Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Mind and Character of King Oedipus

Almost an Ideal King
We form an excellent impression of Oedipus as a King in the very prologue. The Priest, who leads the citizens in a deputation to King Oedipus, recalls the great service that Oedipus did to the city of Thebes by having saved the city from the cruel and bloodthirsty Sphinx. The people, says the Priest, think Oedipus to be a noble, mighty, and wise man. The city looks upon him as its saviour. Oedipus gave evidence of his high intelligence by solving the riddle of the Sphinx.
Thus Oedipus appears to us in the prologue as a man who is almost worshipped and adored by his subjects. People have complete faith in him, and they believe that he is capable of ridding them of the afflictions which have descended upon them. Oedipus is not only powerful and wise, but also deeply sympathetic. Even before the people come to him with a petition, he is aware of their sufferings. He has already sent Creon to Delphi to find out from Apollo’s oracle the reason for the sufferings of his people and the method by which they can be delivered of those sufferings. Furthermore, acting on Creon’s advice, he has already sent for Teiresias, the blind prophet, to seek his guidance. Oedipus tells the Priest that he is suffering a greater torture on account of the distress of his people than they themselves are suffering. He has been shedding many tears on their account. Each citizen is suffering as a single individual but he, Oedipus, bears the weight of the collective suffering of all of them. All this shows the softer side of Oedipus who appears to us almost as the ideal King.
A Man of Determination with a
High Sense of His Duty
Soon we become aware of another of Oedipus’s good qualities. As soon as Creon reports the information he has brought from Delphi, Oedipus proclaims his resolve to trace the murderer of Laius and to punish him suitably. Oedipus declares his intention to start an investigation into the murder in order to find out the truth. Oedipus also seeks the cooperation of the Chorus in his purpose. He tells the Chorus that years ago he had come to the city as a complete foreigner, knowing nothing about the murder of his predecessor. He would like the murderer to come forward and confess his crime, promising that he will award no punishment to the criminal except banishment from the city. Oedipus also utters a curse upon the man who murdered Laius: the murderer will find nothing but wretchedness and misery, as long as he lives. It would have been his duty, says Oedipus, to avenge the murder of Laius even if the command had not come from Apollo. Now it is doubly his duty, and he will leave nothing undone to find the murderer. Upon those who disobey his order in connection with the efforts to trace the criminal, Oedipus invokes another curse. All this shows that Oedipus is a man of strong determination. He is not a wavering kind of man. Nor does he believe in half-measures. He will go the whole hog in trying to find out the facts and discover the criminal. Oedipus does not take things lightly. He is a serious-minded man with a high sense of the office he holds. He identifies himself fully with his people, and regards their sufferings as his own. Although he is a man of a compassionate nature, there is no sign of weakness in him. The curses that he invokes upon the murderer of Laius and upon those who evade their duty in the context of his proclamation show him to be a man of a stern and almost ruthless nature, a man who will not shrink from taking drastic steps to punish an evil-doer and in the pursuit of truth.
Hot-tempered, Hasty, Rash
The scene with Teiresias, however, shows Oedipus in a somewhat unfavourable light. He begins his interview with the prophet respectfully enough, but Teiresias’s reluctance to reveal the facts greatly irritates and upsets Oedipus. Of course, Oedipus does not know the real reason why Teiresias is unwilling to talk and to disclose, the name and identity of the murderer of Laius. But even so, Oedipus shows himself lacking in self-control and self-restraint. From a King reputed to be highly intelligent and wise, we should have expected a greater capacity to control his feelings and passions. But Oedipus flies into a rage when Teiresias accuses Oedipus himself of the crimes which have polluted the city. Oedipus threatens Teiresias, with dire consequences for trying to defame him. And then Oedipus commits another blunder in his state of fury. He alleges that Teiresias is in league with Creon and that they have both hatched a conspiracy against him. This rash, hasty verdict by Oedipus against both Teiresias and Creon does him no credit at all. We see here a glaring defect of character in Oedipus. It is true that this defect has little to do with the tragic fate that overtakes him, but a defect it does remain. It is a defect which greatly detracts from his nobility. Oedipus’s taunting Teiresias with blindness also shows bad taste. When Teiresias is provided into making some highly offensive predictions about Oedipus’s future, Oedipus feels further enraged and shouts to the prophet to get out of his sight at once. But the prophet has some more unpleasant things to say before he departs.
