Tragedy and the severing of human certainties

I was organizing my computer files the other day when I stumbled upon a folder containing my old BA essays. Reading them again prompted that kind of question some writers will be familiar with, ‘Have I really written this?!’  To my surprise, they are still quite readable and I think I can now put more into the significance of the questions posed than I probably did when I first wrote them. So far, those papers haven’t seen the light of the day, but I have decided to do some editing and start publishing them here from time to time under the label From the Vault. The first one is a discussion on how tragedy, as a dramatic genre, severs the certainties that seem to bind human beings together and make them feel at one with their world. I base this discussion on an analysis of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

The uniqueness of tragedy lies greatly in the way it presents its characters as individuals who are in permanent tension with themselves, the others and the world around them. This tension when pushed up to limits leads to the growing alienation of the characters and their eventual ruin. Oedipus Rex illustrates the dual nature of tragedy and how the deep division between the tragic hero and the polis and family is manifest in the work Aristotle is believed to have considered Sophocles’ masterpiece.

Tragedy flourished and faded in Greece in the fifth century B.C. It was the product of a specific time and reflected the society that produced it. Drama in Greece was not a mere pastime, nor solely a cultural event; it was an essential part of a civic and religious festival created by the polis for its citizens. This contemporary aspect of tragedy might lead modern readers and audiences to believe that, as a genre, tragedy drew its inspiration source from the themes that affected the polis at the time it was created. However, the works of the great tragic poets that have come down to us are all deeply rooted in the world of Homer and Herodotus. As Knox (1984, p. 22) points out, ‘the stuff from which the tragic poet made his play was not contemporary reality but myth.’ Oedipus is not a figure of the fifth century Athens; he was part of the Greek ‘national memory of the remote past’ (p. 23).

Yet, tragedy is not dissociated from its own time. As Knox puts it, tragedy imitated contemporary reality in a way that was even ‘more authoritative because they were not coloured by the partisan emotions of the time’ (p.22). What is more, tragedy embodies the conflicts between the two worlds it links. Worlds that are in permanent tension: the world of the heroic myth of its characters, and the world of the democratic society represented by its audience. The former is the world of the omnipresent and ruling gods always determinant in the human destiny; the latter, the world of the sophists where human knowledge ventured for the first time, as far as we know, to see itself as the measure of everything.

As a literary form, tragedy is in itself split into two realms: contemporary in its function; traditional in its setting and choice of characters. This duality at the very core of a literary work certainly would not remain self-contained. This inherent double aspect of tragedy manifest in its construction permeates the language used by the characters and is blatantly displayed by the hero on the stage. The tragic hero personifies the man divided into two and disconnected from his world. The tragic hero is a man split between two worlds: the world he wishes to create through his actions, and the world the gods have designed for him. As Vernant and Vidal-Naquet (1990, p. 113) argue, ‘the dramatist plays on this to transmit his tragic vision of a world divided against itself and rent with contradictions.’ Such duality makes the hero a figure apart, marginal, powerless to control his own destiny and unable to communicate with the others. Instead of leading to communication and understanding between the characters, ‘the words they exchange on the stage on the contrary underline the impermeability of their minds, the barrier between them’ (p.114).

Perhaps no tragic hero embodies so clearly this dissociation with the world where he lives; this strangeness among the others as Oedipus. Human beings tend to define themselves based on facts that could be the entries in a form: name, nationality, status, affiliation, and occupation. This factual, banal information gives us a sense of stability, and place us in the world around us, in the society we belong to. To Oedipus even this commonplace facts and certainties are denied.

To begin with, there is a riddle of meanings in Oedipus’ very name. Names are given by the parents to a child ‘as an attempt to control or predict through predication the future life of the child’ (Goldhill, 1986, p. 216). Oedipus’s name is not a promise; it is a label. It does not bring a perspective or links him to a future realization; it was given to him to describe the state in which he was found, it is a reminder of his past rejection. For Goldhill, ‘Oedipus’ name carries a sign of grief and distortion of his position as a man’ (p.117), until the point when a human name is not fit to describe his finally revealed monstrous state and not even Jocasta is able to name him (1177-79).

Moreover, Oedipus’ citizenship is a mixture of misinformation, false beliefs, painful realization and mystery. He is a ‘stranger’ (513) living among the Corinthians, but turns up to be ‘a native of Thebes’ (515). Eventually, Oedipus becomes an exile and has his final abode in the soil of Athens, but in a place that ‘never reveal the spot to mortal man, not even the region, not where it lies hidden’ (Oedipus at Colonus 1722-23)

In Oedipus Rex the normal position a person can have in the family is suppressed. The normal recognizable categories of father, son, husband, brother, make no sense any longer for he embodies all the persons in himself: ‘Oedipus can no longer express himself or be expressed in the city’s normal language of kinship and sexuality’ (Goldhill, 1986, p. 216). Status in Oedipus Rex is a range of combinations that annihilate the possibility of any social relationship.

As for occupation, Oedipus is a politician, a statesman. The citizens of Thebes that come to Oedipus to try to find the cure for the plague that afflicts the city recognize in him the leader, the saviour, the one capable of rescuing the city as he has done in the past from the Sphinx. Oedipus is the turannos, the healer, the riddle-solver. He is above the normal citizens; he is rated ‘first of me’ and just below the gods (39-41). Eventually, we learn that Oedipus is the very cause of the disease, the very answer to the riddle, and from turannos, he becomes pharmakos, the one whose exile will restore health to the polis.

Oedipus at the beginning of the play has a very high idea of himself, ‘you all know me, the world knows my fame’ (8). His self-esteem and self-assurance are indeed seldom shaken by any opinion others may have of him: ‘Mock me for that, go on, and you’ll reveal my greatness’ (501). For Knox (1984, p.140), Oedipus is ‘a dramatic embodiment of the creative vigour and intellectual daring of fifth-century Athenian spirit.’ He is the hunter, the seaman, the plowman, the investigator, the calculator, and the physician. Vernant and Vidal-Naquet (1990) extensively discuss the various reversals in Oedipus Rex, arguing that to every image the fifth-century Greek polis created to exalt its own technological and social achievements, Sophocles opposed a divergent image. Both of them  ̶   image and counter image  ̶  are bonded together in Oedipus as,

the hunter catches the dreadful prey, the seaman steers his ship into an unspeakable harbour (…) the plowman sows and reaps a fearful harvest, the investigator finds the criminal (…) the calculator finds he is himself the solution of the equation and the physician discovers that he himself is the disease. (Knox, 1984, p.143)

Reversal is the axis around which the whole plot revolves and reversal for Oedipus is nothing more than what he believes to be true turning out to be exactly the opposite.  Even a powerful mind as Oedipus’ cannot be sure of its own interpretations of external signs. He is powerless to read the clues the gods put on his way. He is unable to solve the riddle of his own identity. This does not happen because he lacks the mental capacity or determination to do so, but simply because his internal and external conflicts prevent any possibility of understanding of his own identity and status. This is the deep tragic experience Oedipus Rex presents to us: a hero trapped in the ambiguity of his own self, disconnected from the others; irrevocably cut off from the world around him.


  • Goldhill, S. (1986). Reading Greek Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Knox, B. (ed) (1984). The Three Theban Plays. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Vernant, J-P. and Vidal-Naquet. P. (1990). Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. New York, NY: Zone Books.