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Four-footed weakness: childhood and neoteny in Oedipus Rex

Piskorski, R. (2019) Four-footed weakness: childhood and neoteny in Oedipus Rex. Oxford Literary Review, 41 (2). pp. 258-273. ISSN 0305-1498

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To link to this item DOI: 10.3366/olr.2019.0282


That Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is concerned with childhood is something of a truism, but there are ways in which this holds true that go beyond its contribution to the Freudian theory of infantile sexuality. The riddle posed by the sphinx, whose solving cements Oedipus’ incestuous marriage, foregrounds infancy and its similarities to and differences from other life stages. More than that, it illustrates a difference between humans (whose number of feet changes) and other animals via a recapitulationist perspective that summarises the evolution of the human in one individual's life. However, I argue that, rather than foregrounding childhood, the play explores a peculiar trait of human infancy: neoteny. While this biological term refers to the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood, it has been critically deployed not only to suggest that humans are neotenic because their adult state after sexual maturation resembles the young of primates, but also that this resemblance stems from a premature birth and a prolonged, helpless infancy. I read the play as an intervention on the logic of the riddle that opposes neoteny to recapitulation. In the play, the difference between begetting (φύω, phuō) and rearing (τρέφω, trephō) is constantly worked over through the exploration of the difference between biological and adoptive fathers, between nature and nurture, which lays bare the conceptual work of neoteny.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:No Reading authors. Back catalogue items
Arts, Humanities and Social Science > International Study and Language Institute (ISLI)
ID Code:114010
Publisher:Edinburgh University Press

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