Patricide and incest form the thesis and message that Sophocles began with the creation of Oedipus the King. In the plays that followed, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, Sophocles expounded upon what would become one of the most profound archetypes in psychoanalysis. To best interpret the Oedipus trilogy, a look will be taken into the construction of the plays themselves, followed by an interpretation of the plays’ parallels and the inception of the Oedipus Complex based upon a psychoanalytic perspective.
To begin with, Sophocles wrote what became known as the Oedipus trilogy over a period of more than forty years which indicates the profound immersion that he plainly had in the Oedipus saga. Each play is a self-contained chronicle representing his dramatic theme of redemption from the sin of patricide and incest, and yet, the arch between the three Theban plays highlights the message that Sophocles refused to relieve himself from, and which consumed nearly his entire life.
While this may seem of little importance to reading the Oedipus trilogy itself, Sophocles did not write them in the order represented in nearly every anthology. As David Grene notes, “as far as the legend is concerned, the story runs in sequence: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone” (p. i). Their order of conception, instead, went: Antigone, Oedipus the King, and then Oedipus at Colonus (p. i), which presents a few inaccuracies within the story itself (mainly with the character and actions of Creon, Jocasta’s brother).
From this birth order, “the series, therefore, cannot have formed a [true or literal] trilogy…beyond the fact that each of the three plays deals with the situation in the Oedipodean family history, there is no unity of theme or treatment between them” (Watling). Moreover, “except for the obvious links of fact connecting them, each constitutes a fresh approach to a distinct and self-contained problem” (13).
Roughly, this means that while most anthologies present the three Theban plays in a chronological order for the character Oedipus, the fact remains that each could be read without knowledge of the others and the same theme and message would be received—which, based upon Sophocles’ life-long obsession with the story, must have been his justification for the story that kept evolving. The reasoning behind the order and placement of the plays within anthologies is sound, however, because, while the stories may be self-contained, the arch of Oedipus is the link that literally turns the plays into a trilogy.
In Oedipus the King, Oedipus, as prophecy had predicted, kills his father, King Laius, and marries his mother, Queen Jocasta, bearing at least four children in the process who, in the play Antigone, are revealed as Antigone, Ismene, Eteocles, and Polyneices. After learning of his horrible actions, Oedipus exiles himself as he had proclaimed would be the fate of the brute capable of murdering King Laius, and subsequently blinds himself in the hopes of finding redemption for his unforgivable sins. While Oedipus at Colonus is the second play in the anthologies, it is the literal ending for Oedipus.
He is taken to the city of Colonus by his loving daughters, Antigone and Ismene, because, as he had learned from the oracle in Oedipus the King, he was meant to find his final resting place there. Moments before his end, Oedipus realizes that his sins of patricide and incest weren’t truly sinful because he committed the acts out of ignorance alone, and it is in this moment, and despite everything he has faced in his quest for redemption that Zeus absolves Oedipus of his sins and he passes, with peace, into the afterlife.
In Antigone, Oedipus is little more than a plot reference to get the play started. His only mention is in the opening lines and is that, following his self-imposed exile from the city of Thebes in Oedipus the King, Oedipus had made a prediction that his sons would be arrogant enough to fight over his throne and kill each other. Thus the play begins with the deaths of Eteocles and Polyneices. The play itself follows the actions of Antigone and her husband Creon, who is the cause for much speculation from most scholars due to his not-so advanced age.
As the timeline goes, Creon is Jocasta’s brother and would have been Oedipus’ senior by many years or, at the very least, would have been as old as Oedipus himself. As Antigone is Oedipus’ daughter, and Creon is said to be “a vigorous middle-aged father of a youthful son” (Watling, 13), scholars debate as to the accuracy of Sophocles’ character creation and question as to his motives in retelling the story in as many forms as he did, with an outstanding flaw.
Creon’s deviation notwithstanding, it is the minor and insignificant role of Oedipus in the play Antigone that marks the main reason that most anthologies place Antigone last in the order of the Oedipus mythology, even though the timeline would, as Sophocles thought in writing them, place Oedipus at Colonus last, due to the play’s depiction of the last days of Oedipus’ life. This, in itself, is significant in understanding the psychological aspects of the Oedipus trilogy.
