Literary Misinterpretations and New Insights by James L. Secor


Oedipus Rex.

From the first time I read Oedipus Rex all the way through doctoral studies, all I heard was that Oedipus was the tragic hero, the man fated to fall; I heard that he suffered from hybris–excessive, overweening pride–as all the tragic heroes do. (This is, incidentally, not true; the more so regarding Oedipus.)

Oedipus’s hybris? First, I was told that he would not get off the road so a king (any royalty) could pass. Royalty owned the roads. But Oedipus was royalty. No hybris, here. Just a clash of rights. Not at all unexpected that a youth should overcome an old man. It was not out of order for the king’s vanquisher to marry said king’s widow, either.

Second, I was shown how Oedipus’s hybris was doggedly following through to the conclusion of a problem. Intellectual endeavor a bad thing? What a lesson! Especially at a time of high rationality and logical argumentation as found in classical ancient Greece.

Quite a conundrum for me. I simply could not get my head around the problem despite all the information necessary being known, though all the pieces were scattered about.

What set me off on the road less travelled was reading and rereading the myth of the curse laid on Laius: The House of Laius would last no longer than three generations. That is, Laius’s grandchildren would be the last of the line. That would make the children of Laius–Oedipus–the second generation.

Is it any wonder Laius wanted no children? Every king wants his kingdom to last forever, no? So, too, the queen.  

Iocasta was Laius’s wife and, therefore, queen. As woman, she would be as nothing without giving birth, her queenship be damned.

However, Laius went to the Delphic Oracle about his off-spring before engaging in babymaking with Iocasta. That Oracle we all know: Laius would be killed by his son who would marry his mother.

Nope. No children.

The problem for the Laiuses was that without children their House would not last three generations. It would be a flash in the pan.

So, Iocasta, before setting out to gain status by getting pregnant, also sought out the Oracle at Delphi. The telling was that her son would live to a green old age. Which means her son will, indeed, live. Green old age? Wise before living a long time; before experience. A youth with wisdom? How proud a parent would be!

Nothing dangerous here! Iocasta’s status and reputation are more important than possibly wreaking havoc, according to the gods. Iocasta is selfish and self-centred. She put herself before all, even the gods. So, she overrode Laius’s oracle by pointing out the more recent and, therefore, more apt oracle. Her oracle.  

At the appropriate time after birthing, Iocasta took her as yet unnamed child to Delphi to have the obligatory blessing and fate foretelling. This oracle was the same as that Laius had received before. To wit: the babe would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother.

Well! This is a horrible prediction handed down from the gods. Ai-eee! What has Iocasta done?! What can Iocasta do to rectify her lack of good judgment?

Here comes real hybris.

Iocasta decides to put one over on the gods. To outsmart the gods. To be better than the gods.

She can solve the problem if she kills her babe. This could best be accomplished by exposure. After dying, the body would be disposed of by wild animals. There’d be no tracing the remains to its parents. Iocasta’s hands are clean.

We know this. Yet it does not dawn on us that not only is infanticide a horror but surely the gods do not condone it. That Iocasta did not succeed is beside the point. Not only did she not succeed in killing her child but she did not succeed in pulling the wool over the gods’ eyes. What is important is that she believes she has been successful. This false belief, gotten to via hybris, is termed hamartia. Hamartia brings about the fall.

By answering the riddle of the sphinx, Oedipus released the city-state of Thebes from a plague. Happy days are here again.

This is past history. But it should not be forgotten. The Greeks certainly didn’t forget. To forget your history is to forget yourself. Very, very foolish.

Now to the play.

Right at the beginning, Teiresias makes it known that there is still a pollution in Thebes. Still. That means this pollution existed before Oedipus. We miss this because we come to the play with a preconception of blame and retribution, a prejudice of interpretation. To the Greek audience this “still” would not have been lost. Even though old Teiresias says Oedipus is the cause. We moderns accept blind Teiresias’s statement as true. Well, the old blind seer has been right every time before, not only with Sophocles but with the other tragedians. The old man has never missed a beat. His word is the word of the gods. But what does he mean by “cause”? It is not possible that Oedipus created the pollution as it remains from before he came along. Therefore, the pollution was not fully purified to begin with and somehow or other its continued presence is because of Oedipus. . .and Oedipus has made it worse.

