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OEDIPUS REX:

SOPHOCLES AS A DRAMATIST & HIS


CONCEPTION OF TRAGEDY:
The period of Sophocles extends up to sixty years, during which, he continually wrote
plays. As his plays are without dating, it is not possible to trace the development of his
dramatic genius. Though we have a broader view of the order in which his plays must have
been written, but, we are unsure of the exact chronology. There is possibility of harmful
propositions about the growth and development of Sophocles’ dramatic genius and his
conception of tragedy. In the beginning, he had been under the influence of great
dramatist, Aeschylus, and he would have been consciously or unconsciously imitated the
style of Aeschylus. Gradually we see increasing maturity and individuality in his work.

The most important aspect of Sophocles as dramatist is innovation that he made in


dramatic art. He increased the number of speaking parts in the tragedy. He made chorus
more important and took much care in plot construction. Sophocles made many
improvements in characterization. His plays are full of emotions and poetry. He included
painted scenery on the stage. He abandoned the traditional trilogy. It would be a mistake to
call his three Theban plays a trilogy, as they were written in different stages in the career of
the dramatist. In spite of the fact they are related to the same legend, there are important
differences in the treatment of the same theme or characters in these three plays. By
abandoning the trilogy, he made his plays self contained, independent artistic units.
Sophocles also played an important role in innovation of actor dresses to show high-born
and magnificent characters.

Sophocles’ plays contain deep philosophic contents. He advises that man must concern
himself with his own actions and remain within his own spheres of life. He must not try to
be equal to gods in any respect. Excessive desires even for good things such as, knowledge
angers the gods and bring men to ruin. According to Sophocles, every deed has its
consequences which no one can escape. Men suffer tragedies in plays of Sophocles as in the
other dramas but Sophocles has much pity for the tragic characters than the others
because, they suffer a lot by their own mistakes and revolting against the deity, causing
angers to gods. In Sophocles plays, it is the characters themselves who are the architect of
their fate, and bring good or bad fortune on themselves b their own actions.

Sophocles is the greatest master of irony of all times. In his plays, irony has a great and
subtle role at all levels. In Oedipus Rex, the irony shown is much better than in the other
plays. Many of the lines spoken by Oedipus Rex, as well as, other characters are very
ironical. The passionate king struggles to discover the murderer of Laius, the previous
king, by a searching process that brings him nearer to the fact, unknown to him, that he is
the murderer of his own father and the husband of his own mother. The efforts of Jocasta
and the Messenger to console the king make him more miserable by making him realize
that the king and Queen of Corinth, whom he left to escape the crimes predicted by the
oracle, were in reality his foster-parents.

Modern conceptions of tragedy mainly owe their origin to Sophocles. He made one
important character the central figure in every tragedy. Aristotle points out that it was
Sophocles who constructed his plots in such a way as to make reversals and recognition
their integral part. The characteristic feeling inspired by the tragedies of Sophocles is that
of respect for human life, values and pity for those who fall a victim to their error. The role
of Character and fate is very well balanced by Sophocles. The dialogues in Sophocles’ plays
are more life-like than in plays of Aeschylus. Sophocles seems to consider and think over
the questions concerning man’s place in the universe and role of destiny of the individual in
society. His plays best represent the essence of Greek life and culture in the history.

Written & Composed by:


Prof. A.R. Somroo
M.A. English, M.A. Education.
Cell: 03339971417

1
OEDIPUS REX:
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE LAST SCENE:
IMPRESSION OF OEDIPUS FROM THE LAST
SCENE:
Sophocles does not end the play as one would expect him to do, that is, with Oedipus
discovery of his identity and awareness of great crime which this discovery implies. On the
other hand, we are shown Oedipus in conversation with the Chorus, saying farewell to his
children and making some requests to Creon. Oedipus first expresses his grief and paid
over his blindness. He also explains the reason which drove him to blind himself. He
disagrees with the Chorus that it would have been better for him to die than to live in total
blindness. He talks affectionately to his children. He is sad to think that people will say evil
things to his children. He advises them to live a life of moderation that will help them to be
luckier than their father. He reminds Creon that he is now in place of father to these
children and must take care of them. He then forces Creon to exile him as required by the
Oracle.

This end makes it clear that Sophocles keeps Oedipus in focus of attention throughout the
last scene. It would therefore correct to say that the play begins and ends with Oedipus. He
is not insignificant even at this stage of the play. However, it produces some wrong
impression on the readers who may think that Oedipus has now been insignificant. It
means that man is now devoid of all the qualities and there is no difference between man
and beasts as he accepts a state of blindness. This may seem to be only possible conclusion
of the play; yet, little consideration would show that this view is incorrect.

