Oedipus Rex Essay
Oedipus Rex is one of the group of three plays by Sophocles known as Theban plays, since they all relate to the destinies of the Theban family of Oedipus and his children but Oedipus Rex is not only the greatest play of Sophocles but also the greatest Greek play. It presents the story of Oedipus the king and Jocasta the unfortunate Queen and mother and wife of Oedipus. Teiresias, the blind seer, is another important character who prophesize about Oedipus and his tragic future. Then there is Creon who is a cousin of Oedipus. Despite the presence of all these characters, Oedipus seems distinct and all-pervasive in the play. He is regarded as an exalted tragic figure. Oedipus is a complex character with paradoxical characteristics. An insight into his character demonstrates that he possesses god as well as certain bad qualities but these good qualities also contribute to bring his tragic downfall. He is an intelligent man who is extremely obsessed with his intelligence. He has unsurpassable self-confidence and arrogance yet he possesses an unmatchable quest for truth. So his character is a strange mix different contradictory characteristic.
The first quality that we observe in Oedipus is a good quality i.e. his obsession with his own intelligence and this leads him to very unfortunate and uncomfortable situations. This tragic flaw of Oedipus laps over with his pride as he is extremely proud of the fact that he was able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx which had proved too much for any other person. He thinks that Gods has capacitated him with intelligence and wisdom to solve riddle that the Thebes is afflicted with. Oedipus even taunts Tireseas on his inability in solving the Sphinx’s riddle. He says;
And where were you, when the Dog-faced Witch was here?/Have you any word of deliverance then for our people?/There was a riddle too deep for common wits;/A seer should have answered it, but answer there came none/From you….. (12-16)
After calling the soothsayer false prophet, Oedipus boasts of his own skill in having solved the puzzled which proved too much for the blind seer;
Until I came—I, ignorant Oedipus, came—/ And stopped the riddler’s mouth, guessing he truth/By mother-wit, not bird-lore. (17-19)
So he describes Tiresaeas predictive cautions as the whims of a fanatic and opposes his prophecy with arguments of his own. Confidence and pride in his own wisdom is an outstanding feature of his character that also brings his tragedy. Here Oedipus fulfills the traits of Aristotelian tragic hero as he possesses a noble tragic flaw. The man who sets out on his new task by sending first for the venerable seer is not lacking in pious reverence; but we also observe that Oedipus manifests unrestrained arrogance in his own intellectual achievement. No seer found the solution, this is Oedipus boast; no bird, no god revealed it to him, he “the utterly ignorant” had to come on his own and hit the mark by his own wit. This is a justified pride but it amounts too much. This pride and self-confidence induce Oedipus to despise prophecy and feel almost superior to the gods. He tell the people who pray for deliverance from pathos and miseries they are afflicted with if they listen to and follow his advice in order to get a remedy.
The second characteristics of his personality is also a positive one i.e. his unrelenting pursuit of the truth. This is demonstrated when he believes he is the murderer and that Polybus was not his father, yet he continues with his search with the statement, “I must pursue this trail to the end,” (p.55). These characteristics are only fuel to the fire and add to the pride created a blaze that consumed him. Bernard Knox eulogizes Oedipus’ “dedication to truth, whatever the cost” (p.117) Another characteristics of his character that contributes toward his tragedy is Oedipus’ longing for thoroughness. His inquisitive nature is not content with anything which is either half-hearted or incomplete. Nor can he brook any delay. He damns that the direction of the oracle should be given effect at once. As before, Oedipus speaks on the basis of the workings of his own mental faculties that has been tested time and again and have proved their intelligence.
It can be said that the tragedy of Oedipus is the result more of his good qualities than his bad ones. It is his love for Thebes which makes him send Creon to Delphi to consult the Oracles. It is the same care for his subjects which makes him proclaim a ban and a curse on the murderer of Laius. It is his absolute honesty which makes him include even himself within the curse and the punishment. He is angry with Tiresaeas because he is unable to tolerate the fact that although the prophet says that he know who the murderer of Laius is , he refuses top give the information to the king. His rage and rashness is due to the fact that the masses are suffering and Tiresaeas does not provide the murderer’s name. Oedipus cannot but regard this as a clear manifestation of the seer’s disloyalty to his city.
To Oedipus the discovery of truth is more important than his own good and safety. Even when it seems that the investigation that he is carrying on will not produce any result which will be him, he decides to carry on with it. He is so honest with himself that he inflicts the punishment of self-blinding and banishment from the city of Thebes. So his moral goodness also seems as a tragic flaw that brings his ruin.
