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Oedipus Rex

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This play was rife with dramatic irony. From prophecies ruining lives, to seers being blind, to the conflicts between the individual and the state and between fate and free will, to the unfortunate origin of a popular insult, this play definitely has some moments to ponder and apply to real life. Can someone truly escape destiny? According to Sophocles, the answer is no.

About the play:

Laertus was married to Jocasta and were the rulers of Thebes. They were very happy because they were about to have a son. However, King Laius went to the Oracle of Delphi to get a prediction for his future. The oracle told him he was “doomed to perish by the hands of his own son.”

With this bombshell in mind, he tightly binds the feet of his infant son Oedipus together with a pin and orders Jocasta to kill him. And with that his fate, and the fates of his kingdom, are sealed. She can’t bring herself to do it so she orders a slave to carry out the deed. Now what is a servant to do when given this kind of order? That’s right! Abandon the baby on a mountain top! Clean hands, plausible deniability. Brilliant.

Of course Oedipus survives because it wouldn’t be a story if he died, as he is rescued by a shepherd and brought to another king, King Polybus to be his son. Now the little tyrant is all grown up and overhears he’s adopted, scandalous! He’s got to know who his real parents are, right? There’s no way that could possibly go wrong.

Oedipus goes to the best giver of advice, the Oracle of Delphi and she gives him the runaround, like a lot of genies do, never a straight answer with them. She gives him a prophecy that he is destined to marry his mom and kill his dad. Oedipus, being a reasonably intelligent lad, ignores this because plot and like, what the heck kind of answer was that?

So he goes off, assuming he can’t harm his parents if he’s not there to harm them. Genius. On the way to Thebes, he meets his dad, but of course doesn’t know that. And, as boys do, they get into a fight over who has the right of way that ends with Laius dead. Some serious road rage there.

Then Oedipus solves a really easy riddle from the Sphinx that baffled a many a traveler and the Sphinx is so mad that someone guessed the answer to his riddle that he jumps off a cliff. And people tell me I’m dramatic.

The queen of Thebes, Oedipus’ mom, grateful that they are freed of the Sphinx, offers Oedipus the kingdom and her hand. Now a kind, Oedipus has a new problem, there’s a plague coming and destroying the land he just got. Apparently the plague is a result of having the previous king’s death remain unsolved. Oedipus vows to find the murderer and curses him. Awkward….

He summons the blind prophet Tiresias and is mad that the blind seer won’t help him, accusing Tiresias of being complict in the murder. In anger, Tiresias states that Oedipus is the killer, but the king thinks his brother-in-law is just trying to get rid of him.

His mom/wife comes in and says not to worry. Oedipus shouldn’t believe in prophecies because there was one Jocasta avoided a long time ago. She tells him how they killed their son because of what that boy would end up doing. Cue laugh track.

A messenger comes by and tells Oedipus his dad is dead. Oedipus suprises everyone by being gleeful and he explains that now he can’t be in the prophecy that kills his father but states his worry over having relations with his mother. The messenger says not to worry, Merope isn’t your mom, lol.

Oedipus has a lightbulb moment, he’s disgusted with himself. Jocasta hangs herself, Oedipus blinds himself and he’s sad that his daughters were born to such cursed family. End.

About the playwright:

Sophocles was born in Colonus, a village outside of Athens, to a wealthy manufacturer of armour. Therefore he was well educated. Due to his beauty of physique, his athletic prowess, and his skill in music, he was chosen in 480 at only the age of 16 to lead the paean (choral chant to a god) celebrating the decisive Greek sea victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. Some information of his life suggests he was a favorite who participated actively in his community and exercised outstanding artistic talents.

He was appointed as a treasurer on the Delian League and then elected to one of the 10 strategoi as a junior colleague of Pericles. At age 83 he was one of the 10 advisory commissioners granted special powers entrusted with Athens financial & domestic recovery after it’s defeat at Syracuse in Sicily. He was distinguished in Athens government, religion and social forms. He was highly educated, noted for his grace and charm and easy terms with leading families. A personal friend of prominent statesmen, and many ways fortunate to have died before the final fall of Athens to Sparta in 404.

Possible influences:

During the time that Sophocles was alive, many people and cultures around him were influenced by the possibilities and results of prophecies and the concept of destiny. The notion of trying to escape your preordained path would’ve been a novel idea. Although it didn’t end up working, the adventure and intrigue of possibly defying the gods and somehow cheating fate would have attracted many intellectuals of his time.

Also during this time was the Plague of Athens. A type of flu was ravaging the land very close to and around the place where Sophocles lived. Plagues are a popular topic when it comes to prophecies and this plague would have definitely been the subject of many oracles and in the concerns of citizens about possible sins that were committed to bring on such calamity.

In short, Sophocles was exploring a well-known reality of fate and disaster intertwined. He lived in a world that relied heavily on the notion that the gods have a preordained path for you. They warn they’re lovely worshippers of troubles through oracles and prophecies and smite people with plagues and calamities. Of course, knowing about your destiny only seals it and escaping it is next to impossible.

One often meets his destiny on the path he chooses to avoid it.

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