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LL.D., D.LITT., F.B.A.




_First published_ _February 1911_
_Reprinted_ _January 1912_
" _ " 1912_
" _February 1912_
" _July 1917_


If I have turned aside from Euripides for a moment and attempted a
translation of the great stage masterpiece of Sophocles, my excuse must
be the fascination of this play, which has thrown its spell on me as on
many other translators. Yet I may plead also that as a rule every
diligent student of these great works can add something to the
discoveries of his predecessors, and I think I have been able to bring
out a few new points in the old and much-studied _Oedipus_, chiefly
points connected with the dramatic technique and the religious

Mythologists tell us that Oedipus was originally a daemon haunting Mount
Kithairon, and Jocasta a form of that Earth-Mother who, as Aeschylus
puts it, "bringeth all things to being, and when she hath reared them
receiveth again their seed into her body" (_Choephori_, 127: cf.
Crusius, _Beiträge z. Gr. Myth_, 21). That stage of the story lies very
far behind the consciousness of Sophocles. But there does cling about
both his hero and his heroine a great deal of very primitive atmosphere.
There are traces in Oedipus of the pre-hellenic Medicine King, the
_Basileus_ who is also a _Theos_, and can make rain or blue sky,
pestilence or fertility. This explains many things in the Priest's first
speech, in the attitude of the Chorus, and in Oedipus' own language
after the discovery. It partly explains the hostility of Apollo, who is
not a mere motiveless Destroyer but a true Olympian crushing his
Earth-born rival. And in the same way the peculiar royalty of Jocasta,
which makes Oedipus at times seem not the King but the Consort of the
Queen, brings her near to that class of consecrated queens described in
Dr. Frazer's _Lectures on the Kingship_, who are "honoured as no woman
now living on the earth."

The story itself, and the whole spirit in which Sophocles has treated
it, belong not to the fifth century but to that terrible and romantic
past from which the fifth century poets usually drew their material. The
atmosphere of brooding dread, the pollution, the curses; the "insane and
beastlike cruelty," as an ancient Greek commentator calls it, of
piercing the exposed child's feet in order to ensure its death and yet
avoid having actually murdered it (_Schol. Eur. Phoen._, 26); the whole
treatment of the parricide and incest, not as moral offences capable of
being rationally judged or even excused as unintentional, but as
monstrous and inhuman pollutions, the last limit of imaginable horror:
all these things take us back to dark regions of pre-classical and even
pre-homeric belief. We have no right to suppose that Sophocles thought
of the involuntary parricide and metrogamy as the people in his play do.
Indeed, considering the general tone of his contemporaries and friends,
we may safely assume that he did not. But at any rate he has allowed no
breath of later enlightenment to disturb the primaeval gloom of his

Does this in any way make the tragedy insincere? I think not. We know
that people did feel and think about "pollution" in the way which
Sophocles represents; and if they so felt, then the tragedy was there.

* * * * *

I think these considerations explain the remarkable absence from this
play of any criticism of life or any definite moral judgment. I know
that some commentators have found in it a "humble and unquestioning
piety," but I cannot help suspecting that what they saw was only a
reflection from their own pious and unquestioning minds. Man is indeed
shown as a "plaything of Gods," but of Gods strangely and
incomprehensibly malignant, whose ways there is no attempt to explain or
justify. The original story, indeed, may have had one of its roots in a
Theban "moral tale." Aelian (_Varia Historia_, 2, 7) tells us that the
exposure of a child was forbidden by Theban Law. The state of feeling
which produced this law, against the immensely strong conception of the
_patria potestas_, may also have produced a folklore story telling how a
boy once was exposed, in a peculiarly cruel way, by his wicked parents,
and how Heaven preserved him to take upon both of them a vengeance which
showed that the unnatural father had no longer a father's sanctity nor
the unnatural mother a mother's. But, as far as Sophocles is concerned,
if anything in the nature of a criticism of life has been admitted into
the play at all, it seems to be only a flash or two of that profound and
pessimistic arraignment of the ruling powers which in other plays also
opens at times like a sudden abyss across the smooth surface of his art.

