Greek tragic dramas are based on myths and are representations of human dilemmas, which often formed on conflicts between men and gods. The Oedipal myth was transformed into a compelling theatrical work, “Oedipus Rex”, by Sophocles. As conventional in Greek tragedies, Oedipus is portrayed as a heroic protagonist, led to his downfall by his tragic flaw, ‘hubris’, error of judgement, ‘hamartia’, and most importantly, fate. Symbolism reflects Oedipus’ entrapment by fate and foreshadows his future. Tension is built up in the audience through dramatic irony and released at the ‘catharsis’, which also arouses pity and fear. All these dramatic elements are characteristic of ancient Greek tragedies.
Oedipus displays qualities of a classic Greek tragic hero. Arrogance and short-tempered determination form his hubris. His heroic self-pride is shown in his announcement, “The world knows my fame: I am Oedipus.” Oedipus’ hamartia is his decision to seek the truth of his birth and Laius’ death, disregarding advice from Tiresias to desist. Determination drives Oedipus to act upon his decision as he orders Tiresias to speak out. Oedipus’ short temper is conveyed in his immediate response to Tiresias’ unwillingness to speak, raging at the elderly, respected prophet, “You scum of the earth, you’d enrage a heart of stone.” This same short temper had led Oedipus to unknowingly slay his father in the ‘road rage’ incident, where Oedipus’ anger was sparked to a murderous extreme simply because he was pushed aside.
Arrogance led Oedipus to believe he could escape fate. Like his parents, Oedipus was presented with fearful prophecies. Laius and Jocasta attempted to avoid these prophecies by killing their son. As in most Greek tragedies, the gods prevail and their son lives. Oedipus as a young man believed he could escape this horrific fate by leaving who he believed to be his parents. Fate directed him to his home town where he is destined to murder his father and marry his mother. However, the very quality of Oedipus’ hubris, his arrogance in defying fate and prophecy, is the same quality that enabled him to earlier confront and defeat the Sphinx and save an oppressed city. This theme of human paradox is carried in many Greek dramas.
“Oedipus Rex” is notable for its use of dramatic irony, able to be employed effectively due to the familiarity of audiences with the Oedipal myth. The first instance of dramatic irony occurs when Oedipus claims to the citizens of Thebes and indirectly the audience, “you can trust me.” This is dramatically ironic as the audience, aware of the sin he has unknowingly committed, experience difficulty in drawing trust for the king, but later pities Oedipus’ innocent determination to help Thebes “drive corruption from the land…root it out!” Most irony is developed in Oedipus’ pursuit of Laius’ murderer, inadvertently pursuing himself. This irony is emphasised by Oedipus’ persistence of the matter, summoning and interrogating Tiresias and encouraging the citizens to speak out. Oedipus’ firm belief that those who raised him were his biological parents is also ironic. Dramatic irony involves the audience and encourages viewers to feel sympathy for Oedipus before the fatal truth of his birth is revealed.
The structure of “Oedipus Rex” reflects that of an Greek tragedy. Tension accumulates in the audience as the truth of Oedipus’ birth dawns on the shepherd and Jocasta. The anagnorisis marks the point at which the heroic protagonist, Oedipus, previously in ignorance, gains knowledge of the truth. This revelation of the truth is the emotional climax of the play, preceding the catastrophe, at which Oedipus blinds himself. The peripeteia is the reversal of situation from good to bad, and in “Oedipus Rex”, closely follows the anagnorisis as Oedipus’ previous strong state is hurled into a world of confusion and guilt. The end effect of his earlier actions is the denouement, where guilt and horror drive him to gouge out his eyes. This action provokes fear and horror in the audience.
The catharsis, an essential part of tragedy and marks the play out as a classical Greek tragic drama, refers to the emotional discharge by the audience at the finale. The audience is relieved of tension and emotion accumulated throughout the play. Oedipus’ exile, separation from his daughters, and blind state arouse pity in viewers. The chorus reflects the audience’s thoughts in the play, crying, “I pity you but I can’t bear to look.”
Symbolism is a dramatic element used to reflect Oedipus’ situation and foreshadow his future. Oedipus’ name, ‘swollen foot’ symbolizes the confinement and constraint of his movements by Apollo’s prophecy to Laius. Numerous references are made to eyesight and vision. Although famed for his clear-sightedness and quick comprehension, Oedipus is blind to the truth. Tiresias is blind, but sees the truth. He symbolizes the state Oedipus will become after gaining insight – blind, but with knowledge.
Choral odes offer close commentary on the action of the play, acting as a mediator between gods and men and between the characters in the drama and the audience. The chorus, a traditional element of Greek tragedy, clarifies the situation to the audience and enables greater understanding of the play and philosophical values within it. For example, following Creon’s final words, the chorus comments on Oedipus’ fate, “now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.”
To Aristotle, a Greek tragedy critic, tragedy must arouse the emotions of fear, wonder and awe. He believed the best type of tragedy to involve reversal of a situation, recognition from a character, and suffering through a complex plot. “Oedipus Rex” satisfies all these characteristics and can therefore be considered a great example of an classical Greek tragic drama.