Different Interpretations of the Play Possible
Oedipus Rex is a play that may be interpreted in various ways. Perhaps Sophocles here wishes to tell us that man is only the plaything of Fate. Or, perhaps, Sophocles means to say that the gods have contrived an awful fate for Oedipus in order to display their power to man and to teach him a ‘wholesome lesson. At the beginning of the play Oedipus is the great King who at one time saved Thebes at a crucial hour and who is the only hope of the people now. At the end of the play, Oedipus is the polluted outcast, himself the cause of the city’s distress, through crimes predicted by Apollo before he was born. It is possible also that Sophocles has simply written an exciting drama without going into its philosophical implications.
Characters and Adverse Circumstances
Responsible for the Catastrophe
Responsible for the Catastrophe
The action of Oedipus Rex shows a certain duality. In the foreground are autonomous human actors, drawn fully and vividly. Oedipus himself, Teiresias, Creon, Jocasta, and the two shepherds are all perfectly lifelike characters, and so are the remoter characters who do not appear on the stage—the hot-tempered Laius at the cross-roads and the unknown Corinthian who insulted Oedipus by saying that the latter was not the son of Polybus. The circumstances, too, are natural, even inevitable, once we accept the characters. Oedipus, as we see him on various occasions, appears to be intelligent, determined, self-reliant but hot-tempered and too sure of himself. As apparently hostile chain of circumstances combines, now with the strong side of his character and now with its weak side, to bring about the catastrophe. A man of a poor spirit would have tolerated the insult and remained safe in Corinth. But Oedipus was resolute. Not content with Polybus’s assurance he went to Delphi and consulted the oracle; and when the oracle, instead of answering his question repeated the warning given originally to Laius. Oedipus, being a man of determination, never went back to Corinth. By a coincidence he met Laius at the cross-roads and, as father and son were of a similar temper, a fight took place. Being a man of a high intelligence, Oedipus was able, afterwards, to solve the riddle of the Sphinx. But though Intelligent he was blind enough to marry a woman old enough to be his mother, all the time feeling sure that his mother was in Corinth. Whatever happens is the natural result of the weaknesses and the virtues of his character, in combination with other people’s. Sophocles does not try to make us feel that a relentless destiny or a hostile god is guiding the events. Whatever happens is a tragic chapter from Oedipus’s life except for the original oracle and its repetition.
A Hidden Power in the Background
At the same time we are made to feel that the action of the play is moving on a parallel and higher plane. The presence of some power or some design in the background is already suggested by the continuous dramatic irony. In the matter of the plague this hidden power is definitely stated. The presence of this power is most imaginatively revealed in the scene containing Jocasta’s offer of a sacrifice. She, who refused to believe in the oracles, surprises us by coming out of the palace with sacrificial offerings. She lays them on Apollo’s altar, burns the incense, and prays for deliverance from fear. There is a moment of reverent silence, which is broken by the arrival of the cheerful messenger from Corinth. The messenger brings the news that Polybus is dead. All fear comes to an end. Jocasta’s prayer has been heard. But soon afterwards Jocasta hangs herself. This is how Jocasta’s prayer has been answered! But how does the god answer the pitiable prayer of Jocasta? Not by any direct intervention. It was not Apollo who instigated the Corinthian to come. It was the Corinthian’s own eagerness to be the first with the “good” news. He wanted to win the new king’s favour because, besides the news of Oedipus’s succession to the throne of Corinth, the Corinthian is completely autonomous, and yet in his coming the hand of the god is visible. Thus the action moves on two planes at once. In spite of that the whole texture of the play is so vividly naturalistic that we must hesitate to interpret it as showing a bleak determinism. These people are not puppets in the hands of higher powers; they act in their own right.
No Display of Power by the gods
Nor does this texture support the view that the gods want to display their power to man and teach him a lesson. If Sophocles meant the gods to display their powers by pre-determining the life of Oedipus in order to teach men a lesson, it was quite easy for Sophocles to say so; he could have made the Chorus sing a song on the power and mysterious ways of the gods, but he does not do so. On the contrary, the ode that immediately follows the catastrophe expresses the view that the fate of Oedipus is typical of human life and fortunes and not that it is a special display of divine power. Secondly, although Oedipus is by far the greatest sufferer in the play, he is not the only one. There are others who suffer, though not in the same degree, and we must take them into consideration also. Sophocles wants us to treat Oedipus not as a special case except in the degree to which he suffers. Oedipus is typical, as the Chorus says. What happens to Oedipus is part of the whole web of human life. One reason why Sophocles introduces the children towards the end of the play is that Oedipus may say to them what he does actually say: “What a life must yours be! Who will admit you to the gatherings of the citizens and to the festivals? Who will marry you?” In short, Sophocles wants to tell us that the innocent suffers with the guilty; such is life, such are the gods.
