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The greatest of Athens’s playwrights Sophocles’ best-known work is Oedipus Rex. His
works embrace the orthodoxy of the day by accepting the existence of a powerful divine force that is ultimately unknowable to man. This force, which runs the universe, has established a body of divine law that humans must follow if they are to avoid calamity. Through his characters, Sophocles explored serious questions about the nature of good and evil in the world and the role of free will. Oedipus Rex is not only the greatest play of Sophocles but the greatest Greek play. According to many critics, it is the greatest play ever written. Aristotle in the Poetics gives very high praise to this play. It is also credited with possessing one of the three best executed plots in all dramas. In this play Sophocles performs the miracle of creating terrible suspense through events the outcome of which is known to the readers beforehand. The reversal and the recognition in this play arise out of the plot itself. It is a very well integrated play, no part of which can either the transposed or let out. It can also be regarded as the first detective story in the literature. Sophocles’ play, Oedipus Rex, contains deep philosophic contents. He advises that man must concern himself with his own actions and remain within his own spheres of life. He must not try to be equal to gods in any respect. Excessive desires even for good things such as knowledge, angers and the gods bring men to ruin. It is also inscribed above the temple of Apollo of Delphi “Know thyself” means “know that you are not a god, that you have human limitations.” The relentless clockwork motion of the plot kept audience rapt because watching fate unfold when it is known to you but to the people who are its prisoners is a privilege borrowed from the god. The whole plot of the tragedy revolves around a mighty, towering character, Oedipus Rex. There was a prophecy for the king Liaus, the father of Oedipus, that his son would kill him and marry his wife. To avoid this, the king orders his servant to take the baby to kill him but the servant, out of pity, does not kill the lad and leaves him on the mountains. Later, he is found by a shepherd, who takes him to the king of the neighboring country, Corinth, who brings the baby up by naming him Oedipus Rex. When Oedipus comes to know about that he is not the real son of the king, he also approaches Delphi and same prophecy is given to him. He also, like his father, tries to avoid his doom by taking the way to unknown country but on the way, he encounters with a group of guards with a king, his real father, and in an impulsive action, he kills the guards and the old king. Afterwards, he enters the city of
Thebes and also proves himself a savior of the city by killing sphinx and as a reward, marries the widow queen, his real mother and enjoys the status of the most powerful king. In mention lines, he taunt Teiresias of his lacking skill in solving the Sphinx‘riddle. “And yet the riddle was not to be solved but _I_ came, The simple Oedipus; _I_ stopped her mouth By mother wit, untaught of auguries” Many of the lines spoken by Oedipus Rex, as well as, other characters are very ironical. The passionate king struggles to discover the murderer of Laius, the previous king, by a searching process that brings him nearer to the fact, unknown to him, that he is the murderer of his own father and the husband of his own mother. According to Sophocles, every deed has its consequences which no one can escape. The ways of the gods are mysterious and no human being must seek to pry into them. Men go through tragedies in plays of Sophocles. They suffer a lot by their own mistakes and revolting against the deity, causing angers to gods. In Sophocles plays, it is the characters themselves who are the architect of their fate, and bring good or bad fortune on themselves by their own actions. As Oedipus says;
“….The god was Apollo He brought my sick, sick upon me”
Oedipus is concerned with two appearances which becomes his life mission to investigate, so that he may get the underlying truth. Oedipus believes in some unknown enemy and pronounces on him the sentence of outlawry, and also utters a curse on him.
“He is forbidden… Shelter and intercourse with any man Expelled from every house, unclean, accursed In the accordance with the words of Pythian oracle”
The reality of it, that it is on him he is passing both the sentences, is unknown to him. We see that gradually Oedipus knows what reality lies hidden behind the appearance. Now, the battle between truth and appearance becomes an open contest. We see it first in the confrontation between Oedipus and Teiresias. This is not tragic error but it is tragic appearance and it is a typical of tragic art in its perfect form. The fulfillment of Oracles also is marked with philosophical irony. Oedipus suspects that both Creon and Teiresias were behind the conspiracy against late king Liaus and his throne which leads Oedipus astray. In his anger, he rushes upon Teiresias and calls him “blind old man” who in return, at last, spilt out:
“To twit me with my blindness—thou hast eyes, Yet see'st not in what misery thou art fallen”
The Oracles are fulfilled just after both Jocasta and Oedipus have spoken in disregard of them. There is irony in the reversed intentions of helpers also. Sophocles provides at least one helper for every act but all helpers push Oedipus to the edge of disaster. Choragus says;
“you were better dead than alive and blind”
When he comes to know the bitter truth about his identity, he is miserable, he tried his level best to avoid it, he as a man cannot avert his doom but he, in the end, gives himself the punishment of self-blinding and expulsion, challenging the status of god. Sophocles does not end the play as one would expect him to do, i. e. with Oedipus’ discovery of his identity and the awareness of monstrous crime with which this identity implies. On the other hand, we are shown Oedipus in conversation with the chorus, bidding farewell to his children, and making some requests to Creon. We also see Creon behaving as the new king, and the last chorus refers to the situation of Oedipus and what the spectators may learn from it. Oedipus first expresses his grief and paid over his blindness. He also explains the reason which drove him to blind himself. The chorus ends the play by using Oedipus’ story to illustrate the famous moral that one should not judge a man’s life until it is over. Man is the puppet in the hands of gods, he can’t equal to god in any respect.
“Men of Thebes: look upon Oedipus This is the king who solved the famous riddle… Yet in the end ruin swept upon him”
There are some questions that can be raised on the story; for example, why the Theban shepherd falsely reported that Liaus was attacked by a group of robbers, or why kept silent when he saw Oedipus ruling in Thebes. We may also wonder why he was treated so leniently when it was clear that he had left his master and companions dead on the roadside. The probable answers of these questions can be given, but the fact is that this is not the tragedy of Theban shepherd. He is just an agent, not a principal. These questions as well as a couple of other questions which turn on reality might be ignored, but, there are some others that cannot be ignored, because, Oedipus himself pointed to them. One of the questions which Oedipus raises, If Teiresias was really an inspired seer, why was he not able to answer the riddle of the sphinx? Why did he keep silent about the death of Liaus and the marriage of Jocasta when he seems to have known about Oedipus’ identity? The only thing we can say is that everything seems to have been arranged by fate with Oedipus as the centre. Oedipus is the man who must find, and condemn and punish himself. Thus, even if some of the unanswered questions
appear to us to affect probability, there is hardly any question of this happening not analyzed or discussed. The Greeks did not think of determination and free will as clear-cut and exclusive alternatives. It is wrong to think that because the gods know in advance what certain human actions are going to be, that these actions themselves become predetermined. In this play, Sophocles has showed us that one cannot avoid one’s fate, and that efforts to evade it would achieve only the reverse of what one desires. Throughout the play, what he intend to prove is that man is essentially ignorant, and one who is proud of his intelligence would only turn out to be more ignorant than others.