A Great Fall: How Tragedy Evolved from Oedipus to Kim Kardashian's Cellulite and Amy Winehouse's Struggles
Diski, Jenny, New Statesman (1996)
King Oedipus appears at the door of his palace to listen to the Chorus of Old Men of Thebes, who have come to him in their time of terrible trouble. They are asking for his help, they say, not because they think of him "as a god":
... but rather judging you the first of men in all the chances of This life and when we mortals have to do with more than man.
It turns out that, unwittingly (as more or less everything in the play is unwitting), the Chorus is right. Oedipus alone can help. The cause of the trouble is himself; the chances he has had in his life are precisely the source of the plague. He righteously refuses to avoid discovering his guilt, and when Tiresias finally reveals the truth, Oedipus removes himself, banished, blinded and bereaved, and the curse on Thebes is lifted. Oedipus Rex strikes me as the most tragic of Greek tragedies. ignorance and benevolence, however sincere, are no protection against guilt for wrongdoing and subsequent punishment.
Picking up and playing with the myth in the early 20th century, Freud uses Oedipus to deny original innocence. We are all, from the outset, guilty of desire. But the play written by Sophocles in the 5th century BC knows nothing of this. Aristotle, writing a hundred years earlier, insisted that tragedy required an essentially good person who is brought down by a mistake (hamartia). (The idea of hamartia being a character flaw in the hero is a mistranslation that was used by Shakespeare in, for example, the tragedies of Hamlet, Othello, Lear.) In other Greek plays the protagonists have clear and conscious motives for their behaviour. Clytemnestra in the first part of Aeschylus's Oresteia has a reason for her anger when she kills her husband, Agamemnon, on his return from Troy. He isn't an innocent, either, having killed their daughter in order to gain a fair wind. Euripides's Medea, fleeced and forsaken after loving and helping Jason, is neither innocent nor motiveless when she kills their children in revenge. But Oedipus at the opening of the play has no idea, nor any reason to suspect, that he has done anything wrong, let alone what it is. His only conscious act, his mistake, was to try to avert the foretold disaster of killing his father. It was this challenge to fate, rather than a desire for worldly power or revenge, that brought catastrophe to the city and his family.
What the Greek protagonists all have in common is social status: they are kings, queens and heroes. Tragedy requires a fall, and a fall from a high elevation and great fortune makes the tragedy all the more pronounced and delectable to onlookers. This was another of Aristotle's requirements for tragic drama, that its suffering subject be a person of worldly importance. The truth about the crime Oedipus committed can be revealed by the Theban herdsmen, but the fall has to be taken by the king. As far as I know, until modern times there were no tragic stage dramas involving the equivalent of rural English virgins, bourgeois Scandinavian housewives or American travelling salesmen.
Another particular aspect of ancient Greek drama is that it was played out on a stage with actors who were masked in order precisely to prevent any of the specificity and individuality we prize so much today. Some masks were sad, some laughing, but there were no close-ups of the suffering or tearful faces of the fallen, or of horrified witnesses, just fixed expressions speaking anguished and resigned words. The plays pitted men and women of good fortune and worldly power but no fleshly face against circumstance and misfortune--call them gods, who by their nature are unconcerned by and disinclined to make a distinction between group or individual suffering, or ignorance and guilt. The higher and prouder the mortal, the more powerful the message to be taken away by the 12,000-strong audiences at the theatre of Dionysus in ancient Athens.
The playgoers observed that even the likes of King Oedipus were "mere mortals" when confronted by the "more-than-man" hazards of fate or accident. …