On the Verge of Committing a Judicial Murder
This ugly side of Oedipus is emphasised in the scene with Creon. Oedipus is convinced that Creon is a traitor and he begins to treat Creon accordingly. He hardly allows Creon to speak in self-defence but, even after Creon had explained in most lucid and straightforward manner his position, Oedipus remains unmoved. Oedipus declares that he would sentence Creon to death on a charge of treason. For a wise and experienced King, to pass such a hasty judgment on a tried kinsman and supporter is unpardonable. Indeed, Oedipus comes close to committing a judicial murder for which there are hardly any extenuating circumstances.
Oedipus’s Fear, Suspicion, Misunderstanding
Oedipus’s fear on learning from Jocasta the circumstances of Laius’s death is great. He had not felt frightened in the least by the threats and warnings of Teiresias, but now a suspicion takes hold of his mind that he might himself have been the murderer of Laius. This suspicion can be removed or confirmed only by the Theban shepherd who must therefore be interrogated. His state of mind at this time causes grave anxiety to his wife who, contrary to her own convictions, offers worship to Apollo, seeking peace for her husband and all others. When the Corinthian messenger discloses to Oedipus the fact that Polybus was not Oedipus’s father, he does experience some relief to think that there is no danger of his murdering his father who has died a natural death. However, there is still the other half of the prophecy, namely, that Oedipus will marry his mother, and this part of the prophecy prolongs his anxiety. The Corinthian allays his fear on this score also by revealing that Oedipus was not the son of Polybus and Merope. But now Oedipus is very keen to know his real parentage and even the advice of Jocasta, who has clearly perceived the truth, not to pursue his inquiry into his parentage does not deter him. When Jocasta leaves, feeling most wretched and miserable, Oedipus commits another error of judgment. He wrongly thinks that Jocasta has left in a bad mood because she suspects him of being low-born.
The Discovery, the Agony, the Self-blinding
Oedipus is now determined, even more than before, to learn the truth about his parentage. He calls himself the child of Fortune with the Years as his kinsmen. He says that he would not be ashamed if he finds that he is low-born. The interrogation of the Theban shepherd, when he arrives, leads to Oedipus’s discovery of the true facts. He is the son of King Laius whom he had killed, and he is the son of Queen Jocasta whom he had married and who has given birth to several children by him. Oedipus’s discovery of the truth, which he had pursued relentlessly, naturally causes him an agony which is indescribable. With his mind almost crazed with grief, he wanders through the palace calling for a sword and asking for the woman whom he had called his wife. He forces his way into Jocasta’s chamber and seeing her dead body hanging by a rope, groans in misery. His next step is most horrifying. With Jocasta’s pins and brooches he blinds himself in order to punish himself for his misdeeds and also to escape the necessity of having to witness any sight in the city which he has polluted with his sins. He does not kill himself because, as he tells the Chorus, he could not bear to face the souls of his parents in the kingdom of death. It was Apollo’s decree that he should suffer but the hand that has blinded his eyes was his own, he tells the Chorus. Oedipus would now like to be driven out of the city of Thebes. He curses the man who had removed the fetters from his feet and saved him from death when he was a child. He calls himself God’s enemy because of the crimes he is guilty of.
