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“Blessed Sophocles, who died after a long and

fortunate life, he wrote many beautiful tragedies,
and died happily, never having experienced evil”.

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Greek theatre was very different from what we call theatre today. It was,
first of all, part of a religious festival. To attend a performance of one of
these plays was an act of worship, not entertainment or intellectual pastime.
But it is difficult for us to even begin to understand this facet of the Greek
theatre, because the religion in question was very unlike from modern
religions. The god celebrated by the performances of these plays was
Dionysus, a deity who lived in the wild and was known for his subversive
revelry. The worship of Dionysus was associated with an ecstasy that
bordered on madness. Dionysus, whose cult was that of drunkenness and
sexuality, little resembles modern images of God.
A second way in which Greek theatre was different from modern theatre
is in its cultural centrality: every citizen attended these plays. Greek plays
were put on at annual festivals (at the beginning of spring, the season of
Dionysus), often for as many as 15,000 spectators at once. They dazzled
viewers with their special effects, singing, and dancing, as well as with their
beautiful language. At the end of each year’s festivals, judges would vote to
decide which playwright’s play was the best.
In these competitions, Sophocles was king. It is thought that he won the
first prize at the Athenian festival eighteen times. Far from being a tortured
artist working at the fringes of society, Sophocles was among the most
popular and well-respected men of his day. Like most good Athenians,
Sophocles was involved with the political and military affairs of Athenian
democracy. He did stints as a city treasurer and as a naval officer, and
throughout his life he was a close friend of the foremost statesman of the
day, Pericles.
In ancient Athens, plays were performed at the Festival of Dionysus
(Bacchus), and were performed competitively; three playwrights would
present four different plays each (a trilogy of tragedies and one satyr play, or
comedy), and then a panel of judges would determine the winner. As part of
a religious festival, plays were not merely entertainment, but served to
heighten the religious mood. Tragedies centred on worthy protagonists: great
men whose fall could be a lesson to audiences. These tragedies were always
based on stories the audiences already knew, relying on presentation,
eloquence, and acting rather than surprise to captivate. A good modern
comparison might be a religious pageant such as a Passion Play at Easter. A
key device in such plays is dramatic irony the audience knows the outcome

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of the story, but the character does not, making his statements or choices
ironic and dramatic in the eyes of the viewers.
Plays were performed in open-air amphitheatres that could seat up to
17,000 people. There may have been scenery; a skene was a temporary
building that served as a backdrop, and pinakes were movable painted
panels. Actors were always men, and they wore elaborate robes and painted
masks that presented the characters' most typical facial expression. Plays
were expensive to put on, and so were produced by wealthy members of
society much the way they are today.
The Oedipus myth goes back as far as Homer and beyond, and sources
vary about plot details. The play that Sophocles presents is merely the very
end of a long story, and some plot background must be provided to make the
story understandable for modern audiences. The real myth begins a few
generations before Oedipus was born. The city of Thebes was founded by a
man named Cadmus, who slew a dragon and was instructed to sow the
dragon’s teeth to form a city. From these teeth sprang a race of giants who
were fully armed and angry; they fought each other until only five were left
and these five became the fathers of Thebes.
The trouble begins when Laius, the great grandson of Cadmus, receives
a prediction from the oracle of Apollo that his son will kill him. Thus he and
his wife Jocasta give their infant son to a servant to kill by abandoning it on
a mountainside. But the servant doesn't have the heart to kill the baby,
instead giving it to another man, who gives it to the childless king and queen
of Corinth. These adoptive parents name the boy Oedipus, a reference to his
feet, which were mangled and swollen when Laius and Jocasta pierced them
with an iron pin.
Laius is killed years later at a crossroads outside Thebes, and the city is
beset by the Sphinx, a winged monster with the head of a woman and the
body of a lion who kills all who fail to answer her riddle. The riddle: what
goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the
evening? The only man who is able to solve the riddle is Oedipus, who has
travelled to Thebes in an attempt to escape the fate an oracle has predicted
for him: that he will kill his father and marry his mother (remember that he
thinks the king and queen of Corinth are his parents). Oedipus delivers the
answer: a man, who crawls when he is a baby, walks when he is a young
man, and limps with a cane when he is old. The Sphinx kills herself, and
Oedipus is proclaimed the saviour of Thebes, getting to marry Jocasta as a

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Oedipus and Jocasta have a happy marriage and a number of children.
However, years later, tragedy strikes Thebes again when a blight strikes the
city, killing both crops in the field and babies in their mothers’ wombs.
Oedipus sends his brother-in-law to the oracle of Apollo to ask how to lift
this blight, and as the play opens, the answer comes back: find Laius’s
murderer and banish him from Thebes. Little does Oedipus know that he
himself is Laius’s murderer he killed an old man at a crossroads just before
coming to Thebes, and this old man was Laius himself.
Ancient Greek audiences would already know the background, and in
fact the entirety, of the Oedipus plays. Therefore what makes this play so
great is its ability to present this material in an evocative and powerful
manner, which, of course, it does perfectly. Modern audiences might
recognize the name Oedipus from Sigmund Freud’s famous “Oedipus
Complex,” his theory that young boys lust after their mothers and see their
fathers as competition for their mothers’ favours. This theory springs from
Jocasta’s comment that killing your father and marrying your mother are the
kinds of things men often dream of. Freud’s theory has been hotly debated,
and the psychological community is still torn on this issue, proof that the
Oedipus story continues to be powerful and controversial even thousands of
years after Sophocles’s play was written.

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Sophocles (496-406) lived during a period of Greek vitality and
creativity in art, philosophy and politics that is perhaps without parallel in
the Western world. Some of history’s outstanding genius lived in this era:
the playwrights Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes; the sculptors and
painters Phidias and Polygnotus; the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and
Aristotle; the lawmakers and politicians Solon, Kleisthenes, Pisistratus, and
Pericles. It seems probable that Sophocles knew many or most of these men
personally; it is certain that he was loved and esteemed as a man and artist
by his polis (city state) Athens.
Of Sophocles’ output of more than 120 plays, only 7 are extant: Ajax,
Antigone, Clektra, and Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus Rex, Philoctetes, and
the Trachiniae. Fragments of at least 109 others plays attributed to
Sophocles have come down to us.
Although Sophocles’ plays emphasize the tragically ironic uncertainties
of man’s existence, the playwright himself enjoyed a long, satisfying life.
Foreign kings invited him to live in their lands; while at home; Athenians
honoured his genius not only with the dramatic laurel, but with political
prestige. In 406, the 91 years old dramatist died. A lovely fragment from a
lost play of Phrynichus commemorated the event “Blessed Sophocles, who
died after a long and fortunate life. He wrote many beautiful tragedies, and
died happily, never having experienced evil”.
‘Sophoclean’ itself suggests profound ambiguity, irony, and tension. It
is, then, in the interplay of tragic grandeur and character portrayal that
Sophocles’ greatness lies. His achievement stems precisely from the fact that
there passes before the audience or the mind’s eye of the reader a pattern of
events, related by necessity or at least probability, in which great persons
are shown to weave their dooms out of an uncanny mixture of fate, their own
freedom, and the traits of their characters and temperaments.
Sophocles lived a long life, but not long enough to witness the downfall
of his Athens. Toward the end of his life, Athens became entangled in a war
with other city-states jealous of its prosperity and power, a war that would
end the glorious century during which Sophocles lived. This political fall
also marked an artistic fall, for the unique art of Greek theatre began to fade
and eventually died. Since then, we have had nothing like it. Nonetheless,
we still try to read it, and we often misunderstand it by thinking of it in terms
of the categories and assumptions of our own arts. Greek theatre still needs
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to be read, but we must not forget that, because it is so alien to us, reading
these plays calls not only for analysis, but also for imagination.
In entering the world of Sophocles, the viewer or reader must abandon
any notion that certainty and fact are the only yardsticks of truth in human
affairs. In this world the oracles of the gods may mislead, the words of
characters often have hidden meanings opposite those intended, and events
which seemingly indicate a turn for the better frequently prove harbingers of
tragic falls. Great men, pursuing moral ends, commit acts deserving
punishment, but often receive a punishment harsher than they seem to
deserve. The standards of this “deserving” are at issue, and Sophoclean
tragedy thus questions the irrationality of the universe and man’s eternal
pursuit of absolute knowledge a theme relevant to every age.
Antigone was probably the first of the three Theban plays that
Sophocles wrote, although the events dramatized in it happen last. Antigone
is one of the first heroines in literature, a woman who fights against a male
power structure, exhibiting greater bravery than any of the men who scorn
her. Antigone is not only a feminist play but a radical one as well, making
rebellion against authority appear splendid and noble. If we think of
Antigone as something merely ancient, we make the same error as the Nazi
censors who allowed Jean Anouilh's adaptation of Antigone to be
performed, mistaking one of the most powerful texts of the French
Resistance for something harmlessly academic.
The story of Oedipus was well known to Sophocles’ audience. Oedipus
arrives at Thebes a stranger and finds the town under the curse of the
Sphinx, who will not free the city unless her riddle is answered. Oedipus
solves the riddle and, since the king has recently been murdered, becomes
the king and marries the queen. In time, he comes to learn that he is actually
a Theban, the king’s son, cast out of Thebes as a baby. He has killed his
father and married his mother. Horrified, he blinds himself and leaves
Thebes forever.
Sophocles did not invent the story. Quite the opposite: the play's most
powerful effects often depend on the fact that the audience already knows
the story. Since the first performance of Oedipus Rex, the story has
fascinated critics just as it fascinated Sophocles. Aristotle used this play and
its plot as the supreme example of tragedy. Sigmund Freud famously based
his theory of the “Oedipal Complex” on this story, claiming that every boy
has a latent desire to kill his father and sleep with his mother. The story of

