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OEDIPUS THE KING
This choral ode is the shortest in the play. It is also the most hopeful and optimistic in tone. Why is it placed here? Perhaps Sophocles is continuing the "false hope" that Oedipus can escape his fate. The lack of tension and anxiety in the choral ode might also suggest that you need to pause here and consider what has just happened. Sophocles could even be deceiving you, diverting your attention from the real issues of the play: Who is the murderer of Laios? Who is responsible for the mysterious plague? Who will unmask the villain who lives in Thebes?
The Chorus is optimistic that the shepherd will reveal that Oedipus was born of a noble race. This would calm Iocaste's fears-at least her fears as Oedipus interprets them. You know, however, that this isn't the real issue.
The Chorus is full of joy and praise as it tries to guess the origin of Oedipus' birth. Some say he was born of nymphs; some say of the god Apollo; and other say of Hermes. The frenzy of the Chorus reaches a climax when it concludes that Oedipus must have been born of the great Dionysus, the sacred god of fertility (and, coincidentally, the god honored by this dramatic festival!). Once more you are being led by the Chorus to expect a happy ending for Oedipus. By comparing Oedipus to the nymphs, Apollo, and Hermes, the Chorus is painting a picture of a noble, royal, and wise king who must have been the child of the gods.
Sophocles is masterful in distracting you and the audience. The classical tradition in tragedy insisted that the audience weep and wail at the end of a play, as a means of cleansing their souls. In a modern sense, you do the same thing when you cry at the conclusion of a sad film; don't you feel better afterward? In order for the full impact of the tragedy to be felt, Greek playwrights usually included diversions-songs or brief episodes-just before the final scene. They felt this heightened the tragic effect of the final scene, when the painful climax of the tragedy would be revealed.
The fourth scene brings all of the traditional legend and the oracles' prophecies to a climax. It reveals, without doubt, that Oedipus is the murderer of Laios and is married to his own mother. The brief scene also sets in motion the dramatic resolution of the tragic events that have happened so far, especially the fate of Iocaste.
The first five lines are significant. Oedipus enters from the palace in a hurry. He looks into the distance and "sees" the shepherd approaching several miles away. He even describes the shepherd in detail. Before this scene, Oedipus was described as "blind" by Teiresias. Perhaps Oedipus' sight here shows that he is finally beginning to "see" the reality of his actions. On the other hand, it could be one last ironic reminder that Oedipus can see physically, but is morally blind. Keep the eye imagery in mind as you read this scene. It will soon be brought to a climax when Oedipus blinds himself.
The shepherd arrives in Thebes but is hesitant to speak. (Remember how Teiresias refused to speak back in Scene I?) The shepherd denies ever having seen the messenger from Corinth and can't remember giving him an infant child. The messenger reminds the shepherd that they spent several months together tending sheep in the mountains, and the shepherd finally admits that it is true.
Oedipus draws nearer to listen to the shepherd and is fascinated by what he hears. The shepherd and messenger quarrel about the "little child," and each accuses the other of telling lies about the episode. Sophocles is deftly drawing out your curiosity.
Oedipus suddenly grows angry (you've seen this side of his temper before), and he threatens to kill the shepherd if he doesn't tell the truth. The king orders his servants to bind the shepherd until he reveals all he knows about the little child he reportedly gave to the messenger. When the shepherd is bound to a post, he turns to the Chorus for help, crying out
If I speak the truth, I am worse than dead.
The shepherd is finally threatened into submission, and quickly blurts out that the little child he gave the messenger many years before was Laios' child.
A hush falls over the Chorus when the truth of Oedipus' birth is revealed. Oedipus stands rigid, paralyzed with fear. The old shepherd slowly turns and faces the audience to tell the whole story of his part in the events. Oedipus was the son of Laios and Iocaste; he was given to the shepherd to be killed because of a prophecy that said Laios' child would kill his father and marry his mother. But the shepherd had pitied the little child and gave him to the messenger from Corinth to spare his life.
The shepherd then realizes what he has said and what this truth means for Oedipus. He concludes his story by saying gravely
If you are what
this man says you are,
Oedipus now knows that the prophecy has come true. With a final cry of despair, he rises and rushes toward the palace.
Now that Oedipus knows the truth, you should pause to consider what possible punishment is due. Surely the penalty for having murdered his father and married his mother will be severe. Athenian law condemned parricide and incest; Oedipus has broken the most sacred of moral laws. Others would have been put to death or exiled for such crimes. Will Oedipus be punished-even though he acted in innocence and without knowledge, even though he was the victim of a prophecy he couldn't control?
Some readers think Oedipus should be judged leniently. But others point out that he is the king and as such should be an example to his people. Can they respect him anymore? Could they ever trust him again if he weren't punished? Think about the standards you hold for political figures today; don't you expect your leaders to be model citizens? As this scene ends you should anticipate some punishment for Oedipus. The Athenian audience would have expected justice to be served. They would also have wondered why Oedipus could so easily solve the riddle of the Sphinx, but not the mystery of his birth or the oracles' prophecy. This may prove more than anything how much of life is controlled by the gods; they allowed Oedipus to guess one riddle and become king, just so he would ignore the other riddle and bring himself to ruin. As you read on consider: Was Oedipus too arrogant and self-confident to suspect his role in Laios' death? Is his excessive pride the cause of his tragic downfall, or would he have been doomed anyway? Do you pity him, or do you feel he's getting what he deserves?Table of Contents | Oedipus the King Message Board | Oedipus at Colonus Message Board | Antigone Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version