The Prologue: the Statement of the Subject; and the Characters of Oedipus and Creon
A Greek tragedy generally begins with what was known as the “prologos” (or the prologue) which was that part of the play, before the entrance of the Chorus, in which was stated the subject of the drama and the situation from which it started. Accordingly this play has its prologue in the situation in which Oedipus speaks to the Priest who is leading a large number of the citizens of Thebes, and in which Creon arrives with the reply of the Delphic oracle.
The priest describes the woeful conditions prevailing in the city; and Oedipus, who is not unaware of the sufferings of his people, expresses his sympathy. The King reveals that he had already sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to Delphi in order to find out the cause of the sufferings of the people, and the remedy. Creon brings the startling news that the sufferings of the people are due to the presence in their midst of the murderer of King Laius and that the murderer must be punished before the people can get any relief. Thereupon Oedipus promises to track down the culprit and to avenge the murder of King Laius. The Priest feels satisfied, and withdraws from Oedipus’s presence in the company of the citizens whom he had brought. Thus the subject of the play has explicitly been stated in the prologue. The subject is the investigation into the murder of Laius and the necessary action to punish the murderer. Apart from stating the subject of the play, the prologue also gives us some idea of the high intelligence of Oedipus and the high esteem in which he is held by his people. Oedipus is certainly no god, as the Priest says, but he is wiser than all other men and he can read the riddles of life and the mysterious ways of heaven because it was he who had saved the city from the blood-thirsty Sphinx. Oedipus is a very sympathetic man too. He tells the Priest that, while the citizens are suffering as individuals, he himself bears the weight of the collective suffering of all of them. Oedipus is a dutiful King as, even before the Priest came with his petition, Oedipus had sent Creon to Delphi to seek Apollo’s guidance. Furthermore, Oedipus’s love of truth is indicated to us in the prologue. Oedipus shows his anxiety to find out the truth regarding the murder of Laius. The prologue also throws some light on the character of Creon and his role in the play. Creon acts as Oedipus’s messenger to the Delphic oracle. He is also the person from whom Oedipus learns such circumstances pertaining to the murder of Laius as are known to the authorities in the city. On the whole, we form a very good impression of Creon as a man, though we form a much better impression of Oedipus. Oedipus appears as a man of much greater intellectual and moral stature than Creon.
The Entry-Song of the Chorus
Then enters the Chorus, singing a song. This entry-song of the Chorus was technically known as the “parodos”. The first song sung by the Chorus is a kind of invocation to the gods to protect the people of Thebes. As the Chorus generally represented the people of its city, what it sings should be taken as conveying the feelings and thoughts of those people. The sufferings of the city as described by the Chorus reinforce the pathetic impression already produced by a similar description given by the Priest. The invocation to the gods is indicative of the religious feelings of the Chorus and of the people whom it represents.
Oedipus’s Curse Upon the Murderer: Dramatic Irony
Apart from the song which the Chorus sings on entering the Chorus-Leader also holds a conversation with Oedipus. Oedipus has taken the message from Delphi in a very serious light. He now tells the Chorus that he is bent upon avenging the murder of Laius. Oedipus also utters a curse upon the man who committed the murder. Here we have a striking example of what is known as tragic irony because Oedipus is in fact cursing himself though unknowingly. In fact even the reader at this stage does not know that the curse uttered by Oedipus will later on be found to be applicable to Oedipus himself. Oedipus’s dialogue with the Chorus confirms our impression of him as an earnest, conscientious ruler. He will show no mercy to the murderer who is responsible for the misfortunes that have descended upon the city. He will leave nothing undone. He is determined to find the man who killed Laius. Besides reiterating his resolve to trace the murderer, Oedipus also utters a prayer for the welfare of the Chorus. When the Chorus-Leader suggests that Oedipus should consult the prophet Teiresias, Oedipus says that he has already sent for the prophet. Oedipus in this matter acted upon the advice tendered by Creon. Thus Oedipus, although himself a man of exceptional intelligence, is not immune to advice.
