Oedipus has been made King of Thebes in gratitude for his freeing the people from the pestilence brought on them by the presence of the riddling Sphinx. Since Laius, the former king, had shortly before been killed, Oedipus has been further honored by the hand of Queen Jocasta. Now another deadly pestilence is raging and the people have come to ask Oedipus to rescue them as before. The King has anticipated their need, however. Creon, Jocasta’s brother, returns at the very moment from Apollo’s oracle with the announcement that all will be well if Laius’ murderer be found and cast from the city.
In an effort to discover the murderer, Oedipus sends for the blind seer, Tiresias. Under protest the prophet names Oedipus himself as the criminal. Oedipus, outraged at the accusation, denounces it as a plot of Creon to gain the throne. Jocasta appears just in time to avoid a battle between the two men. Seers, she assures Oedipus, are not infallible. In proof, she cites the old prophecy that her son should kill his father and have children by his mother. She prevented its fulfillment, she confesses, by abandoning their infant son in the mountains.
As for Laius, he had been killed by robbers years later at the junction of three roads on the route to Delphi. This information makes Oedipus uneasy. He recalls having killed a man answering Laius’ description at this very spot when he was fleeing from his home in Corinth to avoid fulfillment of a similar prophecy. An aged messenger arrives from Corinth, at this point, to announce the death of King Polybus, supposed father of Oedipus, and the election of Oedipus as king in his stead. On account of the old prophecy Oedipus refuses to return to Corinth until his mother, too, is dead.
To calm his fears the messenger assures him that he is not the blood son of Polybus and Merope, but a foundling from the house of Laius deserted in the mountains. This statement is confirmed by the old shepherd whom Jocasta had charged with the task of exposing her babe. Thus the ancient prophecy has been fulfilled in each dreadful detail. Jocasta in her horror hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his eyes. Then he imposes on himself the penalty of exile, which he had promised for the murderer of Laius.
What has God done to me? Oedipus Let every man in mankind’s frailtyConsider his last day; and let nonePresume on his good fortune until he findLife, at his death, a memory without pain. Choragos Fate and the Hero in Oedipus Rex My literature professor, Dr. Rhoda Sirlin, asked the class oneSaturday afternoon whether Oedipus was a victim of fate or of hisown actions.
I ventured to say that maybe it was his destiny tosuffer, but Dr. Sirlin asked me to explain why Oedipus, in the act ofgouging his eyes out, cries explicitly: No more, no more shall you look on the misery about me, The horrors of my own doing! Too long you have known The faces of those whom I should never have seen, Too long blind to those for whom I was searching! From this hour, go in darkness! (Sophocles 830)Clearly, Dr. Sirlin pointed, Oedipus was aware that he alone wasresponsible for his actions. Moreover, Dr.
Sirlin also stressed thefact that if Oedipus was not responsible for his actions, then he couldnot be viewed as a tragic figure since he would be a mere puppet offate or the gods. I was not prepared to argue one so scholarly as theprofessor, so I stayed silent. Roy, the loquacious spokespersonof the class, and the professor then discussed Oedipus’s explosivetemper whether it was a tragic flaw or not, as seen in what theprofessor aptly called the earliest recorded incident of “road rage. “Dr. Sirlin believed that his volatile temper was one factor thatcontributed to his downfall.
I cannot remember now the salient pointsof Roy’s argument, but I do recall that I partook in the debate byurging the class to look at Oedipus as a hero who was trying to asserthis rights, as a hero who was trying to defend his honor, when heslew those who violated his right of way on that fateful day where thethree highways came together: There were three highways Coming together at a place I passed; And there a herald came towards me, and a chariot Drawn by horses, with a man such as you describe Seated in it.
The groom leading the horses forced me off the road at his lord’s command; But as this charioteer lurched over toward me I struck him in my rage. The old man saw me And bought his double goad down upon my head As I came abreast. He was paid back, and more! . . . I killed him. I killed them all. (Sophocles 819) I tried to support my contention by repeating what my historyprofessor, Dr. Martin Pine, taught me about the hero: the hero prizesabove all else his honor and the excellence of his life.
When his honoris at stake, all other considerations become irrelevant. My argument, Juanico 2however, failed to sway Dr. Sirlin’s opinion in my direction. Sheconcluded that Oedipus’s inability to control his violent anger was atragic flaw or what the ancient Greeks called hubris. Two ideas keptrecurring in my mind as the class finally ended that afternoon: fateand the hero. I knew instinctively that the thesis for my paper layburied in those two concepts.