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Oedipus has given birth to innumerable fascinating variations, but we should
not forget that this play is one of the variations, not the original story itself.
Beginning with the arrival of Oedipus in Colonus after years of
wandering, Oedipus at Colonus ends with Antigone setting off toward her
own fate in Thebes. In and of itself, Oedipus at Colonus is not a tragedy; it
hardly even has a plot in the normal sense of the word, though it has been
written toward the end of Sophocles' life and the conclusion of the Golden
Age of Athens. Oedipus at Colonus, the last of the Oedipus plays, is a quiet
and religious play, one that does not attempt the dramatic fireworks of the
others. Written after Antigone, the play for which it might be seen as a kind
of prequel, Oedipus at Colonus seems not to look forward to the suffering
that envelops that play but back upon it, as though it has already been

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Laius, childless king of Thebes, asked the oracle of Apollo at Delphi if
he would have a son. He was answered affirmatively, but told that his son
would slay him. When his wife Jokasta bore him a son, he ordered that the
infant be left to die on Mount Cithaeron. In Sophocles’ version, the
herdsman charged with abandoning the infant compassionately gave it to
another herdsman instead, who brought it to his king, Polybos of Corinth.
Since he and his wife Merope were childless they adopted the child, naming
him Oedipus (swollen-footed), a result of the cords with which his feet had
been bound.
Oedipus was raised as prince of Corinth and heir to the throne. When he
was a young man, a drunken guest at a banquet accused him of being
illegitimate. Though furious, Oedipus had said nothing at the time. When he
asked Polybos and Merope, they were insulted but did not confess that he
was not their son. The story of the insult began to circulate in Corinth, and
Oedipus consulted the oracle at Delphi for the truth concerning his origin.
Apollo ignored the question, but did reveal that Oedipus was fated to slay
his father and marry his mother. Horrified, Oedipus fled Corinth, unaware
that Polybos and Merope were not his parents.
On the road to Thebes Oedipus met a party of travellers at a crossroads.
In a dispute overt the right of way, Oedipus became enraged and killed them
all. One of the travellers was his father, Laius. Sometime later, Oedipus,
arriving at Thebes, was confronted by the Sphinx (a monster: half-woman,
half-winged lion), who been sent as a curse upon Thebes by the goddess
Hera. The Sphinx had plagued Thebes, posing the question to its citizens and
to travellers, “What creature goes on four feet in the morning, on two at
noon, on three in the afternoon”. None of those questions could be answered,
and were killed by the monster. Oedipus answer to the riddle was “Man”: he
crawls on all fours in infancy (the morning), walks on two legs in manhood
(noon), and goes with the help of a stick in old age (afternoon). The riddle
having been solved, the Sphinx killed herself. Thebes rewarded its saviour
with the throne, and the hand of its widowed queen Jokasta. The oracle of
Apollo was fulfilled: Oedipus had killed his father and married his mother.

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After defeating Polynices and taking the throne of Thebes, Creon
commands that Polynices be left to rot unburied, his flesh eaten by dogs and
birds, creating an “obscenity” for everyone to see. Creon thinks that he is
justified in his treatment of Polynices because the latter was a traitor, an
enemy of the State, and the security of the State makes all of human life—
including family life and religion—possible. Therefore, to Creon’s way of
thinking, the good of the State comes before all other duties and values.
However, the subsequent events of the play demonstrate that some duties are
more fundamental than the State and its laws. The duty to bury the dead is
part of what it means to be human, not part of what it means to be a citizen.
That is why Polynices, rotting body is an “obscenity” rather than a crime.
Moral duties—such as the duties owed to the dead—make up the body of
unwritten law and tradition, the law to which Antigone appeals.
When Oedipus and Jocasta begin to get close to the truth about Laius's
murder, in Oedipus the King, Oedipus fastens onto a detail in the hope of
exonerating himself. Jocasta says that she was told that “Strangers Killed
Laius” whereas Oedipus knows that he acted alone when he killed a man in
similar circumstances. This is an extraordinary moment because it calls into
question the entire truth-seeking process Oedipus believes himself to be
undertaking. Both Oedipus and Jocasta act as though the servant's story,
once spoken, is irrefutable history. Neither can face the possibility of what it
would mean if the servant was wrong. This is perhaps why Jocasta feels she
can tell Oedipus of the prophecy that her son would kill his father, and
Oedipus can tell her about the similar prophecy given him by an oracle, and
neither feels compelled to remark on the coincidence; or why Oedipus can
hear the story of Jocasta binding her child’s ankles and not think of his own
swollen feet. While the information in these speeches is largely intended to
make the audience painfully aware of the tragic irony, it also emphasizes just
how desperately Oedipus and Jocasta do not want to speak the obvious truth:
they look at the circumstances and details of everyday life and pretend not to
see them.
Prophecy is a central part of Oedipus the King. The play begins with
Creon’s return from the oracle at Delphi, where he has learned that the
plague will be lifted if Thebes banishes the man who killed Laius. Tiresias
prophesies the capture of one who is both father and brother to his own
children. Oedipus tells Jocasta of a prophecy he heard as a youth, that he
would kill his father and sleep with his mother, and Jocasta tells Oedipus of
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a similar prophecy given to Laius, that her son would grow up to kill his
father. Oedipus and Jocasta debate the extent to which prophecies should be
trusted at all, and when all of the prophecies come true, it appears that one of
Sophocles, aims is to justify the powers of the gods and prophets, which had
recently come under attack in fifth-century B.C. Athens.
Sophocles audience would, of course, have known the story of Oedipus,
which only increases the sense of complete inevitability about how the play
would end. It is difficult to say how justly one can accuse Oedipus of being
“blind” or foolish when he seems to have no choice about fulfilling the
prophecy: he is sent away from Thebes as a baby and by a remarkable
coincidence saved and raised as a prince in Corinth. Hearing that he is fated
to kill his father, he flees Corinth and, by a still more remarkable
coincidence, ends up back in Thebes, now king and husband in his actual
father’s place. Oedipus seems only to desire to flee his fate, but his fate
continually catches up with him. Many people have tried to argue that
Oedipus brings about his catastrophe because of a “tragic flaw,” but nobody
has managed to create a consensus about what Oedipus’s flaw actually is.
Perhaps his story is meant to show that error and disaster can happen to
anyone, that human beings are relatively powerless before fate or the gods,
and that a cautious humility is the best attitude toward life.
Almost every character that dies in the three Theban plays does so at his
or her own hand (or own will, as is the case in Oedipus at Colonus). Jocasta
hangs herself in Oedipus the King and Antigone hangs herself in Antigone.
Eurydice and Haemon stab themselves at the end of Antigone. Oedipus
inflicts horrible violence on himself at the end of his first play, and willingly
goes to his own mysterious death at the end of his second. Polynices and
Eteocles die in battle with one another, and it could be argued that Polynices
death at least is self-inflicted in that he has heard his father’s curse and
knows that his cause is doomed. Incest motivates or indirectly brings about
all of the deaths in these plays.
References to eyesight and vision, both literal and metaphorical, are very
frequent in all three of the Theban plays. Quite often, the image of clear vision
is used as a metaphor for knowledge and insight. In fact, this metaphor is so
much a part of the Greek way of thinking that it is almost not a metaphor at
all, just as in modern English: to say “I see the truth” or “I see the way things
are” is a perfectly ordinary use of language. However, the references to
eyesight and insight in these plays form a meaningful pattern in combination
with the references to literal and metaphorical blindness. Oedipus is famed for
his clear-sightedness and quick comprehension, but he discovers that he has
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been blind to the truth for many years, and then he blinds himself so as not to
have to look on his own children/siblings. Creon is prone to a similar
blindness to the truth in Antigone. Though blind, the aging Oedipus finally
acquires a limited prophetic vision. Tiresias is blind, yet he sees farther than
others. Overall, the plays seem to say that human beings can demonstrate
remarkable powers of intellectual penetration and insight, and that they have a
great capacity for knowledge, but that even the smartest human being is liable
to error, that the human capability for knowledge is ultimately quite limited
and unreliable.
The plots of Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus both revolve around
burials and beliefs about burial are important in Oedipus the King as well.
Polynices is kept above ground after his death, denied a grave, and his
rotting body offends the gods, his relatives, and ancient traditions. Antigone
is entombed alive, to the horror of everyone who watches. At the end of
Oedipus the King, Oedipus cannot remain in Thebes or be buried within its
territory, because his very person is polluted and offensive to the sight of
gods and men. Nevertheless, his choice, in Oedipus at Colonus, to be buried
at Colonus confers a great and mystical gift on all of Athens, promising that
nation victory over future attackers. In Ancient Greece, traitors and people
who murder their own relatives could not be buried within their city’s
territory, but their relatives still had an obligation to bury them. As one of
the basic, inescapable duties that people owe their relatives, burials represent
the obligations that come from kinship, as well as the conflicts that can arise
between one’s duty to family and to the city-state.
Oedipus gets his name, as the Corinthian messenger tells us in Oedipus
the King, from the fact that he was left in the mountains with his ankles
pinned together. Jocasta explains that Laius abandoned him in this state on a
barren mountain shortly after he was born. The injury leaves Oedipus with a
vivid scar for the rest of his life. Oedipus’s injury symbolizes the way in
which fate has marked him and set him apart. It also symbolizes the way his
movements have been confined and constrained since birth, by Apollo's
prophecy to Laius.
In Oedipus the King, Jocasta says that Laius was slain at a place where
three roads meet. This crossroads is referred to a number of times during the
play, and it symbolizes the crucial moment, long before the events of the
play, when Oedipus began to fulfil the dreadful prophecy that he would
murder his father and marry his mother. A crossroads is a place where a
choice has to be made, so crossroads usually symbolize moments where
decisions will have important consequences but where different choices are
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still possible. In Oedipus the King, the crossroads is part of the distant past,
dimly remembered, and Oedipus was not aware at the time that he was
making a fateful decision. In this play, the crossroads symbolizes fate and
the awesome power of prophecy rather than freedom and choice.
Creon condemns Antigone to a horrifying fate: being walled alive inside
a tomb. He intends to leave her with just enough food so that neither he nor
the citizens of Thebes will have her blood on their hands when she finally
dies. Her imprisonment in a tomb symbolizes the fact that her loyalties and
feelings lie with the dead—her brothers and her father—rather than with the
living, such as Haemon or Ismene. But her imprisonment is also a symbol of
Creon’s lack of judgment and his affronts to the gods. Tiresias points out
that Creon commits a horrible sin by lodging a living human being inside a
grave, as he keeps a rotting body in daylight. Creon’s actions against
Antigone and against Polynices' body show him attempting to invert the
order of nature, defying the gods by asserting his own control over their
If we have turned aside from Euripides for a moment and attempted a
translation of the great stage masterpiece of Sophocles, our excuse must be
the fascination of this play, which has thrown its spell on us as on many
other translators. Yet we may plead also that as a rule every diligent student
of these great works can add something to the discoveries of his
predecessors, and I think I have been able to bring out a few new points in
the old and much-studied Oedipus, chiefly points connected with the
dramatic technique and the religious atmosphere.
Mythologists tell us that Oedipus was originally a daemon haunting
Mount Kithairon, and Jocasta a form of that Earth-Mother who, as
Aeschylus puts it, “bringeth all things to being, and when she hath reared
them receiveth again their seed into her body”. That stage of the story lies
very far behind the consciousness of Sophocles. But there does cling about
both his hero and his heroine a great deal of very primitive atmosphere.
There are traces in Oedipus of the pre-Hellenic Medicine King, the Basileus
who is also a Theos, and can make rain or blue sky, pestilence or fertility.
This explains many things in the Priest’s first speech, in the attitude of the
Chorus, and in Oedipus’ own language after the discovery. It partly explains
the hostility of Apollo, who is not a mere motiveless Destroyer but a true
Olympian crushing his Earth-born rival. And in the same way the peculiar
royalty of Jocasta, which makes Oedipus at times seem not the King but the
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Consort of the Queen, brings her near to that class of consecrated queens
described in Dr. Frazer’s Lectures on the Kingship, who are “honoured as no
woman now living on the earth.”
The story itself, and the whole spirit in which Sophocles has treated it,
belong not to the fifth century but to that terrible and romantic past from
which the fifth century poets usually drew their material. The atmosphere of
brooding dread, the pollution, the curses; the “insane and beastlike cruelty,”
as an ancient Greek commentator calls it, of piercing the exposed child’s feet
in order to ensure its death and yet avoid having actually murdered it. The
whole treatment of the parricide and incest, not as moral offences capable of
being rationally judged or even excused as unintentional, but as monstrous
and inhuman pollutions, the last limit of imaginable horror: all these things
take us back to dark regions of pre-classical and even pre-Homeric belief.
We have no right to suppose that Sophocles thought of the involuntary
parricide and metro gamy as the people in his play do. Indeed, considering
the general tone of his contemporaries and friends, we may safely assume
that he did not. But at any rate he has allowed no breath of later
enlightenment to disturb the primeval gloom of his atmosphere.
Does this in any way make the tragedy insincere? I think not. We know
that people did feel and think about “pollution” in the way which Sophocles
represents; and if they so felt, then the tragedy was there.
I think these considerations explain the remarkable absence from this
play of any criticism of life or any definite moral judgment. I know that
some commentators have found in it a “humble and unquestioning piety,”
but I cannot help suspecting that what they saw was only a reflection from
their own pious and unquestioning minds. Man is indeed shown as a
“plaything of Gods,” but of Gods strangely and incomprehensibly malignant,
whose ways there is no attempt to explain or justify. The original story,
indeed, may have had one of its roots in a Theban “moral tale.” tells us that
Theban Law forbade the exposure of a child. The state of feeling which
produced this law, against the immensely strong conception of the patria
potestas, may also have produced a folklore story telling how a boy once
was exposed, in a peculiarly cruel way, by his wicked parents, and how
Heaven preserved him to take upon both of them a vengeance which showed
that the unnatural father had no longer a father’s sanctity nor the unnatural
mother a mother’s. But, as far as Sophocles is concerned, if anything in the
nature of a criticism of life has been admitted into the play at all, it seems to
be only a flash or two of that profound and pessimistic arraignment of the

