Secrets and Lies: What Oedipus Really Knew

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

Abstract

Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is usually read as a play about a man’s self-discovery. It is seen as a depiction of the gradual unravelling of the facts of Oedipus’ true origin. This unravelling is his transition from ignorance to knowledge, and the corresponding change in Oedipus’ moral standing from blamelessness to a special kind of retroactive guilt or pollution. Numerous interpretations of the play have attempted to determine Oedipus’ moral standing, but have taken his ignorance at the time of his actions for granted. Therefore most interpreters judge Oedipus to be innocent, on the grounds that he was ignorant of the relevant facts at the time at which he killed his father and married his mother. I question Oedipus’ ignorance and therefore place his innocence in doubt. I claim that Oedipus was not ignorant but rather that he was keeping secret his true identity. Instead of a story about Oedipus’ transition from ignorance to knowledge, I suggest reading the play as depicting the transition from secrecy to public exposure. On this interpretation, the play is about a secret being made public. The process of uncovering a secret centres on the experience of Oedipus in the play, but is additionally mirrored in the experience of Jocasta, who responds to the uncovering by killing herself, the Theban people and finally the spectators watching the play. Thus the main thrust of the play is not the discovery of truth, but the uncovering of a secret and its consequences. I explain why Oedipus cannot have been ignorant of the relevant facts and suggest that Oedipus’ secret be seen as unconscious. I then develop the idea of the unconscious secret and examine its moral consequences.
Original languageEnglish
JournalOrgandi Quarterly
Volume8
Publication statusPublished - 2006

Structured keywords

  • Centre for Humanities Health and Science

Keywords

  • Oedipus, moral ignorance

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