It is the story of the impact of a totally undeserved misfortune upon a man of no exceptional faults or virtues. It reveals, with a merciless sincerity, the pitfalls lying about the path of a man into which those very unexceptional faults or virtues may at a touch overbalance him, at the bidding of some incalculable chance, and out of which he must raise himself by the greatness of his soul which alone makes him a match for the eternal powers. The story has its religious and anthropological implications. But the average reader is more interested in the more universal human issues of the drama. Oedipus is too complacent in his prosperity, too confident of his sufficiency, too ready to take offence or to impute blame when upset by the approach of trouble. Oedipus is unshirking in the performance of a self-appointed unpleasant task, and he is unflinching in quest of the truth at whatever cost of terrible self-revelation. Oedipus is driven to the summit of passion by the agony of body and soul, and returns at last to humility and selfless resignation. This vast and living portrait of a man, surrounded by a group of subsidiary figure no less vital, has no equal in the Greek, or in any other theatre. The chorus, fellow-citizens desperately concerned in the awful happenings, are closely tied to the action and their moods move swiftly with the march of events. Bewildered and apprehensive, they have little respite for calm reflection or reasoned judgment, and even their final words seem only to deepen the hopeless gloom. The moral they would draw for us is implied rather than stated in their moods of apprehension lest divine law should after all be found wanting, and a lurking spirit of defiance be justified by the event. This worst calamity at least is averted.
Oedipus Rex, produced by Sophocles in the maturity of his powers, is his masterpiece. Aristotle also regarded this play as Sophocles’s best and he frequently referred to it as the perfect type of tragic composition. Its greatness lies in the combination of a faultlessly-constructed plot with the profoundest insight into human motive and circumstance.
Oedipus Rex has been thought to be a “marvel of construction”, and its plot has thus been analyzed:
The arrival of an oracle about the plague in Thebes commanding the banishment of the unknown murderer of the late King Laius.
Oedipus, in the course of his investigation of the murder, quarrels with Teiresias, the true servant of the gods.
Hot-tempered and suspicious, Oedipus quarrels also with Creon, the true servant of the State.
A messenger comes from Corinth. Jocasta realizes the truth and goes to hang herself. Oedipus, misunderstanding the situation, persists in his inquiry, and the Chorus rashly exults in the hope of discovering that some great, perhaps divine, parentage is his.
Owing to the revelations of the messenger, a shepherd is brought from Cithaeron. Oedipus in his turn realizes the truth—that he is the son of Laius and Jocasta—and rushes out to blind himself.
A Play About Human Greatness As Well As About the Insecurity of the Human Condition
Oedipus Rex is undoubtedly a play about the blindness of man and the desperate insecurity of the human condition. In a sense every man must grope in the dark as Oedipus gropes, not knowing who he is or what he has to suffer. We all live in a world of appearances which hide from us dreadful realities which we know not of. But surely Oedipus Rex is also a play about human greatness. Oedipus is great, not because of a great worldly position but because of his inner strength. He has the strength to pursue the truth at whatever personal cost, and he has the strength to accept and endure it when found. “This horror is mine,” he cries, “and none but I is strong enough to bear it.” Oedipus is great because he accepts the responsibility for all his acts, including those which are objectively horrible, though subjectively innocent.
Oedipus, a Symbol of the Human Intelligence
Oedipus is a kind of symbol of the human intelligence which cannot rest until it has solved all the riddles, even the last riddle to which the answer is that human happiness is built on an illusion. Sophocles does seem, in the last line of the play, to generalize the case; he does appear to suggest that in some sense Oedipus is every man and that every man is potentially Oedipus. In this matter Sophocles’s view did not change. Whether this vision of man’s condition (namely that all man living are but appearance or unsubstantial shadow) is true or false, it ought to be comprehensible to a generation which relishes the plays of Samuel Beckett. This view may not be a “message” but it certainly tends to an “enlargement of our sensibility.”
Freud interpreted the play in a specific psychological sense: “Oedipus’s fate,” says Freud, “moves us only because it might have been our own, because the oracle laid upon us before birth the very curse which rested upon him. It may be that we were all destined to direct our first sexual impulses towards our mothers, and our first impulses of hatred and violence towards our fathers; our dreams convince us that we were.”