The Subject of the Last Song of the Chorus
Let us first see what the last song of the Chorus contains. This song is a pessimistic comment on the fate of Oedipus and a pessimistic generalization about human happiness. All the generations of mortal man add up to nothing, says the Chorus. The happiness of any man is an illusion which is ultimately followed by disillusion.
The case of Oedipus shows that no mortal creature can be happy always. Oedipus gained the heights of prosperity; he conquered the Sphinx; he became the honoured King of Thebes and proved to be a pillar of defence for the city; all Thebes felt proud of the majesty of his name. But the same Oedipus ultimately suffered a heart-rending affliction. He discovered, to his utter dismay, that he had killed his own father and married the very woman who had given him birth. All the happiness of Oedipus ended in ruin and desolation. The reaction of the Chorus to Oedipus’s discovery is one of disgust. “I wish I had never seen you, son of Laius,” says the Chorus, “Till yesterday you were a source of light for me but now you have become a night of endless darkness.”
Oedipus, Seen by the Chorus as a Hateful Person
This near-paraphrase of the last song of the Chorus depicts Oedipus as a degraded creature, as one to be avoided and shunned on account of his murder of his father and his incestuous relationship with his mother, crimes which have just been discovered. Oedipus is here represented as now beneath the attention of any respectable citizen because of his shameful deeds which have now come to light. Furthermore, Oedipus’s fate shows that all human happiness is short-lived.
The Downfall and Defeat of Oedipus, Part of the Play’s Theme: Human Vulnerability
Now, we shall be taking a very narrow view of the play if we think that the final song of the Chorus offers us a clue of its theme. Surely part of the theme of this play is the downfall of a man who had attained prosperity and renown by virtue of his high intelligence. No man is safe from the knocks and blows of circumstances. Laius tried his utmost to avert the disaster which had been predicted by the oracle; he took, what were, in his opinion, effective steps to prevent his death at the hands of his son. But circumstances thwarted the efforts of Laius. These circumstances took the shape of a feeling of compassion in the heart of the Theban shepherd and his consequent handing over Laius’s child to a Corinthian who passed on the child to the Corinthian King who in turn brought up the child as his own. Circumstances likewise thwarted the efforts of Oedipus to avert the disaster which, according to the oracle, he was to meet. Believing Polybus and Merope to be his parents he fled from Corinth in order to prevent the possibility of his killing his father and marrying his mother. But chance brought him face to face with Laius whom he killed in the fight that ensued between him and Laius’s party; he went on to Thebes without any plan or design; he solved, the riddle of the Sphinx, thus destroying the monster and at the same time winning the throne of Thebes and the hand of its widowed Queen who was no other than his own mother. In this way the prophecy of Apollo’s oracle was fulfilled by a totally unexpected combination of circumstances and in spite of all possible endeavours by Oedipus to belie the words of the prophecy. Man is certainly vulnerable; man suffers a terrible defeat at the hands of fate or destiny or gods or circumstances or whatever other name we might choose to give to the mysterious, supreme, unknown power that governs this universe. Oedipus tried to match his wits against the gods and he was defeated.
Man’s Essential Nobility Emphasized in
Every True Tragedy
This certainly is the subject of the final song of the Chorus. But, as has been said, to take this as a whole theme of the play would be wrong. The play also teaches us the greatness of man, and this greatness too is symbolised by the character and achievements of Oedipus. In fact, every great tragic play emphasizes the essential nobility of man, while at the same time representing man’s helplessness in the face of circumstances and forces (known and unknown). Hamlet, Lear, Tess, the tragic heroes of Ernest Hemingway—they all illustrate the greatness of human beings in spite of their defeat at the hands of society or circumstances or fate or their own follies, or a combination of all these. Indeed, a tragedy would produce a wholly painful and frustrating effect on us if it were to depict only the vulnerability of man and not man’s essential greatness also. Every great tragedy shows the triumph of the human spirit even when a human being has sunk under the tide of misfortune. Oedipus Rex is no exception to this generalization.
The Greatness of Oedipus is the Prologue
Oedipus has his defects and weaknesses but, in spite of them, he is portrayed from first to last as a man of heroic dimensions. In the prologue itself we receive the most favourable impression of the man. The Priest refers to him as a noble, mighty, and wise man. The city looks upon him as a saviour. Oedipus gave evidence of his high intelligence by solving the riddle of the Sphinx. He is a man with a compassionate nature and, even before the citizens come to him in a deputation, he has sent Creon to seek the guidance of the oracle at Delphi. Each citizen is suffering as a single individual but he, Oedipus, bears the weight of the collective sufferings of all of them. In short, Oedipus appears to us here to be a near-perfect King.