A Loving Father
We are also given a brief glimpse of Oedipus as a father. A devoted husband, he also shows himself to be a very loving and fond parent. Creon, knowing Oedipus’s great love for his daughters, has already sent for them so that Oedipus should be able to meet them. Oedipus expresses his gratitude to Creon for having shown him this consideration. When he turns to his daughters, he feels for them the love of a brother as well as the love of a father. He cannot see them, he says, being now blind, but he can weep for them because of the bitter life that they will have to lead. His heart bleeds for them when he thinks that nobody will shelter them and no man will marry them. He then entrusts his daughters to the care of Creon, appealing to him to have pity on them in their state of wretchedness and desolation.
His Heroic Attitude in the Last Scene
In the final scene of the play, Oedipus seems to recapture some of his earlier greatness. This greatness we see in the manner in which he punishes himself and in the manner in which he faces the greatest crisis which a human being can ever be faced with. No doubt, Oedipus’s lamentations show him as undergoing a great physical and mental agony; but he undoubtedly shows himself to be a real hero, by the way in which he endures his misfortunes. His fortitude is admirable, and his repeated appeals to Creon to banish him from the city show how anxious he is that the punishment he had proclaimed for the murderer of Laius should be carried out against him to the letter. Instead of pleading for leniency or mercy as an ordinary human being would have done on such an occasion, Oedipus insists upon the implementation of the penalty which had been proclaimed by him. Oedipus truly wins our genuine sympathy. If his self-blinding horrifies us, his condition at the close of the play moves us deeply. His fate, as also the fate of Jocasta, truly results in that catharsis of the feelings of fear and pity which, according to Aristotle, is one of the essential functions of tragedy.
A Good and Pious King
In spite of his defeats, Oedipus is a good ruler. He is a good King, a father, of his people, an honest and great administrator, and an outstanding intellect. His final care is not for himself but for the people and the State. He even shares the throne, not only with his wife who had been his predecessor’s wife; Creon, too, is his co-regent, a fact that shows that Oedipus avoids autocratic appearances. He is also a pious man who believes in oracles, respects the bonds of family and hates impurity. His piety is the very basis of the whole plot, the very tragedy of the man Oedipus.
Desire for Absolute Authority
Oedipus has a very clear feeling for the outstanding importance and high dignity of his royal position and of Kings in general. He is a man who likes to give orders and to hear himself doing so. He describes his position in words which show that in his heart he wants full and absolute authority. The same tendency is seen in the attitude of those whom he governs. The suppliant people approach him almost as a god, and he is honoured as a saviour. Such honours, as every Greek knew, are dangerous, for they may lead to hubris.
On the Way to Tyranny
The scene with Creon clearly shows Oedipus on the verge of tyranny. The King shows a blind suspicion towards friends, an inclination to hasty inference, and a rash vindictiveness. When he meets opposition, or thinks he does, he easily loses all self-control. His treatment of the old Shepherd in a later scene is outrageous. His position and greatness seem to be leading him to become a tyrant. He identifies himself with the State and upholds the principle of monarchic rule even if the ruler is bad. Creon, who in the play represents moderation and common sense, has to remind him that the Polis (or the City) does not belong to him alone. Even the blinded Oedipus gets the reproach: “Do not crave to be master in everything.”
The Failure of His Piety
Oedipus mistrusts the venerable seer, Teiresias, and suspects him of being bribed. This attitude of distrust towards a prophet is in sharp contrast to Oedipus’s genuine piety. No doubt Oedipus first addresses Teiresias reverently; but his attitude changes suddenly and completely when he smells danger to his Kingship and to the State. His piety fails as soon as his political leadership seems to be threatened. Oedipus the ruler belongs, in spite of his piety, to the world of politics and human standards rather than to the divine order of the world.
Self-confident intellectual Pride of Oedipus
An outstanding feature of Oedipus’s character is a self-confident pride in his own wisdom and success in solving the riddle of the Sphinx seems to have given a boost to an inherent feeling of pride. No seer found the solution, this is Oedipus’s boast. Pride and self-confidence induce him to feel almost superior to the gods. He tells the people who pray for deliverance from the plague that they may be delivered if they follow his advice. He scornfully rejects both Creon’s advice and Teiresias’s prophecy. The play shows us the difference between true wisdom and self-confident intellectual pride. Lack of true wisdom is an essential feature of the man who is on the verge of becoming an impious tyrant.
