Oedipus the King

My Extended Essay:

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Finished and sent off and done and WOO HOO! That  up there is my front page of my EE, it’s 4000 words!! Talk about cutting it close!! Haha!

Anyway, let’s not focus on the Shakespeare part of this, but instead on the Sophocles. The Greeks. The object of my passion.

My essay led me down many fascinating alleys of interpretation and discussion. What intrigued me most of all about my research was the moment when I discovered why Oedipus was bestowed with his terrible fate.

Exploring the Oedipus story (I only studied one from the trilogy), I learned about their theatre traditions, their acting methods, their style dramatic conventions and their worship of Dionysus through tragedy and comedy.

For anyone who’s heard of or has studied the tale of Oedipus, that pitiful man, would have at some point pondered what exactly did he to deserve it, and why did the gods allow it?

He was a smart man that saved Thebes from the Sphinx, proving his wits by solving her riddle. To prevent killing his parents he left his beloved home, unaware that he was adopted. He followed social protocol, marrying the widowed queen as was his duty to. When his people were suffering from a terrible plague he did all the right things: sent someone to the oracle in Delphi, had more prayers, and finally set out on a quest to personally find and punish the person who had brought this misfortune upon Thebes. Even when he discovered himself to be the murderer and victim of incest, he stuck to his word and punished himself, plucking his eyes from their sockets and banishing himself from Thebes.

Despite his hardships he remained pious and respectful.

Some critics say that his downfall is punishment for his murdering his own father and for fathering children by his mother (and his slight hubris), that it doesn’t matter that he is unaware of these facts, he deserves his punishment through divine justice anyway. But a lot more critics think that this isn’t enough, personally I agree with this. His crimes are not proportionate to his punishment. (Furthermore, his fate was determined from birth, how is it fair to punish a man so harshly for being victim of his immutable and tragically unforgivable fate?)

So I did some more research.

And what I found astounded me. Two words: Generational Crime.

Oedipus is the son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta. The King was given a prophesy from the oracle saying that he’d be killed by his son. As a result of this, the royal couple chose to expose (kill*) their baby son on the mountain side, so as to avoid the prophesy coming true. As “luck” would have it, Oedipus was saved by a shepherd and brought to the childless King and Queen Corinth who adopted him as their own.

When Oedipus began to suspect that he was adopted his “parents” denied it (oh the ominous dramatic irony), he went to see the oracle. The oracle ignores his question and simply tells him the infamous prophesy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified, Oedipus (now no longer doubting the Corinthean King and Queen are his parents, despite never being told this categorically) fled Corinth to avoid this new prophesy coming true.

On his way, he met an old man and a fight started. Oedipus killed everyone except for one man that fled. He then solves the Sphinx’s riddle and, hailed as a hero, is given the hand of their Queen… his biological mother.

Thus the tragedy is complete.

Where is the generational crime I hear you ask?

Well it’s not here. This is the beauty of Greek Theatre. The brilliance of Sophocles’ version of Oedipus.

The crime that damns Oedipus to his fate does not happen in the play. It precedes it.

Perhaps the real antagonist of Oedipus’ tragedy is in fact his father: King Laius.

As a youth, Laius was smuggled out of the city of Thebes for his protection while the Thebans attacked the two men that then had usurped the throne. The plan had been to keep Laius safe while they disposed of the two usurpers, then reinstall Laius to the throne as their true King.

Laius was taken to the King of Pisa, King Pelops*. King Pelops graciously took him and looked after him until he was ready to go back to Thebes. There are some sources that tell of a terrible event that took place in the kind King’s household.

King Pelops had a son called Chrysippus and he is widely regarded as a divine hero of Elis (birthplace of the original Olympic Games) in Greek mythology. Laius supposedly tutored him, and escorted him to the Nemean Games (somewhat similar to the Olympic Games) where Chrysippus was to compete. However, Laius didn’t take him to the Games, instead he abducted and raped Chrysippus.

I know I posted earlier about homosexual relationships between boys and their tutors being acceptable in Ancient Greece, but rape is still rape. In abusing the King’s son, Laius broke countless Ancient social laws or ideals (I can’t think of a better word for it…) such as xenia*. As Zeus, the King of the gods and one of the most powerful gods of Olympus, was also the protector of travellers, Laius probably chose the absolute worst god to have pissed off- to put it in layman’s terms.

Oedipus’ accursed fate probably derived from this incident.

Laius is responsible for a catalogue of Greek sins such as breaking xenia, breaking the laws of marriage in raping Chrysippus, and ignoring the oracle that told him to not have children (the prophesy varies quite a lot from text to text), but a philosophical question that could be raised from all of this is: if Oedipus’ retched fate is the result of generational crime and his culpability is completely removed because of this, how can we assume that Laius wan’t also subject to a tragic fate? After all, some scholars say that the entire line of Cadmus (consisting of Laius and Oedipus) was cursed, therefore suggesting that maybe Laius can’t be to blame for his actions either, or at least he is as responsible as Oedipus is for his fate (how can Laius have free-will but not his son? How would the gods decide who had free-will or not?).

Perhaps what is sadder than this is that Laius not only (maybe) succeeds in cursing his lineage (many of his descendants had very bad fortunes, it’s undecided whether this is the fault of Oedipus’ downfall or of Laius’), but he also resigns poor Chrysippus to a lamentable end. One Ancient author claimed that as a result of his shame at his abduction and rape, Chrysippus committed suicide by falling on his sword.

Euripidies, another famous playwright, allegedly wrote about the abduction in one of his lost tragedies.


*Expose: Exposing children in the Ancient world was quite common up until somewhere in the Roman Empire (if my dates are right…). The Romans were allowed to expose children up until 374 AD (and even then, parents were rarely punished for doing so…). To expose an infant, although definitely being a form of infanticide by today’s standards, was not a see as murder in the Ancient world because- they would argue- the child could be saved by another family, or pitied by the gods and therefore kept alive. On the other hand, the child could die of natural causes, in which case the parents held no responsibility.

It seems horrific to us, but parents that couldn’t support the child didn’t have much of a choice. The father had a lot more control in the household than they generally do in Western families today- they had (for a while, at least) absolute power. If they didn’t accept the child their wives presented to them, the child would be exposed. In the Roman world, fathers could even have their unwanted children sold into slavery!

*King Pelops: Another reason why Greek Mythology is so great. There is so much interplay! Besides the entire Peloponnese Islands being named in honour of him– Pelops is also an extremely significant character insofar as the beginning of the original Olympic Games! Pelops was the mythological founder of the chariot race.

Maybe I’ll post about him later, I have previously studied the original Olympic Games in quite some detail and all the myths involved there are fascinating! Yes, I think I shall do my next “informative” post about Pelops. He is such an interesting character!

* Xenia: An Ancient ideal that, in layman’s terms, basically dictates that all hosts must provide hospice to their supplicants (guests or people that come to them in need of their help).

Perhaps another post shall be about this? Let me know if you’re interested! 🙂


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