OEDIPUS REX AS A
TRAGEDY BY SOPHOCLES
Before going into the details of discussing “Oedipus Rex” as a true Greek Tragedy, we should excogitate over the boundaries of a true tragedy determined by Aristotle. These certain points discussed by Aristotle would help us understand the true aspects of a tragedy. Aristotle defines a tragedy as a play expressed through poetry that has unhappy ending for a nobleman whose fate creates pity and fear in the audience. He in his “Poetics” narrates: “Comedy shows man to be worse than what he is in real life. In tragedy, a man is represented as better than what he is in real life.” Simply, he wants to say: “A tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in a language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament…. in the form of action, not narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, and has as its goal a catharsis of emotions.” In this way, he determines six major elements of a tragedy.
The first of these six elements is plot which is basically the action and is based on the structure of the incidents. Plot is “the life-blood” of a tragic drama. Without it, definitely, there will be no tragedy at all. In so far as the plot of “Oedipus Rex” is concerned, Aristotle himself appreciated the plot of “Oedipus Rex” for its structure. Aristotle claims that no incident in a real and true plot should be able to be deleted without causing any harm to the structure of series of a plot. This claim by Aristotle is really applicable to the plot of “Oedipus Rex.” Each incident in the story has a logical appearance and has a connection with the one that has happened earlier. The play opens with a Prologue that is in the form of a dialogue. This prologue ends with a choral ode called the Parodos. This Parados is followed by the Exposition. This Exposition also ends with an ode called Stasimon. This is the longest act. It is divided into three scenes. The first scene is the confrontation between Oedipus and Creon. The second scene is the intervention and persuasion by Jocasta. And the third scene is he dialogue between Oedipus and Jocasta. Here the play is at the climax which is soon suspended as this act ends with a choral code, the second Stasimon. This is followed by third and fourth Stasimon. The Exodus of the play presents the result of the tragedy. The queen commits suicide and Oedipus blinds himself. Thus, we see that the entire plot of the play is divided into the Prologue, Exposition, the Rise in Action, Climax and Exodus.
Further, Aristotle distinguishes between a simple and a complex plot. Complex plot is achieved through surprises and astounding revelations. Two things give the power to a plot and make it complex i.e. perpetia and anagnorsis. Perpetia is reversal of situation in which the action goes against the original course. Anagnorsis means the recognition of a person or a situation. It is journey from ignorance towards knowledge but it creates hatred among the characters and ultimately the downfall of the central character. It is basically the plot of a detective story because the main action is the discovery of truth. This truth is the discovery of the murder of Laius. However, reversal and recognition in the story are part and parcel of the story. The recognition made by Oedipus clearly shows man’s insignificance period of happiness. This recognition is affirmed not only by Oedipus himself, but also by the chorus. As a critic remarks: “The plot of the drama is a search for knowledge and its climax is recognition of truth. And Oedipus is a kind of symbol of the human intelligence which cannot resist until it has solved all the riddles in his life.”
Second important element of a tragedy described by Aristotle is “Character.” It is the quality which gives a tragedy its real dimension. The hero of the story must be a man of heroic stature and of good moral character. There must be a great and disastrous change in his life i.e. from good to bad and from happiness to adversity. This change in his fate should be the result of a fatal change in his character or an error of judgment which is called “Hamartia”in Greek Tragedy. The failure of a tragic hero may also be due to “Hubris”which is false sense of pride on the part of a tragic hero. “Oedipus Rex”by Sophocles truly fulfills this demand which Aristotle has mentioned. When the play starts, we see Oedipus enjoying happiness, prosperity and popularity. No doubt, the murder of his father and his marriage with his mother are bound to bring his disaster by fate. However, he has some flaws in his character. He is rash, impatient, passionate, over confident and proud of his wisdom and has the devotion to know the truth regardless of the results. As a critic observes:“Pride and self-confidence induces Oedipus to despise prophecy, and to feel almost superior to the gods.”
Third important feature of a tragedy is to evoke “Pity” which is the result of downfall of a noble, renowned and a good person. His downfall also gives birth to the feelings of fear that every human being can face such misfortune. This thing leads us to new vistas of “Catharsis” or the purging of every emotion of pity and terror fostered by a tragedy. It is this “Catharsis” which gives a tragedy a new outlook. A tragedy works of a psychological as well as social dimension and creates an outlet for a man’s undesirable emotions. No doubt, the story of Oedipus Rex also gives birth to the feelings of fear and pity. The sufferings of Jocasta and Oedipus create feelings of pity in us for them. The mystery of undeserved suffering also fosters a sense of fear in us. Oedipus’s advancement towards Laius’s murder step by step also inculcates fear in us. The bad luck of a person who always wishes and works for the betterment and welfare of the people creates fear in our minds. Another fact in the story causes fear in our minds. We come to know that kindness sometimes causes untold harm and results. The Theban shepherd showed kindness to the infant but this infant caused the entire tragedy. All these fears lead us to the feelings of catharsis. The reader is fully shocked at the fate of Oedipus and Jocasta and many other characters. He immediately applies this result to his life and reaches catharsis. A.M. Bowra is of the opinion: “The tragedy confirming to Aristotle’s concept of tragedy produces two important emotions i.e. pity and fear for the cathartic effect.”
Another important feature given by Aristotle is “Diction.” “It is the expression of the meaning in words which are proper and appropriate to the plot, characters, and end of the tragedy.” In this regard, Aristotle narrates to the readers the prominent stylistic elements of tragedy. He has great interest in metaphors. The writer of Oedipus Rex, Sophocles has also fulfilled this requirement fully. He knew how to play with the words and how to use them.
Fifth important element of a tragedy is “Song, or melody, or the use of musical element of the chorus.”Aristotle believes that the chorus should be fully involved in the play like an actor. Choral odes should not be “mere interludes,” rather they should contribute to the unity of the plot. In “Oedipus Rex”, chorus plays an important role like an actor. In the very first ode, the chorus depicts the horror of the plague. It also mentions of threat about the message that is brought from the oracle of Delphi. It also plays the role of a peace-maker and succeeds in getting the king’s pardon for Creon. Similarly, it comments on the terrible predictions made by the blind seer and resolves to pamper the king. In an answer to a question from Oedipus, the Chorus tells that they know about the murder of their previous king and the circumstances in which it took place. They never take part in any stage action, yet they influence the action in various ways. They fill in the gaps in the action when there is no character on the stage. On being asked some question, it takes part in the dialogue like an actor of the drama.
Greek tragedy is also considered the tragedy of fate. However, in so far as “Oedipus Rex” is concerned, it is tragedy of fate but to a very low extent. It is actually the tragedy of character, free will and fate. Oedipus falls a victim to adverse circumstances donated by fate and in this way his tragedy is the tragedy of fate but as soon as the play progresses, Oedipus’ free will, search for truth and pride leads him to destruction. Jocasta requests Oedipus again and again to cease his investigation to find out the truth but he pays a deaf ear to his advice and continues his investigation with the confidence on his abilities. It is all that makes him tragic. A critic remarks: “What caused Oedipus ruin is his own strength and courage, his loyalty to Thebes and his loyalty to truth.”
To conclude, “Oedipus Rex”is a fascinating tragedy of character. It is no doubt the torch bearer of Greek tragedies. It meets all the elements of a tragedy determined by Aristotle. Its plot is unusual as well as well-knit. Its hero also meets the demands of a true tragic hero. In short, it has all the contents of a tragedy mentioned by Aristotle in his “Poetics.” (Words: 1620)