Re-reading Sophocles’s Oedipus Plays

Reconceiving Vengeance as Cultural Complex


  • Inez Martinez University of Wisconsin-Madison



Sophocles’s Oedipus plays depict failed integration of self-knowledge as worthy of divinization. Acting out vengeance is the evidence of Oedipus’s failed integration. Oedipus’s task of integration pivots on grasping in what sense he can be understood as guilty. His plight demonstrates that ignorance is part of unconsciousness and, contrary to Jung’s attitude toward ignorance, requires some kind of coping with responsibility. Vengeance was a conscious value among the ancient Greeks. In Sophocles’s last play, Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus acts out vengeance against his sons, and Sophocles divinizes this acting out through having Oedipus join the goddesses, the Furies. This divinization suggests that vengeance is archetypal, depending on culture only for images of manifestation. I argue that Oedipus’s acting out of vengeance can be read as symptomatic of a cultural complex. I identify the situation leading to his acting out as his failure to imagine how creatively to take responsibility for his parricide and incest. Reading Oedipus’s acting out as failure to integrate his self-knowledge opens up the question of what successful integration could have entailed. I turn to work by Edward C. Whitmont to suggest what acceptance of responsibility for deeds not intended might look like. Finally, I turn to work by Gottfried M. Heuer to address the issues of power and love raised by Oedipus’s dilemma. In order to read these plays in terms of Jung’s concepts of visionary literature and of integration, I critique and discard two literary critical concepts used in previous criticism of Sophocles’s plays: 1) that the intention of the author determines meaning in a text; and 2) that no framework beyond those given in a play may be used to interpret meaning.