Critical Overview

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The history of the critical reception to Oedipus Rex begins with Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who in his Poetics inaugurated the history of formalist and structural analysis of literature, two important cornerstones for the enterprise of the critical interpretation of literature. In some ways, Poetics can be regarded as the first book of literary criticism.

The influence of Sophocles in general and Oedipus Rex in particular is enormous, due to the exemplary status Aristotle granted the play as the greatest tragedy ever written. He gave it high praise for its outstanding fulfillment of the requirements he set out for tragedy, including reversal of situation, characterization, well-constructed plot, and rationality of action.

Oedipus Rex contains an excellent moment of "reversal" in the scene in which the messenger comes to tell Oedipus of the death of Polybos, whom he believes to be Oedipus's father. According to Aristotle, because Oedipus learns from him inadvertently that Polybos is not his father, "by revealing who he is, he produces the opposite effect." Aristotle also praised the play for its characterization of the hero, who causes the audience to feel the right mixture of "pity and fear" while observing his actions. The hero should not be too virtuous, nor should he be evil: "there remains, then, the character between these two extremes—that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous—a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families."

The plot receives commendation by Aristotle for its ability to stir the emotions of not only its audience members but, even more significantly, those who merely hear the story:"he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place." In addition, Oedipus Rex succeeds in shaping the action in such a way that its ramifications are unknown until after the event itself occurs: "the deed of horror may be done, but done in ignorance, and the tie of kinship or friendship be discovered afterwards here, indeed, the incident is outside the drama proper." Lastly, Aristotle remarks that he prefers the role of the chorus in Sophocles to that of Euripides, and that the Oedipus Rex excludes from the play proper any irrational elements, such as Oedipus's ignorance of the mode of Laius's death. This last point is taken up by Voltaire, who subjected the play to intense questioning on the basis of the improbability of aspects such as this one.

After Aristotle, the major figures who have analyzed the play include those dramatists, from antiquity to the present, such as Seneca, Corneille, Dryden, and Hofsmannsthal, who respectively translated the play into Latin, French, English, and German. Poets and dramatists are themselves acting as critics when they embark on projects of translation, even if they have not given explicit accounts of how and why they have proceeded. Implicitly, these works ask their readers to attempt to answer these questions for themselves, and a short list of the variations on Sophocles's play should begin to generate such study. In 50 A.D, the Roman writer Seneca, for instance, decided to add an unseen episode narrated by Creon in which the ghost of Laius identifies his murderer to Teiresias.

In the 1580s in England the Tudor university dramatist William Gager sketched out five scenes for an unfinished version of the play, combining elements of Seneca's Oedipus and his Phonecian Women with scenes of his own creation; the first original scene is a lament of a Theban citizen for his dead father and son, to whom he seeks to give a proper burial in the midst of the plague-ridden city. His Jocasta kills herself because of her sons' fratricidal struggle for power. In 1659 Corneille prefaced his neo-Classical version of the play with a notice that he has reduced the number of oracles, left out the graphic description of Oedipus's blinding because of the presence of ladies in the audience, and added the happy love story of Theseus and Dirce in order to satisfy all attendees. He keeps Seneca's additional scene but makes Laius's speech more vague. Dryden, two decades later, self-consciously drew upon Corneille's subplot but chaned its ending to an unhappy one. Like Corneille he laments the fact that audiences demand such light entertainment accompanying their experience of great tragic drama.

In the next century, translators and commentators in England and France beginning with Voltaire and including Pierre Brumoy, Thomas Maurice, and R. Potter brought unique perspectives to the play. Voltaire believed the play to be defective in ways that many scholars expected from the Enlightenment thinker. Following Aristotle and going much further in his skeptical stance, in 1716 Voltaire criticized the lack of plausibility in Oedipus's ignorance of the manner of Laius's death: "that he did not even know whether it was in the country or in town that this murder was committed, and that he should give neither the least reason nor the least excuse for his ignorance, I confess that I do not know any terms to express such an absurdity." Another famous criticism of his concerns the fact that Oedipus, upon learning that the shepherd who knows his origins is still alive, chooses to consult the oracle "without giving the command to bring before him the only man who could throw light on the mystery." In contradistinction to Voltaire, in the middle of the eighteenth century Brumoy movingly expressed his satisfaction with the play. Of the opening scene he wrote: "This is a speaking spectacle, and a picture so beautifully disposed, that even the attitudes of the priests and of Oedipus express, without the help of words, that one relates the calamities with which the people are afflicted, and the other, melted at the melancholy sight, declares his impatience and concern for the long delay of Creon, whom he had sent to consult the Oracle." Brumoy also recognizes that the play's values are pagan rather than Christian, and specifically he emphasizes the influential classical notion of destiny, after him, the English translators Thomas Maurice (1779) and R. Potter (1788) did the same.

German authors, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, dominate the reception history of Oedipus in the nineteenth century.

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Critical Evaluation


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