He replies by saying “Sick as you are, not one is sick as I, each of you suffers in himself…but my spirit Groans for the city, for myself, for you”. (62-62)
Another strange mix of qualities is related to his vision and insight. Some critics are of the view that major tragic flaw of Oedipus is his intellectual myopia. He has a limited vision and is unable to assess the situations in a right perspective. Robert L. Kane (1975) puts this preposition in this way; “He [Oedipus] was the victim of an optical illusion”. (p. 196) He suffers from two types of blindness i.e. physical and intellectual. One is related to physical sight whereas the other, the most pernicious type of blindness, pertains to insight. Teiresias is physically blind but whereas Oedipus is blind intellectually. This intellectual blindness of Oedipus also contributes greatly to lead him to his tragic destination. Oedipus possesses faultless physical vision throughout play except in the end but he remains blind to the reality regarding himself. At one point in the play, he has the ability to see but he is not willing to do so. He intellectual vision comes with his physical loss of sight but he is unable to cast away the psychological “slings and arrows” and mental sufferings that intellectual blindness has afflicted on him. So his blindness, both intellectual at the start of the play and physical at the end of the day, is the worst. Oedipus can be held guilty due to another tragic flaw—his inability to take appropriate preventive measures. It is said that he fails to take logical steps and precautions which would have saved him from committing the crimes. Oedipus has necessary human failings. One of them is that he rashly jumps into conclusions. Choragos points this out in scene II after a speech by Creon who tries o remove the ill-fed and hastily formed suspicions of Oedipus about Creon. They say, “Judgments too quickly formed are dangerous” (II, 101)
But Oedipus justifies this, arguing that ruler have to take quick decision. He says later on, “But is he not quick in his duplicity? / And shall I not be quick to parry him?” (II, 102-103) Later at the conclusion of scene II, Creon indicates the same tragic flaw in his character by saying, “Ugly in yielding, as you were ugly in rage! / Nature like yours chiefly torments themselves.” (II, 151-152) It is this rashness that makes to not merely suspect Creon but accuse him and even declares that he deserves the sentence of death. The rashness can be observed in his treatment of Tireseas. Oedipus does not lack analytical thinking but his rashness does permit him to weigh up the situation rightly and he makes hasty decision. In retrospect we see that rashness of Oedipus has something to do with the murder Laius at the hands of Oedipus. The self-blinding also is an act of rashness although Oedipus tries t give several arguments in favor of it. Some critics regard this rashness of Oedipus to be his tragic flaw.
So another bad quality i.e. his bad temperament is demonstrated in the squabble between Teiresias and himself, where Teiresias utter the prophetic truth and Oedipus retorts, “Do you think you can say such things with impunity?” and afterward attributes him as a , “Shameless and brainless, sightless, senseless sot!”(p.36). His character is further marked with suspicion about Creon to whom he considers as a conspirator. He says with reference his tête-à-tête with Tiresaeas, “Creon! Was this trick his, then, if not yours?” So his imagination works together with anger and rashness.
All the above-mentioned manifestations of character, their supported arguments and views of the critics clearly proves the thesis that Oedipus’ unavoidable ignorance was the major factor of his tragedy because he was unable to locate that the man whom he assaulted on the crossroads to Thebes was his father. Secondly, if he would not have been occupied by his aspirations, he would have possibly explored the horror of his deed and could have avoided the additional tricky situations by not marrying his mother. Thirdly, his “conscious and intentional” act includes his decision to “bring what is dark to light” (133). Furthermore, as result to revelation of Tiresaeas, he charges Creon with conspiracy and murder and denounces Tiresaeas as an accessory. Although these actions were intentional and bring Oedipus to tragic end but have a clear background that illustrate that these actions were not “deliberate”. Fourthly, all these errors originate from a hasty and obstinate temperament, unjustified anger and excessive pride that compel him to an energized inquisitiveness. With the development of the plot, all these ascriptions of his character jumps back with amplified force on his head that finally culminates at his tragedy. Knox (1957) sums up in this way;
“the actions of Oedipus that produce the catastrophe stem from all sides of his character; no one particular action is more essential than any other; they are all essential and they involve not any one trait of character which might be designated a hamartia but the character of Oedipus as a whole” (31).
Above-mentioned arguments and supporting evidence clearly manifest that Oedipus had paradoxical qualities and possessed good as well bad characteristics. Sophocles has masterfully juxtaposed his constant obsession with intelligence and his pursuit of truth with his vain pride and excessive anger. But it is also obvious that his good qualities contribute more toward his tragedy than his bad qualities.