Sophocles was the second of three great Greek *playwrights, who wrote during the heart of *Athens Golden Age under Pericles. The dramatic work of Sophocles tended to reinforce the philosophical emphasis of *Socrates on the *autonomy of the human mind. However, his greatest play, Oedipus Rex, also vindicated the unyielding *fate dispensed by the gods. The king and queen of *Thebes are powerless to alter the prophecy that their son Oedipus will grow up to *kill his father and marry his mother. After many years of seemingly happy rule, the awful truth is gradually revealed and the queen commits suicide and Oedipus *blinds himself. The Greek idea of *fate, personified in Oedipus Rex stands in contrast to the compassionate *sovereignty of God as revealed in the Bible. Centuries later Sigmund Freud coined the term Oedipus Complex to describe a psychological condition in which a man, for example, hates his father but is attracted *erotically to his mother.
Who was Sophocles? (496-406 BC) Sophocles was a playwright and author of Greek Tragedy during the Athenian Golden age. Only seven of approximately 123 of his plays survive, but they are all exceptional, and three are considered masterpieces. An Athenian patriot, he was loved for his elegance, poise and moderation. He added a third actor to Greek drama and made each play of his trilogy stand on its own (Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus). Sophocles was friend and associate of both the historian Herodotus and the ruler Pericles.
Historical context. This was “the golden age of Greek culture, a period that witnessed the genius of Euripides and Sophocles in literature, the influence of Pericles in politics, and the building of the Parthenon. Athens gilded age, however, was short-lived. Her gold began to tarnish under the burden of the heavy taxation levied by Pericles. This sparked the Peloponnesian War in 431, which ended in 404 with the defeat of Athens” *.
Sophocles was one of the three great tragic dramatists who wrote during this period; he was preceded by Aeschylus and followed by Euripides. Not only does Sophocles fall chronologically in the middle, he is also held by many to represent the golden mean between the symbolism of Aeschylus and the realism of Euripides. The dramatic work of Sophocles reinforced the tendency of Socrates to emphasize in philosophy, man and his struggles, rather than the ancient Greek Pantheon of gods. Nonetheless, Oedipus Rex is a vindication of the gods in its confirmation of prophecy fulfilled.
Summary of Sophocles’ teaching. Sophocles’’ most illustrious play is Oedipus Rex, considered by Aristotle in Poetics to be the archetypical Greek tragedy. The play dramatizes the Greek concept of a pitiless and inexorable fate, which governs life, apparently indifferent to human moral action or response. It is a tragedy, in that a hero falls from grace due to a fatal flaw in his character. A Greek tragedy is like the biblical story of the Fall of man.
The story opens on the King and Queen of Thebes, Laius and Jocasta, who receive a prophecy that they are to bear a son, who will grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified, they deliver their firstborn son to a shepherd with the command to pierce and bind his feet and expose him on Mount Cithaeron. Taking pity on the boy, the shepherd gives him to an envoy of the Court at Corinth and he ends up being adopted by the childless Corinthian King, Polybius.
As a young prince, Oedipus learns of the prophecy and flees Corinth, thinking that it refers to his adoptive parents. Coming to Thebes, he is met by an old man in a carriage at a three-way crossroads. In a fit of “road rage” Oedipus kills the old man, who is ironically his real father, Laius. Proceeding to Thebes, Oedipus is met by a monstrous Sphinx, who has been oppressing the city, devouring everybody who fails to solve her riddle: “What creature walks on four feet in the morning, on two at noon and on three in the evening?” Oedipus identifies the creature as “man”, thereby delivering the city; the grateful Thebans install him as king and Jocasta becomes his wife. He thus unwittingly fulfills the prophecy unknown to both himself and Jocasta
They rule for years in apparent tranquility until a plague strikes Thebes and the Oracle of Delphi reveals that only by the punishment of Laius’ murderer will it be lifted. This spurs Oedipus effort to unravel the mystery and in the process wrongfully accuse Jocasta’s brother Creon and the blind seer Tiresias. A sense of dramatic tension builds throughout the play as the truth gradually dawns on the king and queen. In the end, Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus blinds himself and condemns himself to exile. Sophocles’’ other two masterpieces, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone explore the subsequent life of Oedipus and his daughter Antigone.
Implications for subsequent history. Sophocles provided the framework for Sigmund Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex: primordial feelings of sexuality and hostility toward one’s parents. Individuals afflicted by the Oedipus Complex suffer from a repressed erotic attraction to their parent of the opposite sex, with corresponding feelings of hostility toward the other parent. According to Freud, these fundamental drives must be explored and released via psychotherapy. Freud had a profound influence on psychology and moral laxity in the 20th Century.
Biblical analysis. Even the gods were forced to yield to the inexorable power of “fate” in Greek mythology. The moral decisions of the individual are seemingly ineffectual against its grinding decrees, although it would be unfair to characterize it as totally blind or unjust. Nonetheless, because Oedipus was ignorant of his transgression, the audience is left with a feeling of fear that they too might fall victim to the whim or capriciousness of the gods or of “fate”. This is the “moral” of the closing choral response.
By way of contrast, the biblical doctrine of the sovereignty of God allows for the freedom of man and the consequences for good or ill of his moral decisions within the universal decree of God. Secondary causes are contingent on the will of God, but are nonetheless free and effectual and carry moral consequences. Thus, Judas is morally responsible for the betrayal of Christ, although his action had been decreed. “Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus…Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place” (Acts 1:16,25).
Oedipus is in the end reconciled with the gods (Eumenides) in Oedipus at Colonus”. But, unlike Job, who won peace with God through his Redeemer, it is as though Oedipus has received spiritual sight and peace through his own self-flagellation (blinding) and pilgrimage. By way of contrast, Job said, “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth….” (Job 19:25)**.
Corrective or Prescriptive Actions. Another emphasis of Oedipus Rex is the philosophical theme of “the one and the many”. This is embodied in the multiple roles filled by Oedipus, the convergence of his fate on a crossroads, and his representational role in delivering Thebes twice from destruction. In this we discern vestiges of the biblical doctrine of representation. All Thebes suffers for the crime of her own ruler, unknown even to him. In the Old Testament we learn that unsolved murder must be symbolically, but formally confessed by the elders of the nearest city to stay the hand of God’s judgment (Dt. 21:1-9).