Oedipus’s Tragedy Due to Horrible Deeds
However, all this does not make Oedipus morally guilty. He is not an example of hubris, but a truly great man. He suffers because he has committed deeds, though unknowingly, against the laws of the gods. He who has killed his father and married his mother can never be called “innocent”. Conceptions such as guilt and innocence simply have no meaning here. Horrible deeds have been committed according to divine prediction, and thus human greatness is set against divine power.
The Son of Chance
Oedipus’s self-reliant and independent mind is fully revealed in the speech in which he calls himself the son of Tyche. In his quest for the truth he has come to the final stage when the secret of his birth is to be disclosed. He is great enough to face anything, though he can think of nothing worse than a possible low birth. Tyche is his true mother. Once he had brought Tyche, “Chance”, to Thebes “with good omen”, the same “Saviour Chance” which he expected to come through Creon’s message from Delphi. But it is also Tyche that in Jocasta’s words has undone the divine prophecies, and, in Oedipus’s own words, Tyche killed Laius before he begot a son who might kill him. To the audience, who knew better, these utterances were full of tragic irony, and Tyche must have appeared as a fatal and disastrous power. In speaking of her, Oedipus unsuspectingly touches on the truth, the gods’ cruel game with his life. He calls her the giver of good, because he believes that Chance has been friendly to him up to now. It is clear that Oedipus, in claiming to be a son of Chance, has gone beyond the bounds of tradition and religion. At that moment, he is only just entering the circle of increasing knowledge about himself. He realizes that his wife is ruled by outer forces, but he does not yet realize their tremendous and cruel power. The foundations of his life have crumbled, but his great and powerful mind knows no despair. He still relies on his own genius, and it is indeed the core of his tragedy that, by using his high intellect honestly and uncompromisingly, he brings doom upon himself.
Oedipus’s Most Striking Quality: Intelligence
Although Oedipus is by no means a one-dimensional character, his various qualities are not of equal importance. As a King he shows himself to be benevolent, hot-tempered, and extremely vigorous. Each of these qualities contributes to the development of the action. However, his most striking quality, and the one which becomes a major issue, is his intelligence. His intelligence becomes, indeed, a subject of discussion to a degree that his hot temper, for example, does not, in spite of several allusions to it. One can see this to best advantage in the Teiresias scene. The proud and angry speech in which Oedipus attacks Teiresias and praises himself might easily have turned on a contrast between selfishness and patriotism, or corruption and incorruptibility, or feebleness and youthful vigour. Each of these themes is alluded to, but all are subordinated to the emphatic, repeated claim, “you are inept and I am clever.” Teiresias’s blindness is intended, among other things, to serve a symbolic purpose. Oedipus taunts Teiresias cruelly on account of his blindness, saying that he is blind not only physically but also as regards his power of prophecy. The ground is thus prepared for Teiresias’s reply, that Oedipus is figuratively blind already and will one day become literally blind. By the time Teiresias has uttered his final prophecy and has left the uncomprehending King to try to understand ifs meaning. Oedipus’s proud claim to have defeated the Sphinx and his scorn for the blindness of Teiresias have been rebuked in a doubly unexpected way. Teiresias has used his blindness as the starting-point of his counter-charge, and he has baffled the quick-witted King with his prophecy. Appropriately, his parting shot is a challenge to Oedipus’s intelligence: “Go in and think over that.”
Oedipus’s power of understanding, and not his clear conscience, seems to be the basis for his self-esteem, and it is this faculty of his which becomes the target of Teiresias’s scorn. It is in the reproaches of Teiresias that the issue of what the King does and does not understand is first made explicit, but even before this scene it had been implied by ironic statement.

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