The Observance of the Unities
The first point to note about the plot of Oedipus Rex is that, like most Greek plays of ancient times, it observes all the three unities—unity of place, unity of time, and unity of action. The entire action of the play takes place at the royal palace in the city of Thebes. The entire action of the play occupies no more than the twenty-four hours which was the maximum duration permissible according to rules. Our entire attention is focused on a single theme—the investigation made by Oedipus into the murder, of Laius and the discovery of the truth. There are no side-plots, or under-plots.
The observance of unities is not by itself a great merit in a play. Shakespeare violated all the unities and yet attained great heights in the writing of drama. It cannot, however, be denied that the unities do make a play close-knit and produce a great concentration of effect, even though they restrict the freedom of the dramatist in several ways.
A Beginning, A Middle, and An End;
As required by Aristotle, Oedipus Rex has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is a situation which has definite consequences, though not very obvious causes; a middle is a situation with both causes and consequences; and an end in the result of the middle but creates no further situation in its turn. Oedipus Rex begins with a complaint by the people to the King, and the arrival of Creon with a command from the oracle that the unknown murderer of the last King, Laius, should be banished from the city. This beginning is the prologue in which the problem is stated and the way is prepared for the development of the real theme of the play. A feeling of suspense is also created in this opening scene. Then follow into important episodes: Oedipus’s quarrel with Teiresias, and his quarrel with Creon. Both these scenes are highly dramatic, especially the former in which the prophet proves more than a match for Oedipus. The next episode, more important from the point of view of plot-development, is the arrival of a messenger from Corinth. Jocasta realises the truth and leaves in a state of great perturbation; while Oedipus, still ignorant, persists in his inquiry. The Theban shepherd arrives in response to the royal summons. Now Oedipus learns the truth which is unbearably agonizing. Soon an attendant comes and announces the self-murder of Jocasta and the self-blinding of Oedipus. All these incidents belong to what has been called the middle of the play. It will be noticed that the emotional excitement of the audience rises with each of these scenes and a tension is generated in their minds till the great shock comes with the discovery first by Jocasta, and then by Oedipus himself. The tragedy lies in the discovery of the guilt and not in the guilt itself, and so the feeling of pity and fear reach their height with the discovery by Oedipus. The end of the play consists of the scenes in which Oedipus laments this fate and the fate of his daughters and in which he is banished from Thebes at his own insistence. What strikes us most here is the orderly development of the plot. There are no digressions of any kind and nothing irrelevant. Every situation contributes to the furtherance of the plot, even the scene of Oedipus’s quarrel with Creon.
Surprise and Suspense
Surprise and suspense are two vital elements in a successful play. Both surprise and suspense are found in abundance in this play and they both produce highly dramatic effects. For instance, when Teiresias arrives, we are in a state of suspense because the prophet is now expected to disclose to Oedipus the identity of the murderer. Teiresias, however, tries to evade giving straight answers to Oedipus’s questions with the result that Oedipus completely loses his temper and insults the prophet. The prophet is not the one to remain quiet. He hits back and he hits hard. He calls Oedipus the murderer and makes a number of veiled prophecies regarding Oedipus’s ultimate fate. The utterances of Teiresias fill us with terror. The scene of this quarrel is highly exciting to the reader or the spectator. The pride and insolence of Oedipus have a disturbing effect on us, and we wonder what he will do. Then follows the quarrel with Creon in the course of which Creon, the moderate and mild-mannered man, defends himself as best as he can while Oedipus shows how stubborn he can be till the Chorus and Jocasta prevail upon him to withdraw the sentence of banishment against Creon.
Scenes Leading to the Final Revelation
Then follow three scenes which lead to the final revelation—the scenes with Jocasta, the Corinthian messenger, and the Theban shepherd. This drama of revelation extends over five hundred lines or so. The excitement increases, rather than diminishes, by being spread out. Jocasta tries to make light of Oedipus’s fear which has been aroused by the prophet’s allegation. She says that no man possesses the secret of divination and that Teiresias’s allegations should be dismissed. But Jocasta’s own experience of the oracle, which she describes as evidence of the falsity of oracles, produces yet another doubt in the mind of Oedipus, and he tells Jocasta the story of his own life. Oedipus’s fears fill Jocasta with dread and she offers worship to Apollo. But as soon as the Corinthian arrives and tells his news, Jocasta’s scepticism returns with an ever greater force. However, a little later, the scene with the Corinthian messenger brings the greatest possible shock for Jocasta, though Oedipus at this stage remains unenlightened. The shock for Oedipus comes after his questioning of the Theban shepherd in the scene that follows. The discovery by Oedipus is the culminating point of the play and of the excitement it produces.
