Aristotle considered Oedipus Tyrannus the supreme example of tragic drama and modeled his theory of tragedy on it. He mentions the play no fewer than eleven times in his De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705). Sigmund Freud in the twentieth century used the story to name the rivalry of male children with their fathers for the affection of their mothers, and Jean Cocteau adapted the tale to the modern stage in La Machine infernale (1934; The Infernal Machine, 1936). However, no matter what changes the Oedipus myth underwent in two and a half millennia, the finest expression of it remains this tragedy by Sophocles.
Brilliantly conceived and written, Oedipus Tyrannus is a drama of self-discovery. Sophocles achieves an amazing compression and force by limiting the dramatic action to the day on which Oedipus learns the true nature of his birth and his destiny. The fact that the audience knows the dark secret that Oedipus unwittingly slew his true father and married his mother does nothing to destroy the suspense. Oedipus’s search for the truth has all the tautness of a detective tale, and yet because audiences already know the truth they are aware of all the ironies in which Oedipus is enmeshed. That knowledge enables them to fear the final revelation at the same time that they pity the man whose past is gradually and relentlessly uncovered to him.
The plot is thoroughly integrated with the characterization of Oedipus, for it is he who impels the action forward in his concern for Thebes, his personal rashness, and his ignorance of his past. His flaws are a hot temper and impulsiveness, but without those traits his heroic course of self-discovery would never occur.
Fate for Sophocles is not something essentially external to human beings but something at once inherent in them and transcendent. Oracles and prophets in this play may show the will of the gods and indicate future events, but it is the individual who gives substance to the prophecies. Moreover, there is an element of freedom granted to human beings, an ability to choose, where the compulsions of character and the...
(The entire section is 900 words.)
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