The Greek drama Oedipus Rex is clearly a tragedy. It definitely meets
the five main criteria for a tragedy: a tragic hero of noble birth, a
tragic flaw, a fall from grace, a moment of remorse, and catharsis.
Oedipus Rex clearly meets the first of these five criteria. Oedipus is the
son of Laius, who was king of Thebes. Even at the beginning of the
story, when we are told that Oedipus is the son of Polybus, he is still
of noble birth; Polybus is king of Corinth. The tragic flaw, or
mistake that a character makes, in Oedipus Rex does not actually take
place during the story. We only watch as Oedipus and the rest of the
characters discover this mistake that was actually made long, long ago and
cannot be reversed. This tragic flaw is of course Oedipus killing his
father Lauis, and then marrying Jocasta, his mother. We realize that
these actions have taken place much earlier in the story than the
characters do. However, both of these events actually took many years ago.
The fall from grace in Oedipus Rex is when Oedipus, Jocasta, and all
the other characters in the story realize that Oedipus actually did
murder Laius and that Jocasta is indeed his mother as well as his wife.
This occurs rather quickly, very close to the end of the play. The
audience sees this coming long before it actually does, however. In one of
the passages of Oedipus speaking with Jocasta, just about everything is
spelled out for us. Jocasta speaks of Laius leaving the castle with just
a few servants and his being killed where three roads meet. Oedipus
claims that he killed somebody where three roads met, who had a few
servants with him. As though this isn’t enough, Jocasta describes Laius to
Oedipus by saying “his figure was not much unlike your own” (p. 27).
Oedipus, after hearing all this, says “O, it is plain already!” (p. 27)
indicating that he was the killer of his father. He goes on to make
absolutely sure, even though it is obvious that he was Lauis’s killer.
The moment of remorse comes at the end of the story, when one of the
servants who had accompanied Laius on his final journey came to speak to
Oedipus. He was the only one who survived the attack, and told that
contrary to rumor, Laius was killed by one man, not robbers. He then
pointed out this one man, Oedipus. We are told soon after that Jocasta
hanged herself upon hearing this. When this news reaches Oedipus, he takes
the pins from her dress and stabs his eyes out. The catharsis, or
emotional cleansing of the audience, comes at the same time as the
remorse. The audience suddenly feels sorry for this poor man who has
unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, for the people of
this land who have been suffering from an awful curse because of it, and
for the unfortunate Jocasta, who was basically an innocent bystander in
the whole confusing disaster. In these five ways, the story Oedipus
Rex classifies as a tragedy. However, in my opinion at least, you don’t
really need a standard checklist to see if Oedipus Rex is a tragedy or
not. Any story which ends in the death of one major character and a
lifetime of misery, shame, and self-exile for the other major character
is clearly a tragedy.
The role of the king in the time of Greek tragedies was simultaneously desired and dreaded because of the king’s responsibility to the people and because of the effects of the position on the king’s character. Creon reveals such ambivalent thoughts towards the kingship in his speech defending himself from Oedipus’s conspiracy accusation in Oedipus the King; these ambivalent thoughts reveal much about the nature of the kingship, especially in conjunction with Creon’s later actions in Antigone. In attempting to refute Oedipus’s assertion that Creon has taken part in a conspiracy to obtain the kingship, Creon evaluates the nature of the kingship and of his present role. First, he says, “Consider, first, if you think any one/ would choose to rule and fear rather than rule and sleep” (36.584-585). By this, Creon means that the main difference between his position and the king’s is that of the accompanying action to ruling. In both positions, one is a ruler who holds great power over the state. However, the king is placed in a greater place of accountability to the people. This accountability is what Creon says inspires “fear” in the king, for if affairs of state or of the people fall into decline, the king is the first person whom the citizenry look to blame. This is analogous to executive leaders throughout history, as one can see in looking at American presidents and the correlation between the present conditions and events of the nation to the public’s opinion of the president, regardless of the actual impact that his decisions may have made in these conditions. Creon maintains that he has the same amount of power as the king but without the accountability that inevitably leads a king to distress. Creon’s reasoning concerning the equality between his power and Oedipus’s leads him to state: I was not born with such a frantic yearning to be a king- but to do what kings do. And so it is with every one who has learned wisdom