- The Causes of Action in Oedipus Tyrannus
Why do things happen as they do in the universe of Oedipus Tyrannus, consisting of the play itself coupled with the myth that surrounds and informs it? Why is Oedipus fated to kill his father and marry his mother? What part does Oedipus play in his own destruction? What role do divinities play? And what of human free will? In what follows I consider the power of curses, prophecy, prayer, fate, the gods, and human self-determination as they serve to effect the action.
Generally accepted is the notion that the Greek audience knew the Oedipus myth before entering the theater. Sophocles's use of dramatic irony depends on this. But where does the myth begin? Sophocles starts in medias res with the plague, but the myth has an earlier beginning. Going back a generation we have the story of Laius, king of Thebes, and the curse placed on him by Pelops, king of the Peloponnesian city of Pisa—whereby Laius would die at the hands of his son. According to the myth, Laius, as a young king, was temporarily driven from power by a coup. Forced to flee, he took shelter with Pelops; and while a guest, and while serving as tutor to his host's son, Laius kidnapped the boy, molested him, and carried him back to Thebes. Outraged, Pelops cursed Laius, as above, along with his family and city.1 In the Sophoclean universe, curses work. Once uttered they become part of the recipient's fate and are, like fate, immutable.
The effects of supplication in determining events are less certain. Seeking relief from the plague, the chorus appeals to a host of gods—Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Artemis, and Bacchus, to oppose Ares, thought to be the immediate spreader of the plague.2 But no mention is made of any resultant quarrel among the gods. Likewise, near the beginning of [End Page 184] the play, the Priest makes reference to suppliants thronging the altars of Thebes, seeking relief from the plague. We ask: do their prayers effect the action? Indeed, the plague did end shortly after the suppliants attended the altars. But most would agree, keeping to the main line of the narrative, that the plague ended when Oedipus suffered the effects of his own curse and was banished. So again, the effects of supplication are less certain—can appealing to the gods, in the universe of the play, be said to have an influence on events that were already fated to happen?
Although the play makes no reference to Pelops's curse, we may assume that the audience, being familiar with the myth, was aware of it. Moreover, without it, Oedipus's fate has no cause, his suffering the product of an arbitrary universe. Why not me? Why not any one of us? I hardly think that Sophocles intended us to leave the theater fearing a capricious and malevolent moral order.
In his treatment of tragedy in the Poetics, Aristotle uses Oedipus Tyrannus as an exemplary model of the form. A primary role of tragedy, he tells us, is to arouse pity and fear in the audience and then to purge these emotions. Pity is defined as a response to unmerited misfortune. Fear arises from the notion that unmerited misfortune might befall us.3
In a set of papers that appeared earlier in these pages,4 I argued that Oedipus's behavior over the course of the play indicates a paranoid-like personality and that he acts despotically in his dealings with Tiresias, Creon, and the Herdsman—whom he offers to have tied up and tortured (S, 1152–55). And I questioned whether the Athenian audience, proud of its freedoms, rights, and democracy, might have turned unsympathetic, feeling that beyond his pollution—given his pride, rages, and attempt to evade Apollo's prophecy—Oedipus is manifestly unfit to rule. There is satisfaction in seeing a tyrant punished, seeing that justice prevails. Misfortune, which once was seen as unmerited, can now be seen as merited. Therein we have catharsis.
Some might argue that Oedipus was responsible for his situation because he sought to evade Apollo's prophecy...