The earlier events, namely, the prophecy of the Delphic oracle, the measures taken by King Laius to avert the disaster, the flight of Oedipus from Corinth in order to avoid the fulfilment of the oracle, the fight on the road-side and the murder of Laius, Oedipus’s conquering the Sphinx by solving her riddle and consequently becoming the King of Thebes and marrying the widowed Queen Jocasta who was no other than his own mother—all these events took place many years before, and these are communicated to us only through narrative accounts of them given by Oedipus and Jocasta. The play as such deals with the discovery by Oedipus and Jocasta of the sins they have unwittingly committed, the account of the sins being given to us incidentally because an occasion has arisen on which Oedipus finds it necessary to narrate the story of his life to Jocasta. Even during the narration of these events, Oedipus is completely ignorant, and so is Jocasta, of the sins that have been committed. The tragedy lies in the revelation or the disclosure of the guilt, and not in the guilt itself. It is the revelation of the guilt that is dramatic. It is towards the revelation of the guilt that the development of the plot in the play has been moving. If Oedipus and Jocasta had remained ignorant of the sins committed by them till the natural end of their lives, there would have been no tragedy. Sophocles shows his dramatic skill in choosing as the theme of his play the circumstances leading to the discovery, the sins themselves being shown as having occurred in the past.
The Plot-movement Towards the Discovery of the Guilt
The play Oedipus Rex opens many years after the committing by Oedipus of the two heinous crimes foretold by the Delphic oracle. The play opens when Oedipus, after having killed his father Laius, has lived as his mother’s husband for many years during which period he has begotten several children by his mother-wife.
The Theme of the Play Stated in the Prologue
The play opens with the Theban citizens, led by their Priest, describing their misfortunes to their King, Oedipus, who, however, is already aware of their sufferings and who has already sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the Delphic oracle to seek divine guidance. Almost immediately after Oedipus has informed the Priest of the steps which he has already taken, Creon arrives with a message from the oracle that the murderer of Laius must be found and banished from the city before the people can get any relief from their affliction. In this way the subject of the drama and the situation from which it starts are presented to us. The situation is the sufferings that have overtaken the city of Thebes, and the subject of the drama is the search for the criminal who murdered Laius. As a dutiful and conscientious King, Oedipus resolves to trace the murderer and to punish him with banishment, uttering at the same time a curse upon the criminal and those who may be providing shelter to him. In the announcement of the punishment for the murderer are the seeds of Oedipus’s insistence on his own banishment from Thebes at the end of the play, just as in the resolve to trace the murderer are the seeds of his discovery of himself as the murderer of his father. Whether we know the myth and the story in advance or not, a lot of suspense is created in the prologue or the opening scene. If we do not know the story in advance, the situation arouses a deep curiosity about who the murderer is and why his identity has remained unknown for so many years; if we know the myth in advance, the suspense is caused by our desire to find out how Sophocles handles the myth.
The Dramatic Clash Between the King and the Prophet
The clash between Oedipus and Teiresias is highly dramatic. It is natural for Oedipus to summon the prophet in order to get from him a clue to the identity of the murderer. Teiresias is reputed to possess powers of divination, and Creon has advised Oedipus to send for the prophet, the advice being presently reinforced by the Chorus. Teiresias, of course, knows who the murderer is, but he would not like to disclose the shocking fact to Oedipus. He therefore evades Oedipus’s question with the result that Oedipus misunderstands the whole situation, flies into a rage, and accuses Teiresias and Creon of having hatched a conspiracy against him. Teiresias loses his temper also, with the result that hot words ensue between the two men, and the prophet openly names Oedipus as the murderer, hurling certain other accusations at Oedipus, and foretelling in a veiled manner the tragic end that is in store for Oedipus. The verbal fight between Oedipus, the man with supreme secular authority, and Teiresias, the man with supreme spiritual powers, is very exciting from the point of view of the audience or the readers, arousing, as it does, several emotions. The scene throws much light on the characters of both the men and clearly brings out the defects in Oedipus’s character, defects which seem to justify, to some extent, the punishment that ultimately befalls him, though the punishment is not a direct result of these defects. We find Oedipus to be hot-tempered, rash, hasty in drawing inferences, suspicious, arbitrary, and moving towards tyranny. The prophecy by Teiresias arouses feelings of uncertainty and perplexity in the Chorus, and we fully share these feelings. The Chorus is utterly unaware of the true facts and is not prepared to accept the accusations of Teiresias on their face value. In any case the clash between the King and the prophet takes the story one step further towards the ultimate discovery.
