Oedipus is a fabula crepidata (Roman tragic play with Greek subject) of c. 1061 lines of verse that was written by Lucius Annaeus Seneca at some time during the 1st century AD. It is a retelling of the story of Oedipus, which is better known through the play Oedipus Rex by the Athenian playwright, Sophocles. It is written in Latin. The play is generally considered one of Seneca’s weaker works.
- Oedipus is the king of Thebes, husband of Jocasta, and he is the supposed son of king Polybus of Corinth. He is the main protagonist of the play.
- Jocasta is the widow of the former king Laius, wife of Oedipus and sister of Creon
- Creon is Jocasta’s brother, and the chief aid to Oedipus in Thebes
- Tiresias is a blind prophet who is charged by Oedipus to find the killer of king Laius
- Manto is the daughter of Tiresias. She is used in the play to describe Tiresias’ sacrifice to him, and therefore also to the audience.
- An Old Man (senex) is a messenger from Corinth who comes to tell Oedipus that Polybus is dead, and reveals part of Oedipus’ history to him.
- Phorbas is an old shepherd who had given Oedipus to the Old Man when he was a child and who reveals Oedipus’ real parentage to him.
- Messenger (nuntius) is the man who relates what has happened to Oedipus in the beginning of Act 5
- The chorus are singers that help the audience understand what emotion they should feel after a scene.
The play opens with a fearful Oedipus lamenting a vicious plague which is affecting Thebes, the city over which he rules. People are dying in such huge numbers that there are not enough of the living to ensure that each of the victims is cremated. He also mentions a prophecy that he had received from Apollo before he came to Thebes that he would kill his father and marry his mother. He had thus fled the kingdom of his father Polybus. However, Oedipus is so disturbed by what is occurring in Thebes that he even considers returning to his home city. Jocasta makes him more resolute though, and he stays.
Creon returns from the Oracle at Delphi with the instruction that Thebes needs to avenge the death of the former king Laius for the plague to end. Oedipus utters an ironic curse on the yet unrevealed killer, by wishing for him “the crimes that I have fled from”. The prophet Tiresias appears and is asked by Oedipus to make clear the meaning of the oracle. He then proceeds to carry out a sacrifice, which contains a number of horrific signs. As Tiresias does not have the name he proposed to summon Laius’ spirit back from Erebus to name his slayer.
Creon returns from seeing Tiresias after he has spoken to Laius’ ghost, but is unwilling to reveal to Oedipus the killer’s name. Oedipus threatens him, and then Creon relents. He says Laius accuses the king of having blood on his hands, and who “has defiled his father’s marriage-bed”. He goes on to say that Laius promises the plague will cease if the king is expelled from Thebes. Creon advises Oedipus to abdicate, but Oedipus believes that he has invented this story, along with Tiresias, in order to seize his throne. Despite Creon’s protestations of innocence, Oedipus has him arrested.
Oedipus is troubled by the faint memory of a man whom he had killed on the road whilst coming to Thebes for behaving arrogantly before him. An elderly messenger comes from Corinth to tell Oedipus that his father King Polybus has died and for him to come and take his throne. He does not want to return as he still fears the prophecy that he will marry his mother. The messenger then tells him that Corinth’s queen is not his mother, and that he was given Oedipus as a baby on mount Cithaeron. Oedipus then learns, after threatening the shepherd that gave him away, that he is in fact Jocasta’s son.
A messenger gives the news that Oedipus considered killing himself and having his body thrown to wild beasts, but then he felt that his crime deserved something worse due to the suffering Thebes has been going through. He decided to find a slow death for himself. He wanted a punishment where he would neither “join the number of the dead nor dwell among the living”. The messenger goes on to explain how Oedipus tore out his eyes with his hands. The chorus question fate, each persons “commanding thread of life” and then hear Oedipus entering. He enters with both eyes removed and is confronted by Jocasta. She realises from his action that she must punish herself for her crimes as he has. She takes his sword and kills herself with it while on stage.
The role of the chorus
The chorus at the end of Act 1 give an account of the plague, and its development. At the end of Act 2 they give an account of Bacchus who was the patron god of Thebes. At the end of Act 3 they recount earlier horrific occurrences connected with Thebes. However, at the end of Act 4 they become more philosophical and praise living life along “a safe middle course” rather than being ambitious. They therefore relate the story of Icarus as a parable of a person who flew too high. They do however make clear that no one is able to alter their fate.
This second point is made much more forcefully in a speech by them in Act 5, and they stress that neither God nor prayer can alter the life that is predestined for the individual. This view of fate is contrary to the teachings of Stoicism, which hold that fate and divinity are the same. Also the view of fate as arbitrary, rather than rational and benign, is not part of the Stoic cosmological view.
