The Inevitable Mysteries of Sophocles’ OEDIPUS TYRANNOS

by George Anastaplo

(Jurisprudence Seminar – Loyola School of Law, Chicago, Illinois – April 27, 2010)


The opening lines of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos are rendered thus (in the Hugh Lloyd-Jones Loeb Classical Library translation):

Children, latest to be reared from the stock of Cadmus, why do you sit like this before me, with boughs of supplication wreathed with chaplets?  And why is the city filled at the same time with incense, and with the sounds of paeans and lamentations?  Thinking it wrong to hear this from the report of others, my children, I have come myself, I who am called Oedipus, renowned to all.

Children are those who first come to view in this speech, the most recent generation issuing from the stock of Cadmus, the man known by the audience to be the founder of this polis, Thebes.  A few lines further on, in the same speech, Oedipus identifies again those whom he is addressing:   children.

Also known to the audience, in this very old story (which went back before Homer among the Greeks), is the overwhelming importance of the childhood of this speaker.  Inquiry is the mode in which Oedipus himself first appears on this occasion.  That inquiry, the audience also knows, will eventually be extended (with dreadful consequences) to the infancy of Oedipus.

Thus, the youngest and the oldest – the furtherest and the nearest—are intimately connected.  Is there not something intuitive, if not even oracular, in Oedipus’ connecting as he does (from the outset) the latest with the earliest among the Thebans?  How much, or in what sense, did Oedipus “always” sense the vital connections across generations in this polis?


The audience’s familiarity with the traditional story of Oedipus can be said to be exploited by the playwright.  He knows that the more astute members of the audience will be vitally engaged from the outset.  The early uses of “children” are intended to remind them of the grim revelations awaiting Oedipus.

Indeed, the audience is somewhat in the condition of the gods.  It knows more or less how things will turn out.  Its interest can be heightened upon learning precisely how Oedipus comes to discover what the audience knows from the outset, and how this Oedipus responds thereafter.

It had been Oedipus’ ability to figure things out in confronting the Sphinx, the audience also knows, that had permitted him to rise to preeminence in Thebes.  Even so, it can be instructive to notice, it is Jocasta, not Oedipus, who is the first among the investigators (aside from Tiresias) to discern vital family connections, connections that are (at least for her) simply too dreadful to live with.  The audience can be reminded by all this that what one inherits from one’s forebears can be both good and bad, both elevating and devastating.


It never occurs to Oedipus, until almost the end, that he himself has any personal connection with Cadmus, the founder of Thebes.  But he does know himself to be famous.  And eventually, it is anticipated at the end of this play (and confirmed in the much later Oedipus at Colonnus of Sophocles, he will be notorious worldwide for what he had (however inadvertently) done.

His remarkable success in Thebes, earning thereby the rule of that polis, would be known in Corinth, the polis of his youth.  The Corinthians are likely to have regarded Oedipus’ success in Thebes as good for Corinth’s influence, if not even for its power.  It seems that they do not hesitate to call him back to assume the throne in Corinth when it becomes vacant.

And, it seems, they expect Oedipus to want to return to Corinth for that purpose.  Nothing is said about what should and would happen to the rule of Thebes if Oedipus should indeed return to Corinth.  Perhaps his brother-in-law Creon (if not also Jocasta) would serve as regent until Oedipus’ sons (who were recognized as descended, through their mother, from the founding nobility of Thebes) reached a suitable age.


The difficulty (perhaps the inevitable difficulty) of grasping Oedipus properly may be seen in how translators have dealt with his status in Thebes.  It is a rare translation into English these days which dares render the title of this play as Oedipus the Tyrant.  “Tyrant” no longer has any of the not-unfavorable connotations it once had in Classical Greek.

Oedipus the Ruler may be the best title available in English today.  To call Oedipus “King,” as half of the current translators into English do, sacrifices some of the intriguing irony of this play.  And yet this is done again and again, by some translators, beginning with the second speech in the play.

Indeed, so long as Oedipus could be regarded as the tyrant of Thebes, he could be cherished for the considerable good he had done for a generation in this polis.  But once it was generally known that he was eligible by birth to be the King of Thebes, he became dreadfully unacceptable, at least by the time Sophocles inherited the story.  No longer could the self-blinded Oedipus remain as ruler in Thebes as he had in the account used by Homer several centuries before.


The majesty of Oedipus the Tyrant is recognized in the opening speeches of this play.  We have noticed that Oedipus proclaims at the outset that he is “renowned to all.”  We are encouraged to believe that he has earned the worldwide recognition he enjoys.

Further indications of Oedipus’ stature may be seen in the second speech in the play.  There it is a priest of Zeus who addresses Oedipus, imploring him to rescue a much-distressed Thebes.  Thus, this elderly priest (evidently a native Theban) seems to approach Oedipus as he would approach Zeus Himself.