His Defects Revealed in the Scenes with
Teiresias and Creon
Then follow a couple of scenes, with Teiresias and Creon, in which Oedipus suffers a brief eclipse in pure estimation. We find him hot-tempered, hasty, rash, and arbitrary. We get the feeling that this man is so proud of his intelligence that he might well develop into a dictator one day. We see in him that hubris which can lead him to become a tyrant. His sentence of death against Creon and his offensive words to Teiresias before that are acts for which we see no extenuation.
Responsive to Advice; A Loving Husband;
Determined to Know the Truth
Our impression of the greatness of Oedipus is, however, reinforced by what happens afterwards. He takes due notice of the advice given to him by the Chorus and by Jocasta with regard to his sentence of death against Creon. In other words, he is not unresponsive to advice. He shows himself also to be a loving and devoted husband. But greater than any other quality in him is his love of truth. He is determined not only to track down the murderer of Laius but also, after a doubt has entered his mind, to trace his own parentage. The efforts of Jocasta and the Theban shepherd to prevent him from pursuing his inquiry into the true facts prove to be of no avail, just as Teiresias’s earlier efforts has proved futile. In this matter, he shows a high sense of duty as a King and a high reward for his own conscience as a man.
His Heroic Self-blinding
Even after Oedipus has suffered the greatest blow that any human being could have suffered, his spirit is not completely crushed. His self-blinding is a heroic act. When asked by the Chorus why he has taken this extreme step against himself, Oedipus replies that he had no desire any more to see any sight in this world. The reason why he did not put an end to his life was that he could not have faced his parents in the kingdom of death. His self-blinding is an autonomous act. He clearly says that, while Apollo brought his sufferings to fulfilment, the hand that blinded him was his own. His self-blinding was a self-chosen, decisive action for which he assumes full responsibility. His attitude to the new and terrible situation in which he now finds himself is full of a great courage. When the Chorus scolds him for having blinded himself, he replies with the old impatience and a touch of the old anger, telling them not to preach a lesson to him. The same fearless attitude is adopted by Oedipus in demanding from Creon the punishment of death or banishment for himself. The curse, that he uttered when he was the King, calls for his death or exile and he sees no point in prolonging the matter. Creon finally does what Oedipus wanted to be done sooner; Creon exiles him from Thebes. In demanding the punishment, Oedipus shows a rare impartiality and strict regard for justice. He analyses in painful detail his own situation and that of his children.
Not Reduced to a Zero
In short, Oedipus is not at the end reduced to an absolutely helpless position or a zero. His original hopefulness is, of course, gone as it was bound to go after the shattering discovery of his parentage. But he does feel that he is in some sense too strong to be destroyed. He feels himself to be as eminent in disaster as he once was in prosperity. His sufferings, he says, are such as no one except he himself can bear. Even his devotion to the interests of the city does not become extinct in him. It is in terms of the interest of the city that he states his desire for exile.
Adaptability to Changed Circumstances
Oedipus shows also a great capacity to adapt himself to the change in his circumstances. In the opening lines of his first speech after his self-blinding he shows a helpless desperation. But soon he begins to adapt himself to the new situation. When he first hears the voice of Creon whom he had wrongly condemned to death, he is full of shame and at a loss for words. Yet in a few moments he is arguing stubbornly with him. He even tries to keep the children with him though at this point Creon asserts himself and has to rebuke Oedipus for trying to have his own way.
Heroic at the End
The play ends with a fresh emphasis on the heroic nature of Oedipus. The play ends as it began, with the greatness of the hero. However, at the end it is a different kind of greatness; this greatness is based on knowledge and not on ignorance as previously.
Q.10. Write a critical note on the Delphi oracle in Oedipus Rex.
Delphi, A Temple Dedicated to Apollo
Delphi was the name of a shrine or temple dedicated to Apollo. This temple was situated in a deep rocky cleft near Mt. Parnassus in Phocis. The highway to Delphi was very steep and difficult to climb. (It was on this road that Oedipus was supposed to have killed his father). Delphi was originally known as Pytho but, when Apollo took it over, he established his famous oracle there. The temple achieved a very wide reputation and became extremely rich as a result of the gifts presented to it. Inside the temple sat a priestess of Apollo on a tripod and uttered in a divine ecstasy incoherent words in reply to the questions asked by visitors, worshippers, and suppliants. These words were then interpreted by a priest in the form of verses. The Delphic oracle was primarily concerned with questions of religion, but questions pertaining to worldly matters were also answered. So far as the questions dealt with the future, the answers were often obscure and ambiguous.
