Continuing on from last time, Greek drama rooted itself in the same acceptance of human limitation as did Greek myth and history. I don't have space for a proper survey here, but we can at least examine a representative sample or two.
Let's start with the most famous Greek tragedy of all—Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. It's been big for 2400 years. No less a theatre critic than Aristotle rated it the best tragedy of all time (as of the 4th century BC). Let's see what it suggests about the worldview conveyed by the Greek playwrights.
When the play opens, the city of Thebes is in terrible crisis. The crops and livestock are dying. The women cannot conceive. A mysterious fever is killing off the city's residents. Thebes evidently labors under some sort of curse. In desperation, the citizens approach Oedipus, their king, begging him to do something to rescue them.
They have supreme faith in King Oedipus, you see. He is not only their king—he is their hero. And he's been their hero since the day he arrived in Thebes years earlier.
It was a young Oedipus, after all, who had first approached Thebes from his hometown of Corinth, only to find a cruel monster—the Sphinx—terrorizing the city. Anyone who answered her riddle could pass into the city. Anyone who didn't, the Sphinx devoured. The trick was, the Sphinx always won. No one could ever figure out the answer to the riddle. No one, that is, until young Oedipus wandered up.
The riddle was: What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at midday, and three legs in the evening? Through wit alone, Oedipus solved it: Man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and then uses a cane in his final years.
Outsmarted, the humiliated monster kills herself. Thebes becomes free again. City residents reward their new hero by giving him the hand of their recently-widowed Queen Jocasta in marriage. Through this marriage, young Oedipus becomes the new king of Thebes.
Now, years later, laboring under a mysterious curse, King Oedipus must discover a way to save the city once again. Alas, it is his good-faith efforts to do just that which result in the tragedy about to unfold.
To understand what happens next in the play, we need to know why Oedipus left Corinth and moved to Thebes in the first place all those years earlier.
The answer begins before Oedipus is even born. It begins when the Delphic Oracle tells a young king of Thebes named Laius (King Oedipus's immediate predecessor) that he will one day have a son—and that son will grow up to kill King Laius and marry his wife, Queen Jocasta. That is, the son will kill his father and marry his mother.
Instead, the servant takes pity on the infant and secretly delivers him to a local shepherd. Returning to his hometown of Corinth (70 miles to the southwest), the shepherd manages to present the baby to the city's royal couple, King Polybus and Queen Merope, who cannot have children of their own. They adopt the baby, name him "Oedipus", and raise him as the crown prince of Corinth. Problem solved.
Except it isn't. A few years later, a surly, drunken dinner guest tells Oedipus he's actually the adopted bastard son of unknown parents. The concerned young man confronts the king and queen who raised him. They deny everything.
Still suspicious, Oedipus travels to Delphi to ask the oracle who he really is. Skirting the question, the oracle merely informs him he will one day kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified, Oedipus decides to avoid returning home. Instead, he'll settle in distant Thebes. That way, the prophecy can never come true.
The journey from Corinth to Thebes proves uneventful except for one incident. Oedipus winds up in an altercation with an aggressive chariot driver near a three-way crossroad. In the course of the fight, and basically in self-defense, Oedipus kills the chariot driver and all but one of his servants. He then proceeds on to Thebes as he had planned.
And this brings us back to the start of the play proper: Thebes is in crisis many years later, with Oedipus the city's hero-king, eager to do right by his suffering subjects.
With his city ailing and unsure of what to do, King Oedipus sends his brother-in-law Creon to ask the Delphic Oracle how to lift the curse. The oracle claims the curse will vanish once the city identifies the man who killed Laius, the king before Oedipus, and brings him to justice.
Oedipus accepts this answer. The problem is, the murder happened years earlier. No one has any idea who killed the previous king. Rumors say highway robbers killed him, but there's no way to track them down now.
Eager for any lead, King Oedipus asks Creon to fetch the blind seer and priest, Teiresias. If anyone knows something, it'll be him.
But to King Oedipus's frustration, the old seer refuses to divulge details. He warns Oedipus that knowledge about the murder "will lead you on to ruin". Unable to imagine why that would ever be, and desperate to save his city, Oedipus demands the knowledge anyway. It's a matter of survival for everyone in the city. But no matter what King Oedipus says, Teiresias refuses to share his knowledge.
This is too much for Oedipus. Exasperated, he begins goading the seer, calling him "hard of heart" and "inflexible". He is "disloyal" to the city. He wishes to "destroy us all". He is a "villain". But the old seer remains unmoved.
And it is then that Oedipus comes to suspect Teiresias himself of plotting the murder. Why else would the old seer refuse to reveal the truth, when it is only the truth which can save the whole city?
Upset by Oedipus's accusation, Teiresias decides to give the king exactly what he demands: a knowledge he has already warned Oedipus will destroy him. "You are the man whose crimes pollute this city...you are yourself the murderer you seek!", the blind seer finally reveals.
We'll find out what happens next in Sophocles's famous play, and why it matters to us now in 2021, in the next installment. Talk to you soon.
Tal will be back here next week to continue the conversation. If you can't wait that long, he'll be performing alongside Randy Bachman tonight over at Bachman and Bachman, starting at 9pm ET.
Mark Steyn Club members can weigh in on this column in the comment section below, one of many perks of club membership, which you can check out here.