The Contrast Between Oedipus and Creon
The scene with Creon is not so dramatic from the emotional point of view, but it serves an important dramatic purpose. This scene emphasizes the contrast between the mild and moderate Creon, and the rash and autocratic Oedipus. Oedipus pays no heed to Creon’s defence of himself and sentences Creon to death or at least to banishment. The hubris of which Oedipus is guilty is further emphasized in this scene, though we find also that Oedipus is not totally unresponsive to the advice given to him by the Chorus and by Jocasta in the matter of the alleged crime of Creon.
The Scene with Teiresias, another Step Forward in the Direction of the Discovery
The accusations of Teiresias have deeply disturbed the mind of Oedipus. Jocasta tries to soothe her husband’s feelings by saying that no man possesses the secret of divination and that the words of Teiresias should, therefore, not weigh upon his mind. As evidence of the falseness of oracles, Jocasta refers to the prophecy made by the oracle with regard to the manner of Laius’s death.
The tragic irony of Jocasta’s advice to Oedipus here is noteworthy; the evidence which she cites to support her view of the falseness of oracles is precisely the evidence which, without her knowing it, supports the truth of oracles. Jocasta’s account of the circumstances of the death of Laius serves only to strengthen the doubt that has arisen in Oedipus’s mind as a result of the accusation by Teiresias. Oedipus would now like to interrogate the sole surviving member of Laius’s party. At the same time he gives Jocasta an account of his own early life before his arrival in Thebes and his marriage with her. Jocasta, however, ridicules the prophecy which the oracle had communicated to Oedipus, namely, that he would kill his father and marry his mother. However, even Jocasta presently offers worship of Apollo because she is deeply troubled by Oedipus’s wretchedness at the doubts that are tormenting him. By now, our curiosity and suspense have further been increased. Oedipus is feeling more and more troubled by doubts, and his apprehensions have begun to trouble Jocasta’s mind also. The scene with Jocasta thus carries the story further towards the discovery.
The Stunning Disclosure
The next development in the plot is the arrival of the Corinthian messenger. On hearing the news this messenger has brought, Jocasta immediately reverts to her former, habitual scepticism, and she urges Oedipus to shed all fear of oracles and to live as best as he can. When the messenger learns the cause of Oedipus’s fears about the future, he tries to comfort Oedipus by informing him that he is not the son of Polybus and Merope, which he believes himself to be. When the messenger reveals the circumstances in which he himself had handed over Oedipus as an infant to Polybus, the real identity of Oedipus as her own son flashes upon the mind of Jocasta and she turns white with terror. Her only anxiety now is that Oedipus should be spared the knowledge of his own identity. But Oedipus is determined, now more than ever, to know his parentage. The arrival of the Theban shepherd leads to the final discovery in the play. This is the supreme moment of the tragedy in the play. The Theban shepherd tries his utmost to keep back the information which would have a stunning effect on Oedipus, but Oedipus forces the Theban shepherd to come out with the truth. When the truth does come out, it is the most agonizing moment of Oedipus’s life. The realisation, that the words of the oracle have proved true and that he had really killed his father and married his mother, comes to Oedipus as an unbearable shock. This moment marks the climax of the play. This is the most painful moment for the audience also. Oedipus had tried his utmost to prevent the fulfilment of the oracle’s prophecy, but he had failed. Circumstances and, to some extent, his own temperament had gone against him and he had committed the very sins which he had tried to avoid.
The Various Steps in the Process of Discovery
The tragedy lies in Oedipus’s discovery of his guilt, and this tragedy he has himself brought about. Teiresias had tried to keep Oedipus in the dark, but Teiresias’s attitude had only aroused Oedipus’s ire. He was determined to find out Laius’s murderer, mainly to bring relief to his suffering subjects. He could not shirk his duty as the King. The words of Teiresias had mentally disturbed him and, produced a doubt in his mind. The doubt was strengthened by Jocasta’s account of the manner in which Laius had met his death. The Corinthian messenger’s information marked the next step in the process of the discovery, and the process was completed by the information obtained from the Theban shepherd under the pressure exerted upon him. Thus it is as a result of Oedipus’s efforts to punish the murderer of Laius and to find out his own parentage that Oedipus learns the truth; and the truth is appalling for him and for us.
Emphasis on Human Greatness
An important ingredient in a tragedy is the emphasis on human greatness. Great as Oedipus has been portrayed so far, his real greatness has yet to be pointed out. After the disclosure, Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus blinds himself. The blinded Oedipus, though in a state of despair, and suffering agonies on account of his sense of guilt and shame, yet shows an indomitable spirit. Oedipus has been defeated by circumstances and by his own actions, but his spirit has not been crushed. He shows himself still capable of self-assertion. He still retains his authoritative manner, his imperiousness, and some of his pride, even though he has lost all hope. He matched his wits against the gods, and failed. But even in defeat and in failure he shows his essential nobility. “Sophocles’s tragedy presents us with a terrible affirmation of man’s subordinate position in the universe, and at the same time with a heroic vision of man’s victory in defeat.”