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Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Sophocles‘Oedipus Rex’ is the Latin title for the play ‘Oedipus the King’. It is a tragedy by Sophocles that was performed for the first time as early as 429 BC. Sophocles has written two more plays on Sophocles, namely, ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ and ‘Antigone’, both of which, thematically, fit after ‘Oedipus Rex’. The play is a wonderful example of all the aspects that Aristotle assigned to an ideal tragedy in his Poetics. It presents a wonderful example for all the concepts highlighted by Aristotle in his ‘Poetics’ as necessary elements of a tragedy.

 The Story of Oedipus

King Laius comes to know from an oracle that his newly born son is destined to kill him. He uses a pin to bind the feet of the infant together and orders Queen Jocasta to kill the infant. Jocasta passes on the order further to a servant who leaves the infant on a mountain top hoping it to die due to exposure. A shepherd rescues the child and takes it to the childless King Polybus of Corinth. The child is named ‘Oedipus’ which means ‘swollen feet’ and is brought up by King Polybus and Queen Merope.

Oedipus Rex by SophoclesHaving grown up, Oedipus hears rumors that Polybus and Merope are not his biological parents. Since the king and queen were not able to convince him about the falsehood of such rumors, he went to the Delphic Oracle to know the truth. The oracle, instead of answering his question about his real parents, declares that he is destined to kill his own father and marry his own mother. Supposing Polybus and Merope to be his real parents, Oedipus leaves Corinth so as to avoid his destiny.

On his way, he meets his real father Laius and get in confrontation with him over the right for the chariot to pass first. Quarrel ensues and Oedipus kills Laius. So, first part of the prophecy gets fulfilled. He also kills the men who had been accompanying Laius, except one. He moves on to reach Thebes which was facing the curse of a sphinx. Oedipus successfully answered the riddle of the Sphinx, thus, leading the Sphinx to free the kingdom of its curse. As a reward, Oedipus becomes king of Thebes and marries the Queen, Jocasta, who actually is his biological mother. Thus, the prophecy got fulfilled completely. The play depicts the realization on the part of Oedipus that his own sins of patricide and incest had caused plague in his kingdom and the way he punished himself for it by blinding himself.

Plot

The plot has been planned in a manner that Oedipus’ story could be presented while maintaining the unities of time and place. Following the usual tradition of Greek plays, most of the events get reported to the audience and very limited part of the entire story actually gets enacted on the stage. The play begins when Chorus and a priest comes to Oedipus to seek his help to control the plague their kingdom is suffering from. Oedipus’ brother in law Creon comes back after meeting the oracle at Delphi and informs Oedipus that the reason for the plague is that the murderer of their previous king Laius has not been caught. Oedipus vows to find the murderer. He calls Tiresias for help who advises him to abandon the search for the murderer. Oedipus gets enraged and doubts Tiresias to be an accomplice in the murder.  Tiresias loses his calm and says that Oedipus is the murderer. Oedipus blames Creon to have paid off to the blind prophet to say so. Tiresias leaves muttering that Oedipus would prove to be brother and father to his own children, and husband and son to his own mother.

Oedipus still blames Creon and wants him to be executed. However, the chorus persuades Oedipus to let Creon live. Jocasta tries to pacify Oedipus by stating that Oracles could not be trusted. She tells that Laius had been prophesied to be killed by his own son while he was killed on the crossroads by some bandits. The mention of crossroads makes Oedipus feel that Tiresias might have been right in accusing him of the murder. He asks Jocasta for more details about Laius’ appearance. He summons the only survivor from amongst the men accompanying Laius when the latter was killed. The man works as a shepherd.

Jocasta is confused and Oedipus tells her that in Corinth, a man had once drunkenly claimed that Oedipus was not the biological son of his father. He tells that when he asked the oracle about the matter, the oracle prophesied that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother. So, he left the kingdom and encountered a carriage, on the crossroads mentioned above. The carriage had tried to drive him off the road which led to an argument due to which Oedipus had killed a person matching Jocasta’s description of Laius. He hopes that the story of Laius’ murder at the hands of robbers would be justified by the shepherd and he would prove to be innocent.

A messenger arrives from Corinth to inform that oedipus’ father is no more. Oedipus feels relaxed that he could not commit patricide now but is still afraid of committing incest. The messenger, to relieve him, informs him that he is not the real son of Polybus and Merope. He tells that he had been a shepherd long ago and another shepherd from Laius household had handed Oedipus over to him as an infant to get rid of it. And, Polybus had adopted Oedipus. Oedipus enquires the chorus about the shepherd from Laius household and is informed that he is the same eyewitness of Laius’ murder whom Oedipus has already summoned. Jocasta, having understood the entire matter, requests Oedipus to stop the enquiry but Oedipus is adamant. Jocasta runs into the palace.

When the shepherd arrives, Oedipus has to force him to speak up. Finally, he reveals that the infant was Laius’ son whom Jocasta had wanted to get rid off due to the prophecy that Jocasta had mentioned earlier. She had been afraid of the prophecy that the child would kill his own father.

A servant informs that Jocasta hanged herself after she ran into the palace. Oedipus is furious. When he sees Jocasta’s body, he takes off the gold pins holding her dress and blinds himself. He begs to be exiled. Creon says that Oedipus should be taken inside the palace till the oracle is consulted about the best course to be followed. Creon also promises Oedipus to take care of his daughters, who also happen to be his half sisters.

Elements of the drama

Like the usual Greek tragedies, the chorus plays a very significant role in the play. The chorus informs the audience about the action that takes place off stage, before or during the actual action shown on the stage. It also advises and informs the characters of the play at some points. The chorus basically serves the audience to understand the action better and the playwright to present the play in accordance to the established rules.

Unity of time and unity of place have been maintained in the play. The events depicted in the play are spread over as much time as the play runs for. The entire action takes place within the palace. Everything happening outside the palace at the time of action or before it has been narrated by the chorus, messenger or servant.

Like the established principles, the tragic action of the play does not give any space to comic elements.

The concepts of hamartia, tragic flaw, anagnorisis, peripeteia and catharsis; as have been identified by Aristotle as necessary aspects of a tragedy; could be very easily identified in the play.

Further reading

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