After examining Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, explain how Sophocles' ordering of events makes for an effective play.
This is an important question, since it implies a distinction between a chronological narrative and a plot. A chronological narrative merely reports a sequence of events in the order in which they occurred. Almost anyone can write such a narrative. A plot, however, is the design a writer imposes on such a bare narrative. Only talented writers can construct truly effective plots, as Sophocles does in Oedipus Rex. Here is a brief account of the chronological narrative from which Sophocles constructed his plot:
- Laius, king of Thebes, is told by an oracle that when he has a son, the son will eventually kill him.
- When Laius does indeed have a son, he orders a servant to take the child into the countryside and kill him.
- The servant takes the child into the countryside but does not kill him. The baby is instead taken to the king of Corinth, who raises the boy as his own son. Oedipus grows up thinking that this king is his real father.
- When Oedipus becomes a man, he consults an oracle, who foretells that Oedipus will kill his own father and marry his own mother.
- Not wanting to kill his supposed parents, Oedipus leaves Corinth. While on the road, he argues with a stranger (Laius, king of Thebes) and kills him. He has thus unwittingly fulfilled one aspect of the oracle’s prophecy.
- Nearing Thebes, Oedipus meets the mysterious Sphinx, who poses a riddle to him that no one else has been able to solve. Oedipus solves the riddle, thereby freeing Thebes from the sickness and misfortunes imposed by the Sphinx.
- The grateful people of Thebes make Oedipus their king (since Laius, their previous king, has recently been killed by a stranger). Oedipus also marries Jocasta, the widow of Laius (thereby fulfilling the second of the oracle’s prophecies).
- Later, when new disease descends upon Thebes, Oedipus vows to discover its cause. An oracle instructs that the disease will not disappear until the murderer of Laius is found. Oedipus vows to discover the murderer’s identity (not realizing that he himself is the killer he seeks).
- Tiresias, a prophet, warns Oedipus not to pursue the matter. Oedipus chooses to seek a solution nonetheless.
- A messenger from Corinth reveals that the king of Corinth has recently died. Oedipus thus assumes that the prophecy that he would kill his own father was false.
- Further investigation reveals to Oedipus, however, that the child raised by the king of Corinth was Oedipus himself.
- Jocasta, understanding what has happened, leaves the stage and commits suicide.
- Oedipus thus learns the true story of his past and realizes that he has indeed killed his father and married his mother.
- Oedipus discovers the suicide of his mother / wife and, in grief, blinds himself. He then leaves Thebes, accompanied by his daughter, Antigone.
A play could easily be written that presents the details of the story in precisely this chronological order. The plot of such a play would thus coincide with the chronological narrative. Sophocles, however, chose a more sophisticated and effective rearrangement, so that the audience learns the complicated and devastating truth of the matter along with Oedipus himself. In the play's opening lines, Oedipus has no idea why Thebes is plagued:
My children, latest generation born from Cadmus,
why are you sitting here with wreathed sticks
in supplication to me, while the city
fills with incense, chants, and cries of pain?
Only as the play ends will he discover that he is the cause of Thebes' suffering.