There is not much philosophy in the _Oedipus_. There is not, in
comparison with other Greek plays, much pure poetry. What there is, is
drama; drama of amazing grandeur and power. In respect of plot no Greek
play comes near it. It contains no doubt a few points of unsophisticated
technique such as can be found in all ancient and nearly all modern
drama; for instance, the supposition that Oedipus has never inquired
into the death of his predecessor on the throne. But such flaws are
external, not essential. On the whole, I can only say that the work of
translation has made me feel even more strongly than before the
extraordinary grip and reality of the dialogue, the deftness of the
construction, and, except perhaps for a slight drop in the Creon scene,
the unbroken crescendo of tragedy from the opening to the close.

* * * * *

Where plot-interest is as strong as it is in the _Oedipus_,
character-interest is apt to be comparatively weak. Yet in this play
every character is interesting, vital, and distinct. Oedipus himself is
selected by Aristotle as the most effective kind of tragic hero,
because, first, he has been great and glorious, and secondly he has not
been "pre-eminently virtuous or just." This is true in its way. Oedipus
is too passionate to be just; but he is at least noble in his
impetuosity, his devotion, and his absolute truthfulness. It is
important to realise that at the beginning of the play he is prepared
for an oracle commanding him to die for his people (pp. 6, 7). And he
never thinks of refusing that "task" any more than he tries to elude the
doom that actually comes, or to conceal any fact that tells against him.
If Oedipus had been an ordinary man the play would have been a very
different and a much poorer thing.

Jocasta is a wonderful study. Euripides might have brought her character
out more explicitly and more at length, but even he could not have made
her more living or more tragic, or represented more subtly in her
relation to Oedipus both the mother's protecting love and the mother's
authority. As for her "impiety," of which the old commentaries used to
speak with much disapproval, the essential fact in her life is that both
her innocence and her happiness have, as she believes, been poisoned by
the craft of priests. She and Laïus both "believed a bad oracle": her
terror and her love for her husband made her consent to an infamous act
of cruelty to her own child, an act of which the thought sickens her
still, and about which she cannot, when she tries, speak the whole
truth. (See note on p. 42.) And after all her crime was for nothing! The
oracle proved to be a lie. Never again will she believe a priest.

As to Tiresias, I wish to ask forgiveness for an unintelligent criticism
made twelve years ago in my _Ancient Greek Literature_, p. 240. I
assumed then, what I fancy was a common assumption, that Tiresias was a
"sympathetic" prophet, compact of wisdom and sanctity and all the
qualities which beseem that calling; and I complained that he did not
consistently act as such. I was quite wrong. Tiresias is not anything so
insipid. He is a study of a real type, and a type which all the
tragedians knew. The character of the professional seer or "man of God"
has in the imagination of most ages fluctuated between two poles. At one
extreme are sanctity and superhuman wisdom; at the other fraud and
mental disease, self-worship aping humility and personal malignity in
the guise of obedience to God. There is a touch of all these qualities,
good and bad alike, in Tiresias. He seems to me a most life-like as well
as a most dramatic figure.

As to the Chorus, it generally plays a smaller part in Sophocles than in
Euripides and Aeschylus, and the _Oedipus_ forms no exception to that
rule. It seems to me that Sophocles was feeling his way towards a
technique which would have approached that of the New Comedy or even the
Elizabethan stage, and would perhaps have done without a Chorus
altogether. In Aeschylus Greek tragedy had been a thing of traditional
forms and clear-cut divisions; the religious ritual showed through, and
the visible gods and the disguised dancers were allowed their full
value. And Euripides in the matter of outward formalism went back to the
Aeschylean type and even beyond it: prologue, chorus, messenger, visible
god, all the traditional forms were left clear-cut and undisguised and
all developed to full effectiveness on separate and specific lines. But
Sophocles worked by blurring his structural outlines just as he blurs
the ends of his verses. In him the traditional divisions are all made
less distinct, all worked over in the direction of greater naturalness,
at any rate in externals. This was a very great gain, but of course some
price had to be paid for it. Part of the price was that Sophocles could
never attempt the tremendous choric effects which Euripides achieves in
such plays as the _Bacchae_ and the _Trojan Women_. His lyrics, great as
they sometimes are, move their wings less boldly. They seem somehow tied
to their particular place in the tragedy, and they have not quite the
strength to lift the whole drama bodily aloft with them.... At least
that is my feeling. But I realise that this may be only the complaint of
an unskilful translator, blaming his material for his own defects of

In general, both in lyrics and in dialogue, I believe I have allowed
myself rather less freedom than in translating Euripides. This is partly
because the writing of Euripides, being less business-like and more
penetrated by philosophic reflections and by subtleties of technique,
actually needs more thorough re-casting to express it at all adequately;
partly because there is in Sophocles, amid all his passion and all his
naturalness, a certain severe and classic reticence, which, though
impossible really to reproduce by any method, is less misrepresented by
occasional insufficiency than by habitual redundance.

