Themes In Oedipus Rex English Literature Essay
Oedipus Rex is probably the most famous tragedy ever written. The play was produced in Athens around 430 B.C at the Great Dionysia, a cultural festival held in honor of the God Dionysus. In the play Oedipus, the king of Thebes, aware that his city is being destroyed by fire, sends his brother-in-law Creon to find a remedy from the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. When Creon returns Oedipus begins investigating the death of Laius,and discovers through many ways that he was the one who had unknowingly killed Laius and then
married his own mother, Jocasta. After the suicide of his mother, Oedipus blinds himself and takes leave of his children. Many historical authors including Voltaire, philosopher Frederic
Nietzsche, and the father of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud reacted at length to the play's themes of incest and patricide. Freud, proved that Oedipus's fate is common to us. "Oedipus Complex" is the definitive parent-child relationship.
Knowledge and Ignorance
Oedipus's desire to gain knowledge that will help to rid Thebes of its pollution is evident from the beginning
of the play. When the priest comes to him to ask for help, Oedipus has already begun the process of searching
for solutions; he has sent Creon to Delphi to learn from Apollo what measures should be taken. When Creon
enters, Oedipus begins questioning him intensely, declares a search for Laius's murderer, and asks for
Teiresias's assistance as well as that of others; when a member of the chorus offers information Oedipus says,
"tell me. I am interested in all reports." His strong belief that the search for the truth will lead to a successful
cleansing of Thebes is juxtaposed with the reluctance on the part of other characters to deliver their
knowledge. Most fear retribution, since their knowledge points to Oedipus as the source of Thebes's troubles.
This belief should also be understood in the context of Oedipus's ignorance and final, tragic discovery of his
identity; by demanding that others tell him all they know he is forced to confront the hideous facts of his
patricide and incest.
Choices and Consequences
Another theme in the play is the distinction between the truthfulness of oracles and prophecies of the gods, as opposed to man's ability to influence his life's trajectory through his own actions. Despite his best efforts to be a
good and wise king, fate works against Oedipus and finally shows that he was wrong to believe in a conspiracy and to substantiate his claims about the evil machinations of Creon and Teiresias, fate
works against him and finally shows that he was wrong to believe in a conspiracy. For example, when
Oedipus wishes to punish Creon, he expresses to a member of the chorus his intention to shape his policy in
forcefully self-determining language: "Would you have me stand still, hold my peace, and let this man win
everything, through my inaction?" Again, Oedipus struggles against the oracle that predicts his hand in his
father's death and boldly asserts that it is wrong when Polybos's death is reported: "Polybos. Has packed the
oracles off with him underground. They are empty words." But the oracle remains true, and Oedipus is
helpless in the face of its powerful prophecy.
Public vs. Private Life
The extent to which Oedipus desires public disclosure of information is particularly striking in the play's first
scenes. He asks the priest and Creon to speak publicly about the troubles of Thebes and to offer possible clues
and solutions in front of his subjects, in spite of their reservations. Creon asks: "Is it your pleasure to hear me
with all these/ Gathered around us? I am prepared to speak,/But should we not go in?'' Oedipus consistently
refuses to hide any knowledge he will receive and wants his informers to adopt a similar attitude. When
Teiresias refuses to answer Oedipus's call and later resists revealing the king's dark truth, Oedipus grows
impatient, hostile, and abusive. Teiresias would like to keep his information to himself, as will the shepherd in
a later scene, but Oedipus will hear nothing of it. In addition, Jocasta is inclined to evade or gloss over the
truth as it is about to be revealed from various people. She views the matter a private one and tries to protect
Oedipus from the disastrous disclosures. Oedipus, however, refuses to tolerate a world in which secrets exist.
He publicly learns the truth—at the expense of his sanity and happiness. His desire for a Theban society that
fosters truth and openess is an admirable one, one that albeit contributes to his demise
The Genre of Greek Tragic Drama
Ever since Aristotle's high praise regarding its structure and characterization in his Poetics, Oedipus Rex has
been considered one of the most outstanding examples of tragic drama. In tragedy, a protagonist inspires in
his audience the twin emotions of pity and fear. Usually a person of virtue and status, the tragic hero can be a
scapegoat of the gods or a victim of circumstances. Their fate (often death or exile) establishes a new and
better social order. Not only does it make the viewer aware of human suffering, tragedy illustrates the manner
in which pride (hubris) can topple even the strongest of characters. It is part of the playwright's intention that
audiences will identify with these fallen heroes-and possibly rethink the manner in which they live their lives.