Comparison with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex
- The character of Oedipus in Seneca’s play is fearful, “guilt-ridden and open from the beginning to the notion that he may be implicated in the great Theban plague; whereas Sophocles’ Oedipus is proud and imperious.”
- Seneca’s play has a considerably more violent tone. The sacrifice carried out by Tiresias for example is given in graphic and gory detail.
- Sophocles’ play does not contain the character of Manto.
- In Seneca’s play, Oedipus blinds himself before the death of Jocasta by pulling out his eyeballs. In Sophocles’ play, Oedipus blinds himself after seeing the corpse of Jocasta and uses golden brooches from her dress to stab out his eyes.
- In Seneca’s play Oedipus is, at best, an aid to the death of Jocasta, and from the ambiguous lines may even have taken her life. In Sophocles’ play, Jocasta hangs herself, and a little later Oedipus comes across her body.
- Laius names his killer in Seneca’s play, but in Sophocles’ Oedipus’ guilt emerges as the play continues.
- In Seneca’s play there is no mention of Oedipus’ feelings towards his children, whereas in Sophocles’ play he leaves them to Creon’s guardianship and wants to hold them again.
- Seneca’s play ends with Oedipus leaving Thebes, whereas in Sophocles’ Oedipus is told by Creon that his rule is ended.
Translations into English
- The first translation into English of Oedipus was by Alexander Neville and it appeared in 1563, as well as in Thomas Newton’s collection of Seneca’s plays, His Tenne Tragedies, in 1581.
- An English translation from Frank Justus Miller’s 1938 edition of this work is available online at theoi.com and archive.org.
- Oedipus is one of the five plays of Seneca chosen and translated by E. F. Watling and published by Penguin Classics in 1966. ISBN 0-14-044174-3
- The English poet laureate Ted Hughes published a translation of the play in 1969. ISBN 0-571-09223-3
- In 1999 Professor Michael Rutenberg published his free translation of the play, into which he has placed excerpts from Seneca’s moral philosophy. ISBN 0-86516-459-2
Along with Seneca’s other plays, Oedipus was regarded as a model of classical drama in Elizabethan England. The translator Alexander Neville regarded the play as a work of moral instruction. He said of the play “mark thou … what is meant by the whole course of the History: and frame thy lyfe free from such mischiefes”.
In recent times, A. J. Boyle in his 1997 book Tragic Seneca: An Essay in the Theatrical Tradition rejects the criticism of T. S. Eliot that Oedipus, like the other plays of Seneca, is simplistically peopled by stock characters. He says that “In the Oedipus, for example, it is hard to name any stock character except the messenger.” The play, in its theme of powerlessness against stronger forces has been described as being as “relevant today in a world filled with repeated horrors against those who are innocent, as it was in ancient times”.
In 2008, however, translator Frederick Ahl wrote that in comparison with Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, Seneca’s rendition of the myth “is today among the least commonly read of ancient tragedies, largely because the scholarly world regards it as a dull and vastly inferior work”.
Although it is debated whether the play was written for performance in Antiquity, it has been successfully staged since the Renaissance.
- In the mid 1550s there was a performance of the play in the English city of Cambridge.
- In 1968 Ted Hughes’ adaptation was staged at the National Theatre in London, directed by Peter Brook.
- In 1988 The Royal Shakespeare Company staged Ted Hughes’ adaptation at the Almeida Theatre, London, directed by Donald Sumpter, with John Shrapnel as Oedipus.
- In September 2013 Tory Vazquez adaptation was staged at the Kitchen Theater Center in New York City. It was performed by Bréhima Sangaré and Liberty High School acting students.
- In May 2005 Michael Rutenberg was invited to stage the play by the Department of Theatre at the University of Haifa in Israel. He chose to set it in a post-nuclear holocaust future.
- Also in 2005 a version based on Hughes’ translation, and which finished with Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”, was performed on Broadway by the Theatre By The Blind, and directed by Ike Schambelan.
- In 2007, Ted Hughes’ adaptation was staged by Grand Valley State University’s Classics and Theatre departments.
- In 2009 it was staged by Western Michigan University’s Department of Theatre & the Moravian College Theatre Company
- In 2011 Ted Hughes’ adaptation was staged at BAC (Battersea Arts Centre) in London, directed by Linda Manfredini.
- In 2015, Theatre Nisha staged performances in various Indian cities.
In the cinema
The director Ovliakuli Khodzhakuli made his cinematic debut in 2004 with the Kirghiz language film, Edip, which is based on Seneca’s play. Khodzhakuli makes a cameo appearance in the film as king Laius. The main stars are Anna Mele as Oedipus, and Dzhamilia Sydykbaeva as Jocasta. For a review of the film, see “Ovliakuli Khodzhakuli: Oedipus (Edip), 2004”. Kinokultura.com.