I have asked pardon for an ill deed done twelve years ago. I should like
to end by speaking of a benefit older still, and express something of
the gratitude I feel to my old master, Francis Storr, whose teaching is
still vivid in my mind and who first opened my eyes to the grandeur of
the _Oedipus_.

G. M.


OEDIPUS, _supposed son of Polybus, King of Corinth; now elected King of

JOCASTA, _Queen of Thebes; widow of Laïus, the late King, and now wife
to Oedipus._

CREON, _a Prince of Thebes, brother to Jocasta._

TIRESIAS, _an old blind seer._


A STRANGER _from Corinth._

A SHEPHERD _of King Laïus._

A MESSENGER _from the Palace._

CHORUS of the Elders of Thebes.

A Crowd of Suppliants, men, women, and children.

The following do not appear in the play but are frequently mentioned: -

LAÏUS (_pronounced as three syllables, Lá-i-us_), _the last King of Thebes
before Oedipus._

CADMUS, _the founder of Thebes; son of Agênor, King of Sidon._

POLYBUS AND MEROPÊ, _King and Queen of Corinth, supposed to be the
father and mother of Oedipus._

APOLLO, _the God specially presiding over the oracle of Delphi and the
island Delos: he is also called_ PHOEBUS, _the pure;_ LOXIAS,
_supposed to mean "He of the Crooked Words"; and_ LYKEIOS, _supposed
to mean "Wolf-God." He is also the great Averter of Evil, and has
names from the cries "I-ê" (pronounced "Ee-ay") and "Paian," cries
for healing or for the frightening away of evil influences._

KITHAIRON, _a mass of wild mountain south-west of Thebes._


While Thebes was under the rule of LAÏUS and JOCASTA there appeared a
strange and monstrous creature, "the riddling Sphinx," "the She-Wolf of
the woven song," who in some unexplained way sang riddles of death and
slew the people of Thebes. LAÏUS went to ask aid of the oracle of
Delphi, but was slain mysteriously on the road. Soon afterwards there
came to Thebes a young Prince of Corinth, OEDIPUS, who had left his home
and was wandering. He faced the Sphinx and read her riddle, whereupon
she flung herself from her rock and died. The throne being vacant was
offered to OEDIPUS, and with it the hand of the Queen, JOCASTA.

Some ten or twelve years afterwards a pestilence has fallen on Thebes.
At this point the play begins.

_The date of the first production of the play is not known, but was
probably about the year 425 B.C._


SCENE. - _Before the Palace of_ OEDIPUS _at Thebes. A crowd of suppliants
of all ages are waiting by the altar in front and on the steps of the
Palace; among them the_ PRIEST OF ZEUS. _As the Palace door opens and_
OEDIPUS _comes out all the suppliants with a cry move towards him in
attitudes of prayer, holding out their olive branches, and then become
still again as he speaks._


My children, fruit of Cadmus' ancient tree
New springing, wherefore thus with bended knee
Press ye upon us, laden all with wreaths
And suppliant branches? And the city breathes
Heavy with incense, heavy with dim prayer
And shrieks to affright the Slayer. - Children, care
For this so moves me, I have scorned withal
Message or writing: seeing 'tis I ye call,
'Tis I am come, world-honoured Oedipus.
Old Man, do thou declare - the rest have thus
Their champion - in what mood stand ye so still,
In dread or sure hope? Know ye not, my will
Is yours for aid 'gainst all? Stern were indeed
The heart that felt not for so dire a need.