After much arduous searching andsleepless nights reading, I now believe that fate victimized Oedipus,but he was a tragic figure since he was not a puppet of fate or thegods. Being a hero, he freely chose to pursue and accept his owndestruction. I will first focus my attention to the ancient Greeks’ idea of thehero. The hero is a person who possesses superior qualities of mindand body and who proves his superiority by doing great deeds ofvalor, strength, or intellect.
Oedipus was certainly a hero who wasexceptionally intelligent though one can argue that killing four men atPhokis singlehandedly more than qualified him as a physical force to bereckoned with. He undeniably knew his heroic status when he greetedthe supplicating citizens of Thebes before the palace doors saying: “Iwould not have you speak through messengers, and therefore I havecome myself to hear youI, Oedipus, who bear the famous name”(Sophocles 801).
The priest, speaking in behalf of the sufferingcitizens of Thebes, recognizes Oedipus’s heroic qualities when heentreats him to save the city from the plague: You are not one of the immortal gods, we know; Yet we have come to you to make our prayer As to the man of all men best in adversity And wisest in the ways of the God.
You saved us Juanico 3 From the Sphinx, that flinty singer, and the tribute We paid to her so long; yet you were never Better informed than we, nor could we teach you: It was some god breathed in you to set us free.
Sophocles 802)Donna Rosenberg, editor of World Mythology: An Anthology of theGreat Myths and Epics, states in her introduction to Greek mythologythat the hero “valued strength and skill, courage and determination,for these attributes enabled the person who possessed them to achieveglory and honor, both in his lifetime and after he died” (38). Gloryand honor were the most important goals of the hero, for theseguarantee him immortality.
The hero, being blessed with superiorqualities of mind and body, loved to engage in battle, preferably withanother hero, since combat gave him the best chance to demonstratehis excellence. D. Brendan Nagle, author of The Ancient World: ASocial and Cultural History, contends that the hero was alwaysbelligerent because he regarded combat as the “ultimate test ofhuman valor, strength, and ability” (91). Victory in battle, accordingto Nagle, justified his eminent position in his community (91). BothRosenberg and Nagle agree that death was the inevitable and finalfate of the hero.
The hero, Rosenberg acknowledges, “never forgotthat death was inevitably his ultimate fate” (38). Death was the sinequa non of a hero’s life since how he died was a “vindication” of whathe stood for in life; death would not take the hero in some “trivialaccident,” but at “the precise moment” destiny has assigned for his”exit” (Nagle 92). Yet, the hero never questioned his fate. Heaccepted his destiny by directing his energies to those aspects in hislife he could control: his honor and the excellence of his life(Rosenberg 38).
All other considerations were subservient to thesetwo values. Composed by Homer more than two thousand years ago, Juanico 4the exchange between Hector and Andromache, when she begs him notto return to the battle raging outside the walls of Troy, for it wasforetold that he would die in the hands of mighty Achilles, exemplifiesbest the essence of the heroic spirit: Andromache grasped his hand, and said, “O Hector! ur strength will be your destruction; and you have no pity either for your infant son or for your unhappy wife who will soon be your widow. For soon all the Achaeans will set upon you and kill you; and if I lose you it would be better for me to die. I shall have no other comfort, but my sorrow. I have no father and no mother: for my father Eetion was slain by Achilles . . . And I had seven brothers in my home, and all of them swift-footed Achilles slew; and my mother, who was Queen at Placos, died in my father’s house.
Hector you are father and mother and brother to me, and you are my proud husband. Come, take pity on me now! Stay on these walls, and do not leave your son an orphan and me a widow. ” To her in reply said Hector of the flashing helmet . . . “But I should feel great shame before the Trojans and the Trojan women of long robes if like a coward I should linger away from battle. Nor do I find that in my heart, for I have been taught to be brave always, and to fight in the forefront among the Trojans, winning great glory for my father and for myself.
One can see from the preceding passage that the hero will not evenconsider the needs and love of his family when his glory and honor areat stake. But it would be a mistake to view the hero as someone who isdevoid of compassionHector also shows how much he cares forAndromache as he continues talking to her: “For well do I know this, and I am sure of it: that the day is coming when the holy city of Troy will perish, and Priam and the people of wealthy Priam.
