A Rebuttal to E. R. Dodds' On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex

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A Rebuttal to E. R. Dodds' On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex

In "On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex," E. R. Dodds takes issue with three different opinions on Oedipus Rex. I consider the first two opinions, which Dodds gleaned from student papers, to be defensible from a close reading of the text. The first of these opinions is that Oedipus was a bad man, and was therefore punished by the gods; Dodds counters that Sophocles intended for us to regard him as good, noble, and selfless. But the play would seem to indicate that Oedipus, while a clever man, is not a good one -- this can be shown through Dodds' own source of argument, the attitude of the chorus, as well as through Oedipus' own actions onstage. Oedipus does not, as Dodds asserts, unselfishly seek out the truth even though he knows it will be painful for him; rather, he has no idea what the outcome of his search will be, denies the truth at every turn, and threatens those who speak it. The second conclusion drawn by students -- that Oedipus' actions are entirely determined by the gods, who control him completely -- Dodds pooh-poohs on the grounds that Oedipus is a free agent, acting on his own initiative. In fact, Dodds states, the idea of free will vs. determinism is a Hellenistic thought and would not have even occured to an audience of Sophocles' time. I believe that, as all of Oedipus' actions, including those over the course of the play, were determined before his birth, and he cannot avoid them although it is his will to do so, those actions cannot be construed as real choice. This play contains many post-Sophoclean ideas, such as denial, that (while not yet named by Greek society) still were understood by the audience.

In his rebuttal of the first opi...

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... look at it as Greeks would, isn't this the same as saying that the play is meaningless to today's readers? One of the wonders of classic texts is that every generation will find something new in them. This should not be looked upon as a sign of students' ignorance, but rather of their ingenuity.

Works Cited and Consulted

Dodds, E. R. "On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex." Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Michael J. O'Brien. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1968. 17-29.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New York: Penguin Books, 1940.

Knox, Bernard M. W. The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1964.

Sophocles. "Oedipus Rex." An Introduction to Literature, 11th ed. Eds. Sylvan Barnet, et al. New York: Longman, 1997. 800-836.

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