The Key Position of the Delphic
Oracle in the Plot of this Play
The Delphic oracle plays a most important role in Oedipus Rex, controlling the action of the play almost at every step. If the Delphic oracle were to be eliminated, the play would fall to pieces. The Delphic oracle is, indeed, the very basis and foundation of the whole play. Without it, the play simply disintegrates. The Delphic oracle has, therefore, a key position in the development of the plot. The play is based upon a myth, a myth which has its origin in the Delphic oracle. The importance of the Delphic oracle cannot, therefore, be underestimated. It is noteworthy also that the Delphic oracle enjoyed a high prestige and authority in those days, even though there were sceptics who scoffed at it. The belief in the Delphic oracle was thought to be an essential part of religion. He who did not believe in the oracle was regarded as impious and irreverent.
The Message of the Delphic Oracle
It is a message from the Delphic oracle that sets the plot of the play afoot. Creon brings the news that the sufferings of the Theban people will be relieved only if the murderer of the late King, Laius, is traced and expelled from the city or put to death. Apollo or Phoebus has sent word that there is an unclean person polluting the soil of Thebes and that that person must be driven away or killed before people can obtain any relief. Oedipus, who is a great well-wisher of his people, immediately announces his resolve to do the oracle’s bidding, namely to find out the criminal and punish him. By this announcement Oedipus shows his faith in, and allegiance to, the Delphic oracle. He undertakes to investigate the murder of Laius, saying “All praise to Phoebus”! The opening words of the entry-song of the Chorus thus refer to the message of the Delphic oracle: “From the Pythian house of gold, the gracious voice of heaven is heard.” The entry-song of the Chorus is followed by a long speech from Oedipus proclaiming the punishment of banishment for the criminal. When the Chorus suggests that the identity of the criminal should be sought from Phoebus who has disclosed the reason for the misfortunes of the people of Thebes, Oedipus reverently replies that it is not in the power of any human being to compel a god to speak against his will. Thereupon the Chorus suggests that Teiresias be entreated to help in the matter because he is very close to Phoebus and possesses powers of divination. To this Oedipus replies that he has already sent for Teiresias, having been advised by Creon to do so.
The Sacred Authority of the Delphic Oracle; the Importance of the Oracle in Starting the Plot
It is clear from all this that everybody concerned has full faith in the words of the Delphic oracle who, on being approached, revealed the cause of the troubles afflicting the people of Thebes and also suggested the remedy. There is not a single dissident voice so far as the authority of the Delphic oracle is concerned. The King believes the oracle; Creon believes the oracle; and the Chorus, which represents the citizens, believes the oracle also. Oedipus’s investigations into the murder of Laius and his discovery of the truth constitute the main substance of the play; the investigations and the discovery are, in fact, the very theme of the play; and the message of the Delphic oracle is the motivating force behind the undertaking of Oedipus to find out and punish the criminal. Thus the Delphic oracle serves as the starting-point or the driving force for the drama to commence.
The Chorus’s Strong Faith in the Delphic Oracle
In the scene between Oedipus and Teiresias, there is hardly any reference to the Delphic oracle, apart from Oedipus’s seeking the prophet’s help on the basis of the word of the oracle, namely that the only way of deliverance from the plague is to kill or banish the murderer of Laius. This scene ends with a furious quarrel between the two men and the Chorus then sings a song in which it refers to the words of the Delphic oracle:
“From the Delphian rock the heavenly voice denounces
The shedder of blood, the doer of deeds unnamed.
Who is the man?”
The Chorus, which has complete faith in the oracle, warns the guilty man against the wrath of the gods. The Chorus also expresses its view in this song that all secrets of earth are known to Zeus and Apollo, but that no mortal prophet can claim to know everything. The authority of the oracle is thus reasserted by the Chorus, and we are made once more conscious of the great prestige enjoyed by the oracle.