But my grief is not so much for the Trojans, nor for Hecuba herself, nor for Priam the King, nor for my many noble brothers, who will be slain by the foe and will lie in the dust, as for you, when one of the bronze-clad Achaeans will carry you away in tears, and end your days of freedom. . . . And then a man will say, as he sees you weeping, ‘This is the wife of Hector, who was the noblest in battle of the horse-taming Trojans, when they were fighting around Ilion.
This is what they will say: and it will be fresh grief for you, to fight against slavery, bereft of a husband like that. But may I be dead, may the earth be heaped over my grave before I hear your cries, and of the violence done to you. ” So spake shining Hector, and held out his arms to his son. (qtd. in Kitto 57)Oedipus, a hero of superior intelligence, also displays thisuncompromising attitude in his pursuit of the truth.
Compare this Juanico 5dialogue between Oedipus and Jocasta, when she begs him not topursue his inquiry regarding his origin, to that of Hector andAndromache and see the similarities: Oedipus. Do you know anything about him, Lady? Is he the man we summoned? Is that the man this shepherd means? Jocasta. Why think of him? Forget this herdsman. Forget it all. This talk is a waste of time.
Oedipus. How can you say that, when the clues to my birth are in my hands? Jocasta. For God’s love, let us have no more questioning! Is your life nothing to you? My own is pain enough for me to bear. Oedipus. You need not worry. Suppose my mother a slave, and born of slaves: no baseness can touch you. Jocasta. Listen to me, I beg you: do not do this thing! Oedipus. I will not listen; the truth must be made known.
Sophocles 825)Oedipus also demonstrates his compassionate nature when he tells theplague-stricken citizens of Thebes how he feels for their distress: Poor children! You may be sure I know All that you longed for in your coming here. I know that you are deathly sick; and yet, Sick as you are, not one is as sick as I. Each of you suffers in himself alone His anguish, not another’s; but my spirit Groans for the city, for myself, for you. (Sophocles 803)The hero’s conscious choice to pursue and accept his doom, however,makes him a tragic figure.
Bernard M. W. Knox, author of The HeroicTemper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy, points out that the hero hasto choose between his doom and an alternative “which if acceptedwould betray the hero’s own conception of himself, his rights, hisduties,” but in the end the hero “refuses to yield; he remains true tohimself, to his physis, that ‘nature’ which he inherited from his parentsand which is his identity” (8). Therefore, one can see Oedipus’sunwavering insistence to uncover the truth about the murder of Laiusand then about himself as proof of the hero’s resolute commitment touphold his own “nature.
Oedipus’s unyielding quest for the truth fitshis self-image as “a man of action,” “the revealer of truth,” and the”solver of riddles” (Knox 28). Knox adds that the hero’s Juanico 6determination to act is “always announced in emphatic, uncompromisingterms” (10). Oedipus proclaims his intention of finding Laius’s killersby saying, “Then once more I must bring what is dark to light”(Sophocles 804). When Jocasta begs him to cease his inquiryregarding his identity, Oedipus replies, “I will not listen; the truthmust be made known” (Sophocles 825).
The hero cannot be swayed bythreats or reason; he will not capitulate. One can only hope that thehero will realize the folly and error of his ways in time (Knox 26). Creon, after being accused by Oedipus of conspiring against the king,retorted, “You do wrong when you take good men for bad, bad men forgood. . . . In time you will know this well” (Sophocles 815). The hero,however, never learns in time; “he remains unchanged” (Knox 26). Oedipus, after his terrible self-mutilation, realizes that he treatedCreon unjustly: “Alas, how can I speak to him?
What right have I tobeg his courtesy whom I deeply wronged? ” (Sophocles 833). But laterCreon has to remind Oedipus that he is no longer king when he startsissuing imperious commands such as: “But let me go, Creon! “; “Takepity on them; see, they are only children, friendless except for you. “;”Promise me this, Great Prince, and give me your hand in token of it. “; “No! Do not take them from me! “(Sophocles 834-35).
The heroprovided the ancient Greeks the belief that in some chosen person”humanity is capable of superhuman greatness . . . at a human beingmay at times magnificently defy the limits imposed on our will by thefear of public opinion, of community action, even of death, may refuseto accept humiliation and indifference and impose his will no matterwhat the consequences to others and to himself” (Knox 57). Thisunyielding resolve to accept his doom, “no matter what theconsequences to others and to himself,” to bestow meaning to his life,gives the hero “a dignity, a nobility, and a grandeur that do not tarnishwith the passage of time. When he is most vulnerable, he is mostnoble” (Rosenberg 39).
