Three Parts of the Play
Oedipus Rex may be divided into three parts, each having its point of climax and each representing a distinct area within the play. These three parts are the condemnation of Creon by Oedipus, the discovery, with the consequent self-blinding of Oedipus; and the conclusion of the play.
Condemnation of Creon
The first part puts before us a picture of Oedipus as the ideal king, devoted to the welfare of his subjects. Towards Creon he is courteous. But after the Teiresias scene, Creon is most unjustly condemned to death, or exile. Thus Oedipus the King becomes Oedipus the Tyrant, and, although he is persuaded to revoke the punishment, he is not convinced that his judgment of Creon was wrong.
Why the Condemnation
It is to be noted that the condemnation of Creon does not carry forward the plot at all, except to the small extent that it brings Jocasta upon the scene. Of course, the process of discovery gets started, but for this purpose it was not necessary for Oedipus to be brought to the verge of a judicial murder. A question arises why Oedipus is depicted as going to this length in tyrannical “hubris”. It cannot contribute to his doom, that is already sealed. Not does it explain his doom, because it is never suggested that Oedipus fulfilled the prophecies through hubris. So there must be some other answer to the question.
Oedipus’s Excessive Faith in His Own Judgment
In the Teiresias scene an emphatic contrast is drawn between the physical blindness of the prophet and the intellectual blindness of the King. Oedipus’s suspicion of a collaboration between the prophet and Creon is the result of his intellectual blindness, even though Oedipus’s reasoning has a certain plausibility. Oedipus feels so sure of himself that he will not listen to Creon’s appeal to his reason. He instantly rejects the suggestion that he should go to Delphi and inquire whether the god had or had not given the response which Creon has reported. He also disbelieves Creon’s oath of allegiance. In his complete certainty he brushes aside all such considerations, feeling too confident in his own judgment, the good King behaves like an unjust tyrant. As the Chorus says, “swift is not always sure.”
Past and Present Mental Blindness of Oedipus
There is one obvious link between Oedipus’s present action and the past, and that is the mental blindness from which an intelligent man suffers, or a man’s false confidence when circumstances are treacherous. Oedipus was sure that Polybus and Merope were his parents. It never occurred to him that he might be wrong. He is also sure that Creon is conspiring against him. The earlier certainty led him into misfortunes of which he had been explicitly forewarned. The second certainty leads him to an outburst of tyrannical hubris.
Sophocles’s Failure to Utilize the Opportunity for a Dramatic Ending
The last climax in the play, again, is not what the story dictates; it is not an inevitable ending to a play about the tragic fate of Oedipus. However, this climax harmonises with the first part and the climax of the first part. Nothing could be more logical and dramatic than that the play should end with the exiling of Oedipus. Teiresias prophesied that Oedipus would become blind, an exile, and a beggar cursed by all. Oedipus himself uttered a curse on the murderer of Laius. Now the curse has recoiled upon his own head. It is established that he is responsible for the misfortunes of the people of Thebes. The stranger who once saved Thebes by his intelligence must now save it by leaving the city for ever. But Sophocles has not given such a dramatic ending to the play. We must, therefore, look for a reason for the dramatist’s failure to provide that would have been a logical and dramatic ending. Sophocles had here all the ingredients of a powerful scene and for a forceful character-contrast. Creon, who had barely escaped death or exile at the hands of Oedipus, has now become the King, and Oedipus is reduced to the position of a petitioner. Hitherto Creon had a passive role in the play, now Sophocles had the opportunity to draw a Creon who would be vindictively triumphant or exceptionally large-hearted. But Sophocles does not utilise the opportunity. Creon is, indeed, shown as having no ill-will against Oedipus, but the fact is dismissed in two verses. He is not depicted as strikingly kind or strikingly unkind towards Oedipus.
