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  • Is Oedipus Smart?
  • Charles B. Daniels

What does it amount to, to ask whether Oedipus is smart, intelligent, clever? I take this to mean that he is quicker than most to gain understanding about difficult matters. Now, does Sophocles in Oedipus Rex portray Oedipus to be an intelligent, clever man?

The Yes Answer

A "yes" answer to the title question may rest upon three grounds:

Y1. Everyone in the play, including Oedipus himself and the citizens of Thebes who have been his subjects for some 15 to 20 years, everyone, that is, save Teiresias, thinks that Oedipus is intelligent.

Y2. In both legend and Sophocles' play, the only person smart enough to solve the Sphinx's riddle is Oedipus. Everyone in the play, as well as in the play's audiences, knows that Oedipus has solved the Sphinx's riddle. This is a major reason why everyone in the play, again excepting Teiresias, believes Oedipus to have a first-class mind. Oedipus is renown for this deed and thought by his subjects to be very clever in doing of it.

Y3. John P. Carroll, in his interesting study of the extraordinary number of questions posed by Oedipus in Oedipus Rex (one in each nine lines of text uttered by him), concludes, "King Oedipus was endowed at birth with the heritage of the 'riddler's mind,' which by constant use throughout the course of his life he sharpened and brought to greater [End Page 562] perfection than it ever had had in his parents." 1 Oedipus is clever because he has a "riddler's mind": he asks lots of questions.

Y1, Y2, and Y3, I believe, constitute the sole evidential textual base for the "yes" response to the title question. 2

The No Answer

The "no" answer, the view that Oedipus is not clever, rests upon four grounds:

N1. The first consists of events from Oedipus' past that took place prior to the opening scene of the play and hence do not occur on stage. These are disclosed as the play progresses and its characters relate in dialogue what they believe to have taken place. We discover that Oedipus has lived his entire adult life with unresolved doubts about who his parents are. Worse yet, at the very beginning of his adult life, his inquiry at the Delphic Oracle met with terrible, enigmatic pronouncements that raised the ante on these doubts and made the tenor of his whole subsequent life up to the present worrisome to say the least. We learn of six questions of high moment to Oedipus—questions that touch him as profoundly as did the Sphinx's riddle, "What walks on two, three, and four legs?"—questions which he continues to be aware of and yet has not resolved, or in some cases even probed. A truly clever person, one with a "riddler's mind," would have done so. But the mature Oedipus we meet at the beginning of the play has yet to puzzle out correct answers to the questions:

  1. 1. Where did the scars on my feet come from?

  2. 2. Who are my real parents, Polybus and Merope, or some other couple?

  3. 3. How can I best avoid doing the terrible things the Oracle foretells I shall do—killing my father and marrying my mother—given I am not sure who my father and mother really are?

  4. 4. Is this old man who has just forced me off the road and arrogantly swatted me from his passing carriage my father?

  5. 5. Who killed the king whose throne I have just been given?

  6. 6. Is this widow I am about to marry my mother?

The Oedipus we see at the beginning of the play is a man who has solved the riddle of the Sphinx, but has not solved a single one of these six questions from his own past life, which, it turns out, are easily of comparable importance to him. [End Page 563]

N2. Another source of evidence in support of a "no" answer consists of failures on Oedipus' part to evince a quick wit concerning two puzzles that arise in the dramatic present among the events we see unfold on stage:

  1. 7. The riddles...


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