Tragedy and the Mind: Some Thoughts on Sophocles and Psychology

A few years ago, in the early months of the COVID pandemic, Reading Greek Tragedy Online explored the Trachinian Women as one of its early experiments.


RGTO has inspired a lot of conversation and engagement. Here is a response from a viewer in the wider world.

Psychological, non-Freudian look at the plays of Sophocles:
Allegories of current political events in ancient Athens

by psychologist and psychotherapist Klaus Schlagmann,, Costa Rica

I first read “Oedipus the King” in the original more than 25 years ago when I had to grapple with Freud’s concept of the “Oedipal conflict”.

According to Freud, every boy between the ages of 1 and 7 wants to have a sexual relationship with his mother and therefore wants to get rid of his father. This is the “positive” Oedipus complex. Likewise, every boy wants to have a sexual relationship with his father and therefore wants to get rid of his mother (“negative” Oedipus complex). The same applies to girls by analogy.

Reading the Sophocles play made me realize how much Freud is turning reality into its opposite: at the end of the play, Oedipus wants to kill his mother – in honor of his father, whose death he wants to atone for on the basis of Apollo’s revelation. If Jocasta had not committed suicide beforehand, he would have murdered her. He wants to carry out this matricide with the same justification that is used to justify and demand other matricides in Greek mythology: because the mothers are responsible for the death of their respective fathers.

Over time I have studied all the great Sophocles pieces that have survived. In a discussion of such texts, I would like to bring a psychologist’s reasonable, non-Freudian perspective. As a psychologist, I pay attention to whether there are contradictions between what someone says and what he does. In general, I’m more trained to pay attention to the “action messages” of the actors instead of just listening to what they say. Or I pay attention to what someone does not say, although it should actually be addressed. I may question whether the emotions or insights presented are really real. Perhaps they are only pretended and played. Maybe I come across completely illogical points of view – and then try to be particularly attentive here and to interpret them meaningfully. Sometimes I’m probably more willing to judge certain statements as “outrageous” and rather to pillory them. All in all, in this job I have learned to pay attention to contradictions, to take them seriously and to try to resolve them. Having worked with dream interpretation, I am familiar with symbolism and allegory.

I want to briefly tie this to the great “Antigone”. It is probably the oldest, most impressive plea for a democratic society. That’s why it’s still relevant today. These values are fully represented by Antigone (and Haimon). Creon – that is important to recognize from my point of view! – embodies exactly the opposite: an arbitrary, brutal, unreasonable, godless, unjust dictatorship. From the beginning he successfully reduced the council of elders to the role of a vicarious agent. Through his brutality, he has the majority of the population and his henchmen firmly under control.

Here is an example for each of the features mentioned above:

Contradiction between what someone says and does: Creon praises the council of elders for having served so well for three generations of rulers – but it is clear that his decision not to bury Polynices presents this body with a fait accompli. He never dreamed of discussing this with his “council” in advance. The Athenians of that time must have experienced this as an immediate affront: a decision is not even discussed with a few select advisors – it is made by Creon all by himself. This corresponds to the state model of absolutism: “L’État, c’est moi.”

Noting what someone is NOT saying: When Creon talks about what happened at the end, he laments that he killed his son, but that he explicitly did this to Antigone and that he ordered Polynices to be punished completely inappropriately as well, he says NOT A SINGLE word about it.

Feigning insight: Obviously the play itself is about acting as if in a theater. For example, Creon ends up pretending to show remorse and heed the advice that was given to him. Free Antigone and bury Polynices. But Creon reverses the order! What an infamy! He excludes from the funeral the person who stood up for it from the beginning and would have been most worthy to officiate this ceremony! Whether he just wanted to increase the likelihood of Antigone’s death by delaying her liberation through a very elaborate burial, or even quickly instructed his bodyguard to break into Antigone’s dungeon during the burial and kill her, but make it look like suicide, that remains open to me. In any case, at this point he PROVES that he is in no way interested in the divine revelations.

Making sense of illogical points of view: Antigone claims that she would never have broken a burial law for her children or a husband. From my point of view, this emphasizes the special meaning of a – symbolically meant – “sibling” relationship, i.e. an obligation that Athens has towards a community that originates from its own “motherland” – i.e. towards Sparta. Comparatively fewer obligations to colonies (“children”) or other distant allies (“husband”).

There are a number of other things I would like to draw your attention to. Also, for example, that from my point of view Sophocles is a deeply democratic-minded author who brings allegories to the stage in all of his plays that confront his compatriots with political events that happened not too long ago.

I have now translated two essays from the last few years into English for the dramas “The Trachinian Women” ( and “Antigone” ( I will be doing that for “Oedipus the King” in the near future. “Philoctetes” and “Ajax” are also on the program for this project. Here, too, clear allegorical references to the current political events in Athens at that time can be demonstrated.

About Klaus:  Born in 1960, I studied psychology at the University of Saarbrücken (Diploma, 1988). Since 1993 I worked in my own psychotherapeutic practice (katathymic-imaginative psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, NLP, hypnosis and psych-analysis according to Josef Breuer). Since 1995 I have been researching the history of psychoanalysis and therefore came to study especially the stories of Narcissus and Oedipus, which were incorporated into Freud’s theory. I look at those ancient tales from a completely new perspective. In 2012 I published Sigmund Freud’s long-lost letters to the writer Wilhelm Jensen. Since 2022 I’m living in Costa Rica.

Color Photograph of Narcissus reclining, a Pompeiian Wall Painting