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ruling powers which in other plays also opens at times like a sudden abyss
across the smooth surface of his art.
There is not much philosophy in the Oedipus. There is not, in
comparison with other Greek plays, much pure poetry. What there is, is
drama; drama of amazing grandeur and power. In respect of plot no Greek
play comes near it. It contains no doubt a few points of unsophisticated
technique such as can be found in all ancient and nearly all modern drama;
for instance, the supposition that Oedipus has never inquired.

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The play opens in front of the Theban palace. Oedipus, the king of
Thebes, asks a passing priest why he and his followers are lamenting and
praying. The priest replies that they pray to the gods to end the plague that
has beset Thebes. This plague has wasted the city's crops and pastures and
rendered all Theban women sterile. The priest begs for Oedipus's help.
Oedipus tells the priest that he feels the city’s pain, and that he has sent his
brother-in-law, Creon, to the Pythian oracle of Apollo to ask for help.
Creon appears, bearing good news. The oracle told him that the plague
on Thebes was caused by the murder of Laius, the previous king of Thebes.
The murderer was born in Thebes and still lives there, and if they can find
him and banish him, the plague will be lifted. Oedipus asks Creon about the
details of Laius’s death. Creon tells him that Laius was killed as he left
Thebes on a pilgrimage. There was only one surviving eyewitness, a man
who said that the king was killed by a band of robbers. Oedipus asks why
the matter was not fully investigated, and Creon tells him that the city's
problems with the Sphinx demanded attention at that point. Oedipus swears
that he will solve this mystery, not merely for Laius’s sake, but for his own,
since Laius’s killer might attack him next. He summons all the people of
The Chorus of Theban elders appears, expressing a sense of foreboding
about what Oedipus might find. The Chorus describes again the plague that
has stricken the city and calls on the gods to help the city. Oedipus enters
from the palace and asks the people of Thebes to help him find Laius's killer;
if any of them has any information that would help him, he orders them to
come forward. There is silence. He declares that if the killer is among them
and will give himself up, his punishment will merely be banishment. Still the
people are silent. Oedipus tells them that any information that could help
will be rewarded. Still silence, and Oedipus declares that if any men are
found to be hiding the truth from him, they too will be banished. Nor does
Oedipus exempt himself from the punishment he has just declared; if he
unknowingly harbours the killer, he will leave Thebes himself. The Chorus
finally speaks up, suggesting that Oedipus consult the man closest to Apollo:
Teiresias the blind prophet. Oedipus agrees with their suggestion and reveals
that he has already sent for Teiresias upon Creon’s advice.
Teiresias enters, led by an attendant. Oedipus informs him of the
oracle’s statements and begs him to help find the killer. Teiresias states that

