Perpetuated misunderstandings of Oedipus Rex defines its importance and durability, specifically explicit in the interpretation by Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalytic book Interpretations of Dreams. The transition of authority from playwright to reader encourages projection and imposing of views and values onto the play and ultimately results in a poor analysis and understanding. These projections are derived from reader context and perspective, and thus this frequent re-evaluation of the importance and legacy of Oedipus Rex through continued analysis via different lenses is what ultimately ensures the play’s power and durability.
The continued reappraisal of Oedipus Rex has presented one major contentious argument: whether or not Oedipus Rex was centred around free-will or determinism. Sigmund Freud underlines his psychoanalysis with the presumption that it was Oedipus’ fate to fulfil the prophecy, and thus only acted (on his incestuous drive) because of a divine force. Freud finds that it is not the contrast between destiny and human will that engenders such enthrallment in the text, rather how his ignorant fulfiment of the prophecy carried out his repressed childhood compulsions to murder his father and direct his sexual impulses toward his mother.
This presentation endangers our understanding of Oedipus twofold.
First, it assumes that there is complete determinism responsible for the actions in the play. Freud argues that it is only by the encouragement through the oracle laying the curse that Oedipus fulfills his incestuous and violent childhood wishes, and the reader engagement is a result of our reflection of his wishes in our dreams. This is problematic as it does not consider the context and authority of the author to determine intent. Sophocles’ time period was categorized by Homeric heroes who have predetermined factors – such as dying on an appointed day – but this does not prevent them from being free agents, nor does it prevent their death being a result of a free action. The Messenger in the play, following Oedipus’ self-punishment clarifies this: qualifying the self-blinding as “self-chosen” and “voluntary”. A. W. Gomme in his More Essays in Greek History and Literature recognised, “the gods know the future, but they do not order it,” the results still relying on the free actions of the people involved instead of on divine order. Further, Sophocles’ text was not concerned with Oedipus’ fulfillment of the prophecy
Second, it assumes that we are entitled to derive psychological analysis from his actions. Freud has ignored a fundamental principle in critical analysis, “what is not mentioned in the play does not exist.” The playwright did not intend us to approach the psychological state and existent or non-existant repressed incestuous drives, and therefore this assertion must be discredited. Our analysis must be within the breadth of what is explicitly or inferrably stated in the play. Thus, Freud’s psychoanalytic background must not be the yardstick by which we understand Sophocles’ play.
Perspective, as it has done with Freud, distorts one’s understanding of a text and therefore is it untrustworthy to allow the reader authority over the text’s derived meaning.
But ultimately, this poor understanding and derived meaning result in the text carrying extraordinary power; no interpretation has approached consensus. This lack of consensus is paramount to the power of Oedipus Rex as a text, and ensures its durability. With every new age of philosophical thought and contextual projection, we see emerge a new and distinctive idea on the play and its hidden meaning. Because the authority of meaning ultimately lies with the author, and readers can therefore only provide conjecture, the story sustains its power and longevity.