The audience is not privileged to hear thereafter, from this priest of Zeus, his assessment of the disaster into which Oedipus’ glorious career had turned.  An assessment is provided, in the last speech of the play, by the Chorus of Theban elders who do seem to lament what has become of the once-mighty Oedipus.  The Chorus opens this closing speech by addressing “dwellers in our native land of Thebes,” reminding the audience thereby of the peculiarly portentous words with which Oedipus had been inspired to open the play, “Children, latest to be reared from the stock of Cadmus . . .”


We have noticed that the Oedipus of Homer’s time evidently continued to rule Thebes even after it was discovered what he had done with his mother.  In Homer, as in Sophocles, that miserable woman hangs herself.  Perhaps Homer drew on a story that had an historical Oedipus remaining as the ruler of Thebes.

We are tempted to wonder whether the Oedipus of Sophocles deserved at all the fate he had fulfilled in the fashion he did.  Particularly troubling can be the Crossroads encounter, even as he recalls it.  That massacre depends on the unleashing of a remarkable temper, something (it seems) he never regretted having done during the years leading up to the action of this play.

Something of that Crossroads temper may be seen years later – that is, in the course of our play—in the (apparently baseless) accusations hurled by Oedipus against Creon and Tiresias.  This can even make us wonder whether Sophocles would have us question how it was that Oedipus had been so effective in dealing with the Sphinx years before.  However that may be, we are encouraged to believe that a generation of ruling had not moderated Oedipus’ explosive thumos?


What if Oedipus had had, in Thebes, a Socrates instead of a Tiresias to consult?  Certainly, the Crossroads Massacre would have seemed atrocious to Socrates.  Is something of the spirit of that Massacre seen not only in how Oedipus accuses Creon but also in the spirit in which he presses his search, in Thebes, for the killer(s) of his predecessor as ruler?

Is Oedipus, because of his temperament, too susceptible to the vagaries of chance events? Is that temperament evident in the vigorous manner he had sought information in Thebes?  It could be seen even more, much earlier, in his immediate (panic-driven) response to what he had chanced(?) to learn in Delphi about his fate.

A Socrates would have advised Oedipus that there are better and worse ways of fulfilling prophecies.  Oedipus himself recognizes this when he learns of Polybius’ death in Corinth, a death he had fled Corinth so as not to cause directly (however inadvertently).  A death caused, however, by his absence does not seem to trouble him unduly.


Suppose, further, a Socrates had been commissioned by Oedipus to conduct, in Thebes, the search for the killer(s) of Laius.  What should such an investigator have done with the kind of information unearthed by Oedipus in Sophocles’ play?  Was this information that a thoughtful Socrates would want our Oedipus ever to have?

Would it have sufficed, in the circumstances, for Socrates to have gotten Oedipus out of Thebes?  The summons to the throne of Corinth could even seem a divinely-provided way out of a troubling situation.  The lifting thereafter of the plague could have been generally understood as revealing that the oracle about the killer(s) of Lauis may have been misunderstood.

Would a Socrates, aware of all the relevant facts in this matter, have tried also to devise means to keep Oedipus and Jocasta physically apart?  Or would he have not troubled himself much about the problem of incest, figuring that the principal “damage” had already been done and that their future careers (in Corinth and in Thebes) would keep them considerably (even if not completely) apart?  Would it not have been likely, in any event, that Oedipus and Jocasta would have no more children, thereby reducing significantly the troubling consequences of incest?


Socrates or no Socrates, there remain puzzles in what Sophocles does with the Oedipus story.  Are not the more astute students of this play meant to notice that the Herdsman is never asked the question for which he had been summoned from the field?  That is, had there been one or many who had killed Laius at a fatal crossroads a generation earlier?

No one in the play, alive at the end, seems to doubt that there had been only one killer.  And he, it came to be generally believed, was Oedipus, even though it is never explained why “killers” could sometimes be spoken of, perhaps even by the recently-consulted oracle at Delphi.  Sophocles, we can suspect, might have wanted to leave open (if only technically) a question that he could easily have had the Herdsman answer.

That is, is not the most thoughtful student of the play encouraged to notice what is, and is not, suggested by Sophocles about this matter?  And is not such a student encouraged to notice as well that it can indeed be regarded as a mystery as to who (or how many) may be ultimately responsible for what happened to Laius?  Indeed, it can be suspected (aside from what one may personally think about the role of the gods in human affairs), several people in Thebes and Corinth (if not also in Delphi and elsewhere) had so conducted themselves that the fateful prophecy given to Laius and Jocasta would be fulfilled (if at all) in a particularly dreadful (that is, in an impressively dramatic) manner.

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