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Reading Oedipus Rex during COVID-19

The Overseer of the Plague

A critical reading of the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex with a focus on the protagonist as a ruler overseeing a city under a plague, is illuminating for our times. The role and responsibility displayed by Oedipus can be compared and contrasted with the performance of the major political leaders of our own contemporary world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Civic duty and the sovereign’s responsibility towards their people during the crisis are examined.

“The Ancients are modern.” This was G M Lowes Dickinson’s conclusion about the ancient Greeks according to E M Forster, as expressed in his preface to Dickinson’s book, The Greek View of Life (1909). The most well known of Greek tragic plays Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is certainly relevant for us today as we grapple with COVID-19 and look at government res­ponses to the pandemic internationally. In the play, the main protagonist, Oedipus, rules over the city of Thebes that ails under a plague. His actions alert us to possible roles of responsibility during an epidemic, many of which seem to have been handled egregiously by many contemporary world leaders.

As the play opens, the citizens appeal to the king to help them as they are ­dying in large numbers. In accordance with the conventions, what may even be understood as the science of the time, there is an attempt to unravel the cause of the disease so as to find a cure by sending an emissary to the prophet at Delphi. But even before the appeal is made, Oedipus, the kind, concerned, and alert ruler has done what is required. An embassy to the oracle is already on its way.

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Updated On : 23rd Jun, 2020

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