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Being, perhaps, one of the most famous Ancient Greek plays that have worked their way into the contemporary culture, Oedipus Rex has retained its appeal due to its focus on the emotional journey of the character and the drastic circumstances in which he found himself. The agony experienced by King Oedipus is easily understood by any reader; it transcends cultures because of the obviously abhorrent ethical situation and, thus, makes the myth well perceived and the moral struggles of its titular character easily understood.
What I See in Oedipus Rex
The appeal to the emotional aspect of the play, which makes Oedipus Rex so relatable and, therefore, popular and well-known among modern audiences, can be explained by the differences in the contemporary concept of a theater and its representation through the lens of the Ancient Greek culture. According to Fainlight and Littman, the Ancient Greek theater as a cultural phenomenon could be described as the “emotional extension of the audience” (xxi), thus, serving as the bridge between the world of reality and the environment created by a narrator. In the case of Oedipus Rex, the specified technique was crucial for the play to appeal to its initial demographics since the audience had to be immersed into the atmosphere of horror that the lead character experienced, and understand his motivations when he turns his pain into an act of self-destruction and ultimately faces an exile. In the environment of the contemporary culture, the scenario might seem surreal since it is placed in the setting of an ancient world, yet the fact that the play makes the foundation for the Western literary canon should be brought to one’s attention as the main reason for contemporary viewers and readers to be thrilled by the trials and tribulations that the lead character experiences (Sophocles).
Oedipus Rex in the Current World
Therefore, on a personal level, the play appeals to a contemporary audience with its uninhibited emotions. On a deeper level, the suspense that the traditional three-act structure creates for readers also contributes to building the thrill and adding the emotional weight needed to sympathize with the lead character. However, what makes the play especially thrilling is the presence of the character that comprises the qualities that could be described as noble yet possess the inherent flaw that will define his further redemption arch and, later on, lead to the ultimate tragic finale. Termed as “hamartia” by Greek writers, the identified literary trope is extraordinarily old, yet it has managed to stand the test of time since it helps build a very compelling and strong character (Fainlight and Littman xxii). It should be noted that the idea of a strong character should not be conflated with the one that provides a positive role model for the reader. King Oedipus is by no stretch a positive character. While he faces his impending doom bravely, he makes the choices that were ethically questionable even at the time that the play was written, such as a murder of a man whom he barely knew and who did not intend to harm him (Sophocles). However, the flaws of the character and the mistakes that he makes help represent him as incredibly believable and, thus, very relatable, It is doubtful that any of contemporary readers have ever faced the conflict that King Oedipus has to handle, but they have definitely been in the situation that felt like this scenario.
Therefore, it is the “difficulty of knowing oneself” (Fainlight and Littman xvi) that makes Oedipus Rex so compelling and makes the play stand the test of time. Enjoyed by modern audiences and appealing to them on a very personal level, the play takes them on a surreal journey that places them outside of the context of time and culture. Defining the structure of contemporary plays as a literary genre, Oedipus Rex remains unsurpassed in all its well-deserved and terrifying glory.
Fainlight, Ruth and Robert J. Littman. Sophocles. The Theban Plays: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2010.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Translated by F. Storr. n.d. Web.