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hi! i'm john green. welcome to crash courseliterature. today we're going to talk about oedipus. leo tolstoy once famously wrote that"all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." and i certainlyhope that there's no family as unhappy as oedipus's. ancient greek playwrights really specializedin the dysfunctional family. i mean, they had plays about wives killing husbands, parentskilling children, children killing parents, siblings killing each other, and they alsowrote tragedies. but it's hard to imagine a more tragic, dysfunctional family than thetheban clan that sophocles writes about in oedipus the king. i mean, except for the kardashians. john from the past: mr. green, mr. green!who are the kardashians? that sounds exotic!
is it something from star wars? oh yeah, me from the past! you don't knowabout the kardashians. right now, to you, the only kardashian you know is oj simpson'sdefense attorney. anyway, don't worry about it. just imaginea green light on the other side of the bay that represents the glory you'll never reach.that's the kardashians! [theme music] okay, so oedipus is king of thebes, havingsolved the riddle of the sphinx and saved the city from destruction. but now a plagueis devastating thebes, and various oracles and bird entrails suggest it's because themurderer of the old king, laius, still lives
there unpunished. oedipus decides to investigatethe murder, only to discover that -- mind blown -- he is the one who killed laius andmarried his queen, jocasta. then he finds out that laius was actually his father, andjocasta is his mother, so he's had four children with his mom, fulfilling an earlier prophecy,because bird entrails are never wrong. it's the old "accidentally kill your father, accidentallymarry your mother" plot. it goes way back. freud can tell you a lot about it in crashcourse psychology. anyway, jocasta hangs herself and oedipusgauges out his own eyes with her jewelery, then goes into exile. in subsequent plays,his two sons murder each other and one of his daughters commits suicide. so... you know,it could have gone better.
so for a little context, theater was a reallybig deal to the greeks. i mean, if you were a male citizen -- not a woman, not a slave-- attending it was your civic duty. it was sort of like voting, except that it beganwith ritual animal sacrifice, so it was really nothing like voting. but this civic duty aspectis interesting, because a lot of the plays ask really troubling questions about powerand control and the wisdom of rulers. like, playwrights masked their commentary by settingplays in earlier, mythic eras or in foreign lands, just like shakespeare did. but theywere quite provocative then, and what's most important is that the best of them are stillinteresting now. three playwrights would each present fourplays: a cycle of three related tragedies,
and then a satyr play, which would be funny and wouldoften involve enormous phalluses and/or poop jokes. citizens would watch play after play whilejudges would determine a winner. so it was kind of like sundance or cannes, but again,with the ritual animal sacrifice, and there was no multi-million dollar theatrical distributiondeals. you know, but there was glory. unfortunately, we only have a small portionof these plays today -- many were lost over the millennia, including some that were destroyedat the burning of the library of alexandria. in sophocles' day, the cast was made of threemale actors, some of whom took on multiple roles, and also a chorus. playwrights weretypically the director, the composer, the set designer, and often also the lead actor,although apparently, sophocles did not appear
in his plays because he was, i guess, a terribleactor. but the choruses were drawn from the atheniancitizenry, and generally served as like, stand ins for the audience, asserting conventionalwisdom and asking the questions that a typical audience member might. the actors wore masksthat were made of linen and hairs, as well as enormous robes and platform sandals so you could still see them, even if you were in the cheap seats. so sophocles lived throughout nearly all ofthe fifth century b.c.e, and he wrote 123 plays. we have seven. who knows what kind ofcrazy stuff people got up to in the other ones. the first person to offer literary criticismof greek drama was my old nemesis, aristotle, whom you'll remember was wrong about everything.this was a guy who believed that people were
naturally born to slavery. except, he wasactually kind of right about a lot of theatre stuff. it pains me to say this, because ido genuinely despise him, but aristotle had a lot of interesting ideas about story. forinstance, he noticed that in a lot of stories, the main character has a recognition and areversal. he's also responsible for a lot of classical ideas about tragedy and comedy,and oedipus fits his definition of tragedy very well -- probably because it was his favoriteplay. aristotle defines tragedy as, quote, "an imitationof an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude." tragedy is also meantto evoke both pity and fear. i mean, when oedipus returns at the play's end wearinga new mask that shows his gouged out eyes,
