In a convener’s post for Oedipus the King I wrote for Contagion 2012, way back during the first iteration of this course, I mentioned a strain of recent scholarship on Sophocles’ play that takes the plague setting seriously:
After all, the assumption on scholars’ parts has long been that Sophocles introduced an epidemic as the setting for his version of the Oedipus myth because Athens had so recently suffered from plague (as recounted in the brief excerpt you’ve read from Thucydides). With mass deaths so fresh on their minds, these critics ask, wouldn’t Sophocles and his audience have understood the plague to be an actual fact of life rather than a literary symbol? If this set of questions interests you, I’d point you in the direction of this recent book by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, a classicist at Temple University in Philadelphia. You might also want to check out an even more recent article, written by a team at the University of Athens Medical School. It appeared this year in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Center for Disease Control in the United States, and “adopt[s] a critical approach to Oedipus Rex in analyzing the literary description of the disease, unraveling its clinical features” to conclude that “this epidemic was an actual event, possibly caused by Brucella abortus.”
My assumption, in that post, is that we’d be approaching the plague in Sophocles’s novel as either intended to represent medical situations Sophocles’s original audience would have recognized, or that the plague was being used metaphorically, for something sick about the community — or its leader. As I noted in that original post, we read this play at the start of this course not just to recognize how long the plague-as-metaphor idea has been around, but also to question whether the literal and figurative registers are as separate or opposed as we commonly take them. From your reading of the play, do you see compelling reasons to side one way or another on the issue? What would it mean to decide that “this epidemic was an actual event”? Does the plague become more or less powerful in the play’s world? And how might this set of questions force us to continue thinking even more carefully about the relationship between sickness or medicine and the language we use to describe it (and anything else)?
As may be apparent by the juxtaposition on the syllabus of Sophocles’ play against Thucydides’ description of the Plague of Athens, we’ll be talking over the next little while about the significance of genre here. Sophocles is writing a play; Thucydides is writing a history. How does the plague figure into each? How does each author represent it? And how might each work help us consider the question of whether it’s possible to write about disease in language that doesn’t trade in metaphor of some sort.
While I find the argument that the plague in Oedipus Rex was caused by B.abortus reasonable, I am leaning more toward the latter approach, that is viewing the plague as a metaphor. I think that Sophocles was describing a metaphorical plague that was perhaps loosely based or inspired by the Plague of Athens.
The plague in Oedipus was not described in a lot of detail and its two key features were that it affected women and the harvest. Although the description of the plague in Thucydides historical approach was extensive, there was no mention of the plague particularly affecting women or the harvest. Hence, I find it hard to believe that if both authors were describing the same plague, Thucydides would miss out on important aspects of the plague such as stillbirths and labor pains. So then, if Oedipus Rex was written around the time of the Plague of Athens, it would seem more plausible for Sophocles to get inspired by this recent plague if anything.
Yet, I am still left wondering whether the meaning of Oedipus Rex changes depending on whether we view the plague as a historical or a metaphorical event.