A different sort of Oedipus Complex?

Claire Vane
November 11, 2019

I was watching the recent Greek play at Cambridge which takes place on a four-yearly cycle.  This year was the second of the Oedipus Trilogy – Oedipus of Colonus.  I noticed while reading up about the play, that there is some question as to whether the play is actually a tragedy.  Without debating the classical definition, I felt pretty miserable about the human condition by the end of the play.

What struck me as Professor Simon Goldhill was speaking before the start of the play, is that this is a play about a hero ‘going too far’ and most tragedies are characterised by an individual, either trying to excel or going too far by transgression of a boundary.  

In all these tragic heroes there is a something of a contradiction between transgression and their own desire to excel.  To call somebody a hero, therefore, is something of an irony.  The hero is often the protagonist, but he does not come across as a victorious hero, but a tragic one.  

I was then struck by the modern application of certain psychometric tools to look at excess in an individual and how human beings never seem to be able to use moderation in their behaviour when the pressure is on and the going gets rough.

In this tragedy, Oedipus turns up in a sacred grove where he is not permitted and there is no home for him to return to and there will be no hero’s welcome.  Oedipus by this time has killed his father and married his mother, had children with her and has gouged out his own eyes as personal retribution for what he has done.  It is all about boundaries and going beyond what is appropriate.  This is a man who has committed excess in all sorts of ways.  He is an angry man who is in need of help who curses his son and thus perpetuates further tragedy.  Yet, despite his excess, Oedipus is saying that he has suffered more than he deserves, both as a defence and as a self-justification.

When he curses his son, he relives his anger and commits the same mistakes and brings replicated suffering on future generations. Oedipus’ tragic flaw is characterised partly by an individual repeating his excess by bringing its curse upon future generations and thus perpetuating the excess.

It brought to mind how useful certain psychometric tools can be to raise self-awareness.  If we can be aware of the excesses we commit at times of pressure and stress, then we have a choice about how we react.  Oedipus, as a young man, ran away to avoid the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, rather than dealing with his excesses, which related to anger and boundaries.

We see violence in the play and there is violence in the way the protagonist speaks which produces further violence.  It seems ironic that the ancient tragedies, whether Greek or Shakespearean, are just as valid today as we see excesses abound in organisations and a lack of boundaries which leads to poor communication with bad business consequences.   Nowadays for our leaders and team members we have psychometric tools that can examine these excesses and risks, and thereby give us better control of our behaviour and the opportunity to choose calmly how we might re-act. It is extraordinary that the reluctance to use such tools, which cost little, is so great that we miss the opportunity to reduce poor leadership where individuals step too far beyond acceptable boundaries.  

If you’d like to look at ways to reduce business risk caused by excess in leadership behaviour, then do please get in touch.

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Claire Vane

Claire is the Managing Director and Founder of Integrated Resources. She is passionate about releasing potential in individuals and organisations.

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