The Oracle Received by Laius
A little later we meet the person who does not attach any importance to oracles or to those human beings who are credited with powers of divination. This person is no other than Jocasta, the Queen. Jocasta believes neither in the oracles of gods nor in prophets. As evidence in support of her view, she refers to an oracle given to Laius, not indeed from Phoebus, but from Phoebus’s priests, that he should die by the hand of his own child to be delivered by Jocasta. This oracle proved to be false, says Jocasta, because Laius was killed by robbers on the highway, while the child, when it was hardly three days old, had been fettered and exposed on the mountain-side to perish. Jocasta’s speech here is a striking example of tragic irony because, while she believes that the oracle received by Laius has proved to be false, in actual fact the oracle has proved to be true, though Jocasta does not yet know the truth. Jocasta’s belittling the oracle constitutes an, act of “hubris” on her part and, therefore, deserves punishment
The Oracle Received by Oedipus
When Oedipus hears that Laius was killed at a place where three roads met, he remembers having killed some persons at such a place though at this stage he does not have any suspicion that he is the son of Laius. He goes on to tell Jocasta the story of his own early life and what the Delphic oracle had told him in reply to his question regarding who his parents were. The Delphic oracle had given him an answer that spelt misery and horror for him. The oracle had said that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In order to avoid committing such monstrous deeds, he had fled from Corinth, determined never to see his father Polybus and his mother Merope again. His journey away from Corinth had brought him to Thebes, but not before he had killed some persons on the road-side and not before he had conquered the Sphinx. The Thebans had made him their King and had given their widowed Queen, Jocasta, to him in marriage. Oedipus’s speech too is full of tragic irony, because he is not in the least aware that he has already, though unknowingly, committed those very deeds which had been predicted by the Delphic oracle and which he had endeavoured to avoid. After listening to his story Jocasta once again makes a sarcastic comment upon the oracles. “A fig for divination,” she says.
The Chorus’s Regret at the Loss of
People’s Faith in Oracles
The Chorus now sings another song, this time deploring the loss of people’s faith in oracles. It is highly regrettable, says the Chorus, that the oracles are not being duly respected and honoured by the people, that Apollo’s glory is fading, that Apollo’s name is being denied, that there is no godliness in mankind. These words of the Chorus are highly significant in view of the fact that both the prophecies, the one received by Laius and the other received by Oedipus, have already been fulfilled though all the concerned characters including the Chorus are yet completely ignorant of the fulfilment.
The Fulfilment of the Prophecies of the Oracle
When the Corinthian messenger arrives with his news, Jocasta finds another opportunity to scoff at the oracles: “Where are you now, divine prognostications!” Oedipus kept avoiding Polybus all these years so as not to kill him. And now Polybus has died a natural death, and not by any act of Oedipus’s. Jocasta, like Oedipus, does not know that Polybus was not Oedipus’s father. A moment later Oedipus joins Jocasta in scoffing at the Delphic oracle. “So, wife, what of the Pythian fire, the oracles?” says Oedipus. Oedipus was to kill his father but now Polybus has died when Oedipus was nowhere near Polybus. The prophecy of the oracle, says Oedipus, has proved wrong and lies dead like Polybus. We find Oedipus, who was in the beginning a whole-hearted believer in the oracles, now becoming a sceptic. Thus to his pride is being, added the fault of impiety or irreverence. However, Oedipus is still afraid of the other half of the prophecy and, when the Corinthian messenger tries to relieve his anxiety on this score, Jocasta receives the shock of her life on learning that Oedipus is no other than her own son who, she had thought, had perished as an infant. Oedipus, however, is still in the dark about the facts. The Chorus now sings a song which has an ironical ring because the Chorus imagines Oedipus to be the offspring of the union of a god and a mountain-nymph. The Chorus reiterates its faith in Apollo and in the Delphic oracle: “Phoebus, our Lord, be this according to thy will!” Then comes the discovery for Oedipus, which shows that the entire prophecy of the Delphic oracle has been fulfilled in every particular.
References to the Delphic Oracle in the
Some more references to the Delphic oracle are made in the concluding portion of the play. In answer to a question by the Chorus, Oedipus says that, although Apollo had laid all this agony upon him, his action in blinding himself was completely his own. In terms of the prophecy of the Delphic oracle, Oedipus calls himself the shedder of his father’s blood, the husband of his mother, and the begetter of brother-sons. In his dialogue with Creon at the end, Oedipus cites the authority of the Delphic oracle in demanding banishment as his due. The oracle had said that the parricide was to die or to be banished; and that command of the oracle must also be carried out. Creon therefore agrees to banish Oedipus.
Thus are the various pronouncements of the Delphic oracle fulfilled: Laius is killed by his own son, (ii) Oedipus is the killer of his own father, and he becomes the husband of his own mother, and (iii) the killer of Laius is banished from Thebes.