Sophocles’ Play Oedipus the King Translated by Robert Fagles
Tragedy is a word used to refer to diverse phenomena that took place in different periods. It encompasses the famous form of art practiced by Greeks whose core is human suffering whose main role is the provision of pleasure combined with revulsion for the audience (Londré, 2005). Many tragedies have been written by Greek writers such as Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles but none surpasses Oedipus the King written by Sophocles that was based on the Greek tragedy. It was about a Greek king called Oedipus who ended up killing his biological father and married his biological mother before his realization, as a way of eradicating tragedy from his kingdom. Tragedy encompasses both a change from bad to good as well as a change from good to bad as experienced in the play Oedipus the King. According to some scholars, the best types of tragedies are those that involve the changing of good to bad because they instill both fear and pity within the audiences (Sophocles & Fagles, 2007). The changes effected in the tragedies are not because of moral decay but because of some mistakes committed by the initiator of the tragedy. Though many people are focused on studying the plot of the play and the moral teachings that can be extracted from it, this play can be asserted as the most important and the greatest tragedy in the classic literature.
The myth from which it is extracted gave the full details about the adventure of King Oedipus. Sophocles on the other hand extracted the most important parts of the myth and converted it into a play thus enhancing the use of the play as the best way in which a tragedy can be explained as asserted by Aristotle in his Poetics (Aristotle & Heath, 1996). In the poetics, Aristotle explained the fact that a tragedy can be characterized by the changing from bad to good but for tragedy to be deemed successful, then it must be based on the changing from good to bad. This can be shown clearly by the play as it brings out the aspect of changing from good to bad, which can be viewed through the change of Oedipus from a good king to the worst human being to be seen on planet earth (Aristotle & Heath, 1996). The use of the Oedipus complex by Freud in his works shows that though the tragedy was written a long time ago, it has gained its fame because according to Freud, psychologically every human being harbors different thoughts that they suppress, leading to their non-materialization in the physical. In the case of Oedipus, they materialized leading to the killing of his father and the marrying of his mother though he had lived believing that the foster parents that he lived with were his biological parents.
Fate is an aspect that can be used to predict a tragedy. Without fate, a tragedy cannot take place successfully. The type of fate involved also points to the type of tragedy to be experienced. If the type of fate used is the type that is experienced in normal lives, then the type of tragedy that will culminate from it will be weak in nature. If the type of fate on the other hand is inclined to the supernatural, then the tragedy brought out will be successful because it will evoke both fear and pity from the audience. The type of fate used in the play is inclined to the supernatural. In real life, an upright person cannot in their right minds kill his biological father and marry his biological mother.
People do not base their lives’ experiences on what different oracles have predicted in real life (Sophocles & Fagles, 2007). This can only take place in myths. In the play, which is based on a myth, the oracle predicted two fates. The first fate as narrated by Jocasta was prophesied to Laius in which he was told that he would be murdered by his son who was unborn at the time of the prophesy. The second fate was related by Oedipus in which he was told that he would end up marrying his biological mother after killing his biological father. Though Jocasta and Oedipus thought that the oracle had prophesied falsely, they came to find out later that the prophesies had come true leading to the drastic change of their lives from the peaceful and calm lives that they used to be to lives that no one could admire. The supernatural fate used in the play led to the successful tragedy that was portrayed by the play bringing out the importance of it as a tragedy.
The opposite of fate is freewill. Freewill encompasses the choices people make in life. Freewill can also be used to strengthen a tragedy leading to its success as the greatest tragedy to be experienced ever. Freewill can be used to stand for the actions that one chooses and they lead to a tragedy. It can still encompass the evasion of fate. Freewill is experienced retrospectively in the play through Oedipus and Laius his father. When the oracle bestowed the prophesy that he would be murdered by his son on Laius, he chose to get rid of the child to evade it. Rather than being murdered, the child was thrown away and was later raised by the king and queen of Corinth (Moss, 2006). Though he tried to run away from fate, it later followed him to wherever he went such that after growing up Oedipus, murdered him on his way as he was running away from the prophesy that was made over his life in Corinth. Oedipus, on the other hand thought that if he ran away from Corinth, then he would evade the fate of killing his father and marrying his mother because he thought that the parents he was living with in Corinth were his biological parents (Sophocles & Fagles, 2007). On his way to Thebes, he kills Laius and after killing the sphinx he marries the queen who was his mother thus fulfilling the prophesy. It is through their freewill that their prophesies were fulfilled because if they did not make the choices they had made, they would have succeeded in evading the prophesies. Thus, freewill is used to bring out tragedy in its most successful form.
