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  • Responding to E. R. Dodds
  • Roy Glassberg


At the beginning of his essay "On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex," E. R. Dodds tells us what prompted him to write it. As Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Oxford, he served as an examiner in the annual undergraduate honors trials, and as such posed the following question: "In what sense, if in any, does the Oedipus Rex attempt to justify the ways of God to man?"1 He divided the responses into three categories. The first of these, the largest group, held that the play demonstrates that the universe is just, and that Oedipus received the punishment he deserved. The second group regarded the play as demonstrating that man lacks free will and is "like a puppet in the hands of the gods." The third group argued that Sophocles, as an artist, was concerned with crafting a good story from the materials he had, and was not concerned with justifying anything. Dodds found each of these groups wanting.

I am in sympathy with the students of the first group. In this essay I attempt to make a case for what I take to be their position: that the universe is represented as being just and that Oedipus deserved his punishment. Dodds, for his part, believes the first group is wrong. Here's a bit of what he has to say. [End Page 248]

The first and biggest group held that the play justifies the gods by showing—or, as many of them said, "proving"—that we get what we deserve. The arguments of this group turned upon the character of Oedipus. Some considered that Oedipus was a bad man: look how he treated Creon—naturally the gods punished him. Others said, "No, not altogether bad, even in some ways rather noble; but he had one of those fatal hamartiai that all tragic heroes have, as we know from Aristotle. And since he had a hamartia he could of course expect no mercy: the gods had read the Poetics." Well over half the candidates held views of this general type.

(D, p. 17)

In what follows, I attempt to counter Dodds, arguing (1) that the concept of hamartia has value in the analysis of tragedy; and (2) that Oedipus was a tyrant in the despotic sense, and this tendency, coupled with his great hamartia (which I take to be his belief that he could evade the gods' prophecy), makes him deserving of punishment. To this end I will draw upon a pair of articles of mine previously published in these pages: "Uses of Hamartia, Flaw, and Irony in Oedipus Tyrannus and King Lear,"2 and "The Meaning of 'Tyrannus' in Oedipus Tyrannus."3


The literal meaning of hamartia is "missing the mark,"4 and bears the connotations of error and sin. In my view, hamartia and tragic flaw are not the same, as is frequently maintained. A tragic flaw is a condition, a steady state—arrogance, for example. Hamartia, on the other hand, indicates an event. It implies taking an action—for example, making a judgment—and then being wrong, a missing of the mark. A hamartia committed in ignorance is still a hamartia. Thus Oedipus's killing Laius and marrying Jocasta—both committed without knowledge—are still examples of missing the mark. Oedipus's assumption that Tiresias and Creon are plotting against him, while reasonable to him, is nonetheless a hamartia. In my view, his belief that he can evade the gods' prophecy is his great hamartia, his most serious missing of the mark.


As for Oedipus being a tyrant, I ask the reader to consider the play's Greek title, which transliterates as Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus the Tyrant. Dodds, like many others, prefers the Latin Oedipus Rex, Oedipus the King. A sample of translations offered by Amazon yields seventeen using either "Rex" or "King" in their titles, and three using "Tyrant." [End Page 249]

By definition, Oedipus is a tyrant. According to H. G. Liddell and Robert Scott, a tyrannus is an "absolute monarch unlimited by law or constitution … not applied to old hereditary sovereignties (Basileiai) … for the term rather regards the irregular way the...


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