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he never should have come, and asks to leave. Oedipus asks him again,
telling him that he is an enemy to Thebes if he refuses to help. Again
Teiresias refuses to answer Oedipus, and Oedipus gets angry. Teiresias
counsels him to look within himself before he blames others. Finally
Oedipus angrily declares that Teiresias’s silence implicates him in Laius’s
murder. At this Teiresias, fed up, tells Oedipus what he knows: “You are the
cursed polluter of this land” (35). His words enrage Oedipus, who dares him
to repeat them. Teiresias obliges, saying “the killer you are seeking is
yourself” (36). Again Oedipus goads him, and he elaborates: “you are living
/ In sinful union with the one you love, / Living in ignorance of your own
undoing” (36). Full of fury, Oedipus now calls Teiresias a “shameless and
brainless, sightless, senseless sot” and again accuses him of conspiring with
Creon (36). Again Teiresias vows that the enemy Oedipus seeks is himself.
Continuing to mock Teiresias, Oedipus now charges him with fraud, using
the Sphinx’s riddle as proof. If Teiresias is a seer, then he should have been
able to solve the riddle. But instead Oedipus was the only one who was
smart enough to do so. So much for Teiresias’s gifts! Now the Chorus tries
to step in and calm Oedipus down. Teiresias tries one last time to show him
the truth, saying “have you eyes / And do not see your own damnation?
Eyes, / And cannot see what company you keep? / Whose son you are? I tell
you, you have sinned -- / And do not know it against your own on earth /
And in the grave” (37). He predicts the future: Oedipus will be more hated
and more scorned than any other man. Oedipus orders him to leave. As he
goes, Teiresias repeats his warnings and his predictions, saying “he that
came seeing, blind shall he go; / Rich now, then a beggar; stick-in-hand,
groping his way / To a land of exile; brother, as it shall be shown, / And
father at once, to the children he cherishes; son, / And husband, to the
woman who bore him; father-killer, / And father-supplanter” (38). Oedipus
goes back into his house.
The Chorus reflects on what Teiresias said, but does not understand it,
saying that it chooses to think that Oedipus is innocent until proven guilty
because he has done such good for Thebes. Creon enters, asking the Chorus
if what he heard is true: if Oedipus has actually accused him of treason. The
Chorus tries to calm him, telling him that Oedipus was overwrought when he
said these things. Oedipus comes out and repeats his accusations against
Creon, and the two argue heatedly. Creon tries to reason with him, asking
him why he would choose to give up a stable and happy life with a third of
Oedipus's estate for an uneasy rule. He tells Oedipus to test him by asking
the Pythian oracle if his message was true, and if Creon comes out guilty,
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Oedipus can sentence him to death. Oedipus continues to argue with him,
and eventually Creon charges him with ruling unjustly.
Jocasta enters, and the men tell her the gist of their argument. She begs
Oedipus to believe Creon and to be merciful. The Chorus joins in her pleas,
and reluctantly Oedipus lets Creon go. Jocasta questions Oedipus, and he
reveals Teiresias’s prophecies. Jocasta comforts him by telling him that no
man can see the future, and she has proof. She relates the story of the
prophecy an oracle once made about Laius: that he would be killed by his
own son. But that never happened; instead Laius was killed by robbers at a
place where three roads met. And as for the son, Jocasta and Laius let their
infant be exposed on a hillside with a pin through his ankles to prevent the
prophecy from coming true. If Laius’s prophecy didn’t come true, she says,
then why should Oedipus's? But her mention of the meeting of three roads
troubles Oedipus, bringing back memories of a murder he committed long
ago at a similar place. He asks Jocasta what Laius looked like, and her
description matches his memory. Oedipus now begins to suspect that
Teiresias's words were true. He asks Jocasta how many men were with
Laius, and she tells him there were five the same number of men that were
with the man Oedipus killed. He asks about the eyewitness, and Jocasta tells
him that the man ran away to the country when he found that Oedipus had
become king of Thebes.
Oedipus summons this eyewitness, and while they wait for him to
arrive, he tells Jocasta more about his youth. His parents were from Corinth,
Polybus and Meropé. One day, a drunken man told Oedipus that he was not
his father’s son. Disturbed, Oedipus asked his parents if this was true, and
they denied it. But it still troubled Oedipus, so he secretly went to the oracle
at Pytho and asked it. But the oracle told him something even more
frightening: that one day he would kill his father and marry his mother. The
prediction so shocked Oedipus that he left and never returned to Corinth,
afraid that if he did so he would fulfil the oracle’s prophesies. In his
wanderings, Oedipus came to a crossroads where three roads met, and here
he was accosted by a haughty man. Oedipus ended up killing this man. If
this man turns out to have been Laius, then Oedipus will be banished from
Thebes as punishment, but also from Corinth, to which he can never return
for fear of killing his father and marrying his mother. He can only hope that
the eyewitness confirms that robbers killed Laius. Jocasta comforts Oedipus
again by saying that even if he did kill Laius, the oracle’s prophesy for Laius
still would not be true, since the son that should have killed him is dead.
They return to the house.
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Alone, the Chorus muses on what it has learned and speaks about the
evils of pride. Pride, it claims, can only bring doom and punishment. Jocasta
enters from the house, on her way to visit the holy temples and pray. A
messenger from Corinth enters, with the news that Oedipus's father Polybus
is dead. The Corinthians would like to make Oedipus king of both Corinth
and Thebes. Overjoyed, Jocasta sends for Oedipus. When he hears the news,
he rejoices in the falseness of prophecy he can’t kill his father now. But he is
still afraid of the other half of the prophecy that he will marry Meropé. But
the messenger assures him that he needn’t worry about marrying her,
because Polybus and Meropé are not really his parents. He relates the story
of how Oedipus came to be their son. A long time ago, the messenger says,
he was living as a shepherd on the mountain, and a stranger gave him an
infant that he had rescued from death; the infant's ankles were riveted (at this
Oedipus confirms that he has had a limp since birth). The messenger gave
this baby to Polybus and Meropé. Oedipus inquires about the identity of the
man who gave the baby to the messenger, and the messenger tells him that
the stranger was one of Laius's servants. Is he alive? Oedipus wants to know.
The messenger replies that Jocasta should know who he is. Oedipus turns to
Jocasta, who is white with fear. She begs him not to pursue this matter any
more, to forget it. But Oedipus is determined to solve this mystery, and
sends for the man who gave the baby to the messenger. Jocasta warns him
for his own good to drop this line of questioning and runs into the house.
Nobody but Jocasta has figured out the puzzle yet, and the Chorus
reflects that something bad seems about to happen. Oedipus states that he
wants to learn the entire truth, no matter how foul it is; he suspects that
Jocasta is upset about his seemingly low birth. He declares that he is
Fortune’s child, and that he will know who he really is. Again the Chorus
expresses foreboding. A shepherd approaches; this is the man who gave the
baby to the messenger. Oedipus questions him, but he is reluctant to answer.
The messenger tells him that Oedipus is that same baby, and the shepherd
reacts with fear and begs the messenger to hold his tongue. Oedipus
threatens him with physical violence, and finally the man confesses that the
baby was a child of Laius’s house. Oedipus asks if it was a slave’s child or
Laius’s child, and the shepherd tells him that it was Laius's child, that
Jocasta gave him to expose on the hillside because of some prophesy. What
prophesy? Oedipus asks. That he would kill his father, the shepherd replies.
The shepherd says the he didn't have the heart to kill the infant, so he took it
to another country instead. Aghast, Oedipus finally sees the truth and runs
screaming into the house. The messenger and the shepherd leave.
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The Chorus reflects on the fleeting nature of happiness and the sin of
pride. Nobody can escape fate. An attendant enters from the palace with
horrifying news. When Jocasta went into the palace, she went straight to her
bedroom and slammed the door, tearing her hair with her fingers. There she
cried out to Laius and wailed the tragedy of her son/husband. Oedipus
entered the palace, crying for a sword and searching for his wife. No servant
answered, but he seemed to know instinctively where she was. He slammed
his body against her bedroom doors and broke them open. Stumbling in, he
found that Jocasta had hanged herself. Moaning horribly, he untied her and
laid her on the ground. Then he took the gold brooches with which she had
fastened her gown, and, thrusting his arms out at full length, he gouged his
eyes out. Again and again he pierced he eyes until bloody tears streamed
down his cheeks. Now he is shouting for someone to open the castle doors
and show all of Thebes the man who killed Laius. He swears he will flee this
country to try to rid his house of his curse.
The doors to the palace open and Oedipus stumble out. The Chorus
cries out in agony at the sight and hides its own eyes. Oedipus cries out to
the city in a voice that hardly seems his own. The Chorus wails that Oedipus
is unspeakable and too terrible for eyes to see, that he has been punished in
both body and soul. Oedipus calls for someone to be his guide. The Chorus
asks him why he injured himself, and he replies that he doesn't want eyes
when all he can see is ugliness. He pleads with the Chorus to lead him out of
Thebes and curses the shepherd who saved his life when he was a baby. The
Chorus tells him that surely death would have been better than blindness and
Oedipus replies by asking how he could have met his parents in the
underworld with seeing eyes. How could he have looked upon children
whom he had begotten in sin? In fact, he says, he wishes he could dam up
his ears as well. He begs the Chorus to hide him away from human sight.
Creon enters, asking the Chorus to remember their love for the gods,
and Oedipus begs him to cast him away from Thebes. Creon replies that he
must wait for instructions from Apollo. Oedipus argues that Apollo's
instructions were clear: the unclean man must leave Thebes. Oedipus also
asks Creon to bury Jocasta properly and to take care of his daughters. But
before he goes, he begs, can he see these daughters once more? His
daughters Antigone and Ismene are led in, and Oedipus caresses them with
hands that are both father's and brother's. He weeps for the fact that they will
never be able to find husbands with this tragic family history. With Creon's
promise that he will send him away from Thebes upon Apollo's word,
Oedipus and his family enter the palace again, Alone on the stage, the
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Chorus asks the audience to remember the story of Oedipus, the greatest of
men; he alone could solve difficult riddles and was envied my his fellows for
his prosperity. And now the greatest of misfortunes has befallen him. The
Chorus warns the audience that mortal men must always look to their
endings, and not suppose that they are happy until they die happy.

