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CLIMAX (Lines 911-1222)
The climactic section of Oedipus Rex is divided into two scenes that are divided by the third and fourth Stasimon. As a prelude to the scene, Jocasta gives offerings of flowers and incense at the altar of Apollo, asking him to relieve the city of its fears, especially those of Oedipus.
The first scene shows the arrival of the Corinthian shepherd who brings the news of Polybus' death, the king of Corinth and apparent father of Oedipus. On hearing the news, Jocasta informs Oedipus and tells him that the fate he had dreaded all his life has now been averted. His fear that he would kill his own father is pointless as his father has died a natural death. But Oedipus still fears that apart from murdering his father, he was also destined to wed his mother, therefore he refuses to return to Corinth with the shepherd for his coronation.
In order to reassure Oedipus that this will not transpire, the Corinthian discloses the secret that Oedipus is not the real son of Polybus and Merope. As an infant with a wounded foot he had been handed over to this same shepherd by one of Laius' servants who had then passed him on to a Corinthian shepherd and then to Polybus. Thereafter, he had been raised to be Oedipus, so named for the injuries to his feet.
This story arouses Oedipus' curiosity about his real parents and when he asks if anyone knows the shepherd the messenger speaks of, the chorus replies it is the same one who has been summoned. Jocasta, on the other hand, realizes by this time, that Oedipus is her own son and that the prophecy has come true. She tries to stop Oedipus from continuing with his investigations, but the adamant ruler pays no heed, thinking that she is concerned whether or not he will be of humble birth.
As Jocasta leaves the stage, she screams that he is doomed and that those are to be her last words. Oedipus remarks that the truth must come out, regardless of how vile it is. He is not ashamed by the possibility of not coming from royal blood although Jocasta is. He then says, "I ask to be no other man/Than who I am, and will know who I am."
The Chorus chants the third Stasimon, which is a paean to Oedipus' origins. They express their curiosity about Oedipus' birth and even fancy him to be the son of some god or goddess.
In the following scene, the Theban shepherd arrives. He is the same man who had handed over little Oedipus to the Corinthian and also the sole witness to Laius' murder. The messenger immediately recognizes him yet the Theban shepherd is reluctant to talk. Oedipus grills him with questions, almost to the point of threatening him with death if he does not tell him the truth. Finally, the old Theban reveals that Oedipus is indeed the Laius' son and also the man who had murdered Laius at the crossroads. He confesses that he saved the child's life though he had orders to leave it to die. On realizing that the prophesies have indeed come to pass, Oedipus runs throughout the palace, announcing the atrocities which he has committed and asking that he no longer gaze on the sun after discovering the truth of his birth.
This is followed by the fourth Stasimon, which uses a grave tone. They lament the inexorable nature of fate, which does not even spare kings.
This act forms the climax of the play. All the doubts that were raised in the previous act are cleared in this one. Yet what seems to be a reason for celebration at the news of Oedipus' father's death and the supposed failure of the oracles' prophesies instead gives reason for despair. The discovery of who Oedipus' parents are affirms what both Oedipus and Jocasta had feared: that Oedipus murdered Laius. What should have been a happy reunion between Oedipus and his natural parents is instead a life- shattering moment. In attempting to defy the fate ordained by the prophecy, Jocasta, Laius,and Oedipus brought ruin upon themselves and the kingdom of Thebes.
The real identity of Oedipus becomes the focus of this scene rather than the death of Laius as the play's theme shifts from the issue of Laius' murder to that of Oedipus' birth. But this is by no means a digression because both issues are connected as well as closely associated with the belief in prophecy.
The persistence of Oedipus is also heightened in this scene when he attempts to solve the riddle of his own life and yet is denied the truth by the shepherd. He must threaten the shepherd with death before he can get an answer. Rather than relying on his own intelligence and wisdom, here Oedipus solves the mystery through interacting with a host of characters, the messenger, Jocasta, the Theban shepherd, who bit by bit divulge what they know. In this way, the secret of Oedipus' past is solved as well as who killed Laius.
By the end of the first scene of this final act, Jocasta realizes the dreadful truth that Oedipus is her son and leaves the stage after trying to stop Oedipus' investigations. This is the final exit of Jocasta as she announces the last thing she will call him is "O unhappy Oedipus." Therefore, it comes as no surprise when the news of her death is related later on.
The third Stasimon expresses the curiosity of the Theban citizens about their ruler's birth. They fancy the possibility of him being the son of some god who may have left him at mount Cithaeron. This wishful thinking reveals that the elders still have faith in Oedipus as their king and do not connect the investigation of Laius' murder with the scourge overtaking Thebes.
These fanciful speculations are put to rest in the final scene in which the Theban shepherd arrives and reveals the facts of Oedipus' birth. On hearing the news of who his true parents are and the details of Laius death, Oedipus realizes the enormity of the situation. The prophecies have come true. Utterly shattered and devastated, Oedipus detests his wretched existence and curses himself for living and bringing such shame to the Theban house. His inquiry has proved catastrophic. Due to his unquenchable thirst for solving riddles, Oedipus has brought ruin upon himself and his household. Yet now that the matter is cleared, Thebes may be relieved from the plague which has taken over.
This act follows a classic pattern of the rise in action up to the climax. All the doubts of the previous act are cleared. The mystery of Oedipus' birth and Laius' murder has finally been solved. The truth of the prophecy has also been realized and the people's faith in the power of gods is thus restored.
The play reaches its climax when Oedipus realizes that the fate he had tried to escape so earnestly has caught up with him and the inevitable has happened. Not only his attempt at escaping fate, but also that of his father's has proved to be absolutely ineffective. Yet it is partly due to his own character that his destiny has unravelled as it has. If not for Oedipus' quest for truth as well as self-knowledge, the mystery of who he is would not have surfaced.
The action of this act is in the form of question and answer session between Oedipus and the two shepherds. It is in these dialectical exchanges that truth is established and Oedipus' identity is revealed.
The fourth Stasimon ends this act. Oedipus represents the mutability of human existence and fortune in this ode. Whether noble king or humble shepherd, all people are subjected to the hand of fate which may bring wealth or destitution. The transience of wealth, power, glory, pleasure is reflected in what the Chorus says:
"Alas, you Generations of men. Even while you live you are next to nothing."