A Journal for Western Man

 

Oedipus Exonerated:

The Many Murderers of Laios in

Sophocles's Oedipus Rex

G. Stolyarov II

Issue CXVII - August 9, 2007

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Statement of Policy

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In Sophocles's famous play, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus did not in fact murder his father Laios. Indeed, the shepherd's account that Laios was attacked by multiple marauders is not the sole inconsistency between Oedipus's story and his. On the basis of these multiple inconsistencies, the reader can conclude that the killing scene Oedipus describes and the actual murder of Laios as recalled by the shepherd were indeed two different events.

When Oedipus fought with an old man and his retainers, no survivors remained to tell the tale. He clearly states to Iocaste, "I killed them all" (Sophocles 43), implying that he left no opportunity for any of the old man's retinue to escape. However, the reader also knows that the shepherd did escape when Laios was murdered, indicating that the two murders were distinct: Oedipus killed the old man and his retainers without leaving any survivors. Laios, coming by the same intersection of three highways slightly earlier or later, was beset by a group of marauders, as the shepherd narrates.

Furthermore, the details of the murder in the shepherd's account do not coincide with those told by Oedipus. Iocaste, in recalling the shepherd's tale to Oedipus, states of Laios: "There were five men with him in all: one was a herald, / And a single chariot, which he was driving" (Sophocles 40). The "he" pronoun in Iocaste's description consistently refers to Laios, implying that Laios was driving the chariot according to the shepherd. Had "he" referred to the herald, the entire sentence would have been a case of pronoun ambiguity and a gross stylistic mistake on Sophocles' part. Since Sophocles was, on the contrary, a masterful stylist, the reader is left to presume that he intended to describe Laios as the chariot's driver.

Oedipus, however, remembers the old man he killed and the driver of the chariot as two distinct individuals. He tells Iocaste: "But as this charioteer lurched over towards me / I struck him in my rage. The old man saw me / And brought his double goad upon my head..." (Sophocles 43). If the old man saw Oedipus only after Oedipus had struck the chariot driver, he and the chariot driver could not have been the same person. In Oedipus's version of the story, the charioteer lunges at Oedipus first. Then, Oedipus strikes him. Only then does the old man even notice anything. Surely, if the old man had been the one lurching over toward Oedipus initially, he would have been quite conscious of what he was doing. Thus, the old man was not Laios, since the reader knows from the shepherd's description that Laios drove his chariot himself at the time of his murder.

 

Furthermore, the reader has no reason to doubt the shepherd's veracity in claiming that several men killed Laios. Iocaste confirms the truth of this account: "You may be sure that he said there were several... / The whole city heard it as plainly as I" (Sophocles 45). These words indicate that the shepherd explicitly and repeatedly described to the entire population of Thebes how Laios was murdered by many men. The whole city understood this account "plainly;" therefore, no room for ambiguity existed in it. Laios was murdered by a band of marauders, and Oedipus's encounter at the same intersection of three highways was an entirely different incident.

The answer to the question of the number of Laios's murderers is the determinant of Oedipus's guilt or innocence in the murder. Oedipus recognizes this truth at first; he originally intends to summon the shepherd in order to learn how many murderers there truly were. However, in actually questioning the shepherd, Oedipus becomes sidetracked: he fails to ask the shepherd about the number of marauders and instead inquires about his own origins. After learning that he is the son of Laios and Iocaste, Oedipus leaps to the conclusion that he must have, therefore, murdered Laios, even though the two events are not inextricably linked. Oedipus could indeed have been the baby the shepherd describes-thus fulfilling the prophecy that he would marry his mother. However, while being Laios's son, he could have killed an old man who was not Laios, thus not bearing responsibility for his father's murder. For Oedipus, the two parts of his prophecy are inextricably linked; his marriage to his mother must necessarily imply that he killed his father. Yet no real warrant for presuming the inseparable nature of the two acts exists. Had Oedipus examined each of the issues on their own merits, he would have concluded that he did, indeed, marry his mother, but remains innocent of his father's destruction.

The text never explicitly reveals the number of Laios's murderers because of the third-person limited nature of the play's perspective. Sophocles tells the story from the viewpoint of Oedipus, who is not sure how many men killed Laios and who never bothers to ascertain the number due to his own rash demeanor and tendency to jump to conclusions. Sophocles places his audience in Oedipus's position, requiring that the play's observers attempt to solve the mystery of Laios's death using the information Oedipus possesses-while being limited by it. Hence, the audience's quest for the absolute truth of the matter must necessarily suffer whenever Oedipus's personality intervenes with the procurement of valuable information. Because Oedipus fails to ask the proper questions, the audience-locked by Sophocles into his point of view-necessarily lacks the explicit answers that Oedipus could not obtain. Hence, readers are left to only pick up slight hints of the full extent of the information that could have exonerated Oedipus.
 

Sources Used

 

Jackson, Justin A. Lecture on Oedipus Rex. Hillsdale College. Hillsdale, MI. November 14, 2005.

 

Sophocles. The Oedipus Cycle. "Oedipus Rex." Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, trans. New York: Harcourt, 1977.
 

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre,  Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, weekly columnist for GrasstopsUSA.com, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov also publishes his articles on Helium.com and Associated Content to assist the spread of rational ideas. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. His most recent play is Implied Consent. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com.

 

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This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here..

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.