When we find ourselves in times of trouble, we customarily turn to Shakespeare’s plays for guidance. Shakespeare used the stage to talk about tyranny, sexual harassment, and gender issues, so we find in his plays mirrors for our own problems and concerns. But even though Shakespeare lived through at least two major outbreaks of bubonic plague, for some reason, he left that topic alone.
Fortunately, many other writers can fill the gap. The Nobel Prize-winning existentialist, Albert Camus, paralleled an outbreak of plague with fascism in The Plague (1947). Mary Shelley followed up Frankenstein with The Last Man (1826), in which a disease wipes out humanity, and Daniel Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is about the AIDS epidemic.
But the work I want to talk about is Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, first performed 429 BCE (the Peloponnesian War started two years earlier) and one of the foundational works of the Western canon.
The plot is well-known: the city of Thebes is reeling from a “deadly pestilence.” People are dying, crops are blighted, women are rendered barren. As the Chorus says, no one is spared and the town “is emptied of its people.” So a group appeals to their king, Oedipus, to do something—anything!—to rescue the town from this terrible disease. Oedipus then springs into action, saying that he will do whatever it takes to stop this plague in its tracks, but his search for an answer leads to his own destruction: the cause of the plague is Oedipus himself, who killed his father and married his mother.
Critics have interpreted Sophocles’ tragedy every which way, but from our perspective, Oedipus the King is a play about leadership, about authority’s response to a crisis. How Oedipus acted begs for a comparison with President Donald J. Trump’s actions, or lack thereof, in a similar situation.
There are more similarities between the two than one might think. Like the President, Oedipus has quite the ego. He introduces himself as “Oedipus whom all men call the Great,” and he pats himself on the back for solving the riddle of the Sphinx “by my wit alone.” Oedipus doesn’t go so far as to say he’s a “very stable genius,” but he comes close.
Oedipus also says that in discovering who killed the previous king, he’s acting in his own self-interest (“so helping the dead king I help myself”), just as Trump confuses or conflates what’s good for him with what’s good for the United States. For example, he didn’t want to evacuate a cruise ship off the California coast because that would increase the number of cases: “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
Also, like Trump, Oedipus has a temper. He rages at Teiresias, when the blind prophet hesitates to say what he knows (i.e., that Oedipus is the plague’s cause), and he has more than a touch of paranoia. He thinks that his brother-in-law, Creon, wants his position, just as Trump thinks that the “deep state” is out to get him.
But the differences outweigh the similarities, and here we can see how a play written over two thousand years ago helps clarify today’s issues.
First, empathy. Oedipus’s first words are “I pity you, children,” then, a little later, the chorus’ sorrows “touch but one of you,” but Oedipus, he says, “groans / for city and myself and you at once.” Like George W. Bush after 9/11, who told New York’s leaders “ “I don’t think about myself right now. I think about the families, the children,” Oedipus puts others first. Trump, to state the obvious, never thinks about anyone other than himself.
Then, Oedipus shows that a good leader is proactive. He knew about the plague before the Chorus comes to tell him about it, and he has already sent messengers to the oracle to ask the gods what to do. Trump, on the other hand, spent weeks denying that the coronavirus epidemic needed to be taken seriously. On Feb. 27, Trump said, “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.” Two days earlier, Larry Kudlow, Trump’s economic advisor, said that they had the virus “contained. I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight.” Unlike Oedipus, Trump has continuously engaged in denial and deflection. Oedipus, on the other hand, took the plague seriously from the start.
But the most instructive difference is that Oedipus takes full responsibility. Even though he could have claimed that he killed his father in self-defense (Laius starts the fight that ends with his death), even though he could have said that he had no idea that Jocasta is his mother, Oedipus takes the blame, and punishes himself accordingly. Having acted blindly, he blinds himself.
Oedipus’s actions put into stark relief how Trump continuously blames everyone and anyone. When asked by a reporter about his administration’s slow response, he said, “I don’t take responsibility at all,” preferring instead to blame the Obama administration. Confronted with the shortage of masks and other vital medical equipment, he blamed hospitals for hoarding or worse: “Something is going on, and you ought to look into it as reporters. Are they going out the back door?” When reporters ask him tough questions, he responds by insulting them and calling the questions “nasty.”
But there’s a larger point here than just showing how Oedipus reveals Trump’s manifest failings. Sophocles wrote his tragedy two years into the war that would spell the end of Athenian democracy, and in many ways, the play asks the audience to look hard at how their culture has failed them. Like Oedipus, Athenians thought they too were smarter than everyone else, and like many Americans, they thought Athens should be a model for the world.
Oedipus the King shows the limitations of that view. So, the play asks contemporary audiences to ask hard questions about the terrible situation we find ourselves in. How did we elect a government that is so indifferent to science? What does it say about American culture that so many, particularly in the South, resist taking all necessary measures to end this pandemic? Why does Trump think that replacing “coronavirus” with “Chinese virus” is a good idea?
Sophocles created a tragedy that invited the audience to look into a mirror. Maybe we should do the same.
Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He is an expert on Shakespeare and Milton, and is author of the new book Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11.