Oedipus’s Recovery in the Final Scene
The play does not end with the proof of divine omniscience and human ignorance. It ends, as it begins, with Oedipus. We cannot be content with the assessment of the Chorus when they say that all the generations of mortal man add up to nothing. The Chorus makes this remark just after Oedipus learns the truth about his own identity). If the play were to end with this assessment, it would mean that the heroic action of Oedipus in pursuing the truth is a hollow mockery. It would mean that a man should not seek the truth for fear of what he might find.
As it is, the final scene of the play offers a different estimate, though not in words but in dramatic action. In the final scene Oedipus, on whom the hopeless estimate of the Chorus is based, overcomes the disaster that has overtaken him and reasserts himself. He is so far from being equal to zero that towards the close of the play Creon has to tell him not to try to assert his will in everything. The last scene of the play is, indeed, vital, though it is often wrongly criticised as unbearable or as an anti-climax. The last scene shows us the recovery of Oedipus, his reintegration, and the reconstitution of the dominating, dynamic and intelligent figure of the opening scenes.
Oedipus, a Zero at the Beginning of the Last Scene
When Oedipus comes out of the palace after having blinded himself, the sight of him is so terrible that the Chorus can hardly bear to look at him. The Chorus approves his wish that he should have died on the mountain-side before reaching manhood. Further, the Chorus tells him that it would be better for him to be dead now than to live as a blind man. This despair is expressed in Oedipus’s own words also; they are the words of a broken man. What he says, and the manner in which he says it, shows that Oedipus is no longer an active force but purely passive. This impression is supported by his address to the darkness in which he will now for ever live and by his reference to the pain which pierces his eyes and mind alike. Oedipus gratefully recognises the loyalty of the Chorus in looking after him; a blind man. This is an expression of his complete dependence on others. He seems indeed a zero, equal to nothing.
His Own Responsibility for the Blinding
The Chorus at this point reminds him that his blindness is the result of his own independent action after he came to know the truth about himself. His blindness was not required by the prophecy of Apollo. Nor was it demanded in the oracle’s instructions. His blindness was an autonomous action on this part. The Chorus asks him if he was prompted by some god in the act of blinding himself. Oedipus replies that while Apollo brought his sufferings to fulfilment, the hand that blinded him was his own. His action was self-chosen. It was a swift decisive action for which he assumes full responsibility and which he now defends. At this stage, the original Oedipus re-asserts himself. He rejects the suggestion of the Chorus that the responsibility was not his. He rejects the reproaches of the Chorus. We now see the same man as we met in the earlier scenes of the play. All the traits of his strong character reappear. His attitude to the new and terrible situation in which he now finds himself is full of the same courage which he displayed before. When the Chorus scolds him for having made a bad decision in blinding himself, he replies with the old impatience and a touch of the old anger. He tells them not to preach a lesson to him or to give him any advice to the effect that he has not done the best thing. He goes on to describe in detail the reasoning by which he arrived at the decision to blind himself. His decision was, no doubt, a result of some reflection. Oedipus shows himself fully convinced of the Tightness of his action and the thinking which led him to it.
Insistence on Punishment
Oedipus insists, in the face of Creon’s opposition, that he be put to death or exiled from Thebes. He rejects the compromise offered by the Chorus with the same courage with which he had earlier dismissed the attempts of Teiresias, Jocasta, and the Shepherd to stop the investigation. As before, he cannot tolerate any half-measures or delay. His own curse call for his exile or death and he sees no point in prolonging the matter, Creon finally does what Oedipus wanted to be done sooner: Creon exiles Oedipus from Thebes. Oedipus, in demanding the punishment, insists on full clarity and on all the facts. He spares himself on detail of the consequences of his pollution for himself and for his daughters. While Creon’s reaction is to cover and conceal, Oedipus brings everything out into the open. Oedipus analyses in painful detail his own situation and that of his children.
Destined to Live
The old confidence in his own intelligence and action is very much there. However, the exaggerated and leaping hopefulness is gone. And yet there is still a kind of hope in him. After his initial wish for death, he becomes sure that he is destined to live. He feels that he is in some sense too strong to be destroyed. He feels himself as eminent in disaster as he once was in prosperity. His sufferings, he says, are such as no one except himself can bear.
Concerned about the Welfare of the City
Nor does his devotion to the interests of the city become extinct in him. He is anxious that the terms of his own curse and the demand of the oracle be immediately and exactly fulfilled. This anxiety arises partly from his sense of the city’s need of release from the plague. The release can come only through the punishment of the murderer of Laius. It is in terms of the interest of the city that he states his desire for exile. He speaks this time not as the tyrant but with a consciousness of his newly revealed position as the hereditary monarch. He does not want the city of his fore-fathers to be doomed.