The Scene with Teiresias
Oedipus’s talk with Teiresias, the blind prophet, is one of the major episodes in the play. Teiresias is reluctant to reveal the facts to Oedipus, in spite of Oedipus’s humble entreaty. Teiresias’s reluctance angers Oedipus and he accuses the prophet of having himself been responsible for the murder. At this Teiresias becomes angry too and says that it is Oedipus himself whose crimes have polluted the city. Oedipus now expresses the suspicion that Teiresias is in league with Creon and that they have both hatched a conspiracy against him. Teiresias warns Oedipus that he will be driven out of Thebes, that he will be deprived of his eyesight, and that he will find himself one with his own children. It is wrong to say that this scene does not carry forward the plot. In fact, many of the things that are to happen afterwards are mentioned in this very scene. This scene is another striking example of tragic irony. Teiresias knows the whole truth, while Oedipus is ignorant of all the crucial facts. Not knowing the true significance of what Teiresias says, Oedipus loses his temper and his self-control. Oedipus here appears as a hot-tempered man who loses his mental balance, thus exposing himself to the charge of pride and arrogance. Inevitably we consider him to be an unreasonable man who, instead of exercising self-restraint when dealing with a man of an established spiritual reputation, goes to the length of calling him a crafty schemer and a mountebank, and taunting him on his blindness. Thus Oedipus proves himself guilty of what is known as “hubris”. He not only unjustly accuses Teiresias of treason, but charges Creon also with the same crime. His suspicion of both these men is totally baseless and therefore, uncalled for. The scene with Teiresias is one of the most dramatic in this play. The clash between the highly respected King and the highly esteemed prophet arouses a multitude of feelings in us and we wonder what will happen to Oedipus in view of the horrible warnings uttered by Teiresias. From the point of view of plot-construction, this scene lays the basis for much of what will happen afterwards. It is to be noted also that Teiresias, the wise prophet, shows himself to be no less hot-tempered than the King.
Another Song by the Chorus
Both Teiresias and Oedipus now withdraw, and the Chorus sings a song that is a kind of commentary on the episode which has just ended. The Chorus calls upon the murderer of Laius to quit the city without delay. The Chorus also expresses its feeling of perplexity at what Teiresias has just said. Teiresias has accused Oedipus himself of being the murderer of Laius. But how can such an accusation have any basis? After all Oedipus was the man who showed his wisdom by defeating the Sphinx and saving the city.
The Scene with Creon
This scene constitutes another important episode. Creon is understandably upset on hearing of the accusation made against him by Oedipus. Oedipus is in no mood to listen to Creon’s defence of himself. Oedipus accuses Creon of treason and decides to sentence him to death. The Chorus appeals to Oedipus not to form a hasty judgment and, when Jocasta appears on the scene, she also appeals to him not to judge Creon too harshly. Oedipus softens and withdraws the sentence of death against Creon though his hatred for Creon does not diminish one bit. The importance of this scene lies in confirming our impression of the unreasonableness and harshness of Oedipus when excited or agitated. That a man of such a high intelligence should be prone to hasty action and to the impulse of the moment is really deplorable. But this precisely is the moral defect in the character of Oedipus.
This is the “hubris” of which he is guilty. At the same time we must note the fact that, under the pressure of the Chorus and of Jocasta, Oedipus agrees to withdraw the sentence of punishment against Creon. He does not show himself utterly stubborn or inflexible. The moderate and impartial attitude adopted by both the Chorus and Jocasta in this matter is also worthy of note.
The Scene with Jocasta
This scene is important in pushing forward the plot which now moves rapidly. Jocasta’s view, that a man should not feel afraid of prophecies, is irreligious according to the ideas prevailing in those days. In support of her view she relates what the oracle had said about the manner of Laius’s death and how that particular prophecy had already proved untrue. Here is another striking example of tragic irony. Both Jocasta and Oedipus are ignorant of the real facts while the audience who knows the myth or who has witnessed the play before is aware of those facts. Jocasta’s account of the oracle creates a terrifying suspicion in Oedipus’s mind. This suspicion can be removed or confirmed only by the Theban shepherd who is accordingly sent for. The circumstances of the death of Laius, as described by Jocasta, strengthen the suspicion that has arisen in the mind of Oedipus. Jocasta’s religious scepticism may be regarded as evidence of her pride; this is her “hubris”.
Another Choral Ode: Both Oedipus and
Jocasta Guilty of Pride
The song which the Chorus now sings has two themes: pride as a serious defect in a human being, and the need of having complete faith in Apollo and his prophecies. Both these themes are relevant to the main story of the play. We have here an oblique accusation of pride against Oedipus, and we have also an indirect comment on Jocasta’s unbelief in prophecies. Thus both Oedipus and Jocasta appear as guilty persons, if judged by the standards laid down by the Chorus.
A Temporary Change in Jocasta
Soon afterwards a change is perceived in Jocasta. She, who was sceptical of prophecies, now comes with offerings for the worship of Apollo. The fear which grips Oedipus has unnerved Jocasta and compelled her to turn to Apollo for consolation. But the change in Jocasta will prove short-lived.
