A complex complex

I’d like to throw out two general areas for our consideration as we begin our discussion of Oedipus: First, the question of plague as material fact and as metaphor. To what degree can we think about the representation of plague in these separate ways — i.e., literal and figurative? To what degree are they conflated here? (This will be a question for us to continue asking as we go through the course.) The second general area has to do with social organization: What models of government or leadership are on display here? Kingship? Kinship? Social authority? Information networks? What does a plague setting offer to the play’s attempt to address such issues?

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, was that we’d approach the plague in Sophocles’s novel as either intended to recall medical situations Sophocles’s original audience would have recognized, or that the plague was being used metaphorically, to represent something morally “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 — coming soon! — 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? What can narrative structure teach us about either work’s ideals related to self, social, or medical knowledge? 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?

I will be curious to see how you think this first general area of concern relates to the second I mentioned: the play’s consideration of social organization or government, starting with a king who declares himself (warning! dramatic irony!) to be the sickest one of all, even as he attempts to get at the plague’s source.

If you read the introductory material to Oedipus or poked around a little on the web, you’ve probably started to get a sense of how Athenian theater anticipated audience members who were citizens, involved in direct deliberation of public policy. (What role does deliberation play in this tragedy?) Greek theater developed at the same moment as political democracy, philosophical thought, classical architecture. There’s an emphasis in the play — and in the very dramatic form — on civic life: theater is central to political culture. A Greek theater could seat 14-15K spectators. (The ruins of the Theater of Dionysus are shown above.) Playwrights wrote for contests that coincided with religious festivals. The chorus was a theatrical innovation that incorporated older forms of song and dance into the theater. One of Sophocles’ chief innovations as a playwright was to move beyond two actors, making the relationship among characters the thing that drives the play, and making the chorus recede into role of commentators who to some degree perform as surrogates of the audience-as-jury. With this in mind, note how the chorus seems to go back and forth in this play as more and more evidence is presented. Where do they ultimately fall on the question of Oedipus’s guilt? What does the play seem to want its audience to take away on the question of good government? And how is that theme related to the issue the play has remained most famous for: the question of self-knowledge?


 Add your comment
  1. Hey guys. I promised I would send a quote from a book I was reminded of during our last discussion, so here it is. It’s from a book called Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative by Priscilla Wald. I may dip into it now and then or float a few pages your way. But here’s how she approaches the question of the literal/figurative dimensions of language about contagion:

    Literary depictions of plague-ridden societies evince the complex vocabulary through which members of a ravaged population both respond to epidemics and experience the social connections that make them a community. The word contagion means literally “to touch together,” and one of its earliest usages in the fourteenth century referred to the circulation of ideas and attitudes. It frequently connoted danger or corruption. Revolutionary ideas were contagious, as were heretical beliefs and practices. Folly and immorality were more often labeled contagious than were wisdom or virtue. The medical usage of the term was no more and no less metaphorical than its ideational counterpart. The circulation of disease and the circulation of ideas were material and experiential, even if not visible. Both displayed the power and danger of bodies in contact and demonstrated the simultaneous fragility and tenacity of social bonds. (12-13)

  2. In the play, I believe Oedipus is symbolic of evil and wrongdoings even though he is oblivious to the fact that he killed his father and partook in incest- which technically are the first crimes committed as Thebes came into a new rule. He is the very cause of the plague- the plague of injustice. And if the source of the plague, Oedipus, is exiled, the plague will start dissipating. This indicates as if the city couldn’t have complete justice and prosperity unless the crimes (including the very first one in this era) were answered for.

    • Thanks, Maryam, for kicking off this semester’s comments section! (At least from the student side.) I like the idea of plague = injustice very much. We’ll see over and over that injustice distributes plague unevenly, from ancient times to now. And we’re very much in the position the citizens are at the outset of the play: how do we root out the injustice that is causing thousands of premature deaths, unevenly distributed through the population? I also am glad you brought up Oedipus’s oblivion to his own history/fate: this raises the question — is he guilty? For what? Being punished? For what? What’s the relationship between his fate and his actions or agency? Did he inherit his problems from his parents? Is he “innocent”?

  3. And on the topic of government (and the resonance of Greek tragedy in our times), here’s one of my favorite contemporary essayists, Elif Batuman, on watching the recent productions of Oedipus on Zoom. The whole article is good, but here’s her pitch about the political dimensions:

    In the opening scene, Thebes is in the grip of a terrible epidemic. Oedipus’ subjects come to the palace, imploring him to save the city, describing the scene of pestilence and panic, the screaming and the corpses in the street. Something about the way Isaac voiced Oedipus’ response—“Children. I am sorry. I know”—made me feel a kind of longing. It was a degree of compassion conspicuous by its absence in the current Administration. I never think of myself as someone who wants or needs “leadership,” yet I found myself thinking, We would be better off with Oedipus. “I would be a weak leader if I did not follow the gods’ orders,” Isaac continued, subverting the masculine norm of never asking for advice. He had already sent for the best information out there, from the Delphic Oracle.

    Soon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law, Creon—John Turturro, in a book-lined study—was doing his best to soft-pedal some weird news from Delphi. Apparently, the oracle said that the plague wouldn’t end until the people of Thebes expelled Laius’ killer: a person who was somehow still in the city, even though Laius had died many years earlier on an out-of-town trip. Oedipus called in the blind prophet, Tiresias, played by Jeffrey Wright, whose eyes were invisible behind a circular glare in his eyeglasses.

    Reading “Oedipus” in the past, I had always been exasperated by Tiresias, by his cryptic lamentations—“I will never reveal the riddles within me, or the evil in you”—and the way he seemed incapable of transmitting useful information. Spoken by a Black actor in America in 2020, the line made a sickening kind of sense. How do you tell the voice of power that the problem is in him, really baked in there, going back generations? “Feel free to spew all of your vitriol and rage in my direction,” Tiresias said, like someone who knew he was in for a tweetstorm.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.