The dramatic action of the last scene of the play works in a different direction. An analysis
of this would show that Oedipus is still the master of initiative. Because, Creon tells him try
not to rule in every thing. It shows recovery of Oedipus and re-birth of dynamic, intelligent
figure of the opening scene. At this stage, the Chorus can only say that it would have been
far better for Oedipus to have died on the mountain in his infancy than to be saved. It is
easy to think him as a broken man as the words of Oedipus also at first reflect the same
despair. But, soon afterwards the picture changes and we see Oedipus once more hopeful
and confident. It is this impression with which the play closes.
Immediately after his entry, Oedipus speaks some lines, which show his helplessness. Every
thing is new to him. He wants to know at what point his destiny has brought him. We may
think that a recently blinded man finds him unable to adjust the changed surroundings.
This situation expresses that Oedipus is no longer an active force but purely passive. This
impression becomes stronger when he addresses to the darkness in which he will move now
forever. This is an expression of his complete dependency on others. He seems indeed a
zero. But, soon after this, we find that blindness was his own choice. He gives strong
arguments in its favour. He says that his blindness was not predicted by Apollo. It is an
independent action he has taken after the discovery of the truth. Oedipus does not lay the
burden of his action on the shoulder of some god, though, all actions are said to be divinely
directed. This shows that he is still a man of decisive action. His attitude to the new and
terrible situation is full of the same courage, which he displayed before. He accepts full
consequences of the curse he imposed on himself, and insists, against Creons’ opposition,
that he be put to death or exiled from Thebes.

As before, Oedipus is not content with any thing which is incomplete. He demands that
directions of the Oracle should be acted upon at once. He speaks, as before, on the basis of
his own intelligent mind. He knows that his exile would be better for Thebes, so he
demands that it should be brought at once. Oedipus wants everything to come into the
open, while, Creon wants to hide things. Even, extreme grief does not impair the working
of his mind. It is even made clear that self blinding was not an emotional decision but it was
result of active thinking. When the Chorus says that he has made a bad decision in blinding
himself, he replies with his old anger, “Do not give me advice that I have done wrong”. He
then, tells the detailed reasoning by which he had made this decision.

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In the last scene, we find Oedipus as confident as before, but, we see that his old
hopefulness has undergone a change. It is not as much as before. But, he is certainly not
without hope. He plans out the future for himself and his family, giving Creon instructions
for the further actions. He is portrayed as indestructible. He says that his sufferings are
such as no one could bear but him. Even, after Oedipus has discovered his errors, his
devotion to the cause of his city remains, and, it is in its interest that he wants to be exiled.

The greatness of Oedipus can also be seen in his quick adaptation to the changed
circumstances. We are told in some detail, how quickly Oedipus adjusts himself to his
blindness. He can distinguish people by their voices when he is not able to see them. If, as a
king, Oedipus was insistent in his commands, as a beggar, he is found to be equally
insistent in his requests. There is no reason to believe that any of his requests would remain
unaccepted. This is clear from his phrase which combines the attitude of Tyrannous and
the beggar: “I make you responsible and I beg you”.

The new confidence and hope which Oedipus displays at the end of the play does not result
from any external event. Nor, it is based on any promise made by god. It is an autonomous
reaction and shows Oedipus to be, in some way, still the master of the situation.
In the last scene, he wins over the command of the Oracle against the will of Creon. Creon
displays a political attitude while Oedipus insists upon the fulfillment of the Oracle.

Written & Composed By:


Prof. A. R. Somroo
M.A. English, M.A. Education
Cell: 03339971417

3
OEDIPUS REX:
PLOT OF OEDIPUS REX:
DRAMATIC IRONY IN OEDIPUS REX:
Oedipus Rex has an extremely unusual plot. From beginning to end it is concerned with the
investigation of some past events. The play unites two parallel problems. One is the
detection of murderer of Laius and the second is the identity of Oedipus. The two problems
are one in a way and solving of either of them is like solving the both.

