This is a post for my March book challenge, #marchmonthofmythology.
The story of Oedipus is one of the most well-known stories of Greek mythology, but a lot of people only know a few parts of it. So here it is, as succinct as I can be, in one place.
Not even the most complicated backstory in Greek mythology
According to a prophecy of the oracle of Delphi, Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. Because of this, his father, Laius, the king of Thebes, gave Oedipus away to be left out in the wild right after he was born, with a pin through his ankles so he could not crawl. (His name, Oidi-pous, means swollen foot.) The baby was found and brought to the king and queen of Corinth, who were childless and adopted him. Once Oedipus had grown up, he went to the oracle of Delphi himself, and learned about the prophecy: he decided not to return to Corinth to avoid harming his parents.
He went to Thebes instead; on the road he got into a fight with another traveler, and killed him. This traveler happened to be Laius; Oedipus had unknowingly fulfilled part of the prophecy. When Oedipus neared Thebes, he encountered the Sphinx, who had been terrorizing the city by not letting anyone in unless they answered her riddle correctly. Anyone who got it wrong, was killed and eaten. Oedipus solved the riddle (you probably know what it is already; if you don’t, google it), the Sphinx left, and was hailed as a hero in Thebes.
It had been recently proclaimed that the one to chase away the Sphinx would be made king of Thebes and marry queen Jocasta (who had just lost her husband). Oedipus had now fulfilled the rest of the prophecy, but he still had no idea. He had ruled for several years and gotten four children, when a plague struck the city of Thebes. The plague was a punishment from the gods, and a prophecy said (yes, another one) that it would only go away once the murderer of king Laius had been caught.
It is at this point that the famous tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus (King Oedipus) of Sophocles begins. Everything I just told you is just the backstory you’re supposed to know before watching the play. Oedipus Tyrannus was Aristotle’s favourite play, which is why it fits perfectly in the ‘rules’ of tragedy that Aristotle came up with in his Poetica. Though I don’t agree with Aristotle on many things, and OT is not my favourite Greek tragedy, I can’t deny it’s very good. If you need an incentive to read it (other than ‘Aristotle loves it’, which sure wouldn’t convince me), I have an interesting perspective on the play I heard in a lecture once: Oedipus Tyrannus is a lot like a whodunnit – with the amazing plot twist that the one investigating the murder is the murderer himself! Oedipus researches this murder that he committed, completely unaware that he did it and that his investigation will bring to light his horrible acts of patricide and incest. Which brings us to…
Oedipus – dramatic irony (World Theatre Day)
There is a type of situation, which occurs all too often and which is occurring at this point in the story of the Baudelaire orphans, called “dramatic irony”. Simply put, dramatic irony is when a person makes a harmless remark, and someone else who hears it knows something that makes the remark have a different, and usually unpleasant, meaning. For instance, if you were in a restaurant and said out loud, “I can’t wait to eat the veal marsala I ordered,” and there were people around who knew that the veal marsala was poisoned and that you would die as soon as you took a bite, your situation would be one of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is a cruel occurrence, one that is almost always upsetting, and I’m sorry to have it appear in this story, but Violet, Klaus and Sunny have such unfortunate lives that it was only a matter of time before dramatic irony would rear its ugly head.
— Lemony Snicket, The Reptile Room