The famous Greek play Oedipus Rex is nearing its 2500 year mark. It has stood the test of time and can unashamedly be called a classic. Sophocles, its Athenian playwright, ought to be proud of how we view his great work. But would he be?
In the past century though, the play itself has been has been overshadowed by the infamous “Oedipus Complex.” This psychoanalytic theory was proposed by Sigmund Freud, a prominent neurologist of the 20th century. Freud uses the plot of the play—Oedipus killing his father and marrying his mother—as an illustration of his theory.
But by using Oedipus as an illustration, I believe Freud has involuntarily distracted the world from the beauty of Oedipus Rex and turned it into a play that disturbs or even disgusts many people. Just as Oedipus blinds himself, many potential readers of Oedipus Rex blind themselves with Freud’s theory. They do not realize Sophocles’ play and Freud’s complex are very different and that the play, though tragic, is far more beautiful than disturbing.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle lived only a century after Sophocles and obviously predates Freud. In his work Poetics, Aristotle not only praises Oedipus Rex but uses it as an ideal example of dramatic tragedy. According to Aristotle, tragedy should be cathartic for its audience. Even though it is fictional, a tragic play should elicit an actual emotional response from those experiencing it—emotions that in real life could be released harmfully.
How many fictional stories have brought you to tears? It may be many, but it is certainly not every one, even if it was written to do so. Instead of leaving it as a guessing game, Aristotle pulls several key ingredients of tragedy out of Oedipus Rex.
The first of those ingredients is the protagonist’s tragic flaw or miscalculation. It can’t make the character too loved or too hated. In Oedipus’ case, his flaw is his ignorance of his identity: he does not realize he is the son of the king and queen of Thebes.
Another ingredient is inevitability. All of the Thebans think Oedipus is killed as a child because of his fate: he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. But by running away from this prophecy, he begins to fulfil it because of his ignorance.
The third ingredient is reversal, when the character’s world begins to flip on its head. For Oedipus, this happens as his mother/wife and children/siblings realize the truth and begin to grieve.
The final ingredient is recognition. Oedipus finally realizes the gross deed he has done, and more tragically, that he can do nothing to reverse it and nothing to make up for it, even though his circumstance is no fault of his own. So, not wanting to look at the fruit of his cruel fate, Oedipus the king gouges out his own two eyes.
But why is tragedy beautiful? On the surface, it seems quite awful. The beauty comes from the emotions it evokes within us. It is beautiful that a story two and a half millennia old can cause us to cry. Why? Because sorrow is timeless.
You may think you know or have read enough of Oedipus Rex. But if it has not caused you to grieve for the character, I challenge you to pick it up, forget Freud, and read. If you read carefully, I promise you that the beauty of tragedy will take affect.