and self-control. (36.587-590) He means that he has never desired the position of king, because he sees no advantage over his present position in the state. Rather, he sees the disadvantage of the fear that accompanies the position of king. Creon has evaluated this situation for his circumstances and then goes further in stating that anyone with wisdom and self-control would come to such a conclusion as well. This could be interpreted as an insult to Oedipus in two different ways. Creon could mean that Oedipus and anyone else who desires and assumes the kingship are by nature not people of wisdom and self-control- or he could be saying that the position of the kingship is one that strips an individual of his wisdom and self-control. In support of the assertion that the kingship changes one’s character, one could point to the events of Antigone and Creon’s striking change in character in the play. In Oedipus the King, Creon reveals himself to be a reasonable ruler, who makes rational decisions and is not quick to anger, as is revealed by his calmness in his responses to Oedipus’s heated accusations. However, in Antigone, Creon has become prideful and irrational. His dealings with Antigone and Teiresias and his stubbornness in the play indicate a change in his character. In fact, his actions, especially in his dealings with Teiresias the prophet, are very similar to Oedipus’s actions in Oedipus the King. Just as Oedipus had done before him, Creon refuses to completely believe Teiresias’s prophecies for the state. Creon also emulates his predecessor’s actions in his accusation of bribery directed towards Teiresias: “Out with it-/ but only if your words are not for gain” (201. 1128-1129). Creon’s words and actions in Antigone indicate that he has taken on the negative characteristics of king that he describes in his speech in Oedipus the King. He has same amount of power as king, but he now seems to have lost his wisdom and self-control. This indicates that perhaps his words to Oedipus are, in fact, mainly an insult to the position of king and to what it evokes from a person’s character rather than an insult solely directed towards Oedipus. Creon also feels that the king is generally not responsive to the desires of the citizenry: “But if I were the king myself, I must/ do much that went against the grain” (36.590-591). By this, Creon means that in his present position, he is more apt than the king to know the will of the people and to respond accordingly. Again, this seems to be a flaw inherent in the kingship based on Creon’s actions in Antigone. As king Creon is blind to the fact that the people of Thebes are opposed to his actions concerning the punishment of Antigone. One who is not king, Creon’s son Haemon, senses the will of the people: But what I can hear, in the dark,are things like these: the city mourns for this girl; they think she is dying most wrongly and most undeservedly of all womenkind, for the most glorious acts. (188.746-749) Haemon has sensed that the people feel Creon’s actions are unjust, which is something that Creon is not aware of. However, in his speech, Creon is also asserting that a king, even when aware of the will of the people, does not respond accordingly. He demonstrates this in Antigone when he says, “Should the city tell me how to rule them?” (189.794). Once again, Creon’s words in Oedipus the King and actions in Antigone correspond and indicate that his speech reveals characteristics that are inherent in the kingship and not just in Oedipus’s rule. Creon finds these characteristics of a king to be despicable and prefers his own present position. “How should despotic rule seem sweeter to me/ than painless power and an assured authority?” (36.592-593). He is saying that his present power is less painful and even more effectual than that of a king. It is less painful in that he is not held directly accountable for the conditions of the state. It is more effectual both in that he has a better sense of the will of the people and in that he is less likely to allow selfish interest and pride to interfere with his execution of the will of the people. Creon’s speech serves two purposes, both effectively. First, it is a convincing argument to prove that he is not involved a conspiracy to overthrow Oedipus, although Oedipus’s pride does not allow him to be convinced by this argument. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Creon’s speech gives insight into the two-sided nature of the kingship, for although it is a position of great honor and power, it is also a position that often corrupts the man who holds it. Creon believes that there is a certain type of man who desires such a position, a man who has not learned wisdom and self-control. He believes that he is a man who has learned these attributes; thus, he would not be susceptible to desire for the kingship and the corruption which would inevitably follow. However, his actions in Antigone show that there are very few men who will reject the kingship if presented with the opportunity and even fewer men who will not allow the kingship to corrupt them.”
