What Kind Of Tragedy Is Oedipus Rex Anyway?

by Roderick Millar

Introduction | Ambiguity In The Play | Oedipus's Decision | Oedipus On The Stage


Oedipus Rex is cited by Aristotle as the perfect Greek tragedy. But it seems to me that there are problems with Aristotle's assessment here. Although technically the play corresponds in every particular with Aristotle's recipe for tragedy, the reader will not be able to help feeling that in spirit it is different. Its emotional effect is not what we would normally expect of a tragedy. It is horrifying, it is solipsistic almost, but it is not tragic. We view the proceedings with a kind of dispassion. Let us try to understand why this should be the case.

The picture Aristotle paints in his disquisition is of the fall of a man, a man who is generally great but has a tragic flaw by which he is undone. This is the plot of part of the Ajax, it is the plot of The Yeoman of the Guard, it is perhaps even the plot of King Lear, ('a man more sinned against than sinning'). But it is not the plot of Oedipus Rex. Oedipus is not tragic in its effect, but horrifying. That is completely different. Part of the horror lies in the claustrophobic effect it creates, that when he thought he had left home, Oedipus had not. Further, there is not the sense that Oedipus is being punished for something inherent in his character in a way that is justified and yet contrary to natural justice. More to the point, it is not clear that Oedipus does anything wrong in any case.

Ambiguity In The Play

The essential problem of the Oedipus is its ambiguity. On the one hand Oedipus does not do anything wrong. On the other he is guilty, if guilty is the word, of a lack of faith, of believing only partially in the gods, of mistrusting those around him. In attempting to save the city he loses his way and becomes obsessed with establishing his origins. These are failings, definitely, but not crimes.

There is a kind of debate that goes on in certain circles over whether Oedipus secretly knows he is guilty of the crimes in question. At times he appears to come close to the truth, when he might easily make an imaginative leap to the right conclusion, but then inexplicably moves away. So it is possible to conclude that he does secretly realise the truth, since otherwise how would he know when to take evasive action? It is significant from the point of view of my argument that this reading be possible. It could be that Oedipus's behaviour is an elaborately staged charade.

Arguments against this view are straightforward. Why should Oedipus put on such a display? Why spend so much time and effort trying to find the truth if he knows how terrible the truth is? (Human nature is contradictory, but the deliberateness here would be extremely puzzling.) Why conceal that he knows? And why stab his eyes out?

But if the ambiguity of his behaviour is not explained by its simple opposite, what does explain it? Let us look at the question of faith, and Oedipus's as it were double-edged attitude towards the gods. On the one hand, during the play, he believes in them, or affects belief in them; on the other, he hopes that their will is not sovereign, that the oracles will not come true. (This last point is the reason why in some quarters the moral of the play is apparently that the oracles will come true and should not be doubted: this is far too crude a reduction.) Thus he both believes and does not believe. This is one of the reasons why to a modern reader this tragedy in particular is so strangely accessible, that the characters are human in a way we do not expect, as opposed to the great statuesque figures we anticipated.

All the generations of mortal men add up to nothing.  

  I will not believe that this was not the best that could have been done.

Oedipus's Decision

This believing and simultaneously not believing is encapsulated in an incident we hear about in flashback. Oedipus hears that he is not his father's son, so he goes to consult the Delphic oracle. He is told that he will kill his father and marry his mother. His response to this is to leave Delphi, but not return home. It is as a result of this action that against his will he does indeed kill his father and marry his mother. But the action, hardly referred to throughout the play, is nevertheless pregnant with significance.

If Oedipus believes the oracle to be true, then he believes that it will come true whatever happens and so there is no point in trying to avoid it. Again, if he believes the oracle to be untrue, then he cannot believe that there is any point in doing anything. In neither case does he leave home. Both instances require the most remarkable, unimaginable resolve.

What Oedipus actually does is believe that the oracle is true, yet believe that he can avoid it. It is on this decision that his subsequent life is based. As a result he has that contradictory attitude about faith in the gods. On the one hand he believes in them; on the other he hopes that what they ordain may be avoided. In this he commits no sin.

While we might see a fatal hesitation here, it is possible to see something else. Oedipus is not fatally flawed. The peculiarity of this tragedy lies in the strength that he shows. Although his predicament is summed up by the chorus (after they have learnt the truth) "All the generations of mortal men/Add up to nothing," his attitude can be seen in what he says after he has blinded himself: "I will not believe/That this was not the best/That could have been done." Oedipus's achievement lies in the fact that he achieves what he wants, namely the avoidance of guilt. He commits the crimes (although they are not even crimes), but avoids any sense that he did so deliberately.

Oedipus On The Stage

In other words Oedipus, however unconsciously, takes over the oracle and makes it his. In choosing to both believe and not believe he takes over his fate and the story, and in so doing legitimately defies the gods.

This we see also in the play that is performed. The incident at Delphi is recalled for us, it does not occur on the stage, nevertheless it is crucial to our understanding. But in the play itself, which depicts the discovery, we can see Oedipus taking his fate upon his shoulders. The critical moment is when he blinds himself. Had Oedipus heeded the advice not to probe further, he might have avoided the catastrophe which envelops him and which is predicted by Teiresias; he does not heed that advice, but this is consistent with his character, which optimistically wishes to get to grips with things. He cannot avoid finding out the truth, nor would he wish to.

But what he can avoid doing is stabbing his eyes out. At this point, whether or not he is mindful of it, he deliberately fulfils the prophecy. It is the critical moment of the play. He lifts the burden on to his own back, takes the suffering a step further than he actually need do. he thus makes it his own and gains power over it by submitting to it.

This event comes three-quarters of the way through the play. What precedes it is purely intellectual investigation, the juggling of possibilities, to a degree unprecedented in Greek tragic theatre; what follows is the pure expression of emotion, unalloyed by intellectual examination. A switch takes place between these two modes. In the last quarter of the play Oedipus suffers for all the arrogance he has shown during the first three-quarters.

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Set up 26 October 1998

Last updated 28 February 1999

© R. Millar 1998-1999