The general pattern of the story is that of finding of a lost one. The theme can be applied at
several levels. We can say that Oedipus finds his parents or Thebes and Corinth discover
their lost prince. This is very old theme. The foundling story has certain set features. For
example, the child is generally believed to be dead, though it often escapes miraculously or
by some kind human beings. The child grows up in the house-hold of a poor man. But at
the appropriated time, his identity is discovered by some physical signs or tokens. The
Oedipus story is an exception in the sense that here the prince is brought up still as a
prince, though in the family of another king. The token are not used by Sophocles towards
the solution – he has another use for them, but they are their in the form of pins stuck
through the baby’s ankles. Often this theme is used in many comical stories but Oedipus is
a true tragedy.

The uniqueness of the story of Oedipus Rex lies to some extent in this tragic colour given to
a generally comic story. The story of Oedipus is full of irony. The comic theme is used in
presenting a tragic story. Oedipus Rex has irony at several levels, including irony in the
inversion of the entire action. In happy stories, the recognition of the foundling is an
occasion of joy, but, here the discovery of identity is horrible and tragic. In the average
story, some chance adventure puts the foundling on the path of victory and prosperity.
Here, also it does in appearance, but in reality it makes him doomed.

The fulfillment of Oracles also is marked with irony. The Oracles are fulfilled just after
both Jocasta and Oedipus have spoken in disregard of them. There is irony in the reversed
intentions of helpers also. Sophocles provides at least one helper for every act. But all
helpers push Oedipus to the edge of disaster.

There are some questions that can be raised on the story; for example, why the Theban
shepherd falsely reported that Laius was attacked by a group of robbers, or why kept silent
when he saw Oedipus ruling in Thebes. We may also wonder why he was treated so
leniently when it was clear that he had left his master and companions dead on the road-
side. The probable answers of these questions can be given, but the fact is that this is not
the tragedy of Theban shepherd. He is just an agent, not a principal. These questions as
well as a couple of other questions which turn on reality might be ignored, but, there are
some others that cannot be ignored, because, Oedipus himself pointed to them. One of the
questions which Oedipus raises, If Teiresias was really an inspired seer, why was he not
able to answer the riddle of the sphinx? Why did he keep silent about the death of Laius
and the marriage of Jocasta when he seems to have known about Oedipus’ identity? The
only thing we can say is that everything seems to have been arranged by fate with Oedipus
as the centre. Oedipus is the man who must find, and condemn and punish himself. Thus,
even if some of the unanswered questions appear to us to affect probability, there is hardly
any question of this happening not analyzed or discussed.

Written & Composed by:


Prof. A.R. Somroo
M.A. English, M.A. Education.
Cell: 03339971417

4
OEDIPUS REX:
THEME OF APPEARANCE AND REALITY:
The theme of appearance and reality is dominant in the play. The obsession of appearance
plays such an important part in Oedipus tragedy that, the play can be termed as tragedy of
appearance in human life. The older view which considered Oedipus Rex as tragedy of fate
is incorrect. It must be noted that no ode in the play sings of fate, but a significance
reference is to appearance. The ode asserts that no one can seize happiness than its mere
appearance.

On behalf of appearance we see a battle in Oedipus Rex. As this battle progresses, we see
appearance losing its ground. The first stage in it is the institution of the divinely instructed
enquiry into the death of Laius, which means that it was the work of outland robbers. It is
clear that Oedipus is led astray by an appearance --- which the robbers who were alleged to
have attacked Laius must have been associated with Thebes, and the suspicion that Creon
must have been at their back. “The question points to Creon. Creon gives the appearance
of evading it, the suspicion, he says that unavoidably arose could not be pursued after the
deed. The suspicion seems to lie dormant. But, the focus of attention is no longer in the
scene of crime, but rather on those who were ultimately responsible. Then suddenly the
suspicion is confirmed and the existence of a whole web of enmity stands as a fact”.
Oedipus suspects that the robbers were bribed to play their part and ultimately, he thinks
that both Creon and Teiresias were behind them. Thus, the supposed existence of a plot to
murder Laius is another appearance which leads Oedipus astray.

Oedipus is concerned with two appearances which it becomes his life mission to investigate,
so that he may get the underlying truth. Oedipus believes in the appearance of some
unknown enemy and pronounces on him the sentence of outlawry, and also utters a curse
on him. The reality of it, that it is on him he is passing both the sentences, is unknown to
him. We see that gradually Oedipus knows what reality lies hidden behind the appearance.

Now, the battle between truth and appearance becomes an open contest. We see it first in
the confrontation between Oedipus and Teiresias. This is not tragic error but it is tragic
appearance and it is a typical of tragic art in its perfect form.