What is it he has done? And what is he going to do about it?

Oedipus, who has the good of the Theban people at heart is determined to discover what it is he’s done so he can correct his mistake and cleanse the city. What a man!

The first discovery is that Iocasta had a child by the old king and that the babe Iocasta set out to die did not die. This happens early on in the proceedings. Iocasta tells Oedipus not to delve further and she tells him and tells him and tells him–Stop! But Oedipus persists. He must. Thebes is suffering because of him. That is, we know, he has married the pollution and thereby allowed the continuance of the pollution (infanticide) via another pollution (incest), however fated. Iocasta eventually runs off leaving Oedipus to discover that he has married his mother. What kind of monster his mother-wife is!–as he adjudged her at the beginning of the play. 

Iocasta hangs herself.

Iocasta is the tragic hero, the doomed one, fated to fall.

Iocasta is the pollution that still exists in Thebes.

No one is saddened by Iocasta’s death: an arrogant, murdering, lying bitch.

Oedipus and his children are innocent bystanders, as it were. Today, we call them collateral damage, the less to disturb our sensibilities.

This fits with Sophocles’ belief–a cultural given–that when tragedy strikes, the innocent are also adversely affected. Therefore, Oedipus is not the tragic hero. He is the victim. Being the victim who suffers because of another’s malfeasance is far and away more tragic and moving than having the bad guy get his just desserts. We, in fact, applaud the comeuppance of the maleficent.

The lesson, the insight gained from the play, is about the blindness of humanity in the face of the gods–what the Greeks of that time would have called Fate–of the playing out of a purpose larger than humanity’s perspective: we believe (think) we know but, in fact, we don’t.

And we do not stand isolated.

By our misinterpretation, we have missed the play’s intent.

But all is not lost.

This new way to see Oedipus Rex opens up other avenues of sight, shows us a much more human element in the workings of god-given Fate.

Although Oedipus is the focus of the tragedy, it is noteworthy that Oedipus did nothing wrong given his beginnings, his knowledge, his beliefs. Oedipus suffers from hamartia, as does his mother, as he believes something that is not true; though unlike Iocasta he did not do anything and then try to hide it. But, yet, he believes that he has beat the gods’ prediction. When he finds out life, his life, is not what he believes it to be, that he is not who he believed himself to be and that he has not escaped the oracle, he gains insight into life and living and fate; and, to forego any more such mistaken identities, blinds himself. Now, he is what he is. A blind man. . .with a damnable past. Blind because things are not what they seem and he does not wish to be mislead by appearances. Because we tend to judge by appearances. Because he believes it is all his fault and he must pay. Oedipus has, however, become the other prediction: a wise old man while still young.

The fact that he was just somebody in the Theban area is easily extrapolated to. . .just anybody. Everyman. We all stand to fall, as it were, because what we believe may, in fact, not be true. And what are we going to do about it?

Are we going to (continue to) maintain we know it all?

Are we going to maintain, even in the face of the gods’ inscrutable, impossible to fathom knowledge that we know what the gods are thinking and what they want?

This is hybris.

In one way or another, though, we all suffer from hybris of some kind. If we are so proud and sure of ourselves, we are bound to suffer also with hamartia–a mistaken belief about what we assume to be true. Next on the list is a fall. A fall is no more (?) than discovering that everything you knew and held dear and true is delusion. Your learning and adjustment are important.

The closeness of Oedipus’s situation to the average Joe’s, as it were, ought to be enlightenment enough. The tragedy itself, the play, in this light, has a much more powerful effect, a longer “arm of the law.” It means much more than being simply a part of a fateful myth.

We writers often re-arrange myths and legends and folktales to tell a particular story we are interested in, our life view. Unlike Aeschylus, Sophocles was interested in character, and how that played into the great scheme of things. Oedipus suffered but he was not the author of his tragedy; he did not bring it down on himself via pomp and circumstance. He was not due for a fall, for a comeuppance, like his mother-wife.  But is he not to blame? He did not know. In his ignorance is he innocent?  

Now. . .what do you see?


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14 thoughts on “Literary Misinterpretations and New Insights by James L. Secor

  1. Diane Piron-Gelman

    I was a theater major in college, and received the classic interpretation of Oedipus Rex. But it always bothered me that he never chose to murder his father. He did choose to kill a person (Laius) who turned out to be his father, so he’s morally “on the hook” for choosing violence, but the extra moral responsibility based on their blood kinship should not–to my mind–be his as well.

