Œdipus the King
Ian Johnson

(Richer Resources)
At a traffic jam in Phocis, Oedipus gets in a fight with a driver who banged his phaeton. When an old man in the carriage tries to whip him, Oedipus pulls him out, knocks him down, stomps him and three others. It's the first case in recorded history of genuine road-rage.

Meanwhile, back in Thebes, the Sphinx won't let people get in or out of town until they answer her riddle, "what creature goes on four legs in the morning, two at mid-day, and three in the evening?" (If they don't answer correctly, she eats them). Oedipus solves the puzzle and Thebes is free.

But now there's a new curse: people are dying, no one is happy, they haven't invented Paxil or Zoloft yet ... it's worse than living in Hoboken, or South Chicago, or Orange County. Someone has to figure out what's wrong.

Oedipus --- now the king --- sends out for a prophet. When the seer comes, the old man says I know the answer to Thebes' problem. Great, says Oedipus, tell all. "Let me go home," says the old man. "I want out of here." No, you have to tell us, says Oedipus. Leave me alone, says Teiresias. Oedipus says, "If you don't talk, we're going to hurt you."

"And you're going to hurt you too," says Teiresias: "You yourself are the very man you are looking for ... Do you know the family you come from?" says the sage. "Must I tolerate this insolence," says Oedipus: "Get out, and may the plague get rid of you."

    There once lived a man named Oedipus Rex
    You may have heard about his odd complex
    His name appears in Freud's index
    'Cause he loved his mother

    His rivals used to say quite a bit
    That as a monarch he was most unfit
    But still in all they had to admit
    That he loved his mother

--- "Oedipus Rex"
Music and Words
©1960 Tom Lehrer

§     §     §

Oedipus is thus a western hero. He comes to town, a town in chaos, and by playing it smart, manages to put everything back together. Let's say he is a Greek John Wayne, the existential cowboy fixer. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a scab-picker, too; one who just can't leave it alone.

Jocasta, the queen, is merely trying to get on with her life, being his spouse, and here's Oedipus (husband #2) --- the puzzle-solver --- wanting to know all the details about who killed Laius (husband #1) at Phocis. He also wants to know who took him out in the woods when he was a baby, bound his feet, was told to leave him to die.

Jocasta tells him to let it be. "Do not keep investigating this," she says. Do not do this ... you poor miserable man. He doesn't get the message, will not stop pestering. Thus the drama.

And the question becomes more general. Is it possible that all of us should not, perhaps, be trying to unravelling things? Maybe we don't need to be nagging, asking Who am I? There might be some things in life we just should not know? Can ignorance be a form of blessedness? What worms wriggle out when you ask all those questions?

§     §     §

Oedipus finds a peasant "from the fields" who knows the facts about his birth, and his binding. He wants him to tell all about why he --- Oedipus --- was dumped in the mountains. The old man doesn't like this line of questioning, says "Why ask about that?" Can't you keep quiet? Oedipus says the old fool will start talking "once we start to hurt you" and "you're going to die if you don't tell the truth."

Oedipus finally figures out what he's been needling all these reluctant witnesses to reveal. He gets the picture, and when he does ... that's it: he blinds himself. He has seen too much, wants to see no more. The master of riddles has mastered one riddle too many.

    Yes he loved his mother like no other
    His daughter was his sister and his son was his brother
    One thing on which you can depend is
    He sure knew who a boy's best friend is

    When he found what he had done
    He tore his eyes out one by one
    A tragic end to a loyal son
    Who loved his mother.

Sophocles plays this fatal hide-and-seek for all it's worth, doling out the drama until you want to scream. As Oedipus finally does, "Aaaiiii, aaaiiii ... Alas! Alas! How miserable I am." Creon, his brother and now gack his son ... tells him to cool it, to stop putting on such "a show." If we are going to spill family secrets, he says, let's not do it "in such a public way." Think of your family, he is saying. Think of how we feel about this nutty scenario, bro. Just stop needling people. Enough is enough.

    So be sweet and kind to mother
    Now and then have a chat
    Buy her candy or some flowers, or a brand new hat
    But maybe you had better let it go at that

    Or you may find yourself with a quite complex complex, and
    You may end up like Oedipus...
    I'd rather marry a duck-billed platypus
    Than end up like old Oedipus Rex.

--- Pamela Wylie
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH