Photo: Oedipus and Antigone, or the Plague of Thebes, by Charles Jalabert, 1843, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille © Bridgeman Images
A Case Study in How the Plague Plagues Cities:
Sickness in Oedipus Rex and The Gods Are Not To Blame
By Lily Nesvold
Many are familiar with Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex; however, fewer know its modern adaptation, Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not To Blame. Published in 1971, the novel is set in the Yoruba kingdom and tells the story of Odewale, king of Kutuje, in three acts, much like the original Sophoclean play. Oedipus Rex and The Gods Are Not To Blame portray how illness plagues the respective cities of Thebes and Kutuje. Additionally, the action in these stories stems from the fact that the kingdoms are suffering for an unknown cause; the representation of disease and the leaders’ subsequent reactions are central to the narrative arc of both pieces.
The opening scene of Oedipus Rex demonstrates the city’s devastation at an ongoing mysterious plague. A crowd has gathered outside of the royal palace, and when Oedipus asks what the cause of the commotion is, a Theban priest laments: “for our city . . . is badly shaken—she cannot raise her head above the depths of so much surging death” (26-28). The personification of Thebes reveals the ubiquity of the plague—all of the city’s citizens are subjected to its power. The lines immediately following this excerpt further underscore the plague’s pervasiveness: “disease infects fruit blossoms in our land . . . infects our herds of grazing cattle . . . makes women in labor lose their children” (29-31). Not only are existing lives taken, but also new ones are snuffed out before they can experience the world—this loss creates even more intense grief for mothers and families. Additionally, the plague is more than a human sickness—it “infects” (a verb repeated in successive lines) other living things (that is, the “fruit blossoms” and “grazing cattle”). Nature is undoubtedly a powerful force, but fate and the gods prove even more powerful.
The feeling of powerlessness is also prevalent in the opening of The Gods Are Not To Blame. A group of the townspeople amasses outside of the palace to complain about the plague, and one woman mentions how she boiled “lemon-grass, teabush, and some limeskins” as a cure for her family, but it failed to “[make them] better” (13). When Odewale insists she made a mistake because she did not boil the mixture long enough, another woman chimes in that the concoction did not work even when steeped for more time: “I boiled mine longer—a long time. [My body does not feel] as well as the heart wishes, my lord” (13). Regardless of the methods employed, the people cannot cure the plague. Also, despite the dire circumstances, some citizens remain civil and respect their king, an attitude revealed through the woman’s proper address, “my lord.” Usually, plagues are thought to bring out the worst in people, so it is interesting to see the Kutujans continue to respect their king, especially since it is later revealed that he caused the problem.
Both Oedipus and Odewale are self-absorbed in regard to the plague when, as influential leaders, they should place the needs of the people ahead of their desires. In Oedipus Rex, the crowd that gathers in front of the royal palace does so with branches as offerings to the gods, perhaps even hopeful that Oedipus will remedy the issue; however, the king gives his citizens anything but consolation: “For I well know that you are ill, and yet, sick as you are, there is not one of you whose illness equals mine” (69-71). One might argue that Oedipus is merely trying to connect with the people at this moment; however, the diction of “not one of you” shows that Oedipus sees himself as the plague’s primary victim when in reality others are also experiencing hardship. In the same manner, Odewale assures his citizens that he and his family are undergoing the same pain as them: “Sickness is like rain. Does the rain fall on one roof alone? No. Does it fall on one body and not on another? No. Whoever the rain sees, on him it rains” (10). While this rapid firing of questions followed by the response “no” could be interpreted as a defense mechanism against the verbal attacks of his citizens, it seems as though Odewale is more interested in projecting his power than addressing the people’s concerns. Furthermore, the rain imagery almost contradicts his argument that everyone is affected by the illness—while rain does fall everywhere and does not discriminate against people, some individuals can afford roofs to protect themselves from the rain.
To convey the detriment of the plague, both stories make use of vivid nature imagery. Ultimately, both cities experience pain and suffering as a result of the widespread sickness, and their leaders, Oedipus and Odewale, fall short of their kingly duties. The notion of a “plague” may have seemed foreign to us before 2019, but after recovering from the pandemic, these two stories provide a familiar case study of cities stricken by illness. Many government officials across the globe also failed as leaders by delaying action from the outset, prematurely reopening public spaces, and failing to communicate with the public. Perhaps we can learn what not to do, in the future, by studying the mistakes of Oedipus and Odewale.
Lily Nesvold (College ’23) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies and minoring in Economics.