Meg Harris Williams reveals the true story of Oedipus

Suffering into Truth: The Achievement of Oedipus


Given that the story of Oedipus is foundational to psychoanalytic thinking it is surprising that there has been relatively little attention paid to Sophocles’ play Oedipus Tyrannus, even though the play is the reason that the myth has survived and was noticed by Freud some 2400 years later. This is partly because psychoanalysts tend to assume the play and the myth are the same thing.

A play is a work of art and consequently its meaning can only be absorbed by reading the deep grammar which is the poetic symbol, not the surface grammar which is the myth. The meaning or “truth” lies in the underlying poetic structure – Susanne Langer’s “underlying idea”, Bion’s “O”. The idea surfaces from within, but remains hidden in the face of explanatory formulae applied from the outside in a way that Bion complained “victimised” literature.

In the field of psychoanalysis, it has usually been taken for granted that Oedipus Tyrannus is about the Oedipus complex. Sophocles knew all about the Oedipus complex and it is enclosed in a little vignette at the centre of the play in the form of everyman’s dream. But this is not what the play as a whole is about. It is about Oedipus’ achievement, not his downfall. He is a model for clear and courageous thinking, not an example of confusion and mental debilitation, to be punished by some ghostly superego. Far from being arrogant, Oedipus demonstrates how to get out of infantile narcissistic entanglements and walk into the light of dependency on internal objects. Instead of external support he gains internal vision, “things invisible to mortal sight” as Milton put it, his “inward sight unblind” (Keats).

Sophocles recognised, as did Aeschylus before him, that those dread goddesses, the Furies of man’s primeval nature, were significant forces in the mind, and both society and the individual needed to pay them their due. Aeschylus, like Freud, hoped that primary processes could be shaped and ordered by secondary processes of rational or conscious intentionality, lest they break out in the form of action and pollute civic life. All were concerned with avoiding “revenge” situations in which the personality destructively turns on itself. Sophocles however, by the time of the Tyrannus, came to envision another solution: not one of equilibrium but rather one of thinking-through to a new level the kind of emotional disturbance that presents itself as a plague or sickness in the mind or city of the personality. It is the process that Bion describes as “suffering” (with its classical etymology of “passion”) and that results in constructive “catastrophic change” (again, adopting Aristotle’s definition of the moment of truth in a drama).

In the Tyrannus we can see in the protagonists of the mind-city an externalised representation of the internal dialogue between mother and child, and the way a new thought is suffered and realised. It is an internal journey, as represented by the way the protagonist stands still and holds centre stage whilst figures from his “past” or inner world are called up for confrontation. This is co-extensive with the formal structure of the play itself, which is not something superimposed on the myth, but evolves according to its internal logic or organic form – the dramatist’s unconscious commitment and exploration of his theme.


‘Oedipus and the sphinx’ (Ingres,1808)

From the very beginning Oedipus seems to guess instinctively that Thebes’ disease has some intimate relation to his own birth and identity, as when he says, with the play’s characteristic ambiguity, that there are “None as sick as I”.  He then considers what tools he has for dealing with this sickness of the absence of self-knowledge and recognises that “Alone, had I no key/ I’d lose the track.”  He is searching for a key (a symbolon) – literally a symbol to contain the idea of his identity – and this is found when he reviews his relationship with Jocasta, the mother whom he regarded as his wife [see ‘Oedipus at the Crossroads’ in The Vale of Soulmaking for a fuller exposition of these themes].

The play contrasts two types of thinking: the first represented by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, a childlike but arid cleverness appropriate to a latency phase of development. The mystery of life is reduced to a linear pattern of four, two and three-leggedness. It was necessary at the time, like passing school exams. It got Oedipus into the palace of higher education which was appropriate for his social rank. He is a clever boy as everybody in his family-city-country agrees. But he has got to a point at which it is time to make contact with deeper internal forces – not so much repressed, as latent: for there are many linguistic indications that Oedipus with one part of his mind knows very well who he is all the time, but has not been able to make use of this knowledge in his personal development. The second type of thinking concerns not the facts of his literal birth in the purely rational and detective sense, but the quest of his internal daimon or soul for the mystery of his growth and identity. This cannot be understood without re-engaging with the passionate baby that he once was, before he got so good at his schoolwork. In order to earn this new kind of kingship he has to undermine his own authority. It is an entirely different type of thinking from that which so impressed the Sphinx. To underline this fact, the two types of thinking are carried on simultaneously, and this is what constitutes Sophocles’ famous dramatic irony.

Before he is ready for an intimate dialogue with Jocasta, Oedipus has to overcome two cognitive temptations that arouse his hubristic defensiveness. The first is represented by Teiresias, whose knowledge, like all superstition, is always of “dreadful secrets”. He does not tell lies about facts, but about their meaning.  For Teiresias, any increase in knowledge must be turned into a misfortune.  He tells Oedipus that his “birthday” (the day he discovers the mystery of his birth) also marks the day of his death: implying that, as the Chorus will say later, there is no point in facing life at all.  It is better not to be born than to know the full extent of one’s sinfulness. However Oedipus recognises that Teiresias with his intimidatory tactics is another version of the Sphinx, and that he – “Oedipus the ignorant” – is once again required by the city of his mind to establish contact with his innate intelligence. He does not know the answer, but he has reached the stage where ignorance is no longer a viable state of mind. Teiresias can only win if Oedipus should baulk at this threshold and turn his back on the investigation.


