Oedipus Rex Proves You Can’t Beat The Gods

The tragedy of Oedipus is more complex than it appears at first reading. It has much to do with truth. How much truth can we stand? It is about sin coming home to roost. Oedipus’ road rage killing of the old king would have been a murder no matter who the perpetrator and victim were. Jocasta’s scoffing at the gods and recoiling from the truth once it begins to unwind is a mixture of blasphemy, hubris and denial.

Two oracular messages, one received by Laius, the other by Oedipus, foretell the same outrageous event: a fratricide with the added complication and sacrilegious dimension of a regicide. Does it not seem strange that neither Laius or Oedipus tries to appease the gods on hearing the oracle? The myth makes no mention of either man asking the gods for mercy or to somehow change this fate. Both are full of enough hubris to believe that they can outsmart the gods – and by less than honorable means.

Laius resorts to infanticide. The same crime has been a blight on the traditional reputation of Herod for the past two thousand years. It is hard to muster sympathy for people who murder babies. In fact, the disobedience of the Herdsman, who as a servant of the Theban king had been entrusted with the task of abandoning the crippled child, is one of the more sympathy-evoking revelations in the drama.

Oedipus, on his part, cuts “out of Dodge.” No explanation. No note. Good intentions – for sure, but not a great deal of honestly dealing with the truth of the situation. He tries to sneak away from his fate. The audience can see the irony. Had he confided what he had learned and feared so greatly to Polybus and Merope, they could have protected him from fulfilling the oracle.

The retelling of the murder scene doesn’t make either party sound very honorable. Laius retinue is tearing along like a bunch of yahoos, and Oedipus comes across as a red neck who won’t take no sass from some old geezer and his buddies. This scene is full of reprehensible behavior on both sides. Murder is a sin in all cultures.

Sophocles seems also to be making a statement against monarchy. The Theban Plays were written for an Athenean audience. The pride that they took in their democratic form of government was based upon the belief that collective wisdom was preferable to placing too much power in the hands of any one individual. He seems to say that hubris is the result. The audience need only watch the grandiose pronouncements of Oedipus in this play and the devolution of the character of Creon throughout the trilogy to see that writers long before Orwell believed that power corrupts even good men.

The behavior of Oedipus toward Tiresias is just one example of the denial mode that a powerful leader will go into when confronted by inconvenient truths. Jocasta goes from a scoffing attitude toward things religious to an outwardly duteous piety toward Apollo as a bribe to put Oedipus in a better frame of mind.

Sophocles drew very largely the lesson that the gods must be revered and feared. It is hubris in this play which undoes the royal family of Thebes and hubris on the part of Creon which will do the same in “Antigone.” There is a proper relationship between the gods and humans in the Greek mythological system which has more differences than similarities to Judeo-Christian attitudes of the creature-Creator relationship. One thing that they do share is a belief that the human must be right-sized in dealing with the divine. The Greeks made their gods in their image. Judeo-Christianity believes that God made humanity in His image. They both agree that we are not gods.

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