UChicago Classics Professor Sarah Nooter explores questions of agency, truth, and fate in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. In dissecting these issues, Nooter gets to the heart of what makes Oedipus Rex a pillar of Western civilization.
Oedipus represents the best and worst of all that is in us. The worst of Oedipus is clear: he killed his father and married his mother. No good. Looking to these biographical (if fictional) facts, Sigmund Freud proposed a psychoanalytic complex that comprised our deepest sources of shame and named it after Oedipus. Vladimir Propp and Claude Lévi-Strauss saw in the blueprint of Oedipus’ life a universal story told everywhere in every tale: birth, murder, marriage, difficulty, death.
So where in Oedipus is the best of us? This we may find in Sophocles’ brilliant play itself. Let us pause to consider Oedipus and agency. When one teaches the play Oedipus Rex to undergraduate students, one tends to get caught up in this question: how can we say that Oedipus had agency—and thus responsibility or blame—for his taboo actions of murder and sex, when he committed them unknowingly, when he in fact tried as hard as he could to avoid committing them? What story would there be here if not for a nefarious Apollo, pulling the strings at every point, sending the hero reeling from the oracle at Delphi and into the belligerent path of his father, then the inevitable bed of his mother? There would be none of this but for the intervention of Apollo. For we find no meaningful agency in Oedipus in these deeds, nor would the Greek audiences have sought it here. But what good to us is a hero who is a pawn?
But the action of the play: here is where we see in Oedipus the very opposite of a pawn. Here we find an instantiation of ideal agency, and what I have called the best in us. What is Oedipus’ action? Is it discovery? What drives him—god, necessity, circumstances? No. What drives him is only the need to know. By the end, this need has become the need to know himself. Let me back up. Recall that the famous father-murdering and mother-bedding precede the play by some years; they are narrated, not performed. What motivates the action of the play initially is a plague, sent to Thebes by Apollo. In order to handle this crisis, which is killing the Theban people and rendering the land barren, Oedipus attempts to figure out the cause of the divine displeasure behind the plague. But then things take a strange turn as character after character tries with all their means and might to dissuade Oedipus from carrying his investigation forward: first the prophet Tiresias, then Oedipus’ wife Jocasta, and finally the shepherd who saved him as a baby. What these three characters share is that they know, or come to know, the truth about Oedipus before he does. And their reaction to the truth—out of love for Oedipus—is to try to bury it. For the truth, as they understand it, will destroy him.
But Oedipus will not let the truth be buried, even when he knows it will destroy him, telling his wife, “I must go on. I must find the truth” and saying to the herdsman, who proclaims himself on the brink of saying something terrible: “But hear I must.” He will not turn away from the monster within himself, even when he can hear and smell its approach. This is Sophocles’ Oedipus, firm in his need to know himself, infuriated by the specter of lies and ruthless in his pursuit of truth. This is the Oedipus that gives us our best self. One might object that he had to figure out the truth merely to combat the plague and, for some of the play, this is a concern. But note the centripetal concentration of the tragedy, moving from large-scale concerns to individual ones: the plague and the state of all of Thebes is critical for the first quarter of the play, less so in the middle, and entirely forgotten in the final third, when the play focuses relentlessly upon the truth of Oedipus’ identity. I say that “the play” focuses on Oedipus but really, of course, I mean that Oedipus focuses on himself: he is the driver of the plot, very nearly posed as its author. Such is the strength of his agency.
Let us remember the other great Greek figure who was fixated on knowing himself: Socrates. In Plato’s dialogue The Phaedrus, Socrates is asked whether he thinks a certain myth is true and replies that he has no time to wonder about gods and monsters, for he does not yet understand the monster that is himself: “I consider not these things but myself, whether I might turn out to be a monster more tangled up and rabid than Typhus, or a more gentle and simple creature.” Oedipus is likewise driven to know the monster within. Oedipus’ heroic quest, no less than Socrates’, is to know himself.
Teiresias gets the best line of the play: “this day will birth and destroy you.” No wonder Aristotle saw Oedipus Rex as the most complete of tragedies, with just one day encompassing the highest and lowest of possibilities for man. But what does Teiresias mean to tell Oedipus? He means that knowing oneself is the true birth of a self, and also that this is terrible and painful knowledge. No wonder Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx: that which walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at midday, and three at day’s end. The answer to the riddle is man, but the purpose of the riddle is to seek the answer.
Sarah Nooter is a Professor in the Department of Classics and the College at the University of Chicago. She is the author of When Heroes Sing: Sophocles and the Shifting Soundscape of Tragedy (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and The Mortal Voice in the Tragedies of Aeschylus (Cambridge University Press, 2017). She also co-edited Sound and the Ancient Senses (Routledge, 2019) with Shane Butler, and is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Philology. She is currently working on a book called Bodies in Time: The Substance of Ancient Greek Poetry, which explores modes of embodiment and temporality in ancient Greek poetry and song.
Photo of Kelvin Roston, Jr. by Joe Mazza.