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Forewarned isn’t Necessarily Fore-Armed.

Updated: May 22, 2022

As a genre of classical writing, tragedy is fascinating. A cathartic release wrapped in a story which usually has some sort of unpleasant ending for most of its characters. A key aspect to Greek tragedy is prophecy or foretelling. Something unusual about ancient tragedy is that before the play even begins, the audience would usually know how the story is meant to end as most, if not all, tragedy is based on stories already present in the mythology: Heracles and his wives; Jason and Medea; and Oedipus are prime examples of this. Here I will discuss the presence of foreknowledge and prophecy in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

The audience can see the plot unfolding from a near-omniscient perspective, they know more than the characters and are able to watch a character unwittingly sign their own death warrant.

For example, when Oedipus announces to the city of Thebes his curse on the murderer of Laius - “let that man drag out his life in agony, step by painful step”[1] - he does not know that he is himself the murderer and that he is laying this curse at his own feet. But the audience does know, and can see how Sophocles uses language to subtly hint at the eventual reveal.

 Attic red-figure pelike, 450-440 BC. Achileus Painter. Oedipus Solves the Riddle of the Sphinx an Frees Thebes
Attic red-figure pelike, 450-440 BC. Achileus Painter. Oedipus Solves the Riddle of the Sphinx an Frees Thebes

The play introduces two conduits of prophecy, the oracle at Delphi, and the blind prophet Teiresias. Oedipus is said to have encountered the oracle at Delphi once before when he was a much younger man and worried about his parentage. Where he was told: “You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see- you will kill your father, the one who gave you life!”[2] The fear of this future coming to pass is what set Oedipus on the road to Thebes, away from his adoptive parents in Corinth, who he believes are the recipients of the curse.

Naturally, the audience knows better, and the protagonist is travelling, unbeknownst to him, to where his real parents live.

The oracle was then consulted again by Creon on Oedipus’s behalf to find a way to save the city (Thebes) from its current plague; the answer it provides is what starts Oedipus on his self-destructive path. Then again Teiresias tells him that he is the murderer, which drives him into a downward spiral. Finally, it is revealed that prior to the birth of Laius and Jocasta’s only child, the boy would be prophesied to kill his own father.

Thus, we see that prophecy has followed Oedipus since before he was even born, doggedly guiding his every decision leading to his eventual downfall and cursing him to a lifetime of misery. The introduction of prophecy - and the desire to influence said prophecy - is what drives Oedipus to his eventual fall from grace.

This is a common trope throughout tragedy, but Sophocles’ has been lauded as a master of the “tragedy of fate”. His hints throughout the play, such as lines with double meanings, and even the mention of the meaning of the name Oedipus (‘swollen foot’) all combine to provide the audience with a sense of foreshadowing, and a level of entertainment beyond the storyline.

Prophecy is extremely important in the way a Greek tragedy is told. It places ideas in the head of the characters but also the audience and lets them attempt to arrive at the conclusion before the characters, allowing them to watch the narrative unfold while seeing several steps ahead. This reflects the style of a classic mystery. If the audience does not know the plot, they will enjoy watching seemingly unrelated pieces fall into place like a jigsaw but if they have a pre-exposure to the story, they can enjoy watching the mystery built up in front of their eyes, spotting all the little details which they missed on their first viewing. This is where Sophocles’s use of prophecy shines, combining both of these so that even if his audience are unaware of the story they can still enjoy both sides of the mystery revealing themselves.

[1] Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, 282-3 [2] Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, 873-5

The blind Oedipus commending his children to the gods, 1784, by Bénigne Gagneraux (1756-1795)
The blind Oedipus commending his children to the gods, 1784, by Bénigne Gagneraux (1756-1795)

Last Minute Exile: Daniel Tomlinson

Hometown: Sheffield

High School: High Storrs School

Like Seneca, like Aristotle, and like countless others from Classical history, you find yourself subject to an exile order, and must vacate the country tout-suite before some sort of sword-based injury befalls your neck!

You grab three records…

1. Rumours, Fleetwood Mac

2. Oracular Spectacular, MGMT

3. By the Way, Red Hot Chilli Peppers

…two books…

1. The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss

2. Metamorphoses, Ovid

…a Tupperware of your favourite food…


…and something else at random.

A deck of cards

Exile is going to suck, but at least you won’t have to put up with…

Pointless bureaucracy

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