Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

The pity and terror of a great tragedy

[New Straits Times, 13 May 1992]

The second of the three great tragic poets was Sophocles. Although the Greeks were free with criticism of their fellows, nobody said a bad word about Sophocles, who seems to have been the rarest and most remarkable kind of man, a great genius who was also a very good human being.

Sophocles was also pretty cute. The minor writer Ion met him at a party on Ion's home island of Chios, where Sophocles had stopped on the way to Lesbos in his capacity as general. An exceptionally lovely boy was serving the wine (yes, as we all know, the Greeks were bi), and the poet's heart was stirred.

Sophocles pretended that a straw had got into his cup, andasked the boy to blow it out. He drew the cup nearer to him and when the kid's head was near enough, grabbed him and gave him a kiss. In this, said Sophocles, he was practising strategy as Pericles had asked him to.
It is very hard to understand how cute old Sophocles came to write tragedies of such disturbing power. He was himself a good tempered, well-off and well-loved man. His tragic heroes are people who have been cast down from greatness to the most terrifying misery; become, like Oedipus, a blind beggar from a king; become mad, like Ajax, a warrior once as great as Achilles; or diseased, like Philoctetes; or betrayed, poisoned, and burnt alive, like Heracles.

Life in ancient Greece was turbulent, and I feel that however well Sophocles knew his times' success and his own, must have been sharply aware of its fragility. Thinking Greeks were afraid of a too glorious prosperity. The physician Hippocrates warns that the best health is a dangerous state; it must change, it can only change for the worse. Sophocles seems to feel the greatness of Athens' achievements, and the promise of human life. As he says in a chorus in his Antigone:

Many things are terrible, but nothing is more terrible than man...

And yet the word he uses for "terrible" also means "clever."
Sophocles knew how easily human existence could be seen as a meaningless emptiness:

Not to be born surpasses all value;
To go back whence we come, as fast as possible,
Is second by far.
When the young creature is born
In ignorance, what blow full of grief is not to be expected?
Who is not caught up into pain?
Murders, dissensions, strife, war,

Sophocles' most famous play---among the world's few greatest dramas---is Oedipus the King. Aristotle in his book on tragedy praises the plot of Oedipus, and most critics since have agreed that it is as near perfection as a playwright can get. Sigmund Freud believed that Oedipus dramatized a universal human fear. I know that Oedipus has been presented in adaptations to Balinese classical theatre, and to Japanese noh with profound effect upon audiences.

The play opens in the city of Thebes. Oedipus is Ruler after having saved the city from a monster. A plague is devouring the people. They ask Oedipus to save the city once again.

Kreon reports that the plague is in retribution for the murder of the old king, Laius, killed by bandits (the evidence is confused; the play of singular and plural causes much tension in the drama) at a place where three roads meet.

The murderers must be found and punished. Oedipus announces penalties for the murderers, or those found harbouring them.
The prophet Tiresias enters and refuses to help the investigation. Oedipus accuses him of being bribed; Tiresias, in anger, says that Oedipus has no idea who he is or what he has done. Paranoia reigns. Oedipus threatens Kreon also.

The central part of the play begins with the entrance of Oedipus' wife, Jocasta. She seems to speak the voice of reason. We in the audience learn what facts are known about the murder. Oedipus is troubled. The facts of Laius' murder seem to tally with a bloody quarrel that Oedipus himself was involved in. It is a strange scene. Oedipus could could be the hero sleuth of a a detective story, except that the detective grows his own chief suspect.

Oedipus now tells his story. We in the audience, of course, have known the truth from before we entered the theatre; Oedipus does not. He says he is the son of Polybus, tyrant of Corinth. He learned from an oracle that he would kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid that he left the city. And yet in his wanderings he killed a man---in a brawl, in self defence---where three roads meet.

A messenger arrives and reports that Polybus has died a natural death. All are relieved. Jocasta explains how many men feel an anxiety like Oedipus':

Why should a man fear where the things of fate
Take charge, and nobody possesses clear foresight?
The best thing is to live reasonably, as one can.
You, Oedipus, must not fear this marrying your mother.
Many men before this have slept with their mothers
In dreams. But this is next to nothing for someone
Who bears life easily...

It was from this passage that Freud took his great insight into human psychology.

And yet the messenger is astonished when Oedipus speaks of Polybus as his father. No, Oedipus when a baby was given to
Polybus by a shepherd. Perhaps that shepherd is still around. Oedipus orders that he be brought. Jocasta leaves the stage in deep anguish.
The shepherd arrives and tries to waffle out of the situation. By now, everybody knows the truth and no-one is willing to have it told. Oedipus threatens the slave with torture, and even then the slave does not wish to proceed.

The he says it. Oedipus was that baby. In spite of his every effort to avoid it, Oedipus fulfilled the curse, killed his father and slept with his mother, the two most horrible fates that not only the Greeks, but most human beings at any time can imagine. Jocasta has hanged herself; Oedipus tears out his eyes with the pins of her dress. He is too polluted even to die.

Oedipus is so powerful a play that it is trying even to write about it in this loose fashion. Oedipus is the spectacle of a conscientous, just, intelligent man, ruined through no fault of his own. His good qualities, and his zeal to know the truth, indeed, is that which propells him towards his catastrophe. Even Jocasta's reasonableness cannot deflect the pain.

You may say here that you have heard something about "tragic flaw," and that in accordance with this theory Oedipus somehow brought his ruin on himself, that Oedipus was too hot-tempered; he should have avoided killing older men, &c. The late British scholar E.R. Dodds disposed of this rationalization as well as many similar ones in an famous essay.

It is, I believe, Sophocles' intention in Oedipus to dramatize what sort of world he believed we live in. You may agree with his view or not, that it was the gods' will that Oedipus should do what he did. That will may be cruel; the gods' reasons are inscrutable. Before the divine view, as the chorus says:

O generations of mortals!
How I reckon you equal
With those who never lived!

It is a grim view. but not a nihilistic one. Oedipus becomes tragically great when he accepts responsibility for all his acts, even those he performs in ignorance. His fall shows dignity, as well as pity and terror.