Sophocles' Oedipus

The Old Shepherd

Who ever really thinks about the Old Shepherd in this play? But he is absolutely vital to all the actions described in the play:

  1. He took the three-day old baby from Jocasta, who had told him to kill it.
  2. He claimed he couldn't bear to kill it, and gave it instead to his fellow shepherd from Corinth, from the other side of Mount Cithaeron (with whom he shared three summer seasons - although he had two flocks to the Theban's one)
  3. He was one of King Laius' escort when he went on his fateful visit to the oracle at Delphi, and witnessed the killing of his master by Oedipus.
  4. He spread the story that King Laius was killed by a gang of thieves (and told Creon and Jocasta this story).
  5. He realised that the new king of Thebes was the killer of the previous one and asked Jocasta if he could be sent away from the palace. "He was a good slave - he deserved that favour and much more." (Of course he did, she knew how helpful he'd been in disposing of her unwanted child!)
  6. When forced to, he confessed to Oedipus that he had failed to kill him as a baby, and given him to the Corinthian instead.
[The Old Shepherd]

We can easily flesh out his story - although some gaps remain. How did the queen come to give him the baby? If she gave it to him in the palace, what was he doing there? (A shepherd was a form of very low life indeed - when Oedipus is talking to the Corinthian he seems to assume that "shepherd" and "vagabond" mean much the same thing.) If she gave it to him elsewhere, how come no one else knew? I'd like to imagine him being in Thebes maybe for the winter - and getting the baby the day he's due to move back up onto the mountain. Presumably this was the third year of his friendship with the Corinthian - which is why he was able to pass the baby over to him so easily. But who pinned the baby's ankles? Presumably not Jocasta - she does not mention it to Oedipus when she is describing her baby's death (although maybe she would not have wanted to).

The Corinthian received the baby already pinioned, and released him - and obviously knew the significance of the name Oedipus (swollen foot) - which the Theban Shepherd did not or he would have known when Oedipus first came to Thebes that he was not only the man he saw kill Laius, but also the baby he gave away. Surely he would have warned Jocasta if he knew the young man was Oedipus? So either the Corinthian or King Polybus must have given him his name. Neither shepherd ever returned to Cithaeron - both were presumably rewarded for their service to their respective royal families. The Corinthian became a messenger - and the Theban was promoted to the king's bodyguard.

So he pretended he had done the service for Jocasta, and hid the truth from her - although he knew perfectly well what the oracle had said (but only the oracle as then known to Jocasta and Laius - that the baby would kill its father. Oedipus does not find out about the mother-marrying addition to the curse until he goes himself to Delphi). Then he was promoted - from shepherd to bodyguard (a big leap in status) - as a reward for his services. Did he feel guilty about this? We know nothing of his feelings on this particular matter - but we know he had feelings - of sympathy for Oedipus at the beginning when he saved him, and at the end when he realised who Oedipus was. But of course both these emotions are bogus - when he saved him he knew he was disobeying the queen and Apollo, and when he finally admitted to knowing him, he knew he was a lifetime too late.

Then he returned to shepherding - a special favour granted by the queen, who respected him for his two services to the family - taking the baby, and loyally bringing back the news of her husband's death. But note that in fact he had lied spectacularly to Jocasta both times. What excuse would he have given her for wanting to leave Thebes?

So what sort of character is he? At first it's tempting to feel rather sorry for him - living with his guilty secrets all those years, and seeming never to betray the family he served so loyally. But the more you think about him, the more wretched he seems - a miserable little man too squeamish to carry out the orders to kill the baby (presumably he got as far as pinioning it, to be left for wild animals or birds to dispose of before he decided to get rid of it otherwise) - and telling the parents a lie; and too frightened to tell what he knew about Laius' death - and lying about it, and prepared to lie, too, about his connection with the Corinthian, until he is finally threatened with physical violence by Oedipus himself.

So the fate of the great man, Oedipus, the seeker after truth, solver of the Sphinx's riddle, is settled by a common liar - a man who never told the truth in his life until he was forced to. Oedipus is in no doubt about his feelings for the fellow - he curses the man who saved his life, sincerely wishing he had died that day.

Read an imaginary account of the Old Shepherd's story by Toba Fayeye?

Back to Oedipus Page? [Previous Page?]