them. No play is awarded the accolade ‘the greatest dramatic tragedy ever written’ if its audience doesn’t understand it: the Athenians knew precisely what Sophocles was saying, even if the finer points of his arguments were possibly restricted to the more literary members of the audience. They could see the relevance to their own lives and the times in which they lived. And, unlike Freud over two thousand years later, would not have been sidetracked by various rather curious psychological theories.

So what was Tyrannos actually about? The clue is in the title, Oedipus the Tyrant: the king is a tyrant, with some distinctly bad qualities, and though his crimes were unwitting he is still the agent of his own downfall. Had he behaved differently events would not have turned out as they did. But we should avoid the fashion of recent years to view things in morally simplistic terms, and simply describe Oedipus as an evil man. He is a complex character, and Sophocles treats him with a studied ambivalence. In fact, as has been pointed out, Sophocles may not have chosen the title by which we know the play, or may have intended it as a deliberate challenge to his audience’s sentiments. But, whatever the truth of the matter, the play is undoubtedly about the acquisition and use of absolute power, and as such would have been of great interest to his audience. Even in the early years of the war the Athenians must have mulled over the the actions and motives of various powerful men, and the effect they were having on the course of hostilities.

I must say now that the viewpoint outlined above is not universally shared by those who have studied Tyrannos – there are many who would argue that the play is about characters facing up to divine destiny. I do not have the space in this article to include all the arguments to back up my case, and instead I shall restrict myself to one: the significance of the dialogue between Oedipus and Tiresias. On the one hand we have the prophet who, though blind, still ‘sees’, on the other the great leader who has the use of his eyes, but yet is blind in the one area which is crucial to himself and his city. What is interesting about their dialogue is the animosity between them: when Tiresias begins to hint at the uncomfortable truth Oedipus very quickly accuses him of plotting with Creon, his brother-in-law, to depose him. Tiresias, for his part, is anything but conciliatory: displaying a sullen and resentful attitude, and showing a resentful anger towards his king. The one thing he doesn’t do, though, is give Oedipus a clear and unambiguous answer to his questions, though this is clearly within his power.

Why, we might ask each ourselves, do they behave to each other in this way? Why does Tiresias not simply state what the problem is? It would hardly be welcome news to Oedipus, but it would be the first step in sorting out the ills of Thebes. Tiresias knows that Oedipus is going to find out in due course, so why not tell him privately, as gently as he can, what fate has in store? Surely Tiresias has sufficient humanity to allow his king to organise things in such a way as to retain at least a small measure of dignity. And, if he really can’t bring himself to help Oedipus, then why not try to avoid some of the other tragedies that will accompany his fall, such as the suicide of Jocasta? Or even, if he really does dislike Oedipus so much, then why not take the opportunity to be the first one to stick in the knife?

The answer, I believe, is because the play would then have to deviate from its core narrative, which is that Oedipus must be the agent of his own destiny. This was the paradox Sophocles presented to the Athenians: groups of people, be they tribes, cities or nations, put their faith in powerful men (and occasionally women, though not in classical Greece) because they feel they are able to take decisive action to sort out problems. But why should a powerful man, simply by virtue of being a leader, know the right course of action to take? And, even more fundamentally, what if the leader is himself the problem? Some years after Tyrannos was produced, the Athenians won a stunning victory over the Spartans which shook the Spartan state to the core. It seems likely that they then offered generous peace terms, but that the Athenians never realised the full extent of these because the information was withheld by Cleon, the most powerful politician at that time, presumably because he felt that continuing hostilities strengthened his own position. Peace did eventually come a few years later, but by then the Athenians had suffered some significant losses which caused a lasting resentment. After an uneasy six year truce, hostilities broke out once again and Athens found itself on the slippery slope to the traumatic defeat of 404BC.

Sophocles knew nothing of this when writing Tyrannos, but he understood what motivated powerful men and the implications of their ambition. So Oedipus must drive on to discover the truth for himself because he is by nature a leader: he took the crown of Thebes after defeating the Sphinx because he saw it as his right, having delivered the city from disaster. Now he must demonstrate to his people that he is a worthy leader by solving the problem of the plague. Others may help him along the way, but the key role must be his. In fact, he does not swerve from seeking the truth even when he realises that it must inevitably end with his own destruction: Sophocles understood Oedipus's faults, but he also recognised that he was a heroic character.