The Disclosure by the Corinthian Shepherd
Then comes the Corinthian shepherd with what is, from his point of view, a great news. The arrival of the Corinthian shepherd is a purely accidental occurrence. The news brought by him, namely that Polybus has died not at the hands of his son but of old age and illness, revives Jocasta’s scepticism regarding prophecies. The news is also a source of much comfort to Oedipus who has no further ground to feel afraid of the possibility of killing his own father; but the other half of the prophecy, namely that he would marry his own mother, still remains to perturb him. Jocasta tries to allay the remaining part of her husband’s fear also. Her philosophy is that man is ruled by chance and that there is no room for any prophecies. Men do marry their mothers sometimes, but only in dreams, says Jocasta. Oedipus, however, continues to feel apprehensive on this score. The Corinthian’s disclosure that Oedipus is not the son of Polybus and Merope marks a further step in the development of the plot and carries the process of discovery a little further. The dramatic irony of this scene is also noteworthy. The Corinthian thinks that by his disclosure he is relieving Oedipus of a great fear (namely the fear of marrying Merope whom he thinks to be his mother), but in actual fact this disclosure takes Oedipus further towards his doom.
Jocasta’s Discovery of the Truth
The account given by the Corinthian of the circumstances in which Oedipus as a child had been handed over to him comes as a great shock to Jocasta who can now see clearly her predicament. Jocasta now knows that Oedipus is her own son, and it is natural for her to try to spare Oedipus the agony which he will experience on learning the truth. She entreats him not to pursue his investigation into his parentage, but he misunderstands her intention in making the entreaty. The misunderstanding on his part is another example of dramatic irony because we know that, far from being low-born, he has a royal background.
An Example of Tragic Irony
The next song of the Chorus is remarkable for its tragic irony because, while the Chorus sings rapturously regarding Oedipus being the offspring of the union of some god with a mountain-nymph, actually Oedipus is moving rapidly and surely towards his doom.
The Terrible Disclosure by the Theban Shepherd
Then come the disclosures which the Theban shepherd makes, though most unwillingly. This scene marks the climax of the main plot of the play. This is the scene of discovery, and of the reversal in the fortunes of Oedipus. What Jocasta had come to know from the statements of the Corinthian shepherd, Oedipus now comes to know from the answers given by the Theban shepherd to the questions put to him by the Corinthian and by Oedipus himself. Oedipus finds, to his indescribable grief and humiliation, that both the prophecies made by the Delphic oracle have already proved to be true, in spite of his life-long efforts to prevent their fulfilment. This is from Oedipus’s point of view, the most horrible moment of his life.
The Comment of the Chorus on Oedipus’s Sad Fate
The song sung by the Chorus at this point is an appropriate commentary on the fate which Oedipus has met and it is also an apt summing-up of human life in general. This song of the Chorus lends an even greater pathos to the situation that we have just witnessed. We have here a general relation made by the Chorus on the basis of the particular fate of Oedipus.
The Self-Murder and the Self-Blinding
The real tragedy, however, comes with the next scene in which we are given an extremely painful account of Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus’s self-blinding. There would hardly be a member of the audience witnessing this play in a theatre who can control his tears while listening to this sad account. The dramatist has done well in not presenting these two scenes of horror (self-murder and self-blinding) on the stage and in conveying this information to us through the speech of a messenger. These scenes would have been intolerable on the stage and would have made the play unduly melodramatic. The tragic effect of the messenger’s speech is in itself very deep.
Reasons for the Self-Blinding, and the Desire for Banishment
Then follows the conversation between Oedipus and the Chorus-Leader. Oedipus appreciates the sympathy shown to him by the Chorus-Leader in his misery. Oedipus’s explanation as to why he has blinded himself is quite convincing, especially in view of the feeling of perplexity experienced by some critics as to the reasons for Oedipus’s self-blinding. After giving his reasons, Oedipus laments the course which his life has taken. In view of his own proclamation, made by him when he was totally ignorant of the facts, Oedipus would now like to be banished from Thebes.
The Pathos of the Last Scene, and the Reassertion of Oedipus’s Greatness
The final scene is intensely pathetic, almost heart-rending. Oedipus’s natural love for his daughters finds a very touching expression. He laments the fact that his daughters will remain unwedded and unfruitful. His appeal to Creon that he be immediately exiled from Thebes is also very moving. Creon appears, once again, a man moderate and balanced in his views and in his judgment. Creon would like to do nothing without consulting the Delphic oracle. He does not gloat over Oedipus’s misfortunes. On the contrary, he shows a lot of consideration to Oedipus in providing an opportunity to him to have a meeting with his daughters. However, Creon does not show himself to be a weak man. We see him asserting his authority as a King in refusing to grant Oedipus’s request to be allowed to keep his daughters with him. It has been said that this last scene comes as an anti-climax, because Oedipus is shown no longer to be an active force but as a purely passive person, almost a zero. As against this there is view that the last scene shows the recovery of Oedipus, the reintegration of the hero, and the reconstitution of the dominating, dynamic, and intelligent figure of the opening scenes.