Characters can be used to bring out a successful tragedy whose importance in the classic literature cannot be measurable. One such character is Tiresias, the blind prophet. Not all the kings in the play believed him when he prophesies that the religious forces were against them. They claimed that the priest was corrupted in one way or the other. Though he was blind, he had the true revelation of what had happened thus he managed to confirm the fact that Oedipus was the true murderer of his father, something that came to be revealed later (Londré, 2005). Due to his disbelief, the prophet accused Oedipus, mocking him because of his blindness yet he could not see the truth that the blind prophet saw.
Oedipus on the other hand instead of letting the truth go, decided to send Creon to the oracle to find out the action he could take to rid Thebes of the plague that invaded it. The oracle led him to investigate the murderer of his father who was later revealed as being him (Sophocles & Fagles, 2007). He blinded himself as a punishment for the mistakes and the sins he had committed which led to a lot of suffering later in life. In real life, no human being would be willing to blind themselves for life yet they are aware of the suffering they are going to go through. This thus brings out the greatness of the tragedy because the act committed by Oedipus was such of a higher magnitude that could not be fathomed by any sane human being.
Reactions to specific situations can be utilized to bring out tragedy in its most formal state. When mistakes are made, people should not dwell on how other people will perceive them. They should be ready to pacify their actions by correcting the wrongs they committed (Sophocles & Fagles, 2007). Others instead of correcting their mistakes choose the simplest solutions to their problems. They do not think about the consequences of their actions but they only dwell on what could save their faces from shame (Di Mauro, 1994). In the play, after the realization of what had really happened, Jocasta decided to end her life without caring what would happen to her children after her death.
On the other hand, Oedipus decided that the best way he could hide from the accusing gazes of his subjects was through blinding himself such that he would also suffer from the actions he had committed. Both parents did not dwell on the consequences of their actions to their children. They were so eager to save themselves from shame. Rather than lessening the tragedy, they increased the tragedy to such a greater height because their children would not enjoy a complete family as their mother had died due to her mistakes while they were stuck with a father who needed their help in every way due to his blindness, which he had implicated on himself. Through this, the author of the play tries to instill pity in the hearts of the audience towards both characters though they had committed unforgivable crimes. The audience at this stage is hard pressed in choosing between fear and pity towards Oedipus and Jocasta, thus bringing out the greatness of this tragedy as compared to other classic literature.
The incorporation of the chorus is one aspect that may be overlooked by many as a waste of the author’s talent as many do not understand the significance of the chorus. The chorus is meant to make different revelations in the play and assert the feeling of different people in the play about the play (Sophocles & Fagles, 2007). They build anticipations that evoke fear in the audience and after making the revelations that they make, they then leave the decision on what to choose between pity and fear on the hands of the audience, an aspect that increases the strength and greatness of this tragedy as compared to other tragedies (Aristotle & Heath, 1996).
The first chorus brings out the ills that Thebes is facing due to the wrath of the gods. Though it is in form of a prayer, the audience is enlightened on the happenings taking place in Thebes. The second chorus brings out the people confidence towards their leader, which stimulates feelings of pity in the audience yet at the same time stimulating fear in them. This is because they do not know exactly what happened, as they do not want it to be true that Oedipus killed his father as he has been brought out as a very good leader so far. The last chorus on the other hand summarizes the tragedies that took place and builds pity in the audience because it cries on behalf of Oedipus for the tragedies that took place in his life. The choruses though initially ignored, aid in shifting the moods of the audience thus bringing out the greatness of the tragedy brought out in this play.
The Greeks are famous for their art, which is known as tragedy, and though there are different famous artists who have written tragedies, none can surpass the Sophocles who wrote Oedipus the King. It is described as the greatest tragedy to have ever been written when all classic literature is compared (Sophocles & Fagles, 2007). Many instances in the play help to support this notion. The play, which is based on a myth that initially explained the full journey taken by King Oedipus, does not explain the full magnitude of the journey but it capitalizes on the tragedy that the myth brought out. For this reason, the play was used as a basis of describing a successful tragedy in which Aristotle in his Poetics explained as being a work of art in which good changed into bad instead of the other way round.
Thus, a successful tragedy is one that can evoke both feelings of fear and pity in a certain audience. Tragedy can be magnified through fate. Fate is brought out in the play through the prophesies that Oedipus and Laius receive from the oracles, which pint to the fact that Oedipus would kill his biological father Laius and eventually marry his mother (Londré, 2005). Freewill can lead people to make choices that can lead to tragedies. If Laius and Oedipus did not chose to evade their prophesies, they would not have been fulfilled leading to the tragedy brought out in the play. Different characters in the play are used as a means of enhancing tragedy such as Tiresias who asserted the fact that indeed Oedipus was the killer of Laius though he was blind. This strengthened the mystery surrounding the tragedy. All these aspects bring out the strength of the tragedy thus leading to the conclusion that though many people are focused on studying the plot of the play and the moral teachings that can be extracted from it, this play can be asserted as the most important and the greatest tragedy in the classic literature.
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