Instructors regret students’ use of crib-notes that seek to provide understanding of a text with a summary and a few formulas. Headnotes in textbooks are as bad. Of course, lazy scholars will use these as well as plot-summaries and instant internet précis to fend off encounters with literature. The damage in such a case is not as bad as for the reader who has, in fact, read the material, only to limit his insight to someone’s severely reductive version. If a poem, novel, or play could be adequately paraphrased in a line or two, there would be no need for literature beyond the apothegm.
The literary text is polysemous; that is part of what distinguishes it from other discourses. This is sometimes figured by the naïve as a series of revelations: the words seem to mean X on the surface; the analyst will see beneath that to the deeper meaning Y; the more acute critic may sketch a more esoteric reading yet and call it triumphantly Z. In truth, all meanings which are encoded in the text operate simultaneously. Some are more potent than others; some more likely to strike the casual reader; some interpretations will be elicited by that reader’s prior interests and inclinations; some remain to be spotlighted by future students. Yet even at times when the text seems either to be simple and straightforward or to insist on a certain reading, it can be useful to explore alternatives.
Mythic narrations are especially rich in theme. The stories evolved to bear an extraordinary burden of significance, and the old ones gain more with each reader. One of the richest myths in European tradition is that of Oedipus. Sophocles’ play (Οἰδίπους Τύραννος) makes an excellent case study for this claim. I propose here to set forth a list, by no means exhaustive, which can serve to demonstrate the truth of the claims about the aesthetic text’s unique support of multiple meanings and about myth’s particular semiotic richness. I will not here propose a hierarchy or more and less important resonances, nor will I provide evidence to justify any of these options or to privilege one over another (though I do begin with those heard more commonly). The list of approaches might itself be useful to readers wondering what to do with an entirely different text.
1. An initial view of the play might be simply as spectacle: the dance, the poetry, the costumes, Dionysos seated among the spectators. In this experience of the play the primary significance of the hero is that he is a big man, at viewing whom the common man may feel a vicarious pleasure as American do when reading about celebrities. Here the point of the drama is pleasure – Oedipus, whatever else is nay be, is an evening’s entertainment.
2. In the realistic reading, Oedipus is Everyman. His name, if it means swell-foot (as Shelley had it) is simply descriptive. The theme is explicit in the play’s final verse when the chorus declares that no man should be deemed happy “before he has passed out of life having never suffered pain.” Though the poet dances about the point elegantly, his view was proverbial in Greece even before this play (see Aeschylus’ Agamemnon 928 and Solon’s “No mortal is happy, rather all under the sun suffer.” (Edmonds, 14). Buddha began from a similar realization. Here fate is ethically random but inexorable.
3. In an ethical reading, Oedipus is the hubristic ego, seeking power beyond others, chastened for pride. Though the realistic reading would insist that all people suffer, this approach regards Oedipus as deserving his fate. What happens to him is an example of the sort of retributive justice of which Job’s friends felt so certain. His missing the mark, or ἁμαρτία (the very word used by scripture translators for sin) led to his suffering.
4. A related reading would be the social or historical in which the hero is primarily a bad king who must be expelled before justice is restored to the community. The harmonious kingdom as a philosophic ideal appears in Lau Dz and Confucius as well as in such modern Marxists as Christopher Caudwell and George Thomson. The critic adopting this view might look either at the conditions of the work’s production or the themes of its words.
5. In the ritual view the play may reenact an act of scapegoat magic in the banishment of the old year-spirit in the person of the aged and ineffectual king and his replacement by a more vigorous successor. Oedipus is, in fact, an important text for the Cambridge School anthropologists for whom drama regularly had a ritual origin. (of whom Frazer, Harrison, Cornford, were primarily classicists). The tragedy’s denouement is then a healing process for the community.
6. In the psychological reduction of theme, Oedipus is the stalled ego who has failed to grow up in the immediate sense of remaining in love with his mother (though he may stand as the type of any neurotic). In less psychoanalytic versions, this reading would approach the ethical one with the character flaw of pride regarded not as a sin but as a self-defeating behavioral habit.
7. To the aesthetic reader, Oedipus is simply an abstract pattern among other patterns. This reading is based on the conspicuous care lavished on metric play and other musical elements. Indeed, the chorus itself proclaims the principle, though in a negative formulation: if a wicked man prospers, they ask, “How can any man protect his soul from the blows of the gods? If such men are honored, there’s no point to choral dancing!” (893-6) (Thus, if the chorus is dancing, as it manifestly is during the performance, all must be well.)
These clearly feature certain common elements. Apart from the pleasure-oriented first and last, they portray an extraordinary human individual colliding with the cosmos. Aristotle’s “pleasure” and “fear” and “catharsis” are consistent with all.
Not every text is as susceptible to interpretation as Oedipus, and the close attention to Sophocles’ words during the millennia since its composition have only increased the rich potential of the play. Yet every text, no matter how insubstantial, will have not only the pleasure/entertainment reading (it was either a pleasure or it was not), but also historical readings (as every text is produced in certain social circumstances and nearly every text touches on the relations among humans), psychological readings (as every texts must be produced and consumed by the human consciousness), and aesthetic readings (as it must proclaim itself the right sort of writing and seek to displace what has come before). I have found that one may hit upon new insights while pursuing the most unlikely reading.