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According to Aristotle, tragedy performs a catharsis: a purging of pity and terror in the spectator. Oedipus represents the burgeoning theme of Greek humanism: the impulse of the great individual who rises above the community. In this way, Oedipus is a parable about the nature of human progress, revealed in metaphors that concentrate on human pursuits like sailing and agriculture. Oedipus is a story in which the protagonist goes backward, not forward, in time. The hero realizes that, rather than the solution to the problem, he is the cause of the plague that threatens Thebes.
Even Oedipus—"swollen feet"—is a clue to the play’s central mystery, a fact continually emphasized by Oedipus’s limp. Based on a riddle itself, the text of Oedipus is about the act of making meaning out of an enigma. The major trope of blindness versus sight (Tiresias versus Oedipus) announces the theme of the search for knowledge. The presence of plague inspires a criminal investigation: one person’s crime has tainted an entire community. As in psychoanalysis, Oedipus undertakes a voyage into the past to discover his true nature. The riddle of the Sphinx, once solved by Oedipus, now reappears in the form of a riddle about his own origins. The voice of the gods, the oracle is a symbol of tradition built on the conservative principles of hierarchy and order. The rise of Greek humanism in the age of Sophocles calls into question this traditional obeisance to the gods. Most cultures, even ones that champion individualism such as our own, are possessed of oracular traditions. The oracle that sets the mold for Oedipus’s fate invites a fundamental question: does the world have to be guided by signs?
The Greek tragedians and Aristotle have been ascribed "oracular"—or absolute--status in configuring the roots of Western drama. But Oedipus, though a classical tragic hero, also displays a human emotion heretofore unknown in Greek drama. Oedipus, in short, represents not just the fulfillment of the oracle but a human response to it that embraces tenderness and courage.
The main events of the Oedipus narrative are already over when the play begins. The drama is essentially a way of recounting what has already transpired. The role of literature parallels this structure: it reshapes an experience that has already occurred to make us ponder its meaning. In this sense, Oedipus is a shadow of his "creator," Sophocles. The past is rediscovered by retelling it. Only by recounting what has already happened does Oedipus learn what he has always been ignorant of. The decorum of ancient Greek drama forbade the enactment of graphic violence on stage. While acts of violence are only reported, they can still be ferocious, as with Oedipus’s recounting of the death of Jocasta. Not only is the violence graphic, but it casts a reflection on the rest of the play. The incestuous relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta is alluded to in Oedipus’s recounting of how he found her corpse.
Though guided by the oracle, Oedipus is also an agent of free will. He prescribes and enacts his own punishment. He converts his heinous crimes—dictated by fate--into a gesture of personal responsibility.
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