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Notes for Introduction to Literature
~~ Stepping Through OEDIPUS THE KING ~~
Page references are to The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, 6/e
PROLOGUE (p. 976-981)
The priests of Thebes come to Oedipus to plead for help as they might come to a God, bearing suppliants' sticks wrapped in wool. They are at their wits' end. Oedipus comes out of the palace to hear them, and he assures them he wants to help. He informs all assembled that he has already sent Creon to Apollo's oracle to learn from the god what must be done to end the plague.
We learn that Oedipus came to Thebes in another time of crisis, when it was beset by the Sphinx. Oedipus solved the Sphinx's riddle and liberated Thebes and the people made him their ruler. But now a horrible plague is killing everyone and everything, and they need his help again. Thebes is in a state of emergency.
Even as the play opens, right away, we get a feel for the complexity of Oedipus' character. He's not someone we can easily pigeonholehe's a multifaceted man. From his very first words, we can see that he's a very proud, self-important individual, yet he's pretty obviously no tyrant. On the contrary, he seems genuinely caring, empathetic, pained, and respectful of the people's suffering. He seems to genuinely want to help; he doesn't lock himself inside the palace and leave them to their own misery. He's no Prince Prospero in Poe's Masque of the Red Death. Oedipus fate is wedded to the peoples' fate, and he accepts this; it's a selfless act. On the other hand, Oedipus seems less than altruistic when he explains exactly why he thinks it's important to find Laius' killer as the oracle demands: if the killer is still at large, he might strike again (this time at Oedipus). That's a good bit of self-interest.
A few dramatic ironies do emerge even in the prologue. Remember, the audience already knows Oedipus' ultimate fate... So,
The first several stanzas, then, are suppliant prayers to the Gods, a proclamation of their powers, their divinity.
Oedipus' first line in the next episode underscores his hubris (his excessive pride). "You pray to the gods? Let me grant your prayers." Oedipus shows clearly there that he wants to be as powerful as the gods. (He wants free will!) Those lines make the Chorus' prayer stand out that much more.
Episode (1): pp. 983-89
Oedipus sees himself as Thebes' savior: "You pray to the gods? Let me grant your prayers." Maybe Oedipus' desire here can be called hubris, or excessive pride-his tragic flaw. In psychoanalytic terms, you might say he has a "Christ complex." (Never mind the "Oedipus complex ") But another way of thinking Oedipus' aim here is that he has a high degree of altruism, a grand sense of social responsibility-he's a leader who wants to successfully lead the people out of their misery; it's what he does, what he's done before, who he thinks he is. His whole identity is wrapped up in his sense of his own power, his own abilities. Remember, he ran from Corinth, ran from Delphi, ran from Fate. He thinks he's done pretty well so far. Thebes voluntarily made him ruler because of his intelligence, not because he conquered it-so he thinks (turns out he killed the previous king, his own father). So when Oedipus makes his offer here, he's not aware that he's committing any sin of pride. This is just how he sees himself. If anything, that's the real tragedy. Because he's seeing blind, as Tiresias soon informs him.
Oedipus addresses Tiresias, at first, very respectfully, but he soon gets heated, losing patience. Tiresias is accusing him of horrible deeds, of being a murderer, of not knowing the truth about his own past. This hits a sore spot, as Oedipus has been in that position before, and it led him to leave his home in Corinth. They clash. Oedipus' emotions turn on a dime, and we see his pride and his anger erupt. Only the Chorus, representing the calm, rational will of the people (which Oedipus responds to, in fine enlightened Athenian fashion), can restrain him from lashing out against Tiresias. But he takes his shots, calling the prophet a "pious fraud" and "senile."
Tiresias, for his part, is also angered at Oedipus' accusations, and he blurts out the truth, in riddles, calling Oedipus the real blind man, which is the truth. He rubs salt in old wounds, bringing up the issue of Oedipus' parents. "Who is my father?" Oedipus wants to know. He has that vulnerability. But Tiresias won't go further. He leaves Oedipus with a riddle to solve, because Oedipus is the famous riddle-solver. It's a thrust.
Buried here, in one line on p. 999 is one of the play's great themes, expressed by Tiresias-Oedipus will cause his own downfall-"character determines fate."
Chorus - First Stasimon (p. 989)
The chorus expresses the public's horror at the crime; they know the criminal will soon be caught. That is what Apollo has demanded. Whoever he is, running will be useless now: "His time has come to fly, to outrace the stallions of the storm, his feet a streak of speed-cased in armor, Apollo son of the Father lunges on him, lightning-bolts afire! And the grim unerring Furies closing for the kill." They know the killer must be rooted out. But they aren't so sure Tiresias is right; they refuse to convict Oedipus without clear proof. That's an enlightened, civilized culture speaking. Although Tiresias has given them a clear victim to scapegoat and sacrifice, they refuse. "No, not til I see these charges proved will I side with his accusers."
Episode (2): pp. 990-98
Here Oedipus and Creon clash. Oedipus is the voice of passionate rage, while Creon is the voice of reason and calm. They joust for position and power, Oedipus convinced that Creon is plotting with Tiresias to discredit his name and reputation. But Creon insists on reason, using logic at every opportunity. "Hear me out, then judge me on the facts." He counters Oedipus' rage with reason: "Look, if you think crude, mindless stubbornness such a gift, you've lost your sense of balance" (1003). He tries to convince Oedipus there's no logical reason why he should want to plot to overthrow the king when he's got such power and influence already, with less responsibility (p. 1004). "How wrong it is to take the good for bad, purely at random or take the bad for good." Here Creon stumbles on the truth about Oedipus, unawares. Thebes has been taking the bad for the good. But Oedipus isn't persuaded, although the Chorus is, and they defend him, or Oedipus would have struck him dead-a very tyrannical thing to do. When Creon declares that Thebes is "My city too, not yours alone!"-that would have resounded loud and clear in democratic Athens when the play was written. Creon parts with a strong jab: "It's perfect justice: natures like yours are hardest on themselves." Character determines fate.
