The Meaning of "Tyrannus" in Oedipus Tyrannus
What meaning did Sophocles intend when he titled his work Oedipus Tyrannus? Did he mean Oedipus the King, as most translators would have it, or Oedipus the Tyrant, in the sense of despot? In this essay I argue that, while we cannot know with certainty what Sophocles had in mind, a case can be made that both king and tyrant were intended, and that the title is multifaceted.
What are we to make of Sophocles's use of the term "Tyrannus"1 in the title of his tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus? Did he simply mean "king," as most translators would have it, or did he mean "tyrant" in the sense of despot—or some combination of both? A sampling of translations offered by Amazon yields seventeen titles using either "Rex" or "King," on the one hand, and three using "Tyrant."
H. G. Liddell and Robert Scott define tyrannus as meaning an "absolute monarch unlimited by law or constitution … not applied to old hereditary sovereignties (Basileiai) … for the term rather regards the irregular way the power was gained, than the way in which it was exercised.… However, the word soon came to imply reproach, like our tyrant."2
Although we cannot know Sophocles's intention with certainty, arguments can be made. In the course of what follows I will venture a case for a combination; that is to say, I will cite evidence allowing for both king and tyrant.3
Making the case for Sophocles intending a meaning of king without a sense of tyranny, note the attitude of the Corinthian Messenger. He comes to Oedipus in friendship, and indeed expects a reward from him. He refers to Oedipus as a tyrannus, clearly without cynicism or negative connotation.4 [End Page 416]
On the other hand, a case can be made for Sophocles intending tyrannus to mean tyrant in the sense of despot. Speculating, we wonder how an audience in democratic Athens might have regarded a character labeled "tyrannus"? Simply as a king who did not inherit his throne, or as a tyrant or potential tyrant? We cannot know the mind of an Athenian audience, circa 429 B.C.E.; however, we can say that Plato, writing a half century later, had a negative opinion of tyranny, referring to it as "the greatest and most savage slavery"5 and to tyrants as being "all anarchy and lawlessness" (Pl, p. 255).
More important, evidence within the play itself argues for a meaning of tyrannus as tyrant. Take note of a comment by the chorus. Starting at line 873, the passage in the Hugh Lloyd-Jones translation reads as follows: "Insolence has a child who is a tyrant; insolence, if vainly satiated with profusion that is not right or fitting, mounts to the topmost cornice and rushes to the edge of an abyss where its feet can do no service" (S, p. 413).
A bit clearer perhaps is David Grene's translation: "Insolence breeds the tyrant, insolence if it is glutted with a surfeit, unseasonable, unprofitable, climbs to the roof-top and plunges sheer down to the room that must be, and there its feet are of no service."6
And clearer yet is Francis Storr's verse rendition:
Of insolence is bredThe tyrant; insolence full blown,With empty riches surfeited,Scales the precipitous height and grasps the throne.Then topples o'er and lies in ruin prone;No foothold on that dizzy steep.7
We note, as well, Oedipus's reference to the murder of Laius as being an act of tyranny (S, p. 338).
And what of Oedipus's own behavior? Can a case be made that he behaves despotically? I believe it can. Consider the episode with the elderly herdsman. The old man, recognizing Oedipus as the man who killed Laius, refuses to talk, and Oedipus has him tortured.
OedipusIf kindness will not get you to speak, pain will!
ShepherdI am old; do not torture me, I beg you! [End Page 417]
OedipusWill not one of you at once tie his hands behind his back?
ShepherdAh, misery, why? What do you wish to learn?
OedipusDid you give to this man the child he is asking about?(S, p. 447)
Also, exchanges take place with Tiresias and Creon in which Oedipus threatens them harm. For example:
OedipusWhen the secret conspirator moves fast, I also must plan quickly; but if I quietly wait for him, his design will be accomplished, and I shall have lost.
CreonWhat is it you want? To expel me from the land?
OedipusNot so! I want death for you, not exile!(S, p. 387)
Note Oedipus's paranoid-like thinking.
Speculating once more, I suspect the Athenian audience would have recognized Oedipus's behavior as that of a tyrant.
To conclude, I believe the title Oedipus Tyrannus is ambiguous, that it implies both king and tyrant. Consider for a moment our term "politician." Can we say that it refers simply to someone who holds or runs for public office? Does he or she carry attendant baggage? Or both? The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a politician as
a person who is professionally involved in politics, especially as a holder of or a candidate for an elected office.
• chiefly US a person who acts in a manipulative and devious way, typically to gain advancement within an organization.8
It's both. Similarly tyrannus is both, king and tyrant. The title is multifaceted.
1. Sometimes given as "Tyrannos." I will follow Hugh Lloyd-Jones's spelling as "Tyrannus."
2. H. G. Liddell and Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1889), pp. 824–25 (emphases in the original).
3. Henceforth I will be using the words "tyrant" and "tyranny" in the modern sense, to mean "despot" and "despotism."
4. Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 416; hereafter abbreviated S.
5. Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991), p. 242; hereafter abbreviated Pl.
6. Sophocles, Oedipus the King, trans. David Grene, in Sophocles I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942), p. 48.
7. Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, trans. Francis Storr (Seattle: Pacific Publishing Studio, 2011), p. 120.
8. Angus Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg, eds., The New Oxford American Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), online.