[Sidenote: vv. 15-39]


O Oedipus, who holdest in thy hand
My city, thou canst see what ages stand
At these thine altars; some whose little wing
Scarce flieth yet, and some with long living
O'erburdened; priests, as I of Zeus am priest,
And chosen youths: and wailing hath not ceased
Of thousands in the market-place, and by
Athena's two-fold temples and the dry
Ash of Ismênus' portent-breathing shore.
For all our ship, thou see'st, is weak and sore
Shaken with storms, and no more lighteneth
Her head above the waves whose trough is death.
She wasteth in the fruitless buds of earth,
In parchèd herds and travail without birth
Of dying women: yea, and midst of it
A burning and a loathly god hath lit
Sudden, and sweeps our land, this Plague of power;
Till Cadmus' house grows empty, hour by hour,
And Hell's house rich with steam of tears and blood.
O King, not God indeed nor peer to God
We deem thee, that we kneel before thine hearth,
Children and old men, praying; but of earth
A thing consummate by thy star confessed
Thou walkest and by converse with the blest;
Who came to Thebes so swift, and swept away
The Sphinx's song, the tribute of dismay,
That all were bowed beneath, and made us free.
A stranger, thou, naught knowing more than we,
Nor taught of any man, but by God's breath
Filled, thou didst raise our life. So the world saith;
So we say.

[Sidenote: vv. 40-69]

Therefore now, O Lord and Chief,
We come to thee again; we lay our grief
On thy head, if thou find us not some aid.
Perchance thou hast heard Gods talking in the shade
Of night, or eke some man: to him that knows,
Men say, each chance that falls, each wind that blows
Hath life, when he seeks counsel. Up, O chief
Of men, and lift thy city from its grief;
Face thine own peril! All our land doth hold
Thee still our saviour, for that help of old:
Shall they that tell of thee hereafter tell
"By him was Thebes raised up, and after fell!"
Nay, lift us till we slip no more. Oh, let
That bird of old that made us fortunate
Wing back; be thou our Oedipus again.
And let thy kingdom be a land of men,
Not emptiness. Walls, towers, and ships, they all
Are nothing with no men to keep the wall.


My poor, poor children! Surely long ago
I have read your trouble. Stricken, well I know,
Ye all are, stricken sore: yet verily
Not one so stricken to the heart as I.
Your grief, it cometh to each man apart
For his own loss, none other's; but this heart
For thee and me and all of us doth weep.
Wherefore it is not to one sunk in sleep
Ye come with waking. Many tears these days
For your sake I have wept, and many ways
Have wandered on the beating wings of thought.
And, finding but one hope, that I have sought

[Sidenote: vv. 70-86]

And followed. I have sent Menoikeus' son,
Creon, my own wife's brother, forth alone
To Apollo's House in Delphi, there to ask
What word, what deed of mine, what bitter task,
May save my city.
And the lapse of days
Reckoned, I can but marvel what delays
His journey. 'Tis beyond all thought that thus
He comes not, beyond need. But when he does,
Then call me false and traitor, if I flee
Back from whatever task God sheweth me.


At point of time thou speakest. Mark the cheer
Yonder. Is that not Creon drawing near?

[_They all crowd to gaze where_ CREON _is
approaching in the distance._


O Lord Apollo, help! And be the star
That guides him joyous as his seemings are!


Oh! surely joyous! How else should he bear
That fruited laurel wreathed about his hair?


We soon shall know. - 'Tis not too far for one

(_Shouting_) Ho, brother! Prince! Menoikeus' son,
What message from the God?

[Sidenote: vv. 87-99]

CREON (from a distance).

Message of joy!

_Enter_ CREON

I tell thee, what is now our worst annoy,
If the right deed be done, shall turn to good.

[_The crowd, which has been full of excited
hope, falls to doubt and disappointment._


Nay, but what is the message? For my blood
Runs neither hot nor cold for words like those.


Shall I speak now, with all these pressing close,
Or pass within? - To me both ways are fair.


Speak forth to all! The grief that these men bear
Is more than any fear for mine own death.


I speak then what I heard from God. - Thus saith
Phoebus, our Lord and Seer, in clear command.
An unclean thing there is, hid in our land,
Eating the soil thereof: this ye shall cast
Out, and not foster till all help be past.


How cast it out? What was the evil deed?

