Fiction explores nature in a way that sometimes is more truthful than science. Even though for many years people believed that one was naturally inclined to love and cherish one’s parents, two thinkers two millennia apart expressed their opinions otherwise. The first of these was the artist, Sophocles in Oedipus Rex; the second, the scientists, Sigmund Freud, with his postulation of the notorious Oedipus complex. He saw a pattern in children, and himself, to go through a process in their infancy that was characterized by feeling attraction for one’s mother and the desire to kill one’s father. Freud remembered that this was similar to something he had read as a child, the aforementioned Greek play, so he named it after its main character. Even though this actually happens in the work of art, there are many discrepancies between what goes on in it and Freud’s theory. When one actually studies Freud’s postulations, one sees that this nomenclature is not precise. Thus, even though Freud named this aspect of his theory after Sophocles’ play, there are many aspects that differ from the two, making it an inexact moniker.
Oedipus was originally the protagonist of a multigenerational myth that Sophocles set various plays to. The two most famous of these are Antigone and Oedipus Rex, both of which have been the subject of much criticism and debate. Sophocles centered the latter play on Oedipus’ quest for knowledge about his own life. It begins with people asking him, the king, to help them with the plague, which he believes to haunt them because they have not caught the last king’s murderer. He asks the prophet Tiresias for help, but he attempts to dissuade him from his quest. Throughout the story, he realizes that he has, in fact, assassinated his father and killed his mother, as the oracle had said he would. Dramatically, Oedipus blinds himself for committing these acts.
In Sophocles’ retelling of the myth of Oedipus, Sigmund Freud finds something universal in the human psyche. At the turn of the century, there were performances of Oedipus Rex that garnered astonishing success. This led Freud to ask himself what it was about the play that had made it famous across so many centuries. He concluded that the play revealed an essential truth about human nature that was generally hidden from plain view. “For the myth of Oedipus is the exemplary myth, since it is the one that links the question ‘Who am I?’ with the questions ‘Whose son am I?’, ‘Whose father?’ The question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ can itself be posed only by linking its terms by generation” (Green 193). This play is one of the most interesting studies of lineage, as in it one can see the eternal question about parentage, a query Freud studied in Three Essays on Human Sexuality. Furthermore, it complicates the matter by breaking the rules of incest and parricide, themes that have occurred in many works of art across the millennia. Freud saw Oedipus Rex’s answers to these problems to hold eternal significance due to the longevity of its success. He believed boys to have a natural impulse to have sexual relations with his mother and murder his father. He saw this in other great plays too, such as The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, which also contributed towards the ideation of the notorious concept.
This became one of the defining cornerstones of his theory. “Freud believed that the Oedipus complex defined psychoanalysis. No psychoanalytic theory could be accepted as such unless, according to him, it admitted the universality of this complex, and the importance of the incest theme” (Kohon 168). However, one did not remember this and did not see it in the light of day, as repression had acted on these drives, making them go into the unconscious. This left the child to identify with the father in order to live with him in harmony. “At this point, the normalizing role of the Oedipus complex intervenes in Freud’s theory. For how can anyone gain access to so-called normal sexuality or sociality if it all starts with a fundamentally identificatory ambivalence?” (Borch-Jacobsen and Brick 271). As the sexual drives were generally aggressive and went against the civilization, Freud had to account for the relative tameness of the population in his theory. He postulated that the Oedipus complex was repressed and went into the unconscious as the person develop.
Thus, it is problematic to label the Oedipus complex with this character, as Freud was attributing characteristics from an adult character to children. “With the psychoanalytic focus on the childhood origins of the oedipal complex, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the drama itself is enacted in middle adulthood” (Emde 104). For Freud, the Oedipus complex happened in childhood; however, later it went into the unconscious through the mechanism of repression, and manifested itself in other ways. This accounted for the difference between Hamlet and Oedipus. As in the former, the character is not aware of these impulses directly, there is no need for him to lash out, which leads to the famous hesitation he has towards killing Claudius. This is especially important because, even though it was also significant in the development of the psychoanalytic notion par excellence, the psychoanalyst did not give it as much weight. “Freud was well aware of the qualitative difference between the open enigma of Oedipus and the critical conundrum of Hamlet; he ascribed the difference to the “secular advance of repression in the emotional life of mankind” (298), by which Shakespeare was compelled to censure himself more than Sophocles” (Armstrong). Unlike Hamlet, Oedipus does kill his father and sleep with his mother; after knowing this, he dreadfully pokes his eyes out. Thus, Oedipus Rex allowed Freud to explain that these horrendous drives had to be hidden in some way, thrown into the unconscious. However, one could think that maybe he chose the play incorrectly, as Hamlet is the one that truly represents what he would see in his offices.