Appearance and truth come into the picture also in the discussion of the guilt or innocence
of Oedipus. It can be noted when Oedipus refers to the death of Laius, after he has learnt
new facts from Jocasta, he speaks of himself in terms of a criminal, of one who is guilty of
the murder of another , although a murder committed in self-defense. However it does not
mean that he takes upon himself the blame of being a murderer. Oedipus says that it was
Apollo who imposed this agony on him. Neither in moral sense nor even in a legal sense is
Oedipus guilty. In a way, guilt and innocence make no difference to Oedipus situation. The
question of responsibility, whether it is that of man, god or other world order itself is left
out by Sophocles. The play does not decide anything about guilt and innocence. The focus is
appearance and reality as two opposites between which human conduct must be bound.
This chain not only fastens man but destroys him when he achieves his highest ambition
and seeks to free himself of it.

Written & Composed by:


Prof. A.R. Somroo
M.A. English, M.A. Education.
Cell: 03339971417

5
OEDIPUS REX:
OEDIPUS AS A TRAGIC HERO:
TRAGEDY OF FATE:
ROLE OF TRAGIC FLAW OR HAMARTIA:
Oedipus is a legendary character in classical literature who was a great favourite with the
tragic dramatists. Several other tragedies with Oedipus as the centre are known to have
been written in ancient Greece. Greek dramatists were quite free to give their own
conception of well known characters, and Sophocles’ Oedipus is largely his own creation.

Oedipus is certainly one of the striking characters in Greek literature. The first impression
that he leaves on the mind of the reader is that of intense individuality and self-dependence.
Another quality is Oedipus’ strong sincerity and honesty of purpose. He is a seeker after
truth, and is not prepared to give up the quest whatever it may cost him. He is affectionate
as a man and very considerate to his people as their king. However, he is some what rash
and is capable of unfair judgments in fits of temper. The personal qualities of Oedipus,
both good and bad, make him a very interesting character. Although fate and
circumstances play a large role in his tragedy, his qualities of character also have an
important bearing on his tragedy.

Aristotle gives his conception of the Greek tragic hero in one of the important sections of
the “Poetics”. According to Aristotle the tragic hero is commonly found to belong to a great
and noble family; he is a noble person but is not very virtuous and just. He undergoes
suffering, which results, not from evil, but from some Hamartia. Aristotle gives the
example of Oedipus in Sophocles, play as a great and successful tragic hero.

The term Hamartia used by Aristotle to convey his view about the tragic reversal of the
hero is highly controversial. There are two main interpretations of this term. According to
one of them the term means a defect of character which brings tragic consequences, i.e.
tragic flaw. The other interpretation of the term is in the sense of error of judgment. If we
apply the term in the first sense, we would say that Oedipus’ hamartia is rashness and
anger, or a tendency to place too much value on human intelligence. If we interpret the
term in the sense of error of judgment, we might think of the errors committed by Oedipus
before the story of Sophocles play begins, or look for similar errors within the play itself. In
either case it would not be easy to point out hamartia which should be directly responsible
for Oedipus’ tragedy.

It might be argued that the cause of Oedipus’ tragedy is excessive pride in his intelligence.
It leads him to believe that he can defeat the oracle by not going back to Corinth. In an
apparently innocent manner, this arrogance leads him to solve the riddle of the sphinx and
thus indirectly and unconsciously becomes guilty of incest. Earlier, his rashness has made
him slay his own father, though Oedipus was not aware of the old man’s identity. Within
the play, we may say that Oedipus’ rashness makes him pronounce a curse on the
murderer of Laius and also includes his own self within the scope of the curse. His
suspiciousness makes him suspect Creon of having designs on his life and throne. The
actions of parricide and incest have been committed by him in the past and his errors and
faults only influence the manner in which he discovers his past crimes as well as his
identity.

It can be said that the tragedy of Oedipus is the result more of his good qualities than his
bad ones. It is his love of Thebes which makes him send Creon to Delphi to consult the
oracle. It is the same care for his subjects, which make him proclaim a ban and a curse on
the murderer of Laius. It is his absolute honesty which makes him include even his own self
within the curse and the punishment. To Oedipus the discovery of the truth is more
important than his own good and safety. He is so honest that he inflicts the punishment of
self-blinding when he learns that he has committed horrible crimes against his parents,
although in complete ignorance.

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Oedipus seems to be somewhat obsessed with his own intelligence and this leads him into
many uncomfortable situations and also creates an unfavourable impression on the reader.
Oedipus is extremely proud of the fact that he was able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx
which has proved too much for every other person.