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In his Poetics, Aristotle outlined the ingredients necessary for a good
tragedy, and he based his formula on what he considered to be the perfect
tragedy, Sophocles's Oedipus the King. According to Aristotle, a tragedy
must be an imitation of life in the form of a serious story that is complete in
itself; in other words, the story must be realistic and narrow in focus. A good
tragedy will evoke pity and fear in its viewers, causing the viewers to
experience a feeling of catharsis. Catharsis, in Greek, means “purgation” or
“purification”; running through the gamut of these strong emotions will
leave viewers feeling elated, in the same way we often claim that “a good
cry” will make one feel better.
Aristotle also outlined the characteristics of a good tragic hero. He must
be “better than we are,” a man who is superior to the average man in some
way. In Oedipus’s case, he is superior not only because of social standing,
but also because he is smart he is the only person who could solve the
Sphinx’s riddle. At the same time, a tragic hero must evoke both pity and
fear, and Aristotle claims that the best way to do this is if he is imperfect. A
character with a mixture of good and evil is more compelling that a character
who is merely good. And Oedipus is definitely not perfect; although a clever
man, he is blind to the truth and refuses to believe Teiresias's warnings.
Although he is a good father, he unwittingly fathered children in incest. A
tragic hero suffers because of his hamartia, a Greek word that is often
translated as “tragic flaw” but really means “error in judgement.” Often this
flaw or error has to do with fate a character tempts fate, thinks he can change
fate or doesn’t realize what fate has in store for him. In Oedipus the King,
fate is an idea that surfaces again and again. Whether or not Oedipus has a
“tragic flaw” is a matter that will be discussed later. The focus on fate
reveals another aspect of a tragedy as outlined by Aristotle: dramatic irony.
Good tragedies are filled with irony. The audience knows the outcome of the
story already, but the hero does not, making his actions seem ignorant or
inappropriate in the face of what is to come. Whenever a character attempts
to change fate, this is ironic to an audience who knows that the tragic
outcome of the story cannot be avoided.
Dramatic irony plays an important part in Oedipus the King. Its story
revolves around two different attempts to change the course of fate: Jocasta
and Laius's killing of Oedipus at birth and Oedipus's flight from Corinth
later on. In both cases, an oracle’s prophecy comes true regardless of the
characters' actions. Jocasta kills her son only to find him restored to life and
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married to her. Oedipus leaves Corinth only to find that in so doing he has
found his real parents and carried out the oracle’s words. Both Oedipus and
Jocasta prematurely exult over the failure of oracles, only to find that the
oracles were right after all. Each time a character tries to avert the future
predicted by the oracles, the audience knows their attempt is futile, creating
the sense of irony that permeates the play.
Even the manner in which Oedipus and Jocasta express their disbelief in
oracles is ironic. In an attempt to comfort Oedipus, Jocasta tells him that
oracles are powerless; yet at the beginning of the very next scene we see her
praying to the same gods whose powers she has just mocked (45-50).
Oedipus rejoices over Polybus's death as a sign that oracles are fallible, yet
he will not return to Corinth for fear that the oracle's statements concerning
Meropé could still come true (52). Regardless of what they say, both Jocasta
and Oedipus continue to suspect that the oracles could be right, that gods can
predict and affect the future and of course the audience knows they can.
If Oedipus discounts the power of oracles, he values the power of truth.
Instead of relying on the gods, Oedipus counts on his own ability to root out
the truth; after all, he is a riddle-solver. The contrast between trust in the
gods’ oracles and trust in intelligence plays out in this story like the contrast
between religion and science in nineteenth-century novels. But the irony is,
of course, that the oracles and Oedipus’s scientific method both lead to the
same outcome. Oedipus’s search for truth reveals just that, and the truth
revealed fulfils the oracles’ prophesies. Ironically, it is Oedipus’s rejection
of the oracles that uncovers their power; he relentlessly pursues truth instead
of trusting in the gods, and his detective work finally reveals the fruition of
the oracles’ words. As Jocasta says, if he could just have left well enough
alone, he would never have discovered the horrible workings of fate (55).
In his search for the truth, Oedipus shows himself to be a thinker, a man
good at unravelling mysteries. This is the same characteristic that brought
him to Thebes; he was the only man capable of solving the Sphinx’s riddle.
His intelligence is what makes him great, yet it is also what makes him
tragic; his problem-solver’s mind leads him on as he works through the
mystery of his birth. In the Oedipus myth, marriage to Jocasta was the prize
for ridding Thebes of the Sphinx. Thus Oedipus’s intelligence, a trait that
brings Oedipus closer to the gods, is what causes him to commit the most
heinous of all possible sins. In killing the Sphinx, Oedipus is the city’s
savior, but in killing Laius (and marrying Jocasta), he is its scourge, the
cause of the blight that has struck the city at the play’s opening.

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The Sphinx’s riddle echoes throughout the play, even though Sophocles
never mentions the actual question she asked. Audiences would have known
the Sphinx’s words: “what is it that goes on four feet in the morning, two
feet at midday, and three feet in the evening?” Oedipus’s answer, of course,
was “a man.” And in the course of the play, Oedipus himself proves to be
that same man, an embodiment of the Sphinx’s riddle. There is much talk of
Oedipus’s birth and his exposure as an infant here is the baby of which the
Sphinx speaks, crawling on four feet (even though two of Oedipus’s are
pinioned). Oedipus throughout most of the play is the adult man, standing on
his own two feet instead of relying on others, even gods. And at the end of
the play, Oedipus will leave Thebes an old blind man, using a cane. In fact,
Oedipus’s name means “swollen foot” because of the pins through his ankles
as a baby; thus even as a baby and a young man he has a limp and uses a
cane: a prefiguring of the “three-legged” old man he will become. Oedipus is
more that merely the solver of the Sphinx’s riddle, he himself is the answer.
Perhaps the best example of dramatic irony in this play, however, is the
frequent use of references to eyes, sight, light, and perception throughout.
When Oedipus refuses to believe him, Teiresias cries, “have you eyes, / And
do not see your own damnation? Eyes, / And cannot see what company you
keep?” (37). Mentioned twice in the same breath, the word “eyes” stands out
in this sentence. Teiresias knows that Oedipus will blind himself; later in this
same speech he says as much: “those now clear-seeing eyes / Shall then be
darkened” (37). The irony is that sight here means two different things.
Oedipus is blessed with the gift of perception; he was the only man who
could ”see” the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle. Yet he cannot see what is
right before his eyes. He is blind to the truth, for all he seeks it. Teiresias’s
presence in the play, then, is doubly important. As a blind old man, he
foreshadows Oedipus's own future, and the more Oedipus mocks his
blindness, the more ironic he sounds to the audience. Teiresias is a man who
understands the truth without the use of his sight; Oedipus is the opposite, a
sighted man who is blind of the truth right before him. Soon Oedipus will
switch roles with Teiresias, becoming a man who sees the truth and loses his
sense of sight.
Teiresias is not the only character who uses eyes and sight as a
metaphor. When Creon appears after learning of Oedipus’s accusation of
him, he says “said with unflinching eye was it?” (40). This is a strange thing
to say; one would expect a bold statement to be made with “unhalting
voice,” not “unflinching eye.” Yet it continues the theme of eyes and sight;
Oedipus makes accusations while boldly staring Creon down, yet later when
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he knows the truth, he will not be able to look at Creon again. He will be
ashamed to look any who love him in the eyes, one reason, according to
Oedipus, that he blinds himself: “how could I have met my father beyond
the grave / With seeing eyes; or my unhappy mother?” (63). Oedipus himself
makes extensive use of eyes and sight as a metaphor. When he approaches
Creon a few lines later, he says “did you suppose I wanted eyes to see / The
plot preparing, wits to counter it?” (40). Ironically, Oedipus does in fact lack
the capacity to see what is happening, and the more he uses his wit to
untangle the mystery, the more blind he becomes.
The Chorus’s reflections after Oedipus discovers the truth carry the
sight theme to another level. “Show me the man,” the Chorus says, “whose
happiness was anything more than illusion / Followed by disillusion . . . .
Time sees all; and now he has found you, when you least expected it; / Has
found you and judged that marriage mockery, bridegroom-son! / This is your
elegy: / I wish I had never seen you, offspring of Laius, / Yesterday my
morning of light, now my night of endless darkness!” (59). Here are a
number of binaries associated with the idea of sight and blindness: illusion
and disillusion, light and dark, morning and night. Time casts its searchlight
at random, and when it does, it uncovers horrible things. The happiness of
the “morning of light” is an illusion; the reality is the “night of endless
darkness.” And the Chorus wishes it had never seen Oedipus. Not only has
he polluted his own sight and his own body by marrying his mother and
killing his father, he is a pollutant of others’ sights by his very existence.
When Oedipus enters, blinded, the Chorus shouts “I dare not see, I am
hiding / My eyes, I cannot bear / What most I long to see . . . . Unspeakable
to mortal ear, / Too terrible for eyes to see” (62). Oedipus has become the
very blight he wishes to remove from Thebes, a monster more terrible than
the Sphinx, a sight more horrible than the wasted farmlands and childless
Theban women.
What are we to make of the ironies and the structure of this play? There
are two ways to read the story of Oedipus. One is to say that he is a puppet
of fate, incapable of doing anything to change the destiny that fate has in
store for him. Another is to say that the events of the play are his fault, that
he possesses the “flaw” that sets these events into action.
As a puppet of fate, Oedipus cannot affect the future that the oracle has
predicted for him. This does in fact seem to be an important message of the
story; no matter what Jocasta says about the unreliability of oracles, their
predictions all come true. In an attempt to change fate, both Jocasta and
Oedipus changed the structure of their families, moving as far away as
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possible from the relatives that threaten to ruin them. Yet in so doing, they
set the course of the story into action. You cannot escape fate, no matter
what you do. Your dead son will come back to kill his father. The safe
harbour you have found from your fated parents turns out to be the very
arena in which you will kill and marry them. As the Chorus says, “Time sees
all;” fate and the course of time are more powerful than anything a human
being can do. Oedipus's tragic end is not his fault; he is merely a pawn in the
celestial workings of fate.
At the same time, Oedipus seems like more than merely a passive player
lost in the sweep of time. He seems to make important mistakes or errors in
judgement (hamartia) that set the events of the story into action. His pride,
blindness, and foolishness all play a part in the tragedy that befalls him.
Oedipus’s pride sets it all off; when a drunken man tells him that he is a
bastard, his pride is so wounded that he will not let the subject rest,
eventually going to the oracle of Apollo to ask it the truth. The oracle’s
words are the reason why he leaves Corinth, and in leaving Corinth and
travelling to Thebes, he fulfils the oracle's prophecy. A less proud man may
not have needed to visit the oracle, giving him no reason to leave Corinth in
the first place. In the immediate events of the play, Oedipus’s pride
continues to be a flaw that leads to the story's tragic ending. He is too proud
to consider the words of the prophet Teiresias, choosing, instead to rely on
his own sleuthing powers. Teiresias warns him not to pry into these matters,
but pride in his intelligence leads Oedipus to continue his search. He values
truth attained through scientific enquiry over words and warnings from the
gods; this is the result of his overweening pride. Another word for pride that
causes one to disregard the gods is the Greek word hubris.
Oedipus is also foolish and blind. Foolishly he leaves his home in
Corinth without further investigating the oracle’s words; after all, he goes to
the oracle to ask if he is his father’s son, then leaves without an answer to
this question. Finding out that his true father is seems important for someone
who has just been told he will kill his father. Nor is Oedipus particularly
intelligent about the way he conducts himself. Even though he did not know
that Laius and Jocasta were his parents, he still does kill a man old enough to
be his father and marry a woman old enough to be his mother. One would
think that a man with as disturbing a prophesy over his head as Oedipus
would be very careful about who he married or killed. Blindly he pursues the
truth when others warn him not to; although he has already fulfilled the
prophesy, he does not know it, and if he left well enough alone, he could
continue to live in blissful ignorance. But instead he stubbornly and
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foolishly rummages through his past until he discovers the awful truth. In
this way, Jocasta’s death and his blindness are his own fault.
Regardless of the way you read the play, Oedipus the King is a powerful
work of drama. Collapsing the events of the play into the moments before
and after Oedipus’s realization, Sophocles catches and heightens the drama.
Using dramatic irony to involve the audience, the characters come alive in
all their flawed glory. The play achieves that catharsis of which Aristotle
speaks by showing the audience a man not unlike themselves, a man who is
great but not perfect, who is a good father, husband, and son, and yet who
unwillingly destroys parents, wife and children. Oedipus is human,
regardless of his pride, his intelligence, or his stubbornness, and we
recognize this in his agonizing reaction to his sin. Watching this, the
audience is certainly moved to both pity and fear: pity for this broken man,
and fear that his tragedy could be our own.