There are only the first problems one encounters when studying the relationship between the Oedipus complex and the play. As one can see, the psychic drama that Freud postulates this is not exactly what happens in the Greek play, but only a part of it; one can see that the psychoanalyst cherry-picked from the available information. For example, one can only find even the banal explanation of the psychic process within the play. “One can indeed find in Sophocles’ text, as Freud justly remarks, an explicit reference to the desire to sleep with the mother, but desire to kill the father is a much more complicated issue.  It is true that Laius’ murder gives Oedipus access to his mother, but Oedipus murders his father without realising it. Moreover his father is only his father in the strictly biological sense” (Van Haute). Oedipus does not really wish to sleep with his mother and kill his father, as his complex would lead people to believe. While he does have a sexual attraction towards Jocasta, he does not know that she is his mother; furthermore, it is dubious that he wanted to kill the man at the crossroads at all, not knowing he was his father either. Freud did not take into account all of the play, but only the parts that interested him; for the above author, what is at play is a matter of knowledge, known or unknown. “Freud, however, was highly selective in his retelling of the Oedipus story” (Emde 97). Many other aspects of the play that he did not take into account even are in tune with psychoanalytic theory.
Along these lines, Emde gives two other possible interpretations of why the story of Oedipus should be so important to this theory. Even though he recognizes the value and significance of Freud’s original postulation, he also believes that one could see Oedipus as a victim or caught in an intersystemic conundrum. “Freud began with a childhood seduction and abuse theory of neurosogenesis; he then abandoned it for his theory of universal, biologically based oedipal wishes in the child, causing intrapsychic conflict although repressed in the adult” (Emde 100). This is important because it gives weight to another theory about the birth of a child’s neurosis that Freud himself held. Before birthing the Oedipus complex, he believed premature seductions were the cause of neuroses, as one can also read in Sophocles’ Oedipus plays.
In addition, the researcher finds that there is something important about the management of information and secrets also informs the play. “There is psychological conflict because of the fear of the unknown and of what will be discovered” (Emde 103). As one can read above, one can interpret the whole play based on the search for knowledge, which one can see that is not necessarily beneficial for the person. Both of these readings take into account more of the story than Freud originally did. Thus, from this point of view one would be correct to introduce Oedipus in the psychoanalytic corpus, but with many other aspects than Freud originally thought about.
Other psychoanalysts have also developed the notion further, not completely discarding Freud’s notions, but taking other aspects of the play into account. One of the most prominent of these was Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst that many thinkers currently read. “Lacan dismissed the Oedipus complex as unusable, called it Freud’s dream and emphasized how the Oedipus complex fails to hold in the clinical setting. Lacan focused on Freud’s depiction of the father as all-powerful, instead of completely dismissing the Oedipus complex” (87 van der Merwe). He ridicules Freud’s theory, yet also considers it due to the grandeur of the postulations. While not completely dismissing it, he modifies it, taking into account the role of power and the importance of the father.
In conclusion, even though Sigmund Freud coined the term and the concept, it seems to fall short in light of the complexity of Oedipus Rex. Even though this masterful work of theater allowed Freud to postulate that boys have the desire to have sexual relations to their mothers and kill their fathers, it also holds much more. First, one could question whether he chose the correct play to do this. In Oedipus Rex the protagonist is a middle-aged man, not a boy; furthermore, he does not really wish for this to happen, even if it does come true. Moreover, there are other ways to interpret the play that are fruitful for psychoanalysis, such as the story of seduction or the intersystematic challenge of secrets and knowledge. Finally, other psychoanalysts have read the play in other manners, not necessarily dismissing Freud’s postulations, but furthering the theory in other ways. As one can see, great works of art can make even the greatest thinkers fall short when it comes to exhausting its interpretations.
Armstrong, Richard. “Oedipus as Evidence: The Theatrical Background to Freud’s Oedipus Complex.” PsyArt., 01 Jan. 1999. Web. 20 Jul. 2015.
Borch-Jacobsen Mikkel. “The Oedipus Problem in Freud and Lacan.” Chicago Journals Winter 1994: 267-282. Print.
Emde, Robert. “Three Roads Intersecting: Changing Viewpoints in the Psychoanalytic Story of Oedipus.” Psychoanalysis and Development. Representations and Narratives. Ed. Massimo Ammanity and Daniel N. Stern. New York and London: New York University, 1994. 97-110. Print.
Kohon, Gregorio. “The Oedipus Complex II.” Introducing Psychoanalysis, Essential Themes and Topics. Susan Budd and Rusbridger Richard. London and New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2005. 166-180. Print.
Van Haute, Philippe. “Freud’s Dream? Some Remarks on Lacan’s Critique of the Oedipus complex in Relation to his Theory of Hysteria in the Other Side of Psychoanalysis. “Psychomedia. Web. 20 Jul. 2015.
van der Merwe, Petrus Lodewikus. “Freud, Lacan, and the Oedipus Complex.” Diss. University of Stellenbosch, 2011. Print.