“Oedipus Rex” is undoubtedly the oldest play at this year’s Stratford theater festival. It was first written and premiered in between either 430 or 426 BCE. Despite its age many of the play’s core themes are still relevant in our modern day world. Specifically its themes of fate, ignoring the truth and the idea that blindness allows one to see clearly.
The first theme of the play is the problem of humans fighting against fate. Throughout the play a prophecy saying he will murder his father and marry his mother torments Oedipus. The actions Oedipus takes to avoid the prophecy from happening are the same ones that ultimately, cause it to happen. The problem of fate was a major theme of J.K. Rowling’s best selling “Harry Potter” series. In the fifth book/ movie “The Order of the Phoenix” Harry learns of a prophecy that foretold his encounter with the dark wizard Voldemort and how the two are destined to face off in a duel to the death. In the sixth book “The Half-Blood Prince” Dumbledore (Harry’s mentor) explains that the prophecy will happen regardless of Harry’s actions.
‘But Sir’ said Harry… ‘It all comes down to the same thing, doesn’t it? I’ve got to try and kill him, or-’ ‘ Got to? Of course you have to! But not because of the prophecy! Because you, yourself, will never rest until you’ve tried! … How would you feel about Voldemort now? Think!’…’I’d want him finished,’ said Harry quietly. ‘And I’d want to do it’. ‘Of course you would!’ cried Dumbledore. ‘You see, the prophecy does not mean you have to do anything! But the prophecy caused Lord Voldemort to mark you as his equal…In other words you are free to choose your way, quite free to turn your back on the prophecy! But Voldemort continues to set store by the prophecy. He will continue to hunt you… Which makes it certain really that-’ ‘That one of us is going to end up killing the other,’ said Harry. ‘Yes’. (Rowling 478-479).
Even if Harry decided to go against the prophecy he would still end up fighting Voldemort to the death. Like Oedipus Harry is unable to escape his fate.
The critically acclaimed Japanese animated show “Cowboy Bebop” also looked into the problem of fighting against fate. The series the main character Spike Spiegle lives his life as a bounty hunter trying to escape his old life as a criminal in a galaxy wide crime syndicate. Throughout the series Spike goes on adventures to try and remove himself from his fate of confronting his past. However reality and fate continue to follow him. In the final episodes of the series “The real Folk Blues Part 1″ and “Part 2″ Spike is forced to fight his old gang. Neither Spike nor Oedipus can escape their fate no matter how hard they fight against it.
The play also looks at the problem of people who willfully ignore the truth. During the play Oedipus and his wife/mother Janecosta chose not talk about Oedipus’s troubled past in fear that it will reveal uncomfortable truths. By remaining ignorant of his past they are unable to act. If they had faced the truth earlier on they might have been able to prevent the terrible prophecy from happening. A similar event is playing out in our modern world over climate change. Science studies have shown repeatedly that humans have made an impact on the earth’s temperature. In 2013 Reuters released an article stating that 97% of scientists agree that humans are having an effect on Earth’s temperature. NASA has backed these claims up with their own study that shows similar results. When 97% of scientists agree on a topic it stands to reason that the issue is true. Unfortunately many people today refuse to admit that humans cause climate change. A 2014 Pew research article found that only 40% of Americans believe that climate change is a result of human activity. Just like how Oedipus and Janecosta ignorance caused them to suffer the denial of climate change will have terrible effects for the planet and therefore us.
Another big theme of the play is blindness and eyesight. Throughout the play Oedipus talks to several oracles (people who can see the past and future) about his past. The oracles reveal that Oedipus murdered his father but he refuses to admit to it. The oracles although blind can clearly observe the situation and predict the future while Oedipus and his perfect eyesight are blind to the truth. The idea of that blindness allows a person to see clearer is a theme very common in pop culture. A perfect example of this would be in “Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope”. When Ben Kenobi is training Luke to use the force (a spiritual energy that connects to all things) he puts a helmet over Luke’s face, covering up his eyes. Luke objects to this. “With the blast shield down I can’t even see. How am I supposed to fight” (Lucas, Star Wars Episode 4) 4to which Ben responds “Your eyes can deceive you don’t trust them” (Lucas). With the helmet on Luke performs much better than he did before when he was relying on his eyes. This idea is repeated at the end of the movie when Luke is trying to blow up the giant battle station called the death star. One of Luke’s comrades uses a computer lock on system to hit the stations weak spot but fails. When Luke attempts to destroy it he too tries to lock on with the computer. However the voice of Ben tells Luke to “Use the force. Let go. Trust me” (Lucas). Luke turns off his computer (closing his eyes in a sense) and by relying on the force successfully destroys the death star. Similar to Oedipus when Luke stops using his eyes he is able to see better than he did before in both a physical and spiritual sense (feeling the force).
It is not just North American stories that use the idea of blindness in order to see. The Japanese comic book “Akira” gave this trait to the wise and powerful Lady Miyako. In volume 4 of “Akira” we learn that Miyako lost her eyesight when she was a test subject in a government run science project. These experiments cost Miyako her eyesight but gave her extraordinary powers in return, including the ability to see the future. “Following many experiments, my growth was stunted and my vision was dimmed. But I survived… And today I see the world with clarity infinitely greater than before. I acquired a form of clairvoyance- a second sight. “ – (Otomo 178) The idea that by removing your eyesight will allow you to see better is an idea cherished by writers all over the world and it all started in “Oedipus Rex”.
With its timeless and universal themes of fate, ignorance and blindness in order to see its no wonder that “Oedipus Rex” is still around entertaining audiences everywhere. “Oedipus Rex” is playing at Stratford from June 30th to Sept 18th. Just don’t go if your squeamish, cause there’s a lot of blood.
Otomo K. (2009). Akira. 4 (Umezawa, Y., York, L., M. & Duffy, J. Trans.) New York NY: Dark Horse Comics (Original work published 1987), comic
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Markham: Scholastic, 2005, print.
Star Wars Episode 4 A New Hope, Dir. George Lucas, Perf Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher. Twentieth Century Fox, DVD