Logical and Convincing Sequence of Events
It is evident that everything proceeds in a logical and convincing manner. Nothing is forced; everything happens naturally, the only exception being the arrival of the Corinthian messenger at a time when Oedipus is investigating the murder of Laius. The arrival of the Corinthian messenger is certainly a coincidence, but it is the only coincidence in the play. The scenes we have surveyed produce various feelings in us—pity, fear, awe, admiration, resentment, irritation. But the dominant feelings are three—fear of what might happen and what really happens; pity at the sad fate of Jocasta and of Oedipus; and admiration for the integrity of Oedipus who pursues the investigation in spite of advice to the contrary by Jocasta and the Theban shepherd.
The Peripeteia and the Anagnorisis
Aristotle spoke of peripeteia and anagnorisis. A peripeteia occurs when a course of action intended to produce a certain result actually produces the reverse of it. Thus the Corinthian messenger tries to cheer Oedipus and dispel his fear of marrying his mother, but, by revealing who Oedipus really is, he produces exactly the opposite result. Similarly, Oedipus runs headlong into the jaws of the very destiny from which he flees. The anagnorisis means the realisation of the truth, the opening of the eyes, the sudden lightning flash in the darkness. This moment comes for Jocasta at the end of the talk with the Corinthian messenger and for Oedipus at the end of the cross-examination of the Theban shepherd.
The Moving Last Scene
The final scene of the play is highly moving. The account of the self-murder and the self-blinding is extremely horrifying; the lamentations of Oedipus show him for a while to be a helpless and pathetic figure, but soon his original imperiousness and pride reassert themselves and he insists on having his own way though he cannot. The last scene is very touching and at the same time highly uplifting and productive of the cathartic effect of which Aristotle has spoken.
Use of Tragic Irony
Another important feature of the construction of the plot of Oedipus Rex is the use of tragic irony. Tragic irony is to be found almost in every major situation in this play. Thus, when Teiresias accuses Oedipus of being the murderer, Oedipus thinks that the prophet, prompted and instigated by Creon, is out to defame and slander him, but Teiresias knows the exact truth (and so does the audience). Thereafter Oedipus speaks insultingly to Creon, not realising that very soon Creon will be the King while he himself will be reduced to the position of a suppliant. Jocasta’s sarcastic comments on the oracles are also full of tragic irony, especially because the oracles are going to be proved to be true in a short while. The use of tragic irony is a device by means of which a dramatist heightens the tragic effect. Sophocles is famous for his use of tragic irony, and this play clearly shows the skill with which he has employed it.
The Role of the Chorus
How can we ignore the role of the Chorus? The songs of the Chorus may be regarded as representing the reactions of the audience to the play as it unfolds itself. The function of the Chorus was to comment upon the major incidents as they occurred. In this way, the Chorus not only represented the feelings of the audience but also reinforced them, sometimes providing a kind of guidance to them. The entry-song of the Chorus is, for instance, an invocation to the gods to protect the people of Thebes. This song is indicative of the religious feelings of the Chorus and of the people whom it represents. The second song of the Chorus shows its perplexity at the allegations of Teiresias against Oedipus. This feeling of perplexity would naturally be shared by the reader or the spectator seeing the play for the first time. The third song of the Chorus expresses its reverence for the divine laws and condemns, indirectly, Oedipus’s pride. The fourth song speculates upon Oedipus’s parentage, visualising a love-affair between some god and a mountain-nymph. The tragic irony of this song is obvious. The last song of the Chorus expresses the idea that human happiness is short-lived, citing the case of Oedipus as a clear illustration. This song deepens our sense of tragedy. Today it is possible for us to regard the Chorus as an unnecessary element in the play or as an encumbrance. But the Chorus was an essential part of every drama in those days, and we just cannot shut our eyes to it. The Chorus does serve a dramatic purpose, as we have seen above. Here and there, the Chorus plays an active role in the action of the play also. For instance, the Chorus dissuades Oedipus from carrying out the sentence of banishment against Creon. The Chorus also soothes the feelings of Oedipus when he appears before them, blind and helpless, though the Chorus does not make light of the sinful deeds of which Oedipus has been shown to be guilty.