April 3, 2013

Oedipus the King by Sophocles: What's so Greek about It?

Oedipus the King is my first Greek play, and I must say I didn't like it. And it's not the story, which is very powerful itself, it's the form that spoils everything.

Well, I assume everybody knows the plot, so no need to remind you of it. However I'd like to say that  I don't understand why everybody thinks this a story about perversity, about sexual desire to one's mother, which is even named "Oedipus's complex". Come on, people, he never knew it was his mother! And when it was revealed he took his eyes out. He is a normal man, it is just his bad fate. So I think the story is about Fate, with the capital letter. You are not getting away no matter what you try.

But I wanted to discuss form rather than the story here. And here is what is the most striking:

1) Nothing happens on the scene. There are murders, suicides and other atrocities, but we know about them only from the dialogues. Well, I guess it's difficult to stage taking out one's eyes believably, but the murder - why not? As a result, the whole play looks like a session of some club of old gossipers, and it is hard to believe in the misery of the characters, as they appear only to read their monologues.

2) There is chorus, which acts for the mob and sometimes also for the reader, as it "unobtrusively" hints what everybody should feel about the events. I don't like anybody telling me what to feel, and it's quite irritating when something is going to happen (well, not really happen, but be discussed rather :) ), but you need to read the laments of the chorus before. Were those pauses made to give the public time to go to the toilet in the middle of the play, I wonder? ;)

3) You are supposed to know the story BEFORE you read or watch the play. Otherwise you'll have no chance to understand what has Oedipus done to become a king. There is a hint about the Sphinx, but it is not told directly. Well, I guess that everybody knew it then, but still it's rather inconsiderate :)

It may partially be my fault that I expected too much of such a renown play, but I was rather disappointed. It will not divert me from further reading of Greek plays, of course, not yet at least, but for now I really prefer Shakespeare. I enjoy some real drama on the scene!


  1. Hey, thanks for participating. Yes, the Greek plays are so different from other plays after. It's true that they assume me have known the story before coming to the theatre to watch it. I find the chorus pretty unique too. I don't know if they are more annoying than interesting, but it's just funny to hear other guys speaking to both sides of the thatre - audience and players - during the play.

    And I don't believe in Oedipus Complex or whatever Freud says at the first place. You can hardly blame Oedipus for marrying his mother, he didn't know. Besides, it was a custom (?) in that era to marry the previous king's wife when you take his throne. There.

    Oh, and I TOO prefer Shakespeare. :D Thanks for your post. Let's have fun with comedy this month.

    1. Yes, I've heard something of this marriage custom before. I think it was done to prevent arguments about the heir. So he really had no choice! Gods are cruel...

  2. Of course the play isn't about perversity--poor Oedipus didn't know. It's all Freud's fault that people think it is. :) I think it's about what Solon said--never call a man happy until he is safely dead. Oedipus has everything: he's clever, virtuous, wealthy, and a good king. He's always tried to do what's right and treat his people justly. And yet it turns out that he has unwittingly committed the most horrible crimes anyone can think of. So I think the story is about--What happens when your worst nightmare comes true?

    I did a bunch of Greek lit last year, and I learned that they never showed killing onstage. It was blasphemous, or in bad taste, or something. Indeed everyone did know the story already--they went to the play to see how skillfully the playwright could write and what he would do with the material. Sort of like watching a dramatization of Bible stories, I guess. The plays were only performed once at the festival, and then never performed again, since there were new ones the next year. Like Eurovision! :)

    1. Well, I see now that arguing about which adaptation is better has a long history :) Thanks for the info, I had no idea about plays being a festival event, I thought their theaters were regular, like ours. Eurovision is a cute comparison =)

  3. Your review made me smile because of all the emoticons. You seem to be having fun at your own expense. I prefer Shakespeare as well but you know, to be fair, Duncan is killed off-stage and a lot of the action in his plays occurs between speeches about the fighting or the off-stage violence. Not always but more often than I think I remembered. (I was rereading some Shakespeare and sort of boggled at how my memory filled in details that simply were not there.)

    But yeah. I never did quite understand why Oedipus deserved to suffer for his ignorance. It just doesn't make sense. But then I don't think much of what the gods are purported to do makes sense.

    1. Well, OK, Shakespeare has it, too. But most climax murders are still on stage. I'm thinking Othello, Romeo and Juliet, etc. Well, at least he was more diverse =))

      Yes, their gods were rather cruel. I think it's some kind of divine revenge for trying to escape the prophesies, but for me it also doesn't make a lot of sense.

  4. I found Greek plays interesting because of the chorus, which makes it unique. I have only read two Greek plays, but I think I like them more than Shakespeare's :)


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