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Chapter 2

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

This chapter is devoted to the detailed study of the Oedipus Rex by

Sophocles variously named as Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus The King

etc. It is an epoch-making tragedy produced by the mastermind

expressing the unconfined imagination of Athenian society. It creates

a penetrating shock to the established moral thought and discusses a

human being’s ultimate relationship to the universe. As T. R. Henn


“Tragedy more than any other form except

epic must deal with ultlmates...It can not

handle the conflicts of the laws without

raising moral issues.”

(Henn, p.287)

The structure of Oedipus Rex is always considered by critics when

discussing tragedy as a genre. Sophocles deals with his characters on

a human level and shows how a character reacts under stress. He

creates and treats the inevitable mysteries of human life through the

ancient myth of Oedipus. Chong-Gossard aptly says:

“The theatre—the ‘seeing place’—as an

institution was a means for men to embrace

the ‘other’ by viewing or performing it in the

public arena. By watching a mythical Oedipus

crash from the heights of power to the depths

of suffering, and by believing it to be real, we


come away from the experience of drama with a wider knowledge of the possibilities of change in that shared human existence of which we are all a part.”(Chong-Gossard, web) Since classical times, critics have been always curious to label tragedians as “most religious” or “least religious” etc. The basis of this labelling is found in the character’s moral or Immoral behaviour as per the contemporary standards interpreted by the playwright. The playwright’s religious view is judged by the relationship between crime and punishment as reflected through his characters which is in agreement with the audience’s religious beliefs. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides highlighted and interpreted the contemporary religious beliefs in existing theatrical convention, for example, perjury (pollution) and asylum (purification) are the concepts which were of religious concern to the fifth century Athenian audience. These religious concepts also helped the tragedians to build the image of the tragic heroes as well as to enhance the tragic vision of the audience.
Since most of the Greek tragedies were based on mythical and legendary stories, the dramatists exploited the popular beliefs to achieve literary and dramatic effect. The dramatist tried to fit the religious, political and social concepts and values in the stories of mythical past. This is a noteworthy fact for the modem readers. As Bernard Knox writes,

“The character of Oedipus is the character of

the Athenian people.”

(Knox, p.67)

Sophocles selected the myth of Oedipus who tried to escape the

accomplishment of the prophecy of Apollo. Thinking that he was

victorious, Oedipus mocked at the oracles and prophecies of gods. But

to his great disappointment, he found at the end that he had

accomplished the prophecy years ago. The oracles were a sacred

religious institution in ancient Greece. They play a prominent part in

the story within this play also. Although the Delphic oracle was still

very popular in the times of Sophocles, it was by no means held in

absolute reverence, for it was known to have given answers

unfavourable to Athens and its interests. It is not exactly possible to

know from Oedipus Rex as to what Sophocles’ own attitude to the

oracles was, unless it maintained that the attitude of the chorus is

necessarily that of Sophocles himself.

The irreverence and Impiety of Jocasta and Oedipus towards the sacred institution of the oracle seems to shock the chorus deeply. Although they love and esteem their king and queen, they cannot tolerate the casual attitude of people regarding the oracle of the gods for that would cut the very roots of Greek religion. They view the growing skepticism with alarm and pray to the gods to vindicate their prophecies and oracles if they want that people’s faith in them should remain intact. Their words are quite impassioned:
“King of kings, if you deserve your titles


Zeus remember, never forget! You and your deathless, everlasting reign. They are dying, the old oracles sent to Lalus, now our masters strike them off the rolls.
Nowhere Apollo’s golden glory nowthe gods, the gods go down.” (991-97)
With this spotlight, Sophocles coloured the whole story in the then current debatable religious Issues. The very opening of the drama gives a horrified picture of the widespread devastation due to plague in the country. The group of priests is seen to appeal the king for the rescue from the grave situation. The first choral ode also prays the gods with the same intention by putting forth the picture of the havoc in the countiy-
“...children dead in the womb and life on life goes down
you can watch them go like seabirds winging west...
generations strewn on the ground unburied...the dead spreading death...”
(198-208) The Athenians knew the plague well as it recurred in the city for three or four years after the Spartan invasion of Attica. The poet brings forward Oedipus to the spectators as fully contemporary rather than a mythical or legendary figure.

In the plays of Sophocles, especially Oedipus Rex, there are references to various gods and goddesses, but the names that recur most often are those of Zeus, Apollo and Dionysus. To all intents and purposes, however, it is Apollo who rules the world of Sophocles’ plays and in Oedipus Rex many of the names of this god occur. It seems that Sophocles regarded the gods to be all-powerful but not willfully malignant. Although it is very difficult to know the view of Sophocles himself from the plays, in Oedipus Rex, at least, the gods are not considered to be arbitrary. They are ruled by Necessity and Fate. Although the punishments that they visit upon erring mortals may be excessive; it is connected with the crime and is never without cause. Except once or twice, Oedipus does not blame the gods for the sufferings which he undergoes. He takes them as deserved retribution for his transgressions, although they were done in ignorance. He does not rebel or complain. In fact, he adds to divine punishment by blinding himself. Moreover, he is very particular that the bidding of the oracle should be carried out, and he should be turned out of the city of Thebes. H.D.F. Kitto says,
“Aeschylus is a profound religious dramatist, Euripides a brilliant, uneven representative of the new spirit which was so uncomfortable in the old forms, and Sophocles was an artist.”
(Kitto, p. 117) Aeschylus’ dramas exhibit his greater prominence as a moral teacher rather than a dramatist. The progress of action in his dramas is