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Tragic irony is central to Sophocles’ vision of the world. He employs it
to show the disparity between how things should be and how they are,
between what a person says and what he does, and between how a person
sees and how the other people take him. Such contrasts which form the raw
material of Sophocles’ tragedy, aim at heightening the tragic effect in
“Oedipus Rex”.
Tragic irony is found in most of the speeches and situations of the play.
There are many occasions in which the readers are aware of the facts while
the character-Oedipus, Jocasta, Chorus, Corinth or messenger are ignorant of
these facts. For example, the very proclamation of Oedipus that he will make
a determined effort to trace the murder of Laius and the curse Oedipus utters
upon the murderer reveal his tragic innocence of the true facts:
“As for the criminal, I pray to God-
Whether it be a lurking thief, or one of a number
I pray that man’s life be consumed in evil and wretchedness.
And as for me, this ours applies no less
If it should turn, that culprit is my guest here
Sharing my heart, you have heard the penalty.”
It is necessary to point out that Greek audience had a prior knowledge
of the facts of which Oedipus was ignorant. But even when an audience or a
reader does not have prior knowledge of the story of the play, this speech of
Oedipus like several others which follow will be seen to possess tragic irony
in the light of the later developments in the play. In this way man’s short-
sightedness is focused upon by Sophocles.
The scenes between Oedipus and Teiresias and Oedipus and Creon are
fraught with tragic irony throughout. Teiresias is the prophet who knows
everything, while Oedipus-the guilty man does not know himself. He insults
Teiresias by calling him “a fool and senseless sot”. A keen irony lies in the
fact that Teiresias, who is physically blind, knows the real truth, while
Oedipus a normal person is at this stage totally blind to that truth. There is
irony in the contrast between what Oedipus truly is and what he at this
moment thinks of himself. Oedipus will later on also become blind. Tragic
irony is also to be found in the scene when Creon begs Oedipus not to think
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him a traitor and not to pass the sentence of death or banishment against
him. But Oedipus blinded by his authority and his anger, shows himself
relentless. This situation is ironical when in the final scene the roles are
reverse Oedipus becomes the suppliant and Creon becomes the king. The
sufferings of the final scene in this way are intensified.
In the scene between Oedipus and Jocasta, both appear as persons
ignorant of the true facts. Jocasta is sceptical of Oracles and regards them
………………….. “For I can tell you,
No man possesses the secret of divination,
And I have proof”.
As a proof of the falsity of Oracles, she gives an account of what she
and her husband did to the child whom she had given birth. And who
according to Oracles was going to kill his father and marry his mother.
There is palpable irony in Jocasta’s unbelief in Oracles and this irony
deepens Jocasta’s tragedy.
There is an irony also in the account of Oedipus’ life, which he gives to
Jocasta. He has all along been under the impression that he has avoided
committing the crimes foretold by Oracles.
The greatest irony of the play lies in the fact that the actions of Oedipus
lead to the fulfilment of those very prophecies, which he had been averting
just as the king Laius, had earlier taken to avert foretold fate. This is how
Sophocles brings into limelight man’s helplessness in the scheme of things.
“Where are you now, diving prognostication!”
She asserts this quite unknowing and is ignorant that her mockery will
turn against her own self. There is also irony in the simple remark of
messenger that Jocasta is the true “consort” of a man like Oedipus. Neither
the messenger nor Jocasta knows the awful meaning of these words, which
the reader understands. Jocasta makes her excellent speech only a few
moments before the real truth draws upon her. The Tragic irony in this
situation is that what is said by Corinthean and Jocasta in this scene is
The song of the chorus after Jocasta has left in a fit of grief and sorrow
is full of tragic irony. The chorus visualizes Oedipus as the offspring of a
union between some god and a mountain-nymph. The chorus thereby pays
attribute to what if think to be the divine parentage of Oedipus. There is a
big contrast between supposition of chorus and the actual reality. The
concluding parts of the play is deeply moving and poignant but there can be
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hardly any tragic irony in it, because all the facts are now known to all these
In addition to this, there is an irony at a broader level in the inversion of
the whole action. Oedipus’ decision not to return to Corinth in order to
escape the fate foretold by Oracle is ironical because they put him in the
exact place that must be avoided most of all, he is ignorantly killing his
father and marrying his mother without knowledge or choice. There are the
crimes from which he wanted do avert.
To conclude, Sophocles has employed this effective device of tragic
irony in the basic situations and in the theme of entire work. Meaning by,
“Oedipus Rex” is rich in tragic irony at all levels. His effective use of this
weapon has surely heightened the tragic effect of this great play. The
heightened tragic effects in its turn, stresses upon the helplessness of man
before the supernatural powers.
Aristotle’s views regarding tragedy are mainly based upon the
excellencies which “Oedipus Rex” possesses as a tragedy. The play presents
an imitation of an action or piece of life, which is serious, complete in itself
and also having a certain magnitude. The means employed by Sophocles is
language beautified by all available devices. The story is told in a dramatic
form with incidents arousing pity and whereby to accomplish the catharsis of
such emotions. So we discuss the major traits which erect “Oedipus Rex”
head and shoulder above other plays.
Aristotle singled out the plot of “Oedipus Rex” for the highest praise
and since his time the greatest superlatives have been used for the plot of
this tragedy. Coleridge considers that the plot of “Oedipus Rex” is one of the
best constructive plots in the world. The most noteworthy feature of the plot
of “Oedipus Rex” is its sheer inevitability; such incident arises quite
logically out of the one that has gone before. The main action is the
discovery of the murderer of Laius and his banishment.
In spite of the close link of the cause and effect the play maintains
suspense and curiosity throughout the action. Aristotle has highly praised
Sophocles, handling of the recognitions (Oedipus comes to know about
himself as a murderer) or discovery in this play. Then there are beautiful
parallels of events and situations. The song of chorus also contributes in the
development and unfolding of the plot of the play. Though there are some

