Oedipus’s Nature Revealed
The theme of Oedipus Rex is centred in the person of Oedipus, and the function of the subordinate persons is to reveal his nature. Three of these persons call for detailed consideration—Creon, Jocasta, and Teiresias. The relationship of each of them to Oedipus shows a high skill of dramatic art on the part of the author.
The Dialogue between Teiresias and Oedipus
The first major interplay of character is in Oedipus’s scene with Teiresias. The prophet begins well-intentioned, the King respectful and calm. Indeed the extreme reverence of Oedipus toward Teiresias is very unlike his impetuous manner in the prologue and his anger later in this scene. It is quite clear that Sophocles is aiming at a striking contrast between the mood at the beginning of the scene and that at its end. Oedipus, obstructed by Teiresias’s refusal to talk, soon flies into a terrible rage and presently accuses him of complicity in the crime. This in turn strings Teiresias into declaring that Oedipus is himself the murderer that he seeks. By now Oedipus is in a fierce rage, and Teiresias can shout aloud the whole truth without any chance of Oedipus’s discovering it. The two men are moving in different channels of thought, though each is impelled in the direction he takes by the influence of the other. Oedipus hears Teiresias and reacts, and yet he does not really hear. Or, perhaps he does hear. Perhaps there is behind his indignation and rage that fill this scene, and the next, with Creon, a lurking fear that what Teiresias has said is right. However, the fear, if such there is, is deep within and subconscious. Towards the end of this scene, there is a subtle and most revealing display of Oedipus’s egotism. A reference by Teiresias to the parents of Oedipus catches the King’s conscious ear, though the earlier declarations of his guilt found him indifferent. Oedipus is for the moment all attention, and it seems that now he will learn his parentage. But the prophet (Teiresias) answers enigmatically, and Oedipus reproaches him for talking in riddles. Teiresias asks him if solving riddles is not Oedipus’s special skill. This reminder of Oedipus’s triumph over the Sphinx so occupies the King’s attention that he forgets all about his original question and the moment of possible disclosure passes without Oedipus becoming any wiser about his parentage. In this scene we are also made aware of a double contrast. There is a contrast between the outward magnificence and inward blindness of Oedipus i.e., the opening dialogue of Oedipus with the priest followed by his talk with Teiresias. Then there is the contrast between the outward blindness of Teiresias and his inward sight. Oedipus taunts Teiresias with the latter’s blindness, saying that he has eyes for profit or monetary gain but is blind as regards prophecy. Teiresias gives a reply which is a wonderful consummation of this play on sight and blindness. Oedipus has eyes to see, says Teiresias, but does not see his own damnation.
The First Scene between Oedipus and Creon
Oedipus has two scenes with Creon, both of which are important for the light they throw on Oedipus’s character. The first follows the Teiresias-scene and is like it in form. Creon does not, of course, have the fire and authority of the old prophet and therefore the dramatic pitch of the scene is much lower. Creon is the “moderate” man. His role is to stress the extravagance of speech and the self-reliance displayed by Oedipus in contrast to Creon’s unfailing modesty and calm. Oedipus is angry from the start, Creon pleads only for a fair hearing. Creon shows extreme caution in contrast to Oedipus with his wild suspicions and guesses. It is typical of Creon to say that it is not his habit to assert what he does not know. In a long speech Creon argues that any man of modesty would prefer to enjoy a ruler’s power without the cares of rule, as he does. Creon wants honours that bring gain. Oedipus is arrogant in his unjust charges; he accuses Creon of being the murderer of Laius; he accuses Creon of plotting against his own (Oedipus’s) person. Creon is in fact mild of manner, loyal, and patient. Oedipus’s accusations therefore only serve to show Oedipus’s stubborn reliance on his own convictions.
The Second Scene between Oedipus and Creon
The second scene between these two men comes at the end of the play. Here we have the same contrast, though the emphasis is different. Creon is still the man of complete moderation, while Oedipus is an extremist. But now it is himself that Oedipus attacks, while toward Creon his attitude is one of humanity and gratitude. The change emphasizes, of course, the completeness of Oedipus’s reversal of fortune. It also shows that Oedipus is as capable of generosity as of abuse—which we already know.
Mechanical Virtues of Creon
Creon thus serves as a foil to Oedipus. But Creon is not a character who excites our sympathy in spite of his unfailing justness and moderation. Creon’s virtues are a little mechanical. There is no sign of an inward fire of conviction. This aspect of his nature is especially clear at the end of the play. But even in his earlier self-defence his impersonal logicality fails to stir us, especially in contrast with Oedipus’s emotional intensity. To take only one example of this contrast, when Oedipus, convinced of Creon’s treachery, shouts “My city, alas for my city,” Creon very correctly, coolly, and logically answers that it is his city too, not Oedipus’s alone. Creon’s words are both just and logical while Oedipus is all wrong. Yet the unjust cry of Oedipus excites more sympathy by its fervour than the cold truth of Creon.
