Classical Greek Mythology

Sophocles and the Oedipus Cycle

Why do Sophocles’ (and Aeschylus’) protagonists suffer the punishment of the guilty when they either have no choice in what they do or know nothing of what they have done?

The simplest answer to this question is to establish that Sophocles, and the other tragic dramatists of the City Dionysia, were not suggesting in their plays that life was “fair.” Their attempt was to use the events of myth to express metaphorically the irrationality and arbitrariness that often faces us in life. Certain problems have no obvious solutions. For example, Orestes has no choice but to avenge his father’s murder, but to do so he must commit the unforgiveable sin of matricide. Antigone’s dilemma pits religious law against state law. As the case of Oedipus reveals, often we suffer even though we have done nothing wrong consciously or even though our actions can be traced psychologically or materially to something abusive done to us long ago. Whatever the reason for a crime, however, society punishes the criminal. The fact that Oedipus did not know that he had killed his father or married his mother, or the fact that others—including his mother and father—ultimately caused his situation by leaving him as a baby to die, does not alter the fact that he is an individual who has committed the unforgiveable sins of regicide, fratricide, and incest. Can we imagine a person burdened with such sins—however unconsciously committed—being allowed to remain as king or being able to live with himself as a “normal” member of society? Life in some cases is decidedly tragic, which is to say, unfair. The injustices that face the tragic hero in the Greek plays is made at least somewhat less painful to the audience by the fact that these heroes all suffer from the very human failing we know as pride.


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