by Rachel Pollack
Before anything else, we must look at the title and the names of the characters. Since its first performance, 2,440 years ago, Sophocles’s play has become the best known Greek drama, singled out first by Aristotle in his Poetics as the perfect exemplar of a tragedy, and in our own time by Freud, who took it as the model for what he considered a universal pattern in infant males. After Hamlet, Oedipus Tyrannus (or Oidipous Tyrannos, in direct transliteration from the Greek) may very well be the most famous play in world literature. And yet, the work is known to modern audiences almost entirely by the Latin title Oedipus Rex. Sometimes we see this title represented in English as King Oedipus, or Oedipus The King.
There are historical reasons why the original title became obscured, primarily that the Greek text was almost unknown until the fifteenth century, so that the Latin reworking by the Roman playwright Seneca was all that was available till then. And even though the Romans grafted Greek mythology onto their own, they retained the Latin names of their own gods, such as Venus for Aphrodite, or Mercury for Hermes. The long cultural influence of the Latin language as the lingua franca of literate Europe fixed the Latin names in people’s minds.
As we shall see, however, a Roman rex, a king, is not the same thing as a Greek tyrannos (τύραννος), a tyrant. Each title is ironic, creating its own tensions within the story, but from opposite di- rections. From the beginning, we chose to restore, and express, the play’s original title. We also decided to transliterate the origi- nal Greek names for the characters directly into English rather than continue to employ the more familiar Latinized versions. Oedipus reverts to Oidipous, Jocasta to Iokaste (pronounced Yo- KAHS-tay), and so on. Other than the two main characters the name changes are quite minimal, for example, Choros instead of Chorus.
Partly, these names reflect our desire to present Sophocles directly, rather than mediate him through Latin ears. But there was a deeper reason. The very obscurity of the Greek names al- lows them to evoke the story’s archaic strangeness. The Greeks envisioned the myth of Oidipous as extremely old, taking place well before the Trojan War. It carries within it not just suggestions of the origins of Greek culture but of humanity itself. This archaic quality is part of what drew Freud to the story. It is our hope that using the original names might help convey some of the story’s primordial power. A more technical discussion of Greek names and titles may be found in the Translation Notes that immedi- ately follow this Introduction.
If the names come first, what comes second is the question of what the original Greek audience knew when they sat down to watch the play. Modern scholarship often assumes that everyone who saw the play in Athens would have known the story, and thus introductions usually begin with a synopsis so that modern readers can view the play the same way the Athenians might have watched it. This issue is crucial, for more than any other Greek drama (or almost any play since), Oidipous Tyrannosis built upon surprises. We will see below that the play is in fact a mystery, the world’s first detective story, with a hero as committed to rational investigation as Sherlock Holmes. The pleasure of watch- ing—or reading—it changes if you know the story. Not knowing allows the play to surprise you. Knowing allows you to watch the constantly unfolding layers of irony.
Did everyone in Athens know the myth before they saw the performance? This seems to us a questionable claim, just because in any age there are always people who simply have never paid attention to the things everyone is supposed to know. In the height of American awareness of the Bible, around the late nineteenth century, there were no doubt many people who could attend, say, a drama about John the Baptist and not know what happens to him at the end of the story. The tale of Oidipous was a sacred myth in Greece, but perhaps not on the level of the Trojan War. Homer makes no mention of Oidipous, other than a moment when Odysseus sees Oidipous’s mother in the Underworld (Odyssey, 11.273-280). So we might assume that “everyone” knew that the Greeks defeated Troy by hiding in a wooden horse, but perhaps only a certain sort of educated person might know ahead of time who killed King Laios.
This possibility becomes reinforced when we look at the texts of other Greek plays, such asAgamemnon, by Aischylos (Aeschylus). That play does indeed come out of the most well-known Greek myths, the Trojan War and the homecoming of Agamemnon, the events of which are recounted at length in The Iliad and The Odyssey. And yet, Aischylos thought it wise to essentially delay the play’s dramatic action by having a series of characters retell the Trojan War, Agamemnon’s place in it, and his decision to sacrifice his own daughter to secure the help of the goddess Artemis. Should Aischylos have assumed everyone knew this?
By contrast, Oidipous Tyrannos begins in the middle of a crisis, with the essential back story revealed only as the characters themselves uncover it. Maybe Sophocles’s lack of background does not show an assumption of his audience’s knowledge but just the opposite. He might have hoped his viewers did not know Oidipous’s secrets before the play revealed them.
So, if you are reading this and do not already know the solution to the crime Oidipous is investigating, or why Oidipous and his wife Iokaste hate oracles, consider yourself lucky and come back after you have finished the play. Of course, those who wish to experience this translation directly, without knowing ahead of time the principles and concerns that guided us, also may wish to leap directly into the text.