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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: February ::
Re: Oedipus and Greek Tragedy
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0060. Wednesday, 1 February 1995.
(1)     From:   Piers Lewis <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 31 Jan 1995 12:55:16 -0600
        Subj:   Oedipus
(2)     From:   E. L. Epstein <epstein@QCVAXA.BITNET>
        Date:   Monday, 30 Jan 1995 23:58:52 EDT
        Subj:   RE: SHK 6.0058  Re: Greek (Athenian) Tragedy, esp. Oedipus
From:           Piers Lewis <
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Date:           Tuesday, 31 Jan 1995 12:55:16 -0600
Subject:        Oedipus
I should like to respond to Grace Tiffany's sensitive and intelligent remarks
re _Oedipus The King_.  For it seems to me that she has, unintentionally,
replaced one reductive moralism with another.
Where to begin?  I keep coming back to the fact that Oedipus has already
fulfilled the terrible prophecy that attended his birth when the play begins:
he has killed his father and married his mother.  That's history and nothing
can alter it; and, apparently, nothing he or his parents could have done would
have prevented these crimes from being committed.  The only question for
Sophocles and for the audience is, how or whether these facts should become
known.  Perhaps, had Oedipus been a different sort of person--less proud, more
humble--these facts would not have become known, the great riddle of his
identity never solved, but that seems doubtful; for the other fact with which
the play begins is that the god, Apollo, is punishing Thebes for allowing
itself to be polluted by the presence of King Laius' unknown murderer:  as if
the god were determined to force the truth about Oedipus into the open,
willy-nilly.  So it doesn't matter what sort of person Oedipus is:  one way or
another, the terrible truth about who and what he is will be known.  In other
words, this play--this monstrous machine as Bernard Knox says, somewhere--is
not about moral responsibility at all.  For there is no rational connection
between crime and guilt and shame in this play, or between crime and
punishment.  Nor is it about spiritual growth.  That's a Christian not a Greek
Humility is a Christian virtue.  Pride, power, courage--these are the qualities
the ancient Greeks admired; and honor and glory is what these intensely
competitive people cared about and sought.  The heroes of the _Iliad_ are men
like Oedipus; Oedipus is made to their measure not ours. The world, the cosmos,
of the _Iliad_ is rational:  everything is described and explained to the last
detail.  You always know who is doing what to whom and why and that applies to
the gods as well as the people.  Actions have predictable consequences.
Achilles knows that he can have glory or a long life but not both and he
chooses glory.  No Greek before Socrates would have thought he made the wrong
choice.  The same tragic choice faces all the heroes of that great poem.
Oedipus is not given a choice. Instead, the qualities that make him great, the
qualities that he shares with Achilles and the other heroes of the _Iliad_, are
instrumental in closing the trap that fate has prepared for him--for reasons
that are not and cannot be known.  Sophocles seems to have been willing to
contemplate--in this play, if not in the much later _Oedipus at Colonus_--the
possibility that the will of the gods cannot be known, that their values and
purposes are not commensurate with ours; and that therefore the cosmos may be
fundamentally irrational.  Or nonrational. This thought makes us very
No doubt, since I don't know Greek, this reading of Sophocles's play is also
more or less mistaken.  Completely mistaken perhaps-- we know so little about
how the tragic drama fit into the festivals to Dionysius in which, for which
they were staged.  This play has always baffled us and I readily admit it
baffles me.
Piers Lewis
Metropolitan State University
From:           E. L. Epstein <epstein@QCVAXA.BITNET>
Date:           Monday, 30 Jan 1995 23:58:52 EDT
Subject: 6.0058  Re: Greek (Athenian) Tragedy, esp. Oedipus
Comment:        RE: SHK 6.0058  Re: Greek (Athenian) Tragedy, esp. Oedipus
It is not really necessary to produce wild guesses about Athenian attitudes
toward Thebes; the historical facts point to the Athenian attitude. Thebes had
notably strong walls and had a military tradition of considerable power. It was
the Theban general Epaminondas who contributed greatly to Greek military
tactics and strategy, more than any other military leader. In fact, it could be
said that Epaminondas destroyed the fabulous military power of Sparta. It
requires a bit of imagination, I grant, to extrapolate from the walls and
Epaminondas to an Athenian impression of a grim and relentless military power,
with little of culture, as the Athenians saw it, with the only exception being
Pindar, who lived in Thebes. In addition, there was the civil wars between the
sons of Oedipus, with the assistance of such great warriors as Tydeus the
father of Diomedes, to contribute to the reputation of a place that was both
grim and politically unstable. My application of Greek history to American
history and the assignment of the roles of Athens and Thebes to Boston and
Dallas is not, I think, entirely indefensible.E.L.Epstein

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