[Sidenote: vv. 100-113]


Hunt the men out from Thebes, or make them bleed
Who slew. For blood it is that stirs to-day.


Who was the man they killed? Doth Phoebus say?


O King, there was of old King Laïus
In Thebes, ere thou didst come to pilot us.


I know: not that I ever saw his face.


'Twas he. And Loxias now bids us trace
And smite the unknown workers of his fall.


Where in God's earth are they? Or how withal
Find the blurred trail of such an ancient stain?


In Thebes, he said. - That which men seek amain
They find. 'Tis things forgotten that go by.


And where did Laïus meet them? Did he die
In Thebes, or in the hills, or some far land?

[Sidenote: vv. 114-127]


To ask God's will in Delphi he had planned
His journey. Started and returned no more.


And came there nothing back? No message, nor
None of his company, that ye might hear?


They all were slain, save one man; blind with fear
He came, remembering naught - or almost naught.


And what was that? One thing has often brought
Others, could we but catch one little clue.


'Twas not one man, 'twas robbers - that he knew -
Who barred the road and slew him: a great band.


Robbers?... What robber, save the work was planned
By treason here, would dare a risk so plain?


So some men thought. But Laïus lay slain,
And none to avenge him in his evil day.

[Sidenote: vv. 128-148]


And what strange mischief, when your master lay
Thus fallen, held you back from search and deed?


The dark-songed Sphinx was here. We had no heed
Of distant sorrows, having death so near.


It falls on me then. I will search and clear
This darkness. - Well hath Phoebus done, and thou
Too, to recall that dead king, even now,
And with you for the right I also stand,
To obey the God and succour this dear land.
Nor is it as for one that touches me
Far off; 'tis for mine own sake I must see
This sin cast out. Whoe'er it was that slew
Laïus, the same wild hand may seek me too:
And caring thus for Laïus, is but care
For mine own blood. - Up! Leave this altar-stair,
Children. Take from it every suppliant bough.
Then call the folk of Thebes. Say, 'tis my vow
To uphold them to the end. So God shall crown
Our greatness, or for ever cast us down.

[_He goes in to the Palace._


My children, rise. - The King most lovingly
Hath promised all we came for. And may He

[Sidenote: vv. 149-161]

Who sent this answer, Phoebus, come confessed
Helper to Thebes, and strong to stay the pest.

[_The suppliants gather up their boughs and
stand at the side. The chorus of Theban
elders enter._


[_They speak of the Oracle which they have not
yet heard, and cry to_ APOLLO _by his
special cry "I-ê."_

A Voice, a Voice, that is borne on the Holy Way!
What art thou, O Heavenly One, O Word of the Houses of Gold?
Thebes is bright with thee, and my heart it leapeth; yet is it cold,
And my spirit faints as I pray.
I-ê! I-ê!
What task, O Affrighter of Evil, what task shall thy people essay?
One new as our new-come affliction,
Or an old toil returned with the years?
Unveil thee, thou dread benediction,
Hope's daughter and Fear's.

[_They pray to_ ATHENA, ARTEMIS, _and_

Zeus-Child that knowest not death, to thee I pray,
O Pallas; next to thy Sister, who calleth Thebes her own,
Artemis, named of Fair Voices, who sitteth her orbèd throne
In the throng of the market way:

[Sidenote: vv. 162-189]

And I-ê! I-ê!
Apollo, the Pure, the Far-smiter; O Three that keep evil away,
If of old for our city's desire,
When the death-cloud hung close to her brow,
Ye have banished the wound and the fire,
Oh! come to us now!

[_They tell of the Pestilence._

Wounds beyond telling; my people sick unto death;
And where is the counsellor, where is the sword of thought?
And Holy Earth in her increase perisheth:
The child dies and the mother awaketh not.
I-ê! I-ê!
We have seen them, one on another, gone as a bird is gone,
Souls that are flame; yea, higher,
Swifter they pass than fire,
To the rocks of the dying Sun.

[_They end by a prayer to_ ATHENA,

Their city wasteth unnumbered; their children lie
Where death hath cast them, unpitied, unwept upon.
The altars stand, as in seas of storm a high
Rock standeth, and wives and mothers grey thereon
Weep, weep and pray.
Lo, joy-cries to fright the Destroyer; a flash in the dark they rise,

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