Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Book Reviews

I know what you must be thinking – how does this Greek tragedy (the most famous Greek tragedy of all) fit into my ongoing blog series about classic mysteries? Well, I admit, it’s something of a stretch, but April is National Poetry Month, and I strongly advise readers to find some great poetry out there to soak in – it’s time well spent, and will leave you with a greater appreciation for the wonder of language. Oedipus’ play could be classified, in some sense, as a mystery story – Sophocles sets it up as an investigation, one where we know more than the investigator himself. So far as the poetry goes, well, Sophocles is one of the greatest of the ancient Greek poets.

We tend to think of mystery stories and novels as “whodunits,” and as a “whodunit,” Oedipus Rex is a failure. We know who done it (SPOILER ALERT) – Oedipus killed his father and slept with his mother, having four kids by her. In case you now feel that the whole point of reading Oedipus Rex has been taken away, I’m sorry, but the ancient Athenians who watched the play at the City Dionysia in the spring of 425 BCE (we don’t know the exact date of production but 425 is close) knew the basic story of almost every tragedy performed. So, Oedipus Rex is not a whodunit. But there is a whole group of mysteries called “howcatchems.” Many of these are police procedurals, but some classic mystery novels (some of the Sherlock Holmes stories [“Scandal in Bohemia” and “Charles Augustus Milverton” for example] do not have Holmes trying to solve a crime, but rather trying to catch the criminal). And police procedurals, which focus a lot on the machinery of justice, often take this form (every Columbo episode, for example, is a “howcatchem”).

And consider how Sophocles composes this particular tragedy – the event that starts the play and precipitates the action is that Apollo has sent a plague against the city of Thebes, and will lift the plague only when the murderer of Laius (the previous king) is caught and driven off the land (the murderer is a source of pollution). Oedipus, in Sophocles’ treatment of him, is almost a superhero (at least he and the people of Thebes view him as such) — his power being Riddle Solving — and in one of his first big speeches, he proclaims in no uncertain terms that, just as he solved the riddle of the Sphinx, he will find the murderer of Laius and punish him appropriately. Of course, the audience knows the truth -- Oedipus is the murderer he seeks, but as we watch it, we still get caught up in watching the murder investigation unfold. There are leads to be followed, and people to be questioned, the very stuff of every murder mystery. Oedipus fails to live up to his Riddle Solver reputation (his wife/mother, Jocasta, figures out the solution before he does), but he is as dogged an investigator as any inspector of Scotland Yard, and he pursues the investigation to its end. At the point where he is about to uncover the final bit of evidence, the herdsman he is interviewing notes: “O God, I am on the brink of frightful speech.” And Oedipus replies, “And I of frightful hearing. But I must hear.” (translation by David Grene). Oedipus is a man driven – he must solve this mystery, not only for the city whose champion he remains, but also for himself. He simply must know the truth, a quality we find in all of the mystery sleuths, but especially those of the “classic” mystery school, where the puzzle, or the riddle, is everything.

The recasting of the Oedipus story as an investigation does not add to the mystery — we already know the truth — but in Sophocles’ handling of the story, we get a carefully controlled and modulated revelation of the truth, as we watch an investigation “in real time.” And, if we allow ourselves to get caught up in that investigation, I think we can derive a special pleasure in this most famous of Greek tragedies. Try reading it as a mystery, and see if you don’t agree.

There are several great translations of this play. I would recommend any of the following: translations by W. B. Yeats, David Grene, Anthony Burgess, Dudley Fitts and Robert FitzGerald, H.D.F. Kitto, or Robert Fagles.

There is also a very bizarre film version of the Yeats translation, directed by Tyrone Guthrie, with William Shatner as one of the chorus. Guthrie had hoped to recreate the experience of the Greek audience with the large masks, but as this production was filmed on a very small sound stage, the large masks and big gestures look rather silly. Still, it is a joy to hear Yeats’ translation performed.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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