His Adaptability to Circumstances
Oedipus shows also a great capacity to adapt himself to the change in his circumstances. The process of his rapid adjustment to his blindness is well depicted. In the opening lines of this scene, he shows a helpless desperation. Soon he comes to realise that he has still some power of perception and recognition; he can hear. He tells the Chorus-Leader that he can clearly distinguish his voice, blind though he may be. After recognising the possibilities as well as the limitations of his new state, he begins to adapt himself to the larger aspects of the situation. Oedipus is now an outcast and, as Teiresias told him he would be, a beggar. When he was the autocratic ruler his wish was an order; but as a beggar he lives by insistent appeal, by emphatic and often importunate pleading. When Creon appears, Oedipus shows how he has adapted himself to the change. The words of entreaty come as easily from his lips as the words of authority used to come before, though his words now are charged with the same fierce energy. Oedipus begs to be expelled from the city. Subsequently he seeks the privilege of saying fare-well to his children. When his request is granted, Oedipus invokes blessings on Creon as a beggar might. Later he makes another appeal to Creon’s pity, requesting him not to let his daughters wander about husband-less, thus indicating his own status as a beggar. Indeed, Oedipus makes a strikingly successful adjustment to his new role. As a beggar he cannot be resisted, because his insistent entreaty is marked by an emphasis and a force which remind us of the days of his prosperity. When he first hears the voice of Creon whom he had wrongly condemned to death, he is full of shame and at a loss for words. Yet in a few moments he is arguing stubbornly with him.
An Active Force in the Last Scene
Thus in the last scene of the play Oedipus, after a brief interval during which he is reduced to a zero, shows himself to be an active force. His intelligence assures him that he must go immediately into exile, and to this point of view he clings obstinately. He presses his point so persistently and forcefully that Creon has to yield to it. At the last moment, when Creon orders him into the palace, Oedipus imposes a condition. The condition is the same demand which he has obstinately repeated throughout the scene, namely that Creon should immediately exile him from Thebes. Creon’s attempt to shift the responsibility by seeking the advice of the oracle is rejected by Oedipus, and Oedipus is right. According to the original advice of the oracle, and also according to the curse uttered by Oedipus, the murderer of Laius must be exiled. While allowing himself to be led into the palace, Oedipus makes an attempt to take his children with him, but at this point Creon finally asserts himself and separates the children from their father, rebuking Oedipus for trying to have his own way. Oedipus cannot have his way in everything, but in most things he has got his way, including the most important issue of all, namely his expulsion; in this matter the blind beggar has imposed his will on Creon.
A Remarkable and Rapid Recovery
In the last scene of the play, then, Oedipus makes a remarkable and swift recovery from the position of a non-entity to which he had been reduced by his discovery of the truth about himself. This recovery proceeds from no change in his wretched situation; it is not the result of any promise or assurance by any human or divine being. This recovery, like every one of his actions and attitudes, is autonomous. It is the expression of a great personality which defies human expectation as it once defied divine prophecy. The last scene shows a remarkable re-assertion of Oedipus’s forceful personality.
His Greatness in His Ruin as in His Prosperity
Thus the play ends with a fresh insistence on the heroic nature of Oedipus. The play ends as it began, with the greatness of the hero; but it is a different kind of greatness. This greatness is based on knowledge and not on ignorance as previously. Oedipus now directs the full force of his intelligence and action to the fulfilment of the oracle’s command that the murderer of Laius be killed or exiled. Creon taunts Oedipus with his former lack of belief in the oracles but Oedipus does not care to answer the taunt. Oedipus repeatedly makes the demand that the command of the oracle be immediately and literally fulfilled. The heroic qualities of Oedipus were previously exercised against prophecy and the destiny of which it was the expression. Now those heroic qualities are being exercised to support prophecy. The heroic qualities of Oedipus are being given full play even now but now with the powers that shape destiny and govern the world, not against those powers. The confidence which was once based solely on himself now acquires a firmer basis; it now proceeds from a knowledge of the nature of reality and the forces which govern it. In the last scene he supports the command of the oracle against the will of Creon. It is Creon now who shows a politic attitude towards the oracle, and Oedipus who insists on its literal fulfilment. Oedipus is now blind like Teiresias, and like Teiresias he has a more penetrating vision than the ruler he opposes. In this scene Oedipus has in fact become the spokesman of Apollo. His action ceases to be self-defeating, because it is based on true knowledge. The greatness of Oedipus in his ruin is no less, and in some senses more, than the greatness of Oedipus when he was a powerful King.