The Disappointment and the Distress in Store
for the Two Shepherds
for the Two Shepherds
The two shepherds deserve consideration also. Sophocles has presented them sharply, with their motives, hopes and fears. The Corinthian frankly expects a reward because the news he has brought is great news; but he has something much more surprising in reserve, and the moment for revealing it soon comes. Oedipus learns that he is not the son of Polybus but the circumstances in which Oedipus as an infant fell into the hands of the Corinthian have to be explained by the Theban shepherd who handed over the child to the Corinthian. Jocasta’s last despairing cry does not disturb Oedipus because Oedipus interprets it as Jocasta’s disappointment at finding her husband to be a man of low birth. The Chorus is happy and excited, and, when the Theban shepherd is brought in, the Corinthian becomes even more obliging and helpful as he works up to his climax; “Here is the man, my friend, who was that baby!” And this is his last speech. No reward for him, no glory in Corinth, only bewilderment and utter dismay, for in a moment he hears the true facts from the Theban shepherd’s lips. Such is the outcome, for these two shepherds, of their benevolent interest in an abandoned baby. Can we regard all this as the work of Apollo? Here, as in the much bigger case of Oedipus, is that combination of well-meant action with a situation which makes it lead to disaster. An act of mercy, tinged with a perfectly honest shrewdness, leads the Corinthian to the verge, of great prosperity, but as he gets ready to receive it, eagerly and with confidence it turns into horror. The other shepherd too is one who refused to kill a baby. Part of his reward came years later when he saw the man who killed Laius occupying the throne of Thebes and married to the Queen—an event which sent him, for his own safety, into half-exile. The rest of his reward comes now, when a sudden command brings him back to last to the city, to learn what he learns there.
The “Catharsis” in the Perfection of Form
These minor tragedies, of the children and the shepherds, are in harmony with the major one. Such is Apollo and such is human life. An awful sin is committed in all innocence, children are born to a life of shame, and virtuous intentions go wrong. Where does the “catharsis” lie? It lies in the ultimate illumination which turns a painful story into a profound and moving experience. It has been suggested that the catharsis of a play like this lies in the perfection of its form. The perfection of form represents, by implication, the forces of righteousness and beneficence of which Aeschylus speaks directly in his choric odes.
The Universe Not Chaotic and Irrational
It is necessary to add a word about Jocasta’s sacrifice, and Apollo’s swift and terrible answer. Jocasta has been denying the truth of oracles. Sophocles certainly does not consider Jocasta’s unbelief to be a kind of wickedness deserving severe punishment. Sophocles means much more than this. Jocasta has said that there is no need to fear oracles and that one should live at the random. This is a doctrine which would deny the very basis of all serious Greek thought. The Greeks believed that the universe was not chaotic and irrational, but was based on an obedience to law. The tragic poets too thought in this way. In Aeschylus we find moral laws which have the same kind of validity as physical and mathematical laws. The doer must suffer. To the mind of Sophocles the law shows itself as a balance, rhythm, or pattern in human affairs. Call no man happy until he is dead, Sophocles tells us. But this does not mean that life is chaotic. If it so appears to us it is because we are unable to see the whole pattern. But sometimes when life for a moment becomes dramatic, we can see enough pattern to give us faith that there is a meaning in the whole. In Antigone when Creon is overwhelmed, it is by the natural recoil of his own acts, working themselves out through the minds and passions of Antigone and Haemon and we can see in this a natural justice. In Electra the vengeance that at last falls on the murderers is linked to their crime by the natural chains of cause and effect. In Oedipus Rex we get a much more complex picture. Here we have a man who is destroyed like a man inadvertently interfering with the natural flow of electricity. Many casual and unrelated actions contribute to the ruin—actions of the shepherds, the charioteer who tried to push Oedipus off the road, the man at the banquet in Corinth. Things happen contrary to all expectation. Life seems cruel and chaotic. Cruel, yes; but chaotic, no—for if it were chaotic no god could predict, and Jocasta’s view of life would be right. Piety and purity are not the whole of the mysterious pattern of life, as the fate of Oedipus shows, but they are an important part of it, and the doctrine of chaos would deny even this. The pattern may hit the life of the individual cruelly, but at least we know that it exists; we feel assured that piety and purity are a large part of it.
Every detail in this play is devised in order to support Sophocles’s faith in this underlying law and the need of obeying it. That is why we can say that the perfection of form implies a world-order. Whether or not it is beneficent, Sophocles does not say.