‘Oedipus and the sphinx’ (Fabre, 1806)

The second temptation comes with Creon. Where Teiresias made Oedipus feel weak, Creon makes him feel contemptuous, and this stimulates another unprofitable tyrannical outburst. Oedipus recovers his self-restraint, and when he releases Creon from being scapegoat, he knows very well that it signals his own “death” – he is now prepared to face the type of humiliation that feels like death. This constitutes a type of dream-analysis and it is conducted with the help of Jocasta as mother, muse and psychoanalyst.

The sensitive relationship with Jocasta, whom he says he respects “more than all these men here”, is instrumental in the process of “remembering” – in Bion’s sense of imaginative reconstruction in the present moment, rather than as a literal recollection of past trauma.  Oedipus ignores everyone else and enters a dreamlike state, described as “strange”, in which, listening to his mother, his mind “wanders, and thoughts race back and forth”. Jocasta conjures back into his consciousness two old shepherds who looked after him as a baby – the two breasts of his infant mind who fed him on the high pastures of the mountain-mother. Oedipus reviews his story as a child of two sets of parents: the fiercely passionate ones of Thebes, Laius and Jocasta, and the more equanimical, doting foster-parents of Corinth who brought him  up in princely comfort. They could not tell him the truth directly but fostered his independent spirit, until the time came for him to rediscover their other parental aspects, the fierce and dangerous features of this passionate sexual intercourse that is an integral part of his own nature.  He imagines his engendering at the disturbing “crossroads” where his father’s possession of his mother’s body took the form of his own conception, the new prince.  Then to his horror he realizes that she too was instrumental in his expulsion from her body or palace: not only were his parents united, but the two old shepherd-breasts (one Theban, one Corinthian) both belonged to one mother. He learns how he was passed from hand to hand on the mountain-mother of Cithaeron when he was an infant.

Kris Kuksi Oedipus in Contemplation

‘Oedipus in Contemplation’ (Kuksi)

The discovery of the two shepherds is thus the climax of the play – the genuine classical “catastrophe” when the symbol is formed and sheds light on all the parts which make its whole. Jocasta’s role as the dream-feeding mother is now completed. She goes indoors to hang herself, as the mother may be said to hang up the breasts on weaning. Her “suicide” symbolises the end of her function in aiding Oedipus’ self-revelation. Oedipus is now ready to internalise the concept of his mother. He sees her in a different light, as the earthly mediator of a higher power – Tyche, Chance, or Destiny, that “great goddess, giver of all good things. She is my mother!” With this painful-joyous realisation, Oedipus recognises that Jocasta was both the one who fed him and the one who caused him pain.  She was party to the rivets in his ankles, the sharp nipples in the caring breasts – the wild, dark powers of Cithaeron who coexist with the homely shepherds, sharing their territory. Through a triumph of integration, these opposing attributes or agents of Oedipus’ internal mother have been returned to their source in Tyche. Unlike the literal breasts this force of nature will never run dry.

This moment of weaning is painful for the mother too. Jocasta has already tried to call off the search, “my suffering is enough”. Her role, like that of Oedipus, is essentially one of tolerating the pain of his drive for truth and development. His self-blinding, like her hanging, and like the birthmark of his ankles, is an act of recognition.  He uses Jocasta’s doubleness – her two-pronged brooch (recalling the two-pronged fork of Laius) – for this stab of recognition, reinforced by his parents as combined object. It is described as “digging the twin points down into the sockets of his eyes”, and the word used for sockets (arthra) is the same as that for the joints of his ankles, the source of his swollen-footedness. This language is linked with that of the lunge of Destiny, the “stab of memory” that accompanies this new birth, his future self. The self-daimon and the object-daimon come into line in this double stabbing: the god ordained it – “but the hand that struck my eyes was mine … I did it!”

In this way a thinking capacity is gradually established in the growing mind. Oedipus is no longer tyrannus. He has been deposed, or rather he has deposed himself, just as the baby weans himself.  He has been “saved from death”, he says, for some further unknown “strange destiny”.  But he is internally strengthened, knowing that he is the “only man alive” who can sustain his troubles. It has been a story of catastrophic change in the transcendent sense of moving onto the next phase of development. It is significant that at the end of the play, Oedipus is allowed to briefly touch his two daughters, who will be his new eyes as he stumbles and strides ahead in the next stage of his journey, with inward eyes unblind.


‘Oedipus and Antigone Leave Thebes’ (Koch, 1797)



Meg Harris Williams, a writer and artist, studied English at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford and art at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, and has had a lifelong psychoanalytic education. She has written and lectured extensively in the UK and abroad on psychoanalysis and literature, and teaches at the Tavistock Centre in London, and the University of Surrey. She is married with four children and lives in Farnham, Surrey. Her new book, Teaching Bion: Modes and Approaches, an edited collection, is published this week (Karnac Books).



3 thoughts on “Meg Harris Williams reveals the true story of Oedipus

  1. Pingback: Psychoanalyst and playwright Antonio Quinet discusses the origins of his play about Freud |

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