    This is an excellent piece, with a provocative rethinking of the entire Oedipus myth that raises exactly that question–who is truly responsible for what? How does what we know–or simply think we know–play into the decisions we make and our responsibility for them?

    It’s a great set of questions, with no simple answers.

  2. Delinda

    Oh well done. Humanity has always told stories to make sense of life. This is a timely interpretation of Oedipus Rex. What do we think is true when it is not. Is seems we are surrounded with untruths and finding the truth among the lies and misrepresentations is challenging. We are indeed blind.

  3. R. L. Cherry

    Oedipus Rex is a fine example of the classic question of whether our lives are determined by free will or fate. It is not that Oedipus committed some crime that he was damned, but by being born to the wrong parents. Yet, while his parents and he consciously try to avoid their fate, they cannot. I think so many of the tragic myths had to do with trying to understand why bad things happen. If it wasn’t because of some “sin,” then it must because of a whim of the gods. It must be fate. The Greeks struggled with the same questions that we “moderns” do. What makes our lives to be what they are? As a side note, Oedipus was blind to everything until enlightened by Tiresias, then chooses blindness again.

  4. linniescorner

    The simple lesson I take from this is to disown that which I did not choose. If it was not of my making, then I would refuse to inherit it and therefore, leave it all behind. That is not to pretend that it never existed but to disown it and therefore expunge it from my very soul would end it once and for all or so I would hope. My children would be beautiful and precious in their own right and would be my blessed new beginnings. As I said, this is the simple lesson. I don’t pretend to take the broader position.

    1. linniescorner

      I will add that I tend to be somewhat of a rebel when it comes to the concept of ‘fate’ and experienced this same reaction to Greek Mythology in general although I only studied it at the high school level. I have always rejected the notion that destiny is pre-ordained and opt for free will every time; hence, my first comment, however niaive it seems. Could I have offered a deep analysis? Not likely but I so enjoyed your piece James and it reminded me of how much I had forgotten about this famous classic. When i was very young, I worked at Longmans (a British book publisher) who had the Canadian rights to Penguin, Puffin, Harcourt Brace and numerous biggies. I was able to obtain all of the classics in paperback and wish I still had them. I would surely re-read them all to gain a more mature appreciation of these many fine works.

  5. Bryan Murphy

    Unfortunately, my knowledge of Oedipus comes not from Sophocles but from Pier Paolo Pasolini and Sigmund Freud. Forty years after seeing Pasolini’s film, what I remember is the crudity of the weapons and the brutality of the combats. I suspect this was Pasolini’s way of reminding us that things were really, not just superficially, different back then.
    If only Freud had had James’ more nuanced view of Oedipus, he might have avoided some of the hubris in his own writing, for which the gods surprisingly forgave him.
    Mind you, Oedipus and his Dad could have used some talking therapy, especially to calm down that road rage.

  6. Louise Malbon-Reddix

    James, Intriguing to say the least and what a comparison to us as writers and deciding the fateof all of our characters. Enjoyed the iece for true!!


  7. Micki Peluso

    Jim, this is an outstanding evaluation of a great classic. I saw the play as a young teenager and much of it was way over my head. This day you have presented perfect logic to help explain the complexities of the Greek tragedies. Perhaps they waited for such as you to see the true picture. Puzzles within puzzles with so much more than meets the eyes. Although I won’t blind myself over it. 🙂


  8. James L. Secor

    Sorry I’m so late in saying anything: illness.
    We must be careful not to impose the present on the ancient mandates.
    linniescorner: what you “take” from this is just what Oedipus did and he was sure he’d succeeded when he learned that his adoptive (we know he was adopted) father died. What we want does not always reflect reality. Which bespeaks Oedipus blinding himself.
    What makes this tragedy is that the innocent suffer.

    1. linniescorner

      Thanks Jim. Yes, I did impose the present intentionally and purely from a personal perspective as I alluded to. I honor the excellence of this literature just not the notion of fatalism which I feel is ludicrous. That said, this is perhaps the finest piece of literature and story weaving ever and I respect your fine analysis of it.

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