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OEDIPUS THE KING
The third scene begins with Iocaste entering alone from the palace. She immediately falls to her knees in prayer to the gods. This is a most unusual entrance. Earlier Iocaste had questioned the power of the oracles and prophecy. Why is she now praying to the gods? Perhaps she knows more than she's told you; perhaps Oedipus told her something new while they were alone in the palace; or perhaps she is simply terrified and desperately trying to placate the gods.
Iocaste's prayers are similar to those of the priest in the Prologue. She enters as a suppliant carrying sacred incense; her prayers ask for guidance and understanding. Then she expresses her concern for Oedipus, who appears to be "not himself." It's a frightening experience to see someone you love suddenly act like a stranger. Iocaste's heart is heavy with fear as she approaches the altar. She pleads softly with the god Apollo, the spirit of help and reward, to restore Oedipus to his former self and to save the people of Thebes from destruction. She, too, is aware of the public dimensions of her husband's personal troubles.
Iocaste's prayers are interrupted unexpectedly by the hurried arrival of a messenger from Corinth. The messenger, overjoyed, boasts that he brings good news for Oedipus. Polybos, Oedipus' supposed father, has suddenly died and the people of Corinth wish Oedipus to become their king.
Iocaste is delighted to receive this news. She interprets it as a token from the gods she has been praying to, that the oracles were wrong in their prophecy. Quickly she sends a maidservant to the palace to fetch Oedipus. Iocaste then speaks to the audience, saying that because the death of Polybos came while Oedipus was in Thebes, this proves that the oracles can't be taken seriously. Loudly rejoicing, Iocaste gives thanks that Polybos died by another fate. She's eager to believe the gods were wrong, because it will clear her husband.
At first glance the entrance of the messenger offers new hope to resolve Oedipus' doubts about his part in the oracles' prophecy. But this is just a device by Sophocles to give some false relief to Oedipus. Ironically, this same messenger will later reveal other facts about Polybos and Oedipus that will shatter Oedipus' illusions. In one way the role of the messenger is to heighten your expectations that Oedipus will be spared. But in another way the messenger is used by Sophocles cruelly, to delay the inevitable revelation of the truth, and to string out the suspense.
Oedipus rushes in to ask why Iocaste called him. She tells Oedipus that Polybos is dead. At first Oedipus can't believe the news. He asks the messenger if his father's death was by treason or by an attack of illness. The messenger says that Polybos simply died of old age.
Imagine the conflicting emotions in Oedipus' heart. This news of a painless death cheers him for the moment; then he is sad to realize that Polybos, whom he loved, is dead. All of this shows a sensitive, loving, compassionate Oedipus, to counteract the raging hothead you saw banish Creon. Oedipus then rejoices out loud when he realizes that he hasn't been involved in the death, and that the oracles have been proven wrong. In spite of his grief, Oedipus is human enough to react with self-interest.
Oedipus' joy is short-lived, however. He recalls his widowed mother, Merope; he asks Iocaste if he should return to Corinth and risk fulfilling the second half of the oracles' prophecy: marrying his mother. Iocaste laughs at Oedipus' fears, saying that all men, in their dreams, "have lain with their mothers!" (Her laughter here is a prime example of dramatic irony.) Oedipus, still troubled, tells Iocaste he wishes his mother had also died. Iocaste is amazed and shocked by Oedipus' attitude, but he reminds her of the oracles' "dreadful saying."
As a result of Iocaste's innocent remark that all men have dreamed of sleeping with their mothers, there have been many Freudian interpretations of this play. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, saw the characters of Oedipus and Iocaste as personifications of a primal human desire when he wrote about the "Oedipus complex" in his essay "The Interpretation of Dreams."
In Sophocles' time the notion of incest was strictly frowned on. Oedipus even mentions this in the play.
True, there were classical examples of men knowingly committing incest with their sisters or mothers, but the subject would have been too scandalous for a play. (Remember, the drama was part of a religious rite.) Oedipus didn't know Iocaste was his mother when he married her; she was presented to him, almost like a gift, when he solved the riddle of the Sphinx. There is no indication or evidence that their marriage was anything other than a social or political necessity that restored a powerful male figure to the throne of Thebes after the death of Laios. As an exercise in creative interpretation, you might look for veiled mentions of the "Oedipus complex" in the play, to see if you detect subtle inferences of Oedipus' hatred of his father and sexual attraction toward his mother.
At this point the messenger tries to ease Oedipus' mind. He pleads with Oedipus to forget his fears and to be cheered by the news of Polybos' death. He adds that any fears of fulfilling the prophecy are nonsense because Polybos was not his father.
The messenger now turns to address the audience. The role of the messenger in Greek tragedy was to give information, so Sophocles uses him to fill in more of the events in Oedipus' life before he solved the riddle of the Sphinx and was made king. The messenger confesses that he was the same man who found Oedipus as an infant and took him to Corinth as a gift to the childless Polybos and Merope. The messenger concludes by saying that the infant he found and called Oedipus (which means "swollen foot") was actually given to him by a shepherd said to be one of Laios' people.
As Iocaste grows noticeably frightened and turns pale with fear, Oedipus demands that the shepherd be brought to him. The Chorus informs Oedipus that the shepherd he is seeking is the same shepherd he has already sent for about the murder of Laios. The "net" begins to draw tighter. Iocaste, in a daze, pleads with Oedipus to drop the whole matter. She rushes from the stage screaming
Let us have no more questioning!
While some readers see Iocaste as a hysterical female here, others see her as a woman with deep emotions, overwrought by her intuitive sense that disaster is near. Again you wonder if Iocaste knows something that she's refusing to admit.
Oedipus, on the other hand, is now firmly resolved to pursue the truth of his birth. He thinks that Iocaste is distressed by the fact that he might have been born "humbly" and therefore is not suitable as a husband to a queen. He apparently has no thoughts of what the messenger's story means regarding the oracles' prophecy. He directs a servant to find the shepherd and bring him to Thebes. The Chorus steps forward to address the audience.
The Chorus speaks to the audience in a quiet and hushed tone. It whispers that it is afraid for the safety of Iocaste. Why has she fled in such a "passion of sorrow"? What does her dreadful silence mean? Oedipus interrupts to say that Iocaste has fled because she fears his birth was base, and she wishes to avoid the public scandal. This hardly seems fair to Iocaste. That dangerous self-confidence may be rising in Oedipus again, blinding him to the truth Iocaste has sensed.
Sophocles' dramatic skills are at their highest point in this scene. His use of the messenger diverts attention away from the murder of Laios and in the direction of Oedipus' birth. The use of the messenger also permits Sophocles to bring in more of the legend to the plot. Some readers believe that Sophocles uses the messenger as a symbol of death, summoning Oedipus to the horrible truth by offering him the truth of his birth. Other readers see this scene as crucial in revealing Oedipus' part in the murder of Laios, with the messenger forcing Oedipus to seek out the shepherd. Ironically, Oedipus might not have been so eager to send for the shepherd if the messenger hadn't told him the fellow had knowledge of Oedipus' past. Now the king is determined to speak to this humble subject. Like Iocaste, you have a sinking feeling that Oedipus won't hear anything good from the shepherd.Table of Contents | Oedipus the King Message Board | Oedipus at Colonus Message Board | Antigone Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version