obstructed due to his over-emphasis on religious maxims. On the contraiy, in Sophocles, though the dramatic interest is valued more, the religious element is not at loss. Sophocles’ own attitude to the gods and religion, in so far as we can have an inkling of it in the plays, is that of a devout believer, who believes that due reverence must be paid to gods, and that human beings must not only be prepared to pay the full price of all their sins but also to embrace suffering even when they do not believe that they themselves are at fault.
Sophocles had profound knowledge of human psychology and was keen to depict the human passions and emotions of his characters without losing the religious impact of tragedy.
It is difficult to ascertain Sophocles’ views about religion but the chorus in the play can be assumed as his mouthpiece. Unlike Aeschylus, Sophocles treated the myths and legends as amazing make-believe rather than expressions of religious truth. Sophocles treats the mythological stories with great care and elegance. His tone towards the gods and goddesses is always respectful and polite. These divine figures appear as the controllers of the human fate. That is why the oracle of Apollo foretells the fall of Laius and Oedipus, and drives Orestes to take revenge. Easterling P.E. explains,
“Like almost all tragedies before them, Sophocles’ men and women believe in gods who are the source of everything in life— evil as well as good. The universe controlled by

these gods is involved in a constant process of

rhythmic change, but they themselves are

outside time. ’Only to the gods comes neither

old age nor death...” “Zeus is unraged by


(Easterling & Knox, p.304-05)

It is maintained that Sophocles’ purpose was to justify the ways of

these gods to men. S. H. Butcher writes in a thoughtful essay

published in 1891,

“Undeserved suffering, while it is exhibited in

Sophocles under various lights, always

appears as a part of the permitted evil which

is a condition of a just and harmoniously

ordered universe. It is foreseen in the

counsels of the gods...” (Butcher, p.124)

Sophocles logically applied the conservative sanctity to the mythical

story. With the skillful development of the plot, action of the tragedy

naturally moves to the catastrophe. His motive permeates the whole

tragedy. According to him, human life is boundless, complicated and

enigmatic; human Judgement is erring. Over - confidence in one’s own

Judgement develops hubris that paves the path of disaster. Life is not

unplanned though full of mysteries because the gods do exist and

their laws do work. Storey and Allen state:

“A more recent trend has been to regard the

universe of Sophocles as profoundly


disturbing, without committing oneself either to divine providence or to human excellence.”
(Storey and Allen, p. 128-29) The ancient sources consider Sophocles no less than a light house in the history of tragedy. Aristotle rated Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as the perfect example of tragic drama and extensively modelled his theory of tragedy on it. The reasons for its supremacy lay in the excellent management of plot and chorus, in the beauty of language, in the irony of situations and in the general nobility of conception. He cited Oedipus Rex for no less than eleven times in his Poetics which has an everlasting impact on the later critical tradition through ages. The due weightage given to Sophocles by Aristotle makes Aeschylus his primitive and Euripides his decadent in the history of tragic drama. Aristotle was hugely influenced by Sophocles’ supreme talent as playwright who lived a century before him. Aristotle found the beginning of his theory of tragedy in Sophocles’ works. Certainly, Oedipus Rex is a quintessential tragedy and can be best appreciated in the light of the cultural values and ideas of the fifth century Athens. Sophocles' Oedipus Rex offers the clearest example of the ideas of tragedy that Aristotle prescribes.
Aristotle considered plot as the arrangement of incidents in tragedy and Oedipus Rex as having the most ideal kind of plot. The German critic Gustav Freytag created a method of understanding the narrative structure in drama called Freytag’s Triangle, also known as Freytag’s

Pyramid because of its focus on the climax of the tale as the most important part of any story. McManus Barbara F. (web) presented Freytag’s diagrammatic representation of the plot of Oedipus Rex.


Peripeteia S/
Messenger arrives from Corinth:
Polybus not real father^fpedipus

stories of Herdsman and Messenger)

Jocasta tells story of murder of talus;

mention of 3 roads makes Oedipus suspicious;

they send for Herdsman

Reporttnc of Jocasta's suidde

and Oedipus' seif-blinding
| Catastrophe

Oedipu^ndCreon quarrel


Sceie of suffering with Oedipus, Creon and children

Oedipus puts curse on murderer of Laius
Orade^nidcmfmuurdrdearer of laius
Incentive moment
(plague and promise ofOedpus)

Oedipus requests ©rile
(departure of Oedipus
ends plague)

In comparing Sophocles to Aeschylus as a way of charting the progression of Greek drama, it is noteworthy to point out that the characters in Sophocles’ plays generally have longer speeches. Also, the motive and plot is not as linear as they are in Aeschylus’s plays. The chorus remains the moral compass of society, but here they seem as much in the dark as the lead character and thus offer little insight or foreshadowing of Oedipus’s ultimate fate. Aristotle’s discussion on plot concludes with the remark:


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