c. 429-426 BCE
It is not known when Oedipus Rex was first performed, but the prominent theme of the infestation early in the play seems to suggest a date shortly after the plague that had devastated Athens in 430, at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War.
In his Poetics, Aristotle refers to Oedipus Rex repeatedly as the best example of different aspects of the genre of tragedy. Many concur, calling it “the masterpiece of Attic tragedy” (Jebb) or “the greatest extant Greek play” (Whitman). The reasons are numerous—the exploration of the fate vs. free will subject, the imagery of light vs. dark, the intricate ways in which this imagery embeds the theme of knowledge—but the one that has attracted the most attention is perhaps the play’s masterful use of dramatic irony.
Oedipus is blind to what the audience knows all along: as much as he tried, he never managed to escape his prophesized fate. On the contrary, in fact, he has contributed to the fulfillment of the very oracles he attempted to break away from. And he has done this in the noblest way possible: by trying to find Laius’ murderer and saving his city from trouble yet again. He never even suspects that searching for the murderer of Laius, in his case, is synonymous with searching for himself—in both the literal and metaphorical sense of the phrase. This is what makes him one of the most tragic heroes of all time: he brings upon his own demise not because of an inherent fault of his character, but because of a virtue of his.
The moral of the play reminds one of the central message of the famous “Solon and Croesus” story by Herodotus: no matter how happy and honorable one is at any point of his life, refrain from making any judgments until he dies and his life story is wrapped up. There is nobody as happy and as adored as Oedipus at the beginning of the play; by the end of it, nobody would trade places with him for the world.
How far back?
2020 | Present