The Opening Scene (or, the Prologue)
The opening scene shows us a deputation of suppliants appealing to Oedipus for help against the plague. We see Oedipus, a grand figure towering god-like above the afflicted city. But in the background of this picture is our knowledge that he to whom they appeal is the cause of their plight, so that we at the same time see him as a doomed man. All the dramatic elements in the situation are presented there in a kind of tableau. The words spoken emphasize and point the moral of what we see with the eyes.
The Element of Suspense
Then we hear that Oedipus has already sent Creon to the oracle at Delphi to find out the cause of the plague, and is impatiently waiting for his return. The question at once arises in our minds as to what Apollo will say. Is Oedipus to learn the truth by this method? Will Creon bring the terrible news ? So, when we hear that he is approaching, we wait excitedly for what he will say. The moment passes, and we see our knowledge being moved further away from Oedipus. We hear the story of Laius’s murder being wrongly told, to Oedipus. (By “we” is meant the original audience who, though they knew the story of Oedipus, had no idea how Sophocles was going to unfold it).
The Dramatic Value of Oedipus’s Scenes with
Teiresias and Creon
After Oedipus’s proclamation to the people of his resolve to search out the murderer of Laius, the coming of Teiresias is announced. Teiresias we know to be the true prophet, as soon as he speaks. The truth is on the brink of being told, we feel. We experience here the height of excitement. We see our own knowledge being put before the persons of the play and being rejected. We come as close to the revelation as it is possible to get, and yet it is still to be made. The scene is a triumph of dramatic understanding. The most important persons in a play are not the dramatis personae but the audience. The dramatis personae are but instruments for satisfying the needs of the audience. We today are apt to find Oedipus’s two scenes with Teiresias and Creon to be long-drawn and over-elaborated. But what is happening here is something that had a value for Sophocles’s audience which it has not for us. For them it intensified the impression of coming doom. We, knowing to start with, as they say, that Oedipus is doomed, may feel no emotional value in these scenes except that of suspense, the holding back of the inevitable moment through Oedipus being delayed in his discovery by suspecting the wrong person, following up a false clue. But for the Athenian spectators there was more in it than that; through the scenes they were not just waiting for his doom to come; they were seeing it coming, seeing him going to meet it, helping it along; for he is behaving, or apparently behaving, as the man of hubris proverbially behaves, and hubris is in Greek story the sure precursor of ruin. This is the general effect. At the point when Jocasta comes between her husband and her brother, Oedipus is on the verge of the violent act which brings the hubristic man to disaster, and the play marks the apparent crisis by raising the dialogue into music and singing.
Oedipus’s Essential Innocence
Of course Oedipus is not guilty of hubris. Oedipus is essentially innocent. The dramatist deliberately, obscures the thought of his innocence. He confuses the hearers’ minds by setting them running on the familiar hubris theme, so that the calamity acquires a seeming appropriateness, sufficient to diminish the immediate moral shock (the shock that an innocent man has been made to suffer). In the final effect, however, the contrast between this and the facts as otherwise shown increases enormously the pathos and irony of Oedipus’s fate.
The central scenes of the play contain the heart of the drama, the drama of the revelation. This drama extends over five hundred lines or so. The excitement increases, rather than diminishes, by being spread out. We have here a three-fold revelation rising to a climax. The incidents are manipulated with supreme dramatic skill. By the end of the first of these scenes Oedipus knows almost for certain that he is the killer of Laius. The dramatist’s next step therefore is to reveal that Laius was Oedipus’s father. If we leave out Teiresias, as Sophocles does henceforth, nobody in the world of the play knows that. One fact known by one man (the Theban Shepherd) must be added to another fact known by another (the Corinthian messenger) before the revelation can come. Sophocles has made sure of the coming of the first of these men through the one ray of hope in Oedipus’s mind in regard to the identity of the man he killed. As, for the audience, the effect of Oedipus’s learning that he had himself killed Laius is attained fully enough in this scene, the dramatist brings in the Corinthian first, in order that the coming of the Theban Shepherd may be the culmination of a new revelation, not a confirmation of the one whose effect we have already seen. By the time he arrives, Oedipus’s interest has been shifted to coincide with ours. It is the interest of the audience that determines the way the action is developed, and the motives and acts of the dramatis personae must be directed accordingly. So Sophocles interrupts the orderly progress of events by forcing in here the coming of the messenger from Corinth, the only accidental occurrence in the play. It is really a pure coincidence that he should arrive at this juncture. His coming looks on the face of it like an answer to Jocasta’s prayer to Apollo to grant peace to her husband—an ironical answer as of course we must know it must be, but all the more dramatic for that.