Juanico 7 What about Oedipus’s fate? If fate victimized Oedipus, then he isnot a tragic figure since he would be just a mere puppet of destiny. Ido not subscribe to this view. I believe that Oedipus is a tragicfigure because it is his own heroic qualities, his loyalty to Thebes, andhis fidelity to the truth that ruined him. Even though he is warnedmany times to stop seeking for the truth, he keeps on searching. Moreover, he is ignorant of the circumstances surrounding his birth( hamartia), which is another reason that makes him a tragic figure.
Aristotle explains that the nature of the tragic character is that of aperson who is eminently just and good, but whose misfortune is broughtabout not by some vice or depravity but by error, ignorance, orfrailty. Oedipus fits this description perfectly. According to E. R. Dodds, author of the essay “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex,”the story of Oedipus fascinates us because of the spectacle of a man freely choosing, from the highest motives, a series of actions which lead to his own ruin.
Oedipus might have left the plague to take its course; but pity for the sufferings of his people compelled him to consult Delphi. When Apollo’s word came back, he might still have left the murder of Laius uninvestigated; but piety and justice required him to act. He need not have forced the truth from the reluctant Theban herdsman; but because he cannot rest content with a lie, he must tear away the last veil from the illusion in which he had lived so long.
Teiresias, Jocasta, and the herdsman, each in turn tries to stop him, but in vain: he must read the last riddle, the riddle of his own life. (23) Juanico 8 Yet it seems to me that fate has dealt Oedipus a bad hand rightfrom the start. The royal House of Thebes has a long history ofundeserved misfortune starting with the founder and Oedipus’sgreat-great-grandfather, Cadmus, and his wife, Harmonia. They wereboth turned into snakes by the gods.
All four of their daughters werevisited with great misfortune. One daughter, Semele, was killedby the splendor of Zeus. Ino, another daughter, committed suicide byleaping down from a cliff with her dead son, who was killed by hermad-stricken husband, in her arms. Agave, the most unfortunatedaughther, was driven mad into thinking that her son was a lion, and shekilled him with her own hands. Autonoe, the last daughter, had toendure the death of his son, who was turned into a stag by Artemis andlater was felled by his own hounds.
Edith Hamilton, author ofMythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, admits that thesemembers of the House of Thebes were innocent, but their fate was notpunishment rather “proof that suffering was not punishment forwrongdoing; the innocent suffered as often as the guilty” (256). Ibelieve that Oedipus inherited the curse of the House of Thebes. Oedipus, after knowing the ghastly truth, cries, “I, Oedipus . . . damned in his birth, in his marriage damned, damned in the blood heshed with his own hands! ” (Sophocles 828). After blinding himself, hequestions his fate: God. God.
Is there a sorrow greater? Where shall I find harbor in this world? My voice is hurled far on a dark wind. What has God done to me? (Sophocles 831)The chorus sings Oedipus’s fate after he rushes into the palace: Child by Laius doomed to die, Then doomed to lose that fortunate little death, Juanico 9 Would God you never took breath in this air That with my wailing lips I take to cry: For I weep the world’s outcast.
Sophocles 829)Furthermore, the prophesy proclaimed by the oracle is unconditional,and what the oracle foretells is “inevitably and inexorably bound tohappen no matter what Oedipus may have done to avoid it (Dodds 21). In conclusion, I want to reiterate my belief that Oedipus was avictim of fate, but he was no puppet because he freely and activelysought his doom though he was warned many times not to pursue it. Hispast actions may have been determined by fate, but what he did inThebes he did so as a free individual. He claimed full responsibility,as a hero would, when Choragos asked what god drove him to blindhimself: “Apollo. Apollo. Dear children, the god was Apollo. Hebrought my sick, sick fate upon me. But the blinding hand was myown! ” (Sophocles 831).
Sophocles ends this tragic story by warning usnot to take anything for granted lest we suffer like Oedipus: Men of Thebes: look upon Oedipus. This is the king, who solved the famous riddle And towered up most powerful of men. No mortal eyes but looked on him with envy, Yet in the end ruin swept over him. Let every man in mankind’s frailty Consider his last day; and let none Presume on his good fortune until he find Life, at his death, a memory without pain.