The Continued Domination of the Play by Oedipus
The above contrast serves, as in the last scene, to ensure the continued domination of the play by the tragic hero (i.e., Oedipus). Creon at no time gives a sign of emotion for the fall of Oedipus. If he were a smaller man than he is, he would be elated. If he were greater, he would show some sympathy. But when Oedipus begs to be exiled from Thebes, Creon answers that he would already have given a command to that effect if he had not thought it necessary to consult the gods first. Creon will do nothing without the certainty that it is the right thing; but he is quite prepared to drive out his blind and helpless kinsman without the least personal feeling. Just at the end Oedipus pleads, hopelessly, that his daughters may stay with him. Creon’s reply is that Oedipus should try to command no longer. The reproach is slight, and no doubt justified; but its total want of feeling is vaguely offensive. Creon is not malicious; he is well intentioned. Of his own accord he brings Oedipus’s daughters to him. But he is colourless, without depths of good or evil. His saneness is symbolized by his repetition, at the end, of what he said earlier, namely that he speaks of only things of which he has knowledge. Were Creon a mere living and attractive figure, the sympathy and admiration of the audience would not wholly go to Oedipus. The distinction between the high spirit of the central figure and his unheroic foil—between Oedipus and Creon—is firmly drawn.
The Skepticism of Oedipus and of Jocasta
The relation between Oedipus and Jocasta is mainly one of sympathy. The skepticism of Oedipus, which appears in his scene with Teiresias, is shared by Jocasta. Indeed, she serves as a temptress to induce Oedipus to disregard the ominous oracles and trust in his own judgment entirely. But we need not for that reason interpret Jocasta as a symbol of the free-thinking, liberal, intellectual Athenian woman of Sophocles’s time. Her skepticism springs from her own immediate situation, from her desire to protect Oedipus and keep peace. Love, not self-confidence, governs her attitude. Three times she speaks out against the validity of oracles. This skepticism is, of course, a folly, because \ht oracles are ultimately vindicated. But the question is: Does Sophocles present this skepticism as a thing to be condemned, or is his use of oracles here a dramaturgical convenience? We cannot be certain about Sophocles’s own attitude toward the religious significance of oracles. But this much perhaps we could say: The skepticism of Oedipus is a symbol, not necessarily of impiety but of confidence in the self-sufficiency of human power. In Sophocles’s view human power is an inadequate defence against suffering.
The Relentless Chain of Events
In any case, the skepticism of Oedipus and Jocasta creates effective dramatic suspense. Several times Jocasta is used as a parallel and prelude to the fortunes of Oedipus. First she sees that the oracles are true after all, and later he sees it too. First she finds her life ruined by the inevitable process of events, and later he comes to the same terrible knowledge. Oedipus and Jocasta react differently to the Corinthian messenger’s revelation of Oedipus’s origin: the knowledge and despair of Jocasta are contrasted with the blind excitement of Oedipus. The most striking case of a contrast and a parallel between Jocasta and Oedipus is in the following episode. When the messenger from Corinth has brought news of the death of Polybus, Jocasta, in the excitement of her relief, cries: “Why should a man be afraid? His life is governed by chance and the future is all unknown. It is best to live at random, in whatever way we can.” But presently Jocasta realizes that no chance but a relentless chain of events is in command of her life and that of Oedipus; and she goes into the palace to hang herself in despair. But now Oedipus takes up the theme. Baffled as to who his parents are (after the Corinthian messenger has told him that he is not the son of Polybus and Merope) and wildly excited by the search for truth, Oedipus cries that he is “the child of Fortune.” In the next short episode he arrives at the dreadful knowledge which Jocasta has learnt a little earlier.
The Two Shepherds
The Corinthian messenger and the Shepherd are clearly differentiated. The Corinthian, who comes as a bearer of what he believes to be good news, has been shown, in the episode before they meet, to be a cheery, familiar, garrulous person. The Shepherd, knowing that he possesses a dreadful secret about his King, is trying desperately to hide it and is therefore surly and slow to speak, just the reverse of the Corinthian. The opposite pull of these two characters brings a remarkable tension to this crucial scene. The cheery Corinthian is unaware of the horrors he is bringing to light, and so he tries to stir the reluctant Shepherd’s memory. The Corinthian’s colloquial address, his cheery delivery of the fatal message, and his ignorance of the Shepherd’s desperate efforts to conceal his knowledge—these add enormously to the grimness of the moment. Here is a very brief instance of the tragic use of comedy, in the Greek style.