Oedipus The King, by Sophocles, is a play about how Oedipus lives up his fate that he will kill his father and marry his mother, both of which are extremely bad in the Greek society, even though he thinks he is getting away from it. Despite the Greek notions of supreme power of the gods and fate, Oedipus’ downfall is primarily the result of King Laius’ and his own actions and attempts to defy the gods, consequently Sophocles says that prophecies from the gods of someone’s fate should not be ignored. Prophecies from the Oracle of Delphi are told to King Laius and Queen Jocasta, and to Oedipus. Sophocles says that prophecies from the gods of someone’s fate should not be ignored when King Laius went to the Oracle of Delphi and received a prophecy that his child, Oedipus, was going to kill him and marry his wife, Jacosta. ” Shepherd – No! No! I said it before–I gave him the child…It was the son of Laius, so I was told. But the lady inside, your wife, she is the one to tell you. Oedipus – Did she give it to you? Shepherd – Yes, my lord, she did…To destroy it…She was afraid of dreadful prophecies…The child would kill its parents, that was the story. Oedipus – Then why did you give it to this old man here? Shepherd – In pity master. I thought he would take it away to a foreign country– to the place he came from. If you are the man he says you are, you were born the most unfortunate of men.” (86-89) When King Laius heard this prophecy and returned to Thebes to tell of this prophecy to his wife, they planned to kill their child, but neither had the guts to do it. They had a servant shepherd bring their child to Mt. Cithaeron to kill it, but the servant felt pity for the child and gave him to a fellow Shepherd from Corinth in hopes he could take it to a foreign country to take care of it. Sophocles says that prophecies from the gods of someone’s fate should not be ignored when he tells that when Oedipus was in the care of his foster parents, Polybus and Merope, he took a journey to The Oracle of Delphi without them knowing. “Oedipus – Without telling my parents, I set off on a journey to the oracle of Apollo, at Delphi. Apollo sent me away with my question unanswered but he foretold a dreadful, calamitous future for me–to lie with my mother and beget children men’s eyes would not bear the sight of–and to be the killer of the father that gave me life. When I heard that, I ran away. From that point on I measured the distance to the land of Corinth by the stars. I was running to a place that I would never see that shameful prophecy come true.”(56) The Oracle’s prophecy was that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Thinking that Polybus and Merope were his real parents, Oedipus left Corinth so that he would not have contact with his parents and the prophecy could not happen. On the way, though, Oedipus met a man and a herald that tried to run him off the road. Angered, Oedipus hit the old man and then killed both of them. “Oedipus – On my way I came to this place where you say this king, Laius, met his death. I will tell you the truth, all of it. As I journeyed on I came to this triple crossroads and there I was met by a herald and a man riding a horse-drawn wagon, just as you described it. The driver, the old man himself, tried to push me off the road. In anger I struck the driver as he tried to crowd me off. When the old man saw me coming past the wheels he aimed at my head with a two-pronged goad, and hit me. I paid him back in full, with interest: in no time at all he was hit by the stick I held in my hand and rolled backwards from the center of the wagon. I killed the lot of them.”(56-57) In King Laius’ and Oedipus’ attempts to defy the gods, they brought the downfall of Oedipus in Oedipus the King by Sophocles, in which Sophocles says that prophecies from the gods of someone’s fate should not be ignored. Trying to have Oedipus killed and not succeeding was the way King Laius and Queen Jocasta tried to defy the gods and stop the prophecy from coming true. Had Laius not tried to kill his Oedipus, the events that followed up to Laius’ death and Jocasta’s marriage would not have happened. Oedipus leaving his foster parents is the way that Oedipus defies the gods and tries to stop the prophecy from coming true. Had he not left Corinth, he would not have met Laius, who happened to be his real father, they would not have fought, and Laius would not have been killed. In all reality, Oedipus was a goner from the minute he was born, because that was the prophecy of his fate the Oracle of Delphi gave.