Creon’s Insistence on Consulting Apollo
before Banishing Oedipus
before Banishing Oedipus
What Sophocles does is to develop a situation perfectly antistrophic to the one at the end of the first part of the play. As many as four times does Oedipus demand to be banished; twice he demands it of the Chorus and twice of Creon. Once again Oedipus shows himself quite sure of his position. But Creon refuses the demand both times and he refuses not out of kindness but because he does not know the will of Apollo. Oedipus, earlier, did not consult Apollo to verify his own inferences about Creon even though Creon’s life was at stake. Now Creon refuses to act in a crisis until he has consulted Apollo even though, on Oedipus’s showing, the case for his exile is clear.
The Ending Not Really Undramatic and Negative
This link between the first and the last parts of the play is strengthened by a verbal repetition. In the course of Oedipus’s questioning of Creon in the first part, the latter once says that he prefers not to express an opinion which he lacks the necessary knowledge. Now, in the last part, Creon again says, in reply to a question by Oedipus, that, when he lacks knowledge, he prefers not to speak at random. In other words, the contrast between certainty (on the part of Oedipus) and caution (on the part of Creon) is very much in Sophocles’s thoughts. And we already know that in the first part certainty led to hubris. Thus the ending of the play, though superficially un-dramatic and negative, is not really so. This does not, however, prevent readers from wishing that the ending should have been more striking and spectacular.
Creon’s Rebuff to Oedipus at the End
The very last action deserves consideration also; it is by no means inevitable. The two children have been brought out. What Oedipus says to them and about them is a most tragic addition to the picture of ruin and desolation that Sophocles is drawing. Now, when Oedipus is taken into the palace, the children too must be removed from the stage. There is no need to make a dramatic point of it, but Sophocles does make it. They are removed from Oedipus’s embrace and, when he expresses a desire to keep them with him, Creon says: “Command no more. Obey. Your rule is ended.” Such is the goal to which Sophocles has taken this long train of events.
The Illusory Nature of Certainty and Command
Certainty and command, both are illusory. Laius was given a warning and he tried to ensure his safety by ordering the destruction of the child. He thought that he had controlled his destiny. Oedipus thought likewise when being warned of what was to happen, he avoided Corinth where his parents were and went in the other direction. But circumstances proved adverse. Sophocles points out that human resolution and intelligence can easily go wrong and be defeated by circumstances. The picture is poetically not untrue to life. Chance does sometimes defeat the best of plans. Human control is an illusion. Further, Oedipus’s certainty led him into hubris.
The Element of Universality
If we assume that the subject of this play is merely the tragic story of Oedipus, then both the first and the third climaxes appear to be unexpected. But the personal drama of Oedipus is in this play surrounded by something more universal, and it is this that has determined the play’s structure.
The Sharp Opposition Between Chance and Prophecy
The middle part of the play shows, in a terrible manner, that the incredible is true, that the impossible has happened. With difficulty, the Chorus and Jocasta have prevailed upon Oedipus to withdraw his decree against Creon. The episode is barely mentioned again and seems to have no influence on what follows. Jocasta proves to Oedipus that one oracle at least has failed, but in doing this she produces in Oedipus the frightening suspicion that he may himself be the man who killed Laius. Jocasta repeats that the oracle has failed because Laius was not killed by his own son. Then comes the ode in which the Chorus emphasises the need for purity, for the observance of the unwritten divine laws, for the avoidance of that hubris which breeds the tyrant and is always overthrown. The ode also contains the prayer that the oracles may be fulfilled, since the validity of religion depends on it. This leads at once to Jocasta’s sacrifice and the cruel answer that it receives. (The cruel answer is the arrival of the Corinthian messenger and the revelation, clear to Jocasta but not yet to Oedipus, that Oedipus is Jocasta’s own son). Before, however, Jocasta realises the horrible truth regarding Oedipus’s identity, she asserts that oracles are not reliable and that human affairs are ruled by Chance. Hardly has she said so, when her feeling of security is shattered, and all she can do is to go in anguish to meet her death. Oedipus once more draws a wrong conclusion. He thinks that Jocasta’s grief is due to nothing more than injured pride (at thinking that Oedipus is low-born). He declares himself to be the son of Chance. The Chorus taking up the theme, wonders which of the gods begot Oedipus from some mountain-nymph. Then enters the Theban shepherd to prove that Oedipus is no son of Chance but of Laius and Jocasta. We are thus faced with the sharp opposition between Chance and prophecy, and the close connection between prophecy and religion (religion meaning purity, the observance of the unwritten laws, and the avoidance of hubris). Sophocles seems to be saying: “Seek purity and avoid hubris; prophecies come true; religion is not a fraud.” However, he does not clearly say that obedience to the unwritten laws would have saved these people.
