Reopening old wounds: Mitchell-Boyask speaks on Oedipus and the Plague

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The fifth century Greek playwright Sophocles won first place for his theatrical programs in the Dionysia, a festival to Dionysus centered around the performance of plays, approximately eighteen times. He rarely placed second and never came in third. Why, then, asked Robin Mitchell-Boyask, did Sophocles’ program, which included “Oedipus Tyrannos,” only win second prize when presented in the Dionysia? In his lecture entitled “Oedipus and the Plague: Why the Best Tragedy Finished Second,” Mitchell-Boyask strove to formulate and answer to this question.

Mitchell-Boyask of Temple University is the the author of many books– most notably his “Approaches to Teaching the Dramas of Euripides,” which was highly praised by the professors in attendance– and compiled his lecture from his forthcoming book Athenians and the Plague. Mitchell-Boyask bolstered his lecture by providing a hand-out which included the citations from “Oedipus Tyrannos” as well as other authors about which he would speak. The talk was well attended, filling a Trotter classroom with enthusiastic professors and students from the Classics Department.

“Oedipus Tyrannos” is considered by philosophers such as Aristotle as well as modern critics to be Sophocles’ best work. Oedipus, the son of Laius and Jocasta, monarchs of Thebes, is prophesied to murder his father and marry his mother. To avoid this fate, he is left in the mountains to die. Ultimately, Oedipus meets and kills Laius en route to Thebes. After solving the famous riddle of the Sphynx, he is given the kingdom of Thebes and the hand of Jocasta as a reward. Sophocles begins his tragedy while Thebes is beset with a severe plague and Oedipus struggles to uncover who murdered Laius. He is told that it is he who caused the plague by killing Laius but does not believe this assertion.

As the play progresses, Oedipus and Jocasta learn the truth, that Oedipus has indeed murdered his father and married his mother. The play concludes with Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus’ flight into exile. What was it about this tragedy that struck so soundly against the favor of the Dionysian judges? In order to analyze the second place finish of “Oedipus Tyrannos,” Mitchell-Boyask suggested that Sophocles’ usage of plague be scrutinized.

Between the years 430 and 426 B.C., the Athens lost approximately one fourth or one third of its population to a massive plague. Thus, visceral images of this plague would have been fresh in the mind of Sophocles’ judges. In Greek, two words can be used to denote the word plague. While ______ [loimos] specifically means plague, _____ [nosos] means plague or illness in a more general sense. Before the plague, the word ______ is used repeatedly in Greek literature while, later, authors such as Plato use the word sparingly, if at all. “A pattern of avoidance” of ______ is evident in dramatic literature lest “drama…be too much like life.” To use ______ would be too evocative of the suffering of the Athenian people during the plage.

n a “rich Sophoclean mixture of the literary and the metaphorical,” “Oedipus Tyrannos” deals with both physical and mental plague. By killing Laius, Oedipus brings sickness to Thebes and suffering to himself. Sophocles uses the less taboo word, _____, nineteen times but ______ only once when he reveals that a “most abominable plague has struck and assails the city [Thebes]” (“Oedipus Tyrannos”). Mitchell-Boyask asserted that this single use of ______ must have shattered the appropriate usage of the word in post-Athenian plague society. Sophocles was “making the world of the stage and [the world] of the audience too transgressive.” In addition, not only did Sophocles pointedly use ______, but also depicted the Thebian people participating in rituals reminiscent of the same duties Athenians must have performed during t he plague. Aware that he was awakening memories that many would have liked to have suppressed, Sophocles reverts back to using _____ after his shocking use of ______.

Oedipus Tyrannos begins with the gods bringing plague to Thebes and culminates with plague entering Oedipus himself as he discovers what he has done to Laius, Jocasta, and himself. “I know well that you are all sick, and although you are sick, none of you are equally as sick as I” (Oedipus Tyrannos), proclaims Oedipus to the Thebian people. Thus, the plague has mutated from purely physical to mental and metaphorical. As the meaning of _____ shifts, Oedipus begins to feel as if he is the only one who can bear the same literal and metaphorical suffering as he: “There is nobody among mortals except for me who is able to bear my troubles” (“Oedipus Tyrannos”). Thus, he links himself back to the gods who brought the plague to Thebes. Having withstood so much pain, Oedipus believes that “neither disease nor anything else could ever destroy [him]” (“Oedipus Tyrannos”). He himself has become indestructible. According to Mitc hell-Boyask, the “distinction between the cause and the effect of the plague blur.”

The play to which Sophocles lost is unknown but it can be surmised that “Oedipus Tyrannos” and the other plays in the program did not win for dealing with a subject, plague, that was not to be discussed. It is strange that Sophocles was not punished, as were other authors, for bringing up questionable material. Furthermore, Sophocles seems to have invented the plague at Thebes which provides the backdrop to “Oedipus Tyrannos” as no historical record of such a plague exists. This leads to the belief that he was consciously crafting a situation that would bring to mind the woes of the Athenians. Yet, perhaps coming in second place was punishment enough for a man so accustomed to winning.

Mitchell-Boyask ended humorously by saying, “Of course I cannot prove any of this!” He expressed his deepest wishes that there were more surviving evidence on the Dionysian judging process and the other programs that competed against Sophocles’. Classics professor, Deborah Beck, asked if Mitchell-Boyask believed that Sophocles simply “screwed up” by using ______. Because Sophocles only uses the word once and then “backs off,” Mitchell-Boyask concluded that Sophocles was aware that his depiction of plague “scraped violently at emotional wounds that had barely formed scabs.”

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