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flaws and inconsistencies but there are all forgotten in the power and
intensity with which Sophocles moves his story forward.
Another important point to note about the plot of “Oedipus Rex” is that
like the most Greek plays of ancient times it observes all the three unities;
unity of time, unity of place, unity of action. The entire action of the play
takes place at the royal palace in the city of Thebes, within twenty-four
hours. Similarly, the entire attention is in focusing on a single theme- the
investigation by Oedipus into the murder of Laius and discovery of truth.
These unities made the play close knit and produce great dramatic effect.
Aristotle has stressed upon the unity of action only, the other two have
wrongly been attributed to him.
Oedipus is one of the most striking and tragic characters in Greek
literature. He fulfils all the qualities of an ideal tragic hero as outlined by
Aristotle in his “Poetics”. He is a man of royal birth, possesses excellent
qualities of character, great well wisher of his people and great administrator
with outstanding intellect. He respects the bonds of family and is a loving
husband as well as an affectionate father. Theban people love and adore him.
However, he is not without flaws. He does suffer from ‘hamartia’, which
makes him fallible to incur the wrath of the gods. He is a hot tempered, rash,
over confident and excessively proud of his genius. It is his boast that not
seer, not even Teiresias can find the solution to that riddle.
“That was a riddle, too deep for common world”,
Tragic flaw in this case becomes hubris or arrogance. His tragedy lies
not so much in committing the crimes of patricide and incest as his
discovery that he is guilty of them. If the crimes had remained undiscovered,
there would have hardly been any tragedy. But Oedipus relentlessly pursued
the investigation and therefore meets tragic fever. Oedipus is thus an
authentic tragic hero because he meets all the requirements of an ideal tragic
According to Aristotle tragedy arouses the emotions of pity and fear,
and through these brings about a Catharsis. Pity is aroused chiefly for the
hero’s tragic fate and fear at the sight of dreadful sufferings that befall the
characters, particularly the hero. The very opening of the play “Oedipus
Rex” creates in us the feelings of pity and fear, pity for the suffering
population of Thebes and fear of future misfortune which might befall the
people. These emotions are also aroused by the fact in the play that Oedipus
tries to avert living with his parents, so that he may not commit the crimes of
patricide and incest but fate takes him to his damnation that he had otherwise

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never met. The intense feelings of pity and terror do not give rise to lasting
pessimism in us. The essential goodness of Oedipus is highly pleased to us.
By arousing the emotions, it therefore affords (give) emotional relief.
Oedipus Rex certainly provides us this emotional solace.
Greek tragedy is generally believed to be the tragedy of fate in contrast
with Shakespearean tragedy, which is regarded as the tragedy of character,
whether or not this is true of other Greek tragedies. This is inapplicable to
Oedipus Rex. It is certainly because of Oedipus’s character as a great
discoverer of truth and a determined man to find out what he has decided to
discover that Oedipus meets with tragic reversal. There is an important role
played by fate but Oedipus is also himself responsible for his actions.
Thus we can conclude that Oedipus Rex is a complex tragedy. It
comprises all the rules and regulations. Aristotle’s views are mainly based
upon the Excellencies while Oedipus Rex possesses as a tragedy. Sophocles
tragedy presents to us with terrible affirmation of man’s subordinate position
in the universe and at the same time with a heroic vision of man’s victory in
The plot of “Oedipus Rex” satisfies all the requirements of a good plot
as enunciated by Aristotle. It has recognized beginning middle and end. In
fact, Aristotle’s views regarding the plot of a tragedy are mainly based upon
the Excellencies, which “Oedipus Rex” possesses as a tragedy.
By definition, the beginning is that which does not have gone before it
(beginning) and has definite consequences. Although Sophocles’ play
focuses attentions over long rule of Thebes, yet we feel suspense and
curiosity throughout. They both produce dramatic effects. Every effort of the
king to find out the murderer of Laius takes him nearer to the solution of his
other problem about his own identity and parentage. It is to be noted that
tragedy of Oedipus lies in the discovery of the guilt, not in the guilt itself. So
the feelings of pity and fear reach their height with the discovery of Oedipus.
Perepatia anagnorisis which are the two essentials of a tragic plot occur
when Corinthian messenger tries to cheer Oedipus and dispels his fear of
marrying his mother but by revealing who Oedipus really is; he produces
exactly the opposite result. Similarly, Oedipus runs headlong into the jaws of
very destiny from which he flees. The anagnorsis means the realization of
truth (discovery of truth). The moment comes for Jocasta at the end of the

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talk with the Corinthian messenger and for Oedipus at the end of Cross-
examination of Theban Shepherd.
Another important point to note about the plot of “Oedipus Rex” is that
the most Greek plays of ancient times and according to Aristotle’s views on
plot. It (play) observes all the three unities- unity of place, unity of time and
unity of action. The entire action of the play takes place at the royal palace
in the city of Thebes within twenty-four hours. Similarly, Oedipus focuses
the entire attention on a single theme the investigation into the murder of
Laius and the discovery of the truth. These unities made the play close-knit
and produced a dramatic effect.
Another prominent feature of the construction of the plot of “Oedipus
Rex” is the use of tragic irony. Tragic irony is to be found almost in every
major situation in this play. For example, Oedipus speaks insulting remarks
to Creon not realizing that very soon Creon will be the king. Jocasta’s
sarcastic remarks on, the Oracles are also full of tragic irony; especially
Oracles are going to be proud to be true in a short while. Sophocles use of
tragic irony heightens the tragic effect, and conveys the hard, harsh and
tragic effect of man’s helplessness and lack of true knowledge in this very
However, the plot of “Oedipus Rex” is not without flaws and
inconsistencies. For example, it seems highly improbable, that in fifteen
years of their married life, Jocasta and Oedipus never inquired into the
circumstances of the death of Jocasta’s first husband. The behaviour of the
Theban Shepherd also raised many questions, yet all these inconsistencies
and flaws are forgotten in the power and intensity with which Sophocles
moves his story forward.
The plot of “Oedipus Rex” possesses a perfect structure. It is coherently
developed from the prologue to the exude. The songs of Chorus also aid in
the development and unfolding of the plot by building up a proper mood and
atmosphere. There are beautiful parallels of events and situations. Pity, fear
and admiration are the dominant feelings in the play-fear of what might
happen and what really happens, pity at the sad fate of Jocasta and of
Oedipus and admiration for the integrity of Oedipus who pursues the
investigation for truth.
The account of the self-blinding and self-murdering in the final scene is
extremely touching and horrifying. At the same time, it is highly uplifting
and productive of cathartic effect of which Aristotle has spoken most
eloquently in his poetics.