Theorists of tragedy, beginning with Aristotle, have used the term catharsis to capture the sense of purgation
and purification that watching a tragedy yield in a viewer: relief that they are not in the position of the
protagonist and awareness that one slip of fate could place them in such circumstances.
The dramatic structure of Greek drama is helpfully outlined by Aristotle in the twelfth book of Poetics. In this
classical tragedy, a Prologue shows Oedipus consulting the priest who speaks for the Theban elders, the first
choral ode or Parodos is performed, four acts are presented and followed by odes called stasimons, and in the
Exodos, or final act, the fate of Oedipus is revealed.
Tragedies in fifth-century Athens were performed in the marketplace, known in Greek as the agora. The
dramatic competitions of the Great Dionysia, Athens's annual cultural and religious festival, were held in a
structure made of wood near the Acropolis. The chorus performed on a raised stage. There were no female
actors, and it is still unknown (though much speculated upon) whether women attended these performances. It
is also noteworthy that the performance space was near the Priyx, the area in which the century's increasingly
heated and rhetorically sophisticated political debates took place—a feature of Athenian cultural life that
suggests the pervasive nature of spectacles of polished and persuasive verbal expression.
The Greek chorus, like the genre of tragedy itself, is reputed to be a remnant of the ritualistic and ceremonial
origins of Greek tragedy. Sophocles added three members of the chorus to Aeschylus's twelve. In terms of
form, the choral ode has a tripartite structure which bears traces of its use as a song and dance pattern. The
three parts are called, respectively, the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode; their metrical structures vary
and are usually very complex. If the strophe established the dance pattern, in the antistrophe the dancers trace
backwards the same steps, ending the ode in a different way with the epode.
With respect to content, the choral odes bring an additional viewpoint to the play, and often this perspective is
broader and more socio-religious than those offered by individual characters; it is also conservative and
traditional at times, potentially in an effort to reflect the views of its society rather than the protagonist. The
Chorus's first set of lyrics in Oedipus Rex, for example, express a curiosity about Apollo's oracle and describes
the ruinous landscape of Thebes. Its second utterance reminds the audience of the newness of Teiresias's
report: "And never until now has any man brought word/Of Laius's dark death staining Oedipus the King."
The chorus reiterates some of the action, expressing varying degrees of hope and despair wilh respect to it;
one of its members delivers the play's final lines, much like the Shakespearean epilogue. Sometimes the
chorus sings a dirge with one or more characters, as when it suggests to Oedipus not to disbelieve Creon's
protestations of innocence.
The play's action occurs outside Oedipus's palace in Thebes. Thebes had been founded, according to the myth,
by Cadmus (a son of Agenor, King of Phoenicia) while searching for his sister Europa, who had been
abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. A direct line of descent can be traced from Cadmus to Oedpius;
between them are Polydorus, Labdacus, and, of course, Laius.
Imagery and Foreshadowing
Associated with knowledge and ignorance are the recurring images of darkness and light in the play, and these
images work as examples of a kind of foreshadowing for which the play is justly famous. When the play
begins, the priest uses this set of contrasts to describe the current condition of Thebes: "And all the house of
Kadmos is laid waste/All emptied, and all darkened." Shortly after this moment, Oedipus promises Creon:
"Then once more I must bring what is dark to light,'' that is, the murder of Laius will out and Oedipus will be
responsible for finding and exposing the culprit(s). Metaphorical and literal uses of darkness and light also
provide foreshadowing, since it is Oedipus's desire to bring the truth to light that leads him to a
self-knowledge ruinous and evil enough to cause him to blind himself. After the shepherd reveals his birth he
declares, "O Light, may I look on you for the last time!" In saying this he sets up for the audience, who are,
presumably, familiar with the legend of Oedipus, his subsequent actions. The second messenger describes his
command to himself as he proceeds to perform the gruesome task: "From this hour, go in darkness!" thereby
enacting both a literal and metaphorical fall into the dark consequences of his unbearable knowledge. These
are but a few examples of how imagery and foreshadowing as techniques can meet, overlap, and mutually
inform one another in the play; through subjective interpretation, many more may be found.
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