How is the complexity of the conflicts in Oedipus Rex brought out by Sophocles?
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Throughout the great Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, Sophocles engages Knowledge and Ignorance in several conflicts that involve Oedipus with Creon, Teiresias, the Shepherd, Jocasta, and Fate. These conflicts are given complexity because of the pride, or hubris, of Oedipus and his ignorance of how Laius died which hinder his insight that affords Teiresias his riddles.
- Oedipus vs. Creon
In the beginning of the drama, Oedipus suspects Creon of resentment that he was not made king after the death of his brother Laius; moreover, Oedipus believes that Creon desires to have him removed from the throne. Consequently, it is Oedipus who is blinded to the situation and unreceptive of the truth. For, he desires Creon's death "So that all the world may see what treason means." Even when Jocasta intervenes for Creon, and when Creon reasons that he has all the privileges of king without being one, Oedipus will not listen, nor when the Chorus entreats him to open his mind and "Respect Creon's word."
- Oedipus vs. Teiresias
When the seer Teiresias arrives, Oedipus entreats him to help identify the murderer of Laius. But, as Teiresias replies,
How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be
When there's no help in truth! I knew this well,
But did not act on it: else I should not have come
Oedipus begins to suspect Teiresias of betrayal and their conversation become extremely vituperative as Teiresias accuses Oedipus of being "the pollution of this country" as the murderer he seeks, but he is blind to the truth while Oedipus charges the seer with having had Laius murdered.
At this point, the Chorus comments that both Teiresias and Oedipus have accomplished little but exchange angry words until the seer utters his prediction to Oedipus that he will find the man he seeks in Thebes.
- Oedipus vs. the shepherd
After trying to avoid the messenger, the shepherd is finally brought before Oedipus. And, although he is reluctant to tell Oedipus, the shepherd relates the story of how he rescued a babe. Although he says, "Yet if I speak the truth, I am worse than dead," the shepherd admits that he gave a baby to a man who took him far away. Further, he tells Oedipus that his wife can tell him more.
- Oedipus vs. Jocasta
Jocasta begs Oedipus to believe Creon and to stop his pursuit of answers. "May you never learn who you are!" she tells Oedipus, but her persists. Later, she commits suicide, giving up her struggle against fate.
- Oedipus vs. Oedipus
This is the greatest conflict of all--that of Oedipus with his own pride and his humartia, his fatal mistake. As Creon states,
Ugly in yielding, as you were ugly in rage!
Natures like yours chiefly torment themselves.
His insistence on the truth leads him to the truth, but in his pride he fights against his fate; however, he must finally admit what lies before him. He tells Creon to let him leave Thebes,
--But let me go, Creon!
Let me purge my father's Thebes of the pollution
Of my living here, and go out to the wild hills....
While Oedipus admits that "the greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves," Creon remarks that Oedipus has "served his own destruction."
One of the principal ways in which the conflict in this play is developed is through the determination of Oedipus to find out the truth no matter what, and the way that this determination brings him into conflict with others who are much more reluctant to reveal what they know. This determination develops at the very beginning of the play, when Oedipus clearly displays his belief that as he has already saved Thebes once it is up to him to save Thebes again through finding the murderer of Laius. However, as this play develops, this question and the mystery surrounding his own birth become inextricably intertwined. After the Messenger has delivered the news about his early years, note how this determination brings Oedipus in conflict with Jocasta, who says to him:
Stop--in the name of god,
If you love your own life, call of this search!
My suffering is enough.
Howwever, Oedipus cannot stop his "search" when to him, he is so close and on the verge of discovering the truth. He naively thinks that he will discover only the truth about his parents, whereas it is clear Jocasta at least suspects, if not knows, that he will learn far more. The conflict in the play therefore is created through the desire of Oedipus to learn the truth, whatever, the cost, and the way that other characters try to prevent him from learning it or when he does not agree with the truth that he is presented with, as happens with the prophecy that Tiresias brings him.
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