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In “Oedipus Rex” pity and fear are the dominating feelings though a
number of subsidiary feelings are also produced. For instance the very
prologue produces in us the feelings of pity and fear, pity for the suffering of
population of Thebes and fear of future of misfortune, which might befall
the people. The priest of Zeus gives a vivid description of the sufferings of
the poor Thebans and refers to the ode of death from which there is no
escape that is caused by the pledge, which rips.
“Death in the city
Death in pasture”
The entry song of the chorus, which follows the prologue, brought the
feelings of pity and fear. The Chorus yet makes reference to the sorrows
afflicting the people of Thebes;
“The city reeks (full of) with the death in her streets.”
The effect of the whole of this first choral ode and the rest of the choral
odes is to deepen the feelings of pity and fear, which have already been
aroused in our hearts.
Oedipus’s proclamation of his resolve to track down the murderer of
Laius brings some relief to us. But one curse that Oedipus utters upon speaks
the unknown criminal and upon those who may be sheltering him, also
horrifies us by its fierceness. The scene in which Oedipus clashes with
Teiresias further contributes to the feelings of pity and terror. Teiresias
speaks to Oedipus as husband to the woman who bore him father and killer
and father supplanted, and arousing him openly of being a murderer. The
reaction of the Chorus i.e. the terrible utterances of Teiresias intensifies the
Oedipus account of his earlier life before his arrival at Thebes arouses
the feeling of terror by its references to the horrible prophecy, which he
received from the Oracle at Delphi. There is also terror in Oedipus’s step by
step progress towards the discovery of murderer of Laius, for not only will
the discovery be, that he has himself been that murder but also murderer
man was his real father. Consequently, Oedipus has become guilty of the
most horrible crimes against both his parents. We feel pity also for the plight
of Oedipus’s children especially his helpless girls. He makes an
exclamation, which arouses the terror in the reader.
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“Alas! All out all knows, no more concealment,”
The songs of Chorus immediately following the discovery arouse out
deepest sympathy at Oedipus sad fate. Then comes the missing from the
place and he gives us a heart-rending account of the manner in which Jocasta
hanged herself and Oedipus blinded him. Pity is also aroused by the fate of
Oedipus’s children, especially the helpless girls whose wretched condition is
graphically brought out by Oedipus himself.
When we complete our reading of the play our hearts are heavy with
sorrow and grief on account of the intensity of the feelings mainly of pity
and fear which we have been experiencing from the very opening scene of
the play onwards. However the play does not produce a final impression of
gloom. The play is not pessimistic, other feelings aroused in our hearts were
irritation with Oedipus at his treatment of Teiresias for his obstinacy and
insolence, admiration for Creon for his moderation his loyalty, liking for
Jocasta, for her devotion to Oedipus, admission for his relentless pursuit of
truth and so on. But the feelings of relief, exhilaration and pleasure have also
aroused in us. These feelings provide us relief and are reduced to a healthy
and balanced proportion.
The acceptance of suffering, which Oedipus displays, inspires great
respect for the indomitable spirit of man. Thus the effect of “Oedipus Rex”
is more complex than a produce of mere piety and fear, although these are
two of the dominant emotions in the emotional impact which this tragedy
has on us.
Pity is aroused also by the fate of poor Jocasta who has all her life been
caring only for the happiness and prosperity of Laius and Oedipus and who
ultimately finds that she has not only failed in both but has been guilty of
marrying her own son.
The complete reversal by which the king, who was esteemed by
everyone, turns into a homeless beggar and outcast and his very sight is
polluting, is truly productive of terror.
Aristotle’s views regarding tragic hero are mainly based upon the
excellencies, which “Oedipus Rex” possesses as a tragedy. Enumerating the
personality traits of a tragic hero, Aristotle asserts that a tragic hero is a
distinguished kind of person, occupying a high status in life and in a very
prosperous circumstances falling into misfortune on account of a hamartia or
some defect of character.
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King Oedipus is certainly one of the most striking and tragic characters in
Greek literature that executes the qualities of an ideal tragic hero. He is a man
of royal birth; possesses excellent qualities of character, is a great well-wisher
of his people, is a man of integrity and is a great administrator with
outstanding intellect. He respects the bonds of family, is a loving husband and
an affectionate father. Theban people respect and adore him. He considers
their grief as his own.
However, he is not without flaws. He does suffer from hamartia, which
makes him liable to incur the wrath of the gods. He is short tempered, rash,
over confident and excessively proud of his genius. But his ruin is brought
through the force of circumstances. The hamartia in this way includes a
defect of character a passionate act of ignorance. The tragic irony lies in the
fact that he commits this error in complete innocence but result proves to be
disastrous. However, it is not easy to point out a single hamartia, which is
directly responsible for Oedipus’ tragedy.
It may be argued that the cause of Oedipus’ tragedy is excessive pride in
his intelligence. His feelings of pride seem to have been nourished and
inflated by his success in solving the riddle of Sphinx. It is his boast, that no
seer, not even Teiresias found the solution to that riddle. His feelings of
pride over his intelligence are crystal clear from the following sentence.
“That was a riddle, too deep for common world,”
Because of his hubris or arrogance, Oedipus certainly alienates some of
our sympathies. Indeed self-confidence is a good quality but when it takes
the form of pride or insolence, it becomes disgusting and obnoxious.
But his pride is not the direct cause of his tragedy or his crimes. Having
come to know from the oracles what was in store for him he tried his utmost
to avert his fate. It was, however, completely in a state of ignorance that he
committed the crime of patricide and incest.
His tragedy is a tragedy of error, not only because of any wilful action.
And yet it can be argued that if he had been little more careful, things would
have taken a different shape. He might have avoided the quarrel with an old
man enough to be his father, if he had not been hot-tempered; and might
have refused to marry a woman old enough to be his mother, if he had not
been blinded by the pride of his intelligence. But then prophecies of Oracle
would have been fulfilled in some other way, because nothing could have
prevented their fulfilment. Pride therefore, has little to do with Oedipus’s
killing his father and marrying his mother and finally in bringing about his
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It can be said that tragedy of Oedipus is the result of his good qualities
than his bad ones. It is his love of Thebes, which makes him to consult
Oracles, and the cause of his anger is that old prophet Teiresias is reluctant
to tell the truth. To Oedipus, the discovery of truth is more important than
his own safety. Certainly if Oedipus had not relentlessly pursued his
investigation he might have spared the shock of discovery-Teiresias, Jocasta
and Theban shepherd try to dampen Oedipus’s determination to know the
truth but in vain. It is this insistence on the truth that leads to discovery in
which lies the tragedy. The oracle did say that Oedipus would have quality
of sins but no Oracle said that Oedipus must discover the truth. His own
loyalty to the truth causes the tragedy. The self-blinding and self-punishment
are the offshoots of the discovery which is the major tragedy and makes his
character tragic.
Oedipus is, therefore, an authentic tragic hero in the Aristotle’s sense.
His character leaves a powerful impression on our minds. We commiserate
with him because he is a victim of fate and circumstances. He proves
indomitable in misfortune. He is an authentic tragic hero from the modern
reader’s point of view. In him, we see the helplessness of man in face of
circumstances. The spirit of Oedipus remains unconquered even in his defeat
and that is the essential fact about a tragic hero.
The world of Oedipus is the world of mysteries. Where man’s freewill,
struggle for identity and inherent humanism is moulded and marred by
barbaric fate. The gods, prophecies, oracles and curses are fulfilled in spite
of harsh struggle to divert them. Man himself becomes one of the agents to
destiny. But man is not mere a puppet in the cruel hands of fate, he is
endowed with reason, ego and power of decision, which lead him to weave
his own doom. Oedipus is cast in the jigsaw of supernaturals, but he chooses
his own end.
Oedipus is certainly a man of social, moral and spiritual grandeur as is
befitting to a hero in a tragedy according to Aristotle. Oedipus being a man,
finite in his faculties, tries to interfere in the sphere of gods. He has
disobeyed gods before the action of the play and during the play. This is one
of the reasons of his tragic fall. Incest and parricide were fate bound acts
which were of un-intended nature, therefore, prone to be forgiven.

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Unrevealed truths did not disturb him in his long- timed rule. His relentless
search for ultimate reality throws him before the hungry lions of fate. Being
a king and compassionate exorcist he has to release his people from the
present plague which is demand of duty and of his internal goodness.
During the course of the play he commits some of the faults which lead
him to tragic end. Though his errors sprout from goodness, yet they achieve
the maximum to form his hamartia. Self-confidence in his intelligence and
abilities is transformed into over-confidence. Egoism is transfigured into
egotism. Sense of self realization into pride in this way he curses prophet of
Apollo and assassinator of King Laius bitterly and curse in any form must be
fulfilled in the perspective of strong belief in gods and religion. He instigates
the wrath of gods by being proud and over confident and punished. Since it
calls down appalling penalties, his own fate is much worse than it might
otherwise have been. Instead of exile and purification, he must be deprived
of all rights and ties, and suffer misery and poverty. The oracle does not
order such a doom, but once Oedipus has pronounced his curse, there is no
escape from it. He is the instrument to make his own fate worse than it might
have been. In his desire to do what the gods require, he puts a heavier
punishment on himself. He sees this when he begins to realize that he may
be the murderer of Laius. That is why he calls himself the most miserable of
men and says;
“And this—‘t was I,
No other, on myself invoked the curse”.
He says much the same when he has blinded himself; he has shut
himself off everything in Thebes;
“Whereof, alas!
I robbed myself, I spoke that word”.
Moreover, self-confidence induces Oedipus to despise prophecy and to
feel almost superior to the gods. He tells the people who pray for deliverance
from the plague that they may hope to find their prayers fulfilled, if they
listen to him and follow his advice. The struggle between true wisdom and
self-confident intellectual pride is found. Oedipus’ scornful refusal of both
Creon’s advice and Teiresias’ prophecy corresponds to Creon’s attitude
towards Teiresias. So it is lack of wisdom that is a major cause of man’s
failure as well as tragic catastrophe as is the case with Oedipus, the king.
Tyranny may also spring from this weakness in man and that lead to vanity
and finally to a pitiable fall.
As Sir Maurice Bowra declares that
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“The gods force on Oedipus the knowledge of what he has done”
It does not seem to be a right decision because they do nothing of the
kind; on the contrary, what fascinates us in the spectacle of a man freely
choosing, from the highest motives, a series of actions, which lead to his
own ruin. Oedipus might have left the plague to take its course: but pity for
the sufferings of his people compelled him to consult Delphi. When
Apollo’s word came back, he might still have left the murder of Laius
uninvestigated but piety and justice required him to act. He need not have
forced the truth from the reluctant Theban herdsman; but because he cannot
rest content with a lie, he must tear away the last veil from the illusion in
which he has lived so long.
Oedipus faces a very critical situation in the course of his action. He had
to choose one thing out of two. But what is the alternative? If Oedipus is the
innocent victim of a doom, which he cannot avoid, does this not reduce him
to a mere puppet? Is not the whole play a “tragedy of destiny” which denies
human freedom? This is the second of the heresies which is certainly
refutable. The modern reader slips into it easily because we think of to clear
cut alternative which are either we believe in fate or else we are determinist.
But fifth century Greeks did not think in these terms any more than Homer
did; the debate about determinism is a creation of Hellenistic thought.
Homeric heroes have their predetermined “portion of life”; they must
die on their “appointed day”; but it never occurs to the poet or his audience
that this prevents them fro being free agents. Nor did Sophocles intend that it
should occur to readers of the Oedipus Rex. Neither in Homer nor in
Sophocles does divine foreknowledge of certain events imply that all human
actions are predetermined. If explicit confirmation of this is required, we
have to consult the messenger where he emphatically distinguishes Oedipus
self-blinding as “voluntary” and “self-chosen” from the “involuntary”
patricide and incest. Certain of Oedipus past actions were fate-bound; but
everything that he does on the stage from first to last he does as a free agent.
Oedipus is also held guilty in another way--- it is said that he fails to
take the logical steps or precautions, which would have saved him from
committing the crimes. “Could not Oedipus --- have escaped his doom if he
had been more careful? Knowing that he was in danger of committing
patricide and incest would not a really prudent man have avoided
quarrelling, even in self-defence, with men older than himself, and also love-
relations with women older than himself?” Would he not, in Waldock’s
ironic phrase, have compiled a hand list of all the things he must not do? In
real life I suppose he might. But we are not entitled to blame Oedipus either
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Qaisar Iqbal Janjua from Lahore, Pakistan. Contact (92) 300 8494678
qaisarjanjua@hotmail, qaisarjanjua@gmail,
for carelessness failing to compile a hand list or blame lack of self-control in
failing to obey or even hinted, and it is an essential critical principle that
what is not mentioned in the play does not exist. These considerations would
be in place if we were examining the conduct of a real person. But we are
not: we are examining intention of a dramatist, and we are not entitled to ask
questions that the dramatist did not intend us to ask… Oedipus Rex is not a
detective story but a dramatized folktale.

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Qaisar Iqbal Janjua from Lahore, Pakistan. Contact (92) 300 8494678
qaisarjanjua@hotmail, qaisarjanjua@gmail,

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