you feel bad for him; you also feel afraid. but here's the tricky part. aristotle wrotethat tragedy should afflict a mostly good character who makes a big mistake. i mean,it can't be about a bad character, because then you don't feel any pity. and it can'tbe about a perfect character who does everything right and still suffers a tragic end, because: one,that wouldn't be very satisfying; and two, it would imply that the universe doesn't reward goodnessand punish evil, which is kind of a terrifying thought. so instead, it has to be about a good guyafflicted with a hamartia, or a ha-marsha, depending on how pretentious you are. thisword is sometimes mistranslated, including by the protagonist of my novel, the faultin our stars -- available in book stores everywhere
-- as a tragic flaw. but actually, it's aterm from archery that means you aim for the bulls eye, but you miss. now, i would arguethat in the twenty-five hundred years since oedipus, there have been some very good tragediesthat evoke fear and pity without the argument that the universe is interested in the lives of individuals,but you know, this is the classical definition. so could oedipus really... uh oh, my deskdisappeared. that means it's time for the open letter. hey there, chewbacca. an open letter to the tragic hero, a typeof character, of course, exemplified by chewbacca. he was a wookie. he was strong. he was loyal.he was a great man, or at least, a great wookie. but it was his loyalty, a desirable trait, that also,ultimately, made him kind of a complicated hero.
i mean, chewbacca made a blood oath to hansolo, so if you mess with han solo, chewbacca's gonna rip your arms off. and for those ofyou who know the star wars universe outside the movies, you already know that eventually,that does prove tragic. chewbacca, you're a hero, but it's your heroism that also wasultimately your undoing. best wishes, john green. so, is oedipus a good character, and does he make agreat mistake? well, let's go to the thought bubble. so, at the beginning of the play, oedipusdefinitely seems like an a++ king, i mean, the priest calls him "the first of men inall the chances of this life." when the priest comes to tell him about the suffering in thecity, oedipus says he knows about it already: "i have known the story before you told it."
oedipus is already worried about what's happeningto his people -- in fact, he's dispatched his brother-in-law, creon, to visit an oracleand find out the source of the pestilence. and let's not forget that oedipus has alreadysaved the city once by answering the riddle of the sphinx; the sphinx had the body ofa woman, the wings of an eagle, and a really bad temper. she had the habit of killing everyone whoanswered her riddle incorrectly. so, i mean, you know, it takes a measure of courage to try to answer theriddle. he's a good guy; he's a great king, right? meh. i mean, when creon gives answers that oedipusdoesn't like, oedipus accuses him of plotting against him. he also has some harsh wordsfor the blind seer, tiresias, when tiresias correctly names oedipus as the source of thecontagion. when the shepherd is brought to
oedipus and resists revealing the truth ofoedipus' birth, because he knows it will upset the king, oedipus threatens the man with torture. then there's the ambiguity of missing themark. i mean, what was oedipus' error in this play? was it killing laius at the crossroads?i mean, that's maybe a little bit aggressive, but sophocles makes it pretty clear that laiushad some chariot-era road rage, and oedipus was acting in self-defense. was it sleepingwith jocasta? well, that's pretty icky, but again, not really a choice. she was presentedto him along with the kingdom when he defeated the sphinx, and as we've said, he treats othercharacters pretty shabbily, but those are small mistakes, rather than great ones. maybehis mistake is believing he can outrun or
escape his own fate, but if you were toldyou were gonna murder your father and marry your mother, wouldn't you try to escape it? now, maybe you're thinking, "well if i hearda prophecy that i was going to be a father-killer and a mother-- i would, you know, avoid fightswith older men and sex with older women." and fair enough, but remember, laius and jocastahad attempted to kill oedipus -- they received a prophecy about this, too, so oedipus wasbrought up by the king and queen of corinth, who he assumed were his parents. how is ita mistake to stay very far away from your parents and in the process, save the cityof thebes? and if you can't outrun your fate, how is your fate a result of your flaws?