When Jocasta enters, trying to placate and reassure Oedipus, a disturbing fact emerges. Laius was killed at the "place where three roads meet"-a place where Oedipus knows he murdered an entire traveling party before arriving at Thebes. And while he begins to put two and two together we see how he nobly presses on in search of the truth, even if it's self-incriminating. He doesn't try to save himself. He's after the truth. And he's honest with Jocasta about his past. He tells her about his flight from Delphi and from Corinth, and we can see how easily he'd been pierced by his lack of knowledge about who he really is. When he hears the prophecy about killing his father and marrying his mother, he runs. (And who wouldn't?) "Running, always running toward some place where I would never see the same of all those oracles come true. Oedipus is running from fate, his "destiny." He wants desperately to create his own destiny.
Jocasta is not as noble as Oedipus, she's a much lesser figure as she tries desperately to find a loophole where she can hide from the truth. Furthermore, she has no respect for the oracles, whereas Oedipus is terrified of them. "So much for prophecy. It's neither here nor there." In the next episode she gets even more blasphemous.
Chorus - Second Stasimon (p. 999)
This is a beautiful choral ode, filled with poetry. Its opening lines have such a ring to them . "Destiny guide me always " The Chorus expresses reverence for the gods, for the destiny they've handed us. Let me accept my fate, is the prayer the Chorus sings here. It's what Oedipus will soon do valiantly, heroically. "Pride breeds the tyrant ." the chorus continues. Human beings who think they are above fate, above destiny, above the gods, will soon fall, as the tyrant falls, "headlong pride crashes down the abyss-sheer doom! No footing helps, all foothold lost and gone, but the healthy strife that makes the city strong-I pray that god will never end that wrestling: god, my champion, I will never let you go."
No person can strut "high and mighty" having "no fear of justice, no reverence for the temples of the gods." This isn't a comment on Oedipus so much as an expression of the peoples' underlying belief. Several things have been called into question by now: Apollo's oracles have been defied, not once but twice! That is unholy behavior. The Chorus does not approve, but at the same time it is observing carefully to see whether there will be a consequence for such blasphemous behavior. If people abandon faith in Apollo's oracles, where will the people look to for justice and order in the world? If the oracles are dying, then the "gods go down." This is a terrifying prospect for the faithful. The Chorus expresses this dilemma.
Episode (3): pp. 1000-1008
Jocasta prays at Apollo's altar. This is both hypocritical and ironic, and further undermines her nobility. Jocasta has never shown much respect for the Apollo, or his oracles. Now she is praying to him? Once the messenger arrives, seeming to refute the oracle, she'll deliver a significant speech that underscores her impious view (p. 1014): "Fear? What should a man fear? It's all chance, chance rules our lives." In the context of this play, Jocasta is wrong, it turns out, but her assertion still rings in our ears today. How much of what we experience is preordained? How much of it is chance? These questions are still raised by people all across the spectrum in the Western world, by people as different as physicists and priests.
There's a lot of self-interest in this play, along with all the altruism. Even the messenger is hoping to improve his lot by bringing the good news that Corinth wants to make Oedipus king. In his haste to convince Oedipus that it's safe to come home, he lets a few facts drop that Oedipus devours. He closely interrogates the messenger (we see his quick intelligence as he immediately puts things together). As Jocasta sees the horrible truth emerging she tries one last time to get Oedipus to hide from it, but he refuses. In agony, realizing how wrong she's been, how horrible her fate, she kills herself (we learn soon).
Oedipus faces the truth, embracing his destiny now with courage, nobility, and dignity (p. 1017). He's not running anymore (he's changed).
The Shepherd says that Oedipus was "born for pain." Small part, big line. Was Oedipus' destiny set before he was born, or did he create his own fate? Does he find himself in this predicament because of his own choices, his own abilities, or did the gods just blithely preordain his destiny, and he never had a chance? It's one of the most provocative questions the play raises. Ultimately it affirms the religious order; but we are left wondering
When Oedipus learns the truth, it "bursts" into light. Knowledge is characterized as a burst of light which contrasts the darkness of ignorance. What does he do with this new self-knowledge? He puts out his eyes, in a terrifying scene we'll see later. Why does Oedipus blind himself and not commit suicide as Jocasta did? It's his act of will. He refuses to relinquish his freedom to make his own destiny. In that one act, Oedipus proves he is a free man who in fact creates his own way.
Chorus - Third Stasimon (p. 1008-09)
Humanity must suffer. Joy is a dimly lit illusion, a vision, a phantasm. The truth, when it dawns, blazes illusion to oblivion. Poetry!
Oedipus exemplifies human suffering, human misery-his life is the great example to the rest of us. Even the "best of men" can be destroyed by fate.
Oedipus had been an inspiration, but now thinking about him brings only darkness; we struggle to understand what to make of it all.
Exodus (pp. 1009-1017)
We learn of the catastrophe--the point in the play were the suffering is the greatest. Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus brutally rakes out his own eyes. It's a disgusting, terrifying, pitiful scene, just as Aristotle says. We're at the moment of catharsis. The Chorus expresses our pity and fear (p. 1024), as Oedipus describes how he's created for himself a fate worse than death.
Creon acts kindly and Oedipus leaves Thebes, taking the plague with him.
Final Chorus (p. 1017)
The Chorus intones
its famous last words: "Count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at
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