Table of Contents | Oedipus the King Message Board | Oedipus at Colonus Message Board | Antigone Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
OEDIPUS THE KING
The somber Chorus sings the final choral ode. It warns the audience to prepare for more suffering and despair. Then it tries to stir your sympathy for Oedipus' tragic circumstances. After all, you're reminded, man's fate is uncertain and unpredictable. The chorus asks for compassion for Oedipus, the unwilling victim of a cruel fate.
The first strophe moans for the sad plight of Oedipus. There is a note of hopelessness in the song when the Chorus reflects on what has happened. In a direct reference to Oedipus, it sobs that his splendor is gone and his days of happiness are numbered.
The first antistrophe again summarizes the early period of Oedipus' life. The Chorus points out that Oedipus had a mind like a "strong bow," and that he "stood like a tower" against the enemies of Thebes. (Note the warlike images. Athenians still could recall the terror of foreign invasion-a good king would have been a good defender, in their eyes.) The Chorus concludes by comparing Oedipus' strength and determination to the gods themselves. Even now Oedipus still seems "divine" to his people.
In contrast, the Chorus then laments that Oedipus is now the most "pitiful" of men. It cautions the audience to view Oedipus' change of fortune as an example of what happens when men are the victims of fate. It also questions Iocaste's role in Oedipus' tragic downfall, asking why she remained silent in the face of the truth. The Chorus is taking a sterner, judging tone.
In the second antistrophe the Chorus assumes responsibility for what has happened to Oedipus. His people were also blind to his fate and couldn't see the truth. The Chorus points out that "justice" must prevail eventually, yet it pleads with the audience to have sympathy for Oedipus and to forgive him.
It is important to understand the sympathetic tone of the fourth choral ode. It sets the audience up for several responses: 1. It suggests that Oedipus is innocent of knowingly murdering his father and marrying his mother. 2. It offers the hope that the gods will intervene and save Oedipus from punishment. 3. It prepares the audience to pity Oedipus in his final entrance as a ruined hero. 4. It allows the audience to judge for themselves if Oedipus' decision to blind himself is just payment for his actions.
In the play that follows this one, Oedipus at Colonus, you see what happens to a man who has been arrogant enough to question the will of the gods or the prophecy of the oracles. The extent and results of Oedipus' self-knowledge would have been seen immediately following this play, when Oedipus at Colonus was presented. Pay careful attention to Oedipus' final words in the concluding scene of this play to understand why he chooses to blind himself and take his daughter Antigone with him to Colonus.
The last episode of the play is divided into five individual segments. It represents the longest "resolution" scene in classical Greek tragedy.
Traditionally the Exodus serves two purposes. The choral recessional signals the conclusion of the play's action. It also concludes the moral action of the play, as the Chorus' last speeches define the moral theme.
Sophocles, however, delays the exit of the Chorus until all threads of the plot have been resolved. Oedipus is given an extended opportunity to accept the judgment of the gods. He is also given a long time to prepare for his future life as a blinded, but now wiser, man. This is one reason for the length of the Exodus. But are there other reasons for prolonging it?
Some readers suggest that the extra length of this Exodus allowed Sophocles to underscore the moral lesson more fully for the Athenians watching the play. Some readers suggest that Sophocles is concerned with shifting the emphasis from Oedipus the murderer to Oedipus the outcast. Still others suggest that Sophocles is preparing you for the basic themes that appear in Oedipus at Colonus.
Regardless of the interpretation you prefer, you will see that Oedipus is purged of self-righteousness and excessive pride as the play ends. You can feel pity and sorrow for him because he has been the victim of fate. It's important that you think about how he punishes himself, and why he's willing to suffer for his actions. This will all fit into the moral theme stated by the Chorus in the last four lines of the play.
The first segment of the Exodus begins when a pale second messenger enters from the palace. The messenger, who is from Thebes, laments the horrors and the sorrows that have taken place so far in the play. He then tells the audience of new horrors and sorrows that have taken place behind the palace doors.
Properly speaking, this messenger is not a runner bringing a letter from far away; he's a household servant, stepping out to relate the latest events in this public and private tragedy. The Greeks avoided showing violence onstage, so Sophocles must use a "reporter" to tell you about acts too shocking to be seen.
What is the effect of keeping bloody scenes offstage? Perhaps the Greeks wanted to preserve the solemn, dignified air of their drama (part of a religious festival). Today you are accustomed to dramatized violence on TV and in movies; death and mutilation onstage perhaps wouldn't shock you so much. But there is a powerful dramatic value in keeping violence just out of sight. Instead of being shocked by a gory reenactment, you are forced to imagine these dreadful acts as the messenger tells you about them. You do not turn your eyes away, but become drawn in to the horror of what has just happened.
The messenger simply says that Iocaste is dead; she killed herself in her bedroom. As the Chorus moans in sympathy, the messenger elaborates on Iocaste's death. She stood by her bed and called out to Laios as she wailed aloud about
the double fruit of her marriage,
Then she untied the belt of her dressing gown and made a noose around her neck. Standing on a chair in the center of her room, Iocaste prayed to the gods for forgiveness, and kicked the chair away. Oedipus rushed in and found her hanging in the air, her body swaying from the "cruel cord" she tied around her neck.
The messenger is so overcome with sorrow that he pauses to sob. After a moment he continues. There is still more grief in store. He tells you that Oedipus cut Iocaste down and held her in his arms. Then he ripped the golden pins from her gown and plunged them into his eyeballs, screaming out in his agony
No more shall you look on the misery about me,