The Hubris, Not of Jocasta But of Oedipus
The first part of the play, as we have seen, leads to a climax almost irrelevant to the actual story; Oedipus, in his intellectual self-reliance, reached a conclusion which was entirely wrong and, feeling sure of the rightness of his conclusion, nearly committed a crime of exceptional enormity. Here was the hubris that breeds the tyrant. As for the ode, it would not be right to say that the Chorus is referring to the hubris of Jocasta in denying the truth of the oracle. Jocasta is merely relating what she actually knows; the child was destroyed, and the oracle did fail. In any case she has protected herself by saying that the oracles may not have come from the god, but only from his human interpreters; and if this be regarded as hidden hubris, then the Chorus too is guilty of it for it said exactly the same thing earlier. On the other hand, Sophocles has created and displayed at length a striking example of hubris in Oedipus. It was Oedipus who swept aside all restraints like a tyrant, and went to the verge of crime because he felt too sure of himself.
Jocasta’s Erroneous Philosophy
Jocasta serves a different purpose. She also feels sure of herself, both before the ode and still more after it when she learns that Polybus is dead and that a second oracle has failed. From this certainty, she draws the conclusion that life is governed by chance and that it is best to live at random. With a doctrine like this, we should not be surprised at the kind of response which she gets to her prayers. In the other plays of Sophocles the dramatic function of prophecy is to assert that life is not chaotic. If Jocasta’s view about “chance” is right, then Creon’s downfall in Antigone is a mere fluke and Electra is no more than a superior thriller. In that case there is no such thing as Order, no Dike; only Chance.
No Justice in Tragedy according to Human Standards, But not a Random Universe Either
In this context, Dike or Order should not be paraphrased as justice or natural justice, meaning happiness for the good people and suffering only for the bad ones. Neither Sophocles nor any earlier Greek poet believed in this kind of justice. The justice of the gods is not dispensed according to human standards or human specifications. The Greek poets took the view that the gods could be cruel and indiscriminate, but they knew also that the gods were not for the reason to be disregarded. Antigone was dismayed that the gods left her to perish. They certainly left her to perish, but equally certainly they visited their anger on Creon. In the case of this play we could say that, while Oedipus is punished without any deliberate fault on his part, the universe is not to be regarded as being random. Jocasta feels sure that the oracles had failed. As a consequence, she did not recognise the place of forethought, caution, scruple. Similarly, Oedipus was sure that Creon was a traitor. As a consequence, he observed no restraints. Surely the ode need not puzzle us any more. The ode begins with the unwritten laws and ends with a prayer for the fulfilment of the oracles.
Sophocles’s Philosophy in this Play
Sophocles is not just indulging in a statement of orthodox piety. It is evident that an observance of the unwritten laws would not have prevented this catastrophe. Sophocles’s point is quite different. Life is vast, complex, uncertain; we deceive ourselves if we think that we can control life; human judgment may go wrong; ever-reliance on one’s judgment leads to hubris, and that always ends in disaster. Many things in life are impossible to explain, but life is not random. The gods do exist and their laws do operate. If we think that there are no laws, and if we neglect the restraints on that assumption, we are only deluding ourselves.