Sylvia Felendler, The Russian Shrink

Oedipus Rex

An ancient plate portraying Oedipus listening to the riddle of the Sphinx.

Oedipus Rex is a play whose qualities of inscrutability and of pervasive irony quickly come to complicate any critical discussion. It is a play of transformations in which things change before our eyes as we watch; where meanings and implications seem to be half-glimpsed beneath the surface of the text only to vanish as we try to take them in; and where ironical resemblance and reflections abound to confuse our response. The play encourages us to make connections and to draw out implications that in the end we are forced to reassess, to question and perhaps abandon.

The play's meaning through two oppositions is defined by its stage action and its language, are parallel and complimentary to each other. The play is, in a way that determines our response to its meaning, a sequential experience. Our response is shaped through the duration of its performance.

The opening of the play presents us with a gathering, the old and the young, no women, no fully adult males, so that Oedipus is, at once, magnified and isolated. His calm authority is overwhelming and majestic. But on what does Oedipus' authority rest? There is a crucial uncertainty here. The opening scenes present us with an image of Oedipus as a political figure, a human king whose power derives from the community he rules, whose perceptions and whose feelings are indissoluble bound up with the experience of the men of Thebes, whose language he speaks and where he belongs.

We are swept aside as a gathering panic occupies Oedipus' mind at hearing mention of a place he remembers, where he once killed a man. If that man was Laius, Oedipus sees that he has cursed himself and served himself from all relationship with his new-found community; that he is now living with the widow of his own victim. The drama here lies in the pressure of the factual narrative on the language, as though Oedipus was reading from a book inscribed in his memory. These things work upon his mind, so that his earlier proud calmness and assurance fall away and are replaced by compulsive, almost obsessive fear.

    Oedipus: When he who plots against me in the dark
    Comes swiftly on, I must be swift in turn.
    If I stay quiet, his ends will have been gained,
    And mine all missed.
    Creon: What is it that you want?
    To expel me from the country?
    Oedipus: Not at all.
    Your death I purpose, not your banishment.
Creon: Not without shewing, first, what a thing is jealousy!
Oedipus: You talk like one who will not yield, nor heed.
Creon: Because I see you mean injuriously.
Oedipus: Not to myself!
Creon: No more you ought to me!
Oedipus: You are a traitor!
Creon: What if you are no Judge?
Oedipus: I must be ruler.
Creon: Not if you rule badly.

The concentration of attention at this point in the play on the state of Oedipus' mind is striking and unusual in Greek tragedy.

The moment of discovery, which meant so much to Aristotle, is the moment of supreme emotional shock and apparent revelation; but the revelation is at most a partial apprehension of the truth. The chorus recoil from Oedipus' discovery in an instant reassessment of the whole meaning of human life, of human achievement and human existence. They burst out with a cry that reduces the whole sum of human life to nothing, and human achievement to a mocking, momentary apparition, a firework, an arrow that climbs and falls away and means nothing.

It is this sense of Oedipus' belonging not wholly among men but also to an alien world, outside our understanding, mocking the order, the rules and values of human society, yet having its own coherence, its own logic of irony and coincidence - that is the central image of Sophocles' play.

Oedipus Rex is what is known as a tragedy of destiny. Its tragic effect is said to lie in the contrast between the supreme will of the gods and the vain attempts of mankind to escape the evil that threatens them. There is an unmistakable indication in the text of Sophocles' tragedy itself that the legend of Oedipus sprang from some primeval dream-material that had as its content the distressing disturbance of a child's relation to his parents owing to the first stirring of sexuality. At a point when Oedipus, though he is not yet enlightened, has begun to feel troubled by his recollections of the oracle, Jocasta consoles him by referring to a dream, as she thinks, it has no meaning. It is clearly the key to the tragedy and the complement to the dream of the dreamer's father being dead. The story of Oedipus is the reaction of the imagination to these typical dreams. And just as the dreams, when dreamt by adults, are accompanied by feelings of repulsion, so too the legend must include horror and self-punishment.

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