Of More Woe: Oedipus Rex as the Timeless Tragedy

The Greeks have left us with tenets that define modern tragedy even upto this day. Whether it be the tragic star crossed lovers of a Fault in Our Stars or the fatal flaws of power preset in Macbeth’s desperation, Aristotle’s definition of tragedy – that which incites pity and fear in the audience and that which is wholly undeserved. Greek tragedian Sophocles framed the play Oedipus Rex from a renowned Greek myth, and thus was born one of the greatest tragedies on the human condition, one that Aristotle deemed a paradigm providing catharsis in the audience vicariously through its characters.

Critic Bernard Knox writes that Oedipus’ choice- the only freedom that Sophoclean sleight of hand in making a play out of the myth seems to have given him -“is what underscores the play’s tragic theme and the protagonist’s stature” . The course of action Oedipus follows is that of the rigorous detective who leaves no stone unturned in his quest of “bringing all to light”, particularly insightful in the context of the rise of Greek democracy, rationalism and subsequent faith in the human agency around 6th century BCE. The intellectual revolution of the era brought up an insoluble dilemma of questioning the religious ideals and presenting rationality as an equally compelling, if not superior ,mode of life. Oedipus embodies the characteristics that philosopher Pericles fittingly sums up in describing the Athenian spirit – “We are unique in our combination of the most courageous action and rational discussion of our plans”. Oedipus is swift with action, and displays foresight fitting of a good ruler to send Creon to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi to seek deliverance from the plague. Right in the opening scene, we witness the chorus, representative of the common man’s voice, approaching the royal palace with their branches wound in wool, imitating supplication shown to the gods. Oedipus’ mannerisms in the first entrance is deliberately likened to that of Apollo with Sophocles heightening dramatic irony in Oedipus ‘ self assured proclamation: “I’ll bring it all to light myself ”. He is “Apollo’s champion” and in a similar vein as the god of light, he will shed light on the mystery of his own convoluted birth. He designates the palatial altar as his, underlining the pride of the tyrannos in winning over the city and his personal intellectual prowess that brought about the Sphinx’s death. His stance is somewhat godly, lording over the people who have come to him, seeking him to heal the city as its righteous ruler. Thus, the thrust is on man as a political creature, as Aristotle puts it “a man or individual is a creature of the polis”. Oedipus’ self assuredness is seemingly vindicated in the light of the ascension of the polis.

However, the intelligence that won him Thebes is limited, and with the arrival of Tiresias , the Oracle of Delphi ( one of the most revered Greek figures) and Sophocles introduces conflict between the divine authority and the political powers of man. Sophocles employs the seer’s typical enigmatic ways to augment to the rising tension of the exchange between Tiresias and Oedipus, culminating in the disclosure of the unthinkable taboo, which evidently establishes the inescapable, incomprehensible and mysterious domain of the prophecies. Tiresias speaks in riddles, lending further enigma to the obtuse prophecy. The blind prophet has the sight of insight and wisdom Oedipus lacks. Tiresias’ unwillingness to pronounce the truth in plain language is misinterpreted as treachery by Oedipus- he very wrongly postulates ploys of a coup hatched by the former and Creon in unison to oust Oedipus and seize the throne .

His misconstrued questioning of Tiresias’ and Creon -who had been ever loyal to him ,poses the natural insecurity of the tyrannos figure. The tyrannos is the individual whose legitimacy to the throne rested solely on his own powers and were not validated or cemented by the traditional hereditary rites of inhering the throne. Oedipus goes as far as to insult the prophet’s seerhood as a common trade and deems him “ a pious fraud” before the chorus. This is how the playwright anticipates the final chaos of the ultimate reveal is prefigured and the pathos is further solidified through the righteous hero’s downfall. The human figure has not been shown in any divine light – he is flawed in his insecurities as a ruler, he is flawed simply owing to his human birth and the pollution of the same. The audiences’ horror and empathy is thus sustained and the tragedy has successful fruition.

The chorus is , understandably, visibly and deeply perturbed by the almost hostile conflict that unfolds- rife in threats and ghastly foreboding mood. Jocasta’s (the wife and in a heart wrenching turn of horror, his mother) arrival on the scene although intermittently mitigates the tension, her rejections of the oracle’s prophecy is impious and corroborates Oedipus ‘ view of rationally rejecting the gods authority. This is where the chorus’ concern comes in , not from the fact that she expresses a skeptical view which might be thought shocking as from the grounds on which her view was based. Their moral dilemma is the audiences’, the palpable possibility of the end of oracular authority and the end of religion simply unacceptable, it is anarchical in the ancient Greek worldview. They pray for the restoration of the sophrosyne (Greek term for intrinsic peace) that seems to have abandoned their benevolent tyrant – who most certainly at this moment, smarts of the violent pride that befalls rulers. The line of questioning to the garrulous Corinthian messenger however confirms the worst for Jocasta, who is now privy to the ghastly nature of her marriage. Her aims at dissuading Oedipus’ relentless questioning and her dramatic exit after deeming her husband “ man of agony” is misinterpreted by Oedipus and he deigns her shriek of terror as womanly tantrums. The almost romantic notions that Oedipus and the chorus harbor regarding oedipu ‘origins as an elemental child absolutely shatter in the conversation with the old shepherd. Although midway in the line of questioning the distorted truth of his birth does come to his mind, he plunges into the final reveal with the same dreaded persistence that led him to the unraveling of the birth mystery. Like the ideal Athenian helmsman, leader and rational being, he plows on, even at the cost of his own ruin.

There is an affirmation in the fall of the great man towards our own community. The fall from grace this honest, just, yet human entity faced brings us closer to our community- reaffirming the same bonds in our own private spaces that Oedipus the character must shirk away from in terror. There is catharsis in the fall as the audience undergoes intense emotional upheaval for the just man who did not deserve the resolute, eternally damnation which in turn psychologically divests us of our own burdens and paradoxically gain comfort from the fiction’s pain.

Oedipus, of his own free will brings “ all to light” regarding the taboo of the incest and the parricide committed in ignorance. It is his nature as the benevolent political leader who views the Thebans as his own children that bring about his downfall. His incessant pursuit of the truth is as much the hamartia (the fatal flaw idea pertinent to most Greek heroes) as the hubris (the pride of the hero figure) of the tyrannos who prided in his limited rationality and momentarily lost his sense of sophrosyne. Despite the eternal damnation that he knows awaits him, Oedipus emerges as the hero who does not let the prophecy dictate his actions, he blinds himself , separates himself from his beloved children and pronounces exile on himself- thus forging his own personal fate while being condemned simultaneously. The king figure, although weakened in the face of the prophecy, does shine in the wake of the terrible discovery. The pollution of his birth does not violate his moral strength and the fallen king firmly reclaims the heroic stature of the exposition, perhaps in defiance of the chorus branding him the great example of the immutable loom of destiny. However, Sophocles makes no claims to moral classifications and simply corroborates with the human senses and the human experience to create the elemental crash we cannot divert our eyes from even as we continue to grieve for the blind king and the blueprint his creator fashioned him in many centuries ahead of his time.

– Bipasha Bhowmick

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