A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE PLAY: OEDIPUS REX OR KING OEDIPUS BY SOPHOCLES

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INTRODUCTION

In this article, you will be introduced to a classical tragedy-Oedipus Rex. We will use this play to illustrate the Aristotelian elements of drama. The text is also called King Oedipus.

Synopsis of the Play Oedipus Rex

In the city of Delphi, a son is born to King Laius. The oracle of Delphi reveals that this child is doomed to commit an abomination. He is to kill his father and marry his mother. The King and his wife are sad with this prophecy. Consequently, they take steps to avert its fulfillment. They drive a peg through his two ankles, give him to a shepherd to expose him at the hillside, apparently for him to die there.

The shepherd gives him to the servant of the King of Corinth, Polybus. This child grows up with them and takes them as his parents. One day he is told that he is not actually what he claims to be. He goes to the oracle to find out the truth. He is told he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother. He tries to defeat the oracle by running away. He resolves to stay out of Corinth until his parents are dead.

On his way, he meets an entourage and there is a quarrel over the right of way. He kills everybody except one person who escaped. The city he enters is besieged by a Sphinx who kills the citizens because they cannot answer a particular riddle. Oedipus solves the riddle and is made the king. Consequently, he marries the queen who, unknown to both of them, is his mother. He lives with her and they have children.

The city is again besieged by a plague. The general belief is that the city is not clean, so it is being punished by the gods. They inquire from the oracle and they are told that the unknown assassin of the former king, Lauis, is in their midst and unless he is discovered and punished, the plague would continue.

Oedipus sets out in search of the killer and eventually finds out that he is the killer. The queen tries in vain to stop the quest. She commits suicide as the reality dawns on her that she had married her own son. King Oedipus gouges out his two eyes and leaves Thebes with the children.

Themes

The main theme of the play is fate or destiny. The play dramatizes the helplessness of man in the hands of the gods or in the hands of Fate. It upholds belief in destiny and the fact that what is destined to happen to anybody must happen to that person irrespective of what the person does.

Another theme of the play is man’s search for identity. It shows that, sometimes, we are not what we think that we are. If we, therefore, decide to search, we might discover our true identities. In the play, Oedipus’ search for his true parents leads him to kill his father and marry his mother while his search for the plague in his kingdom and the murderer of King Laius leads to his search for his true identity.

Plot

The play has a single unified plot. It is presented like a detective play which is like an investigation into the cause of the plague. The play therefore commences as a search and proceeds as a search until the messenger from Corinth arrives. The events of the play run chronologically and causally from the beginning to the end.

The incidents have causes and consequences (interdependence of incidents). Oedipus assures his subjects that he will solve their problems by ensuring that the killer of Lauis is found and punished. He therefore sends Creon to the oracle to inquire and also sends for the seer, Teiresias. Creon returns with the news that the killer they seek is in their midst. The seer confirms this information and goes a step further out of provocation to accuse Oedipus of being the killer he seeks.

The queen tries to refute the seer’s claim and unwittingly tells Oedipus the story of his birth. However, this fact is further revealed as the messenger from Corinth arrives to inform Oedipus of the death of his father. He explains the circumstance that took Oedipus to Corinth. This circumstance is that Oedipus is not the prince of Corinth as he had hitherto believed. The truth is that the Oedipus was given to him by the shepherd who was asked to abandon the baby in the forest to die. He, the messenger, gave the baby to his master who was childless then.

Oedipus was then brought up and treated like a prince. Thus the arrival of the messenger provides a basis for revealing the true story. The shepherd corroborated his story and this leads to the resolution of the play. This section of the play is replete with dramatic ironies. It is  ironical that the killer which the king seeks is himself. Try to identify other ironies in the play.

The play opens with a search. The first search is for the cause of the  plague in Thebes. This leads to the search for a murderer and the search continues until the messenger from Corinth arrives with his news. The information from him and the accusation from the seer leads to another kind of search – the search for an identity. The revelations about the true identity of King Oedipus lead to the resolution of the play.

The plot is also ironic because Oedipus sets out to secure peace and tranquility in his kingdom by tracking the cause of the plague. He realizes that this can only be achieved through the discovery and punishment of the killer of King Laius. He becomes the killer he is searching for. The major ironic twist in the play is that, it is believed that the discovery of his true identity will lead to the solution of his problems. Unfortunately it becomes the beginning of his problems. It is also expected that the discovery of the murderer he is looking for will end the plague in the land but he leaves the city as a blind man who does not know if the plague ended or not. The play conforms to the Aristotelian plot structure of beginning, middle and end.

Exposition – The play opens with a problem. There is a plague is the land and the people are suffering.

Complication – Creon returns and tells him that the oracle says that the killer is in their midst. There is a conflict. He quarrels with Creon and the seer. The search for his identity introduces more complications.

Climax – The climax begins with the arrival of the messenger from Corinth and culminates in the revelation of his true identity.

Discovery – He discovers his true self and real parents.

Reversal – There is a reversal of fortune as a man who was once a famous king is brought down and expelled from the society he once ruled. The king leaves his city as a wandering blind beggar. In the catastrophe, the Queen hangs herself while the king blinds himself and goes on self-exile. The killer of Lauis is found and punished, so the plague is expected to stop. Thus the conflicts are resolved.

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