The character of Oedipus leaves a powerful impression on the mind of the reader. We have
a great admiration for his search of truth. We also sympathize with him because he is the
victim of irony of fate and circumstances. He proves undefeatable in misfortune and even
he is no better than a blind beggar he proves to be towering character as compared to
Creon who has now become the king. His intense love for his helpless daughters also
creates a strong impression on the reader. He indeed seems to be a symbol of human
intelligence and courage which remain undefeated in the face of greatest adversities.

Written & Composed by:


Prof. A.R. Somroo
M.A. English, M.A. Education.
Cell: 03339971417

7
OEDIPUS REX:
CONCEPTION OF CATHARSIS:
EMOTIONAL IMPACT:
One of the questions discussed by Aristotle in his “Poetics” is that of the emotional function
and impact of tragedy. In later criticism of tragedy also, an important focus of attention
has been the paradoxical fact that unlike real life, the spectacle of sorrow and suffering
affords pleasure to the spectator of tragedy. The passage in which Aristotle speaks about
the emotional function of tragedy is a very important part of his argument. But,
unfortunately it is not very clear. The main difficulty arises from the interpretations of the
word “Catharsis”. It is generally translated into English as purgation. It is objected that
purgation is only of undesirable elements, as in medical practice, and that pity and fear not
things of which man would like to be purged. One view is that it is the excess which is
purged, and not the qualities themselves. According to another view, “catharsis” is
purification and not purging. Aristotle is said to have suggested that a tragedy allows a
person to exercise feeling which, if exercised without control in real life, might stand in the
way of action. It must be stressed that Aristotle does not say that pity and terror are the
only emotions proper to tragedy. His suggestions seem to be that these are the most
predominant emotions, but his reference clearly is to these and other similar emotions. As
other writers on tragedy have pointed out, a great tragedy gives rise to a variety of feelings.
These include a sense of mystery and even awe at the complexity of human life. Tragedy
also produces a sense of admiration at the greatness of the human spirit. Tragedy
impresses us with the seriousness of human life. It may temporarily give us the feeling that
man’s life is a very sad affair, but this is only a fleeting impression. The ultimate effect of
tragedy is ennobling and uplifting.
Oedipus Rex is a very significant play for a discussion of the emotional impact of tragedy.
The fate of Oedipus, who always wished for the welfare of his people, inspires us with awe.
We wonder at the mystery of human life in which a man may suffer even with the best of
intentions. We also wonder at the fact that even kindness and comparison sometimes
produce a very cruel effect; for example, the kindness shown by Theban shepherd to the
infant who was given to him to destroy. The play arouses it deep sense of pity for the
sufferings which seem to the reader to be largely undeserved. However, the play does not
produce a final impression of gloom. On the other hand, the acceptance of suffering and
defeat which Oedipus displays inspires great respect for the indomitable spirit of man.
Thus the effect of Oedipus Rex is more complex than a production of mere pity and terror.
There are many things in the play which evoke a sense of strong pity. This pity arises from
fellow feeling, and has nothing in common with the modern meaning of the word, which
has a tinge of superiority in it, for we now speak of feeling of pity for the sufferings of the
poor and the down-trodden, but not of those superior to us. The very first impression that
is produced on us as we begin to read this play is that of pity. The priest of Zeus gives a
vivid description of the sufferings of poor Thebans.
The chorus appeals to the gods to take pity on the suffering people and our hearts also are
filled with pity. There is, off course, a sense of great pity for Oedipus who has in vain been
searching for his parents. 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 description of her last moments by the attendant is truly heart-rending.
Along with pity, there is also the feeling of great terror. In fact, there is some element of
terror even in our feeling of pity. It strikes us with terror that the poor Thebans should be
suffering so miserably no fault of theirs. Similarly, the sufferings of Jocasta and Oedipus
also seem to us to be largely undeserved. This mystery of undeserved suffering does not
inspire a sense of terror in us. There is terror also in Oedipus’ step by step progress
towards the discovery of Laius’ murderer, for not only will the discovery be that he has
himself been the murderer, but also that the murdered man was his own father; and that,
consequently, Oedipus has become guilty of the most horrible crimes against his parents.
The complete reversal, by which the king who was respected by every one turns into a
homeless beggar, is truly productive of terror. The fall and sufferings of Oedipus thus
produce intense pity and terror, but they do not give rise to lasting pessimism. Our
ultimate impression is that of the complexity of human life and greatness of the human
spirit which can withstand all sorrow and suffering.

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