Now, while readers will never know the true meaning behind the order of the Oedipus mythology, the fact remains that Sophocles wrote within an archetype and character arch with the intentions of presenting his dramatic theme—and it took three tries to get it out as he desired. What he created, however, demonstrates a truth about the self-discovery of the individual and the path to redemption that marks a significant aspect of the growth of the human being.
To best define this journey, a psychoanalytic perspective will now be taken into Sophocles’ main theme and message. From an analysis of his work, Sophocles “shares [a] concern with finding truth in a world of appearances and is influenced, even if indirectly, by the new theories about language: the problem of the relation of words to reality, and the power of words to deceive, to win unjust causes, and to confuse moral issues” (Segal, 7).
More, the plays are “almost certainly a response to events of [his] period. An unexpected, supernatural-seeming disaster suddenly sweeps away brilliant hopes; confidence in human reason and calculation is shattered, and greatness swiftly turns into misery” (9). Sophocles saw the rise and fall of powerful nations, and it makes sense that he would take what he had seen and created his rendition of events that had transpired in a literary form that he could show the world.
And it is from this basis that scholars have debated over the purpose and parallels behind the two main cities present within the plays of Sophocles. Often, the city of Athens is compared to a man’s relationship with himself, whereas the city of Thebes represents the conflict between man and his father. Indeed, “the figure of Oedipus [is] a distillation of Athens at the height of its power, energy, daring, intellectual curiosity, and confidence in human reason” (Segal, 11).
As the historical context of the city of Athens was surely an influence in Sophocles’ making of the Oedipus trilogy, a direct parallel from the destruction of Athens to the destruction of Oedipus the powerful leader can be drawn. More, “it is even possible that Oedipus’ search for who he really is reflects something of a communal identity crisis in a city that had undergone a massive transformation in a short time and had refashioned itself from a rather quiet, traditional aristocracy and tyranny in the sixth century into a radical, intellectualized democracy and a powerful empire” (Segal, 11).
This parallel, of Oedipus to the grand city of Athens, does much to lend weight to Sophocles’ theme of destiny and the gods marking a path for man. For, as Athens rose in power, so too, it fell because it committed sins and transgressions to great to find redemption from along the way. As for the city of Thebes, there lies a direct correlation to Sigmund Freud’s theory of conflict between man and his father which represents a direct parallel to Oedipus’ exile from the city of his king-making.
Freud suggested that “the play fascinates us so much…not because it dramatizes ‘the contrast between destiny and human will,’ but because ‘there must be something which makes a voice within us ready to recognize the compelling force of destiny’” (Segal, 59). From this theory, Freud defined that the “‘destiny’ is the universal necessity to which all of us (or at least all males) are subject—namely, the wishes that remain from our buried animal nature to kill the father and possess the mother” (59).
And it is this destiny upon which Sophocles created his foundation and archetype. As a basis for his theory, Freud determined that the oracle was a direct parallel to the subconscious mind, citing that “this disguising of Oedipus’ unconscious desires in the form of an oracle from the gods not only lets the unconscious become visible but also accounts for the feeling of guilt that we have about these unconscious desires, even though we are not guilty of any crime” (Segal 59-60).
Even more, Freud speculated that “Oedipus’ eagerness to punish himself, with no attempt at self-defense, corresponds to the inner conviction of guilt that stems from these unconscious desires” (60). Because Oedipus immediately set out to punish himself and find redemption for his actions, despite the fact that he did them in ignorance, then, suggests that in his subconscious, Oedipus did indeed have desires to kill his father and physically and sexually possess his mother.
For, as Freud theorized, in his actions following his revelation, Oedipus confessed his own guilt. If, perhaps, Oedipus had sought to defend himself on the basis that he didn’t know his father and certainly had no affections for his mother, having grown up the adoptive son of another, the theme may then have been interpreted differently. However, as Freud was so certain, there is much to be said about the actions of Oedipus in correlation to the guilt he felt.
The subconscious mind had a profound impact on Oedipus, even though he knew nothing of the birth parents he was prophesized to destroy. For Freud, the archetypal constructs of the Oedipus mythology was so absolute that he dubbed it the “‘Oedipus Complex’…[which] denotes each person’s attitudes and behavior in his or her most intimate family relationships, especially to mother and father…[and, to mature into a normal adult, the child] must somehow come to terms with the residue of repressed infantile hatred and desire for his or her parents” (Segal, 60).