The character of Tiresias, despite appearing in only one scene, is just as interesting: he is the one who does actually understand fully what is going on. Had he wanted to he could have appealed to the citizens over Oedipus’s head, and instructed them in what they must do to end their misery, which would essentially be to depose their king. But he does not do this: instead he gives just enough information to propel Oedipus a little faster on his journey to self-destruction, and then makes his exit. Why is this?

The answer, I think, lies in the role the Athenian playwrights felt they fulfilled: Aristophanes tells us that their job was to present people with the truth (a task which could not be left to politicians). It is the role which Tiresias plays in Tyrannos, and I suspect that Sophocles identified with this particular character to some extent. And Tiresias’s attitude to Oedipus perhaps tells us something of how Sophocles felt about political leaders: ambitious yet fallible, and potentially dangerous if unchecked, good leaders could still be of benefit to the state and, if they stuck to their side of the bargain, deserved some respect. It is not spite which causes Tiresias to leave Oedipus to his fate, but a measure of this respect, albeit grudging and bad tempered. Tiresias may dislike Oedipus, and he certainly resents the way he uses his authority and throws his weight around, but he does not challenge the fact that he is king. And, despite his faults, Oedipus is not altogether a bad king, and Tiresias is prepared to acknowledge this. He leaves because he accepts that the king must be allowed to get on with his job. The final act of that job, of course, will be to reveal Oedipus as the cause of his city’s woes, and bring about his destruction, but it is not unkindness that causes Tiresias to allow this to happen. Oedipus chose, or was given, his role in life long before, and must be allowed to play it out to the end. And just as Oedipus is king, with all the attendant responsibilities, so Tiresias is a prophet, and must give out his prophecies without fear or favour, which he does.

In one way Tiresias is being kind to Oedipus, for when the secret comes out we see that, for all his faults, Oedipus is still a hero. In fact, in comparison with the leaders who strut our modern political stage, he towers over them as a moral giant. He does not attempt to hide his shame, or seek sympathy as a victim. He even goes so far, on seeing the dead Jocasta, to gouge out his own eyes: he has seen enough of the world; there is no way back for him into normal society, and from now on he will be a blind beggar, dependent on others’ charity. From how many of today’s disgraced politicians do we get even a hint that they might, just possibly, in some tiny way, have let down the people who put so much trust in them? Fortunately, the majority of them are forgotten by the time the next news bulletin comes around, while Oedipus deservedly continues to exercise our minds after two and a half thousand years.

The three Theban plays, which included the earlier Antigone, as well as Oedipus Tyrannos and Oedipus at Kolonos, spoke powerfully about the nature of power and leadership to the Athenian people. We know these issues resonated powerfully with them, otherwise they would not have bothered to put on Kolonos in 401BC. Sophocles’ plays helped them to reflect on the horrors of the war years, and then to move on and rebuild their city and their lives. They had faced up to their terrible suffering, and through it had come a measure of wisdom. Not that their later history was unblemished (they were only human, after all). It wasn’t very many years before they were throwing their weight around again, and smaller states began to fear the power of Athens. Eventually, of course, the city found itself facing the growing might of Macedonia, and in the one challenge where it needed to find its old strength and resolve it fell short. But even when the city was stripped of its power and wealth, it still remained as a centre for teaching and philosophy. Writing some five hundred years later, Plutarch noted that during his own time as a student in Athens the city had shown him great kindness, and pointed out that this was just one example among many such acts for which the city was known. This is a curious statement in many ways, and hard to reconcile with the brutal deeds committed by the city in its most desperate hours, and yet he clearly felt it was justified. Perhaps it gives us a clue as to what was actually happening back in 401BC: a people struggling to put their history into a moral framework, and thinking through the implications for the future.

Oedipus reflects the complex and ambiguous character of the city in his own personality: he is undoubtedly a tyrant, and yet also a heroic figure who wins our admiration. His story exemplifies the endless jockeying for status and position that goes on within human societies, and yet also the stoicism that enables people to face up to the most devastating setbacks. He exemplified issues of huge importance to the Athenian people, just as they should be to us today.

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