so the play depends a lot on ironies. theguy who seem the smartest is actually the most ignorant; the man who saved thebes isactually the one destroying it; enlightenment leads to literal blindness... but that, combinedwith the aforementioned ambiguity, is a lot of what's made the play so enjoyable to somany generations of people. we, in the audience, are aware of all these ironies in a way thatno one on stage is -- at least until the very end. remember how oedipus says, "i have known thestory before you told it"? well, just about everyone in the audience also knows the storybefore it's told. i mean, you probably knew the outlines ofthis story before you actually read the play, right? the gap between what we know in theaudience and what the characters know on stage
makes us uncomfortable and scared for them,and it ratchets up the tension. oedipus is a detective story where it turnsout, the detective is the murderer, and the detective doesn't know it, but the readerdoes, so with each new scene, with each new clue, the net draws more and more tightlyaround oedipus. every time a messenger comes with supposedly good news: "hey, the kingof corinth is dead," "hey, the king of corinth wasn't your father," oedipus is lead closerto the truth of his own guilt. and at several points, jocasta tries to persuadeoedipus not to inquire further, but oedipus can't help himself. he wants to know the wholestory. for me, at least, that's what's admirable about him, and also what's pitiable.
the play asks whether knowing is a good thing.i mean, tiresias says: "alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to theman that's wise." and oedipus, at least, personally, probably would have been happier living inignorance, although, then, the plague would have continued to devastate thebes. so i think the play ultimately suggests thateven though ignorance can be bliss, oedipus' search for truth is right and just and braveand uncompromising, and that's what makes him great. it's also what ruins his life,as the critic e.r. dodds says, "what causes his ruin is his strength and courage, hisloyalty to thebes and his loyalty to the truth." and so, finally, thankfully, i do find myselfdisagreeing with aristotle, because i don't
think that oedipus was a great man ruinedby a great error. i think the story is more complicated than that. so, could oedipus everreally have escaped his fate? probably not. i mean, there are occasional examples in greek myth of gods softening of fate or finding a loophole, but those are rare. so when you read oedipus, you realize thereare actually two stories: one is about what's already happened, and one is about what'shappening now. it's the second one that interests sophocles, like, killing the father and marryingthe mother -- that stuff happens in the past, offstage. sophocles concentrates on the choicesthat oedipus freely makes to find the source of the plague, even when it means implicatinghimself to gouge out his eyes so that he won't have to look at his parents in the underworld.
so oedipus can't escape his fate, but he doeshave a measure of free will, he does make some choices. what's interesting to sophoclesisn't so much the fulfillment of the prophecy as how it is fulfilled, and how that affectsthe present. as the critic a.w. gomme put it, "the godsknow what the final score of the football game will be, but we still have to play it."ultimately, the victory, gomme says, "will depend on the skill, the determination, thefitness of the players, and a little on luck." instead of using the play to stage some sortof fate versus free will debate, sophocles is interested in asking questions of bothfate and free will. i mean, when we see oedipus, we should ask ourselves, "how much controldo we have over our lives? how much do we
owe to genetics, to privilege, to upbringing,to accident, to the choices that we do or don't make?" and those are relevant questionstoday. now, of course, not everyone thought thatwas the most interesting part of the play. like, sigmund freud decided that the reasonthe play was so successful is because everyone suffers from a so-called "oedipus complex."freud described this in the interpretation of dreams as "the fate to direct our firstsexual impulse and our first hatred and our first murderous thought against our father."but, for the record, oedipus does not have an oedipus complex. his tragedy is about aman who deliberately tries to avoid killing his father and impregnating his mother, notabout a man who secretly wants to.
but ultimately, what makes oedipus such agreat play is that it stands up to many readings, and can inform our lives in many ways. i mean,is he a great man? does he make a great mistake? does he suffer his fate because of personalflaws or because of the nature of the universe? those are big, interesting questions, andit's nice to know that people have been asking them for millennia. thanks for watching, i'llsee you next week. crash course is made with the help of allof these nice people, and it exists thanks to the support of our subscribers over atsubbable. this particular episode of crash course was brought to you by co-sponsors jimorigio and matt elie, so we want to thank them and all of our subscribers at subbable.you can find great perks by clicking that
link right there. there's also a link in thevideo info below. thank you for watching, and as we say in my hometown, don't forgetto be awesome.