The Oedipus Complex, in modern psychology, is applied to the study of actions in relation to the subconscious desires that exist in every child. Even more, Freud’s theory has become common in the vernacular of psychology to the extent that scholars use the term, perhaps, without even grasping the full meaning behind the cleverly, yet aptly, named psychosis. The Oedipus Complex is based upon two main ideals: that of the matriarchal relationship to the child and the patriarchal relationship. The two are separated by this relationship and define the growth and development of the child.
Moreover, “matriarchal culture is characterized by the emphasis on ties of blood, ties to the soil and the passive acceptance of all natural phenomena…[while a] patriarchal society in contrast is characterized by respect for man-made law, by the predominance of rational thought and by the effort to change natural phenomena by man” (Armens, viii). To better define the difference, “in the matriarchal concept all men are equal since they are all the children of mothers and each one a child of Mother Earth.
A mother loves her children all alike and without (limiting) conditions…the aim of life is the happiness of man and there is nothing more important or dignified than human existence and life” (viii). In this, to draw a parallel back to Oedipus, the child has (whether he realizes or understands it) a desire to be with the woman who created him because of her earth-mother nature. The desire of every man is to be with a woman who understands everything and will love unconditionally—and that figure, from the start of life, happens to be the mother.
However, “the patriarchal system, on the other hand, recognizes obedience to authority as its main virtue. The principle of equality is replaced by a hierarchical order in society and state, ruled by an authority just as the family is dominated by the father” (Armens, viii). It is because of this very concept that boys contain within them (whether known to the conscious mind or not) the desire to overthrow their father and become the leader of the hierarchy. More, men, by their very nature, contain the desire to become like their fathers, to achieve the power that they may possess, to be the biggest, strongest, fastest titan in the industry.
With a full understanding of the Oedipus Complex, a final parallel can be drawn to the path of self-discovery that Oedipus’ entire life is consumed with. As Sophocles had directed, Oedipus “dramatizes the lonely path of self-discovery” (Segal, 13). And it is in this path that the true nature of Oedipus is revealed. For, the path that he must take is a perilous expedition, not only through the ascent of age, but in the self discovery that every man must achieve to live a fulfilling and successful life. However, it is on this path that Oedipus also meets the very destiny that his parents had hoped to terminate with their preemptive strike.
In this, Oedipus is the “paradoxical combination of knowledge, power, and weakness” (13). He is strong as a king and husband, yet, when he learns the truth of his actions, he crumbles into a despair so deep that it consumes his entire life—and it isn’t a short one. Unequivocally, Sophocles began his thesis with the creation of Oedipus the King and introduced what would become one of the most profound archetypes in psychoanalysis. Throughout the trilogy, the archetypes that Sophocles presents “[become] a profound meditation on the questions of guilt and responsibility, the order (or disorder) of our world, and the nature of man” (Segal, 12).
More, “the play stands with the Book of Job, Hamlet, and King Lear as one of Western literature’s most searching examinations of the problem of suffering” (12). In looking at the events that transpired throughout the three Theban plays, Sophocles’ main theme that, in any life, destiny and fate will create a man’s destiny; more, the gods have the divine right to tamper with a man’s destiny in the hopes that he will, one day, find redemption from his sins, is rendered by the Oedipus arch throughout the plays.
Overall, the three Theban plays, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, form the trilogy that founded the most profound archetype in literature and psychoanalysis. Sophocles created the character of Oedipus to highlight his theme of self-discovery and the path to redemption, making it clear that Oedipus, despite his ignorance, would repent until his final moments for his unforgivable sins. However, it is in those final moments that Oedipus finds true absolution and redemption for the subconscious guilt that placed the fantasy of patricide and incest into his desires.
And, based upon a psychoanalytic perspective, the theory behind the Oedipus Complex renders the message and main theme of Sophocles’ Oedipus mythology. Works Cited. Armens, Sven. Archetypes of the Family in Literature. Seattle: University of Washington, 1966. Grene, David and Richmond Lattimore, Trns. The Complete Greek Tragedies, Vol II, Sophocles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959. Segal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993. Watling, E. F. , Trns. The Theban Plays. Maryland: Penguin Books, 1947.