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In the tragedy “Oedipus the King,” Sophocles raises one of the most important questions of his time – is an individual’s fate entirely controlled by gods or can it be shaped by the person’s will? It is possible to say that mythology, which served as the foundation for the ancient classical literature as a whole, was implemented and interpreted by every Greek dramatist in his own way. When speaking of Sophocles, he integrates the myth of Oedipus into the plot of the play in order to demonstrate a deep conflict between the will of gods and the will of human beings. While paying significant attention to the philosophical and theological issues, Sophocles aims to unfold the theme of relationships among individuals, society, and divine forces. Additionally, he tried to discuss the issue of unity between them.
The dramatist lived in times of intense cultural and political changes. New social tendencies were in the progress of development, and they challenged the old-fashioned, archaic worldviews held by the citizens. The ambiguous position of gods is the major concern in Sophocles’ play. The primary controversy in the public consciousness of Athenians was based on the conviction in the patronage of gods and the attempts to gain their support, on the one hand; and the necessity to make responsible decisions, and independently attain their realization, on the other hand. When put in the given context, the main character, Oedipus, is antagonized to the traditional perspectives on religion, society, and the world’s order. It means that the inclusion of the theme of disharmony between the individual and the collective i the play was triggered by the cultural and social trends formed within the Greek community of the 5th century B.C. To understand the significance of Sophocles’ ideas incorporated in “Oedipus the King,” in this paper, we will carry out a cultural and semantic analysis of the tragedy and evaluate how various social contexts had contributed to the creation of the play.
The Ritual and Social Function of Greek Tragedy
“Oedipus the King” was initially composed as a stage actor. Although now readers perceive the preserved text as an independent literary composition, it presents merely a part of the complete audio-visual text of the tragedy as it was performed in front of the spectators in Ancient Greece.
In Athens, theatrical performances had a ritual function. They were staged only during particular five days in the Athenian month of Elaphebolion (Berberović 36). These holidays were devoted to Dionysus, the patron of wine, and the giver of abundance. The coded religious rituals carried out at the festivals, and broad communal participation was the main prerequisites for the creation of theater and the development of spectatorship as such (Berberović 34). It means that the early theatrical performances in Greece had a sacred, religious meaning – they were a form of public worship. However, when analyzing Sophocles’ play in the given historical and cultural context, we may see that the thematic orientation of the tragedy, as well as its stage form, had already nothing in common with the ritual nature of the archaic festive rites, their ecstaticism, billy goat attributes, and so on. The thematic changes point at the cultural shifts that occurred in Athens by the middle of the millennium – the civilization became more mature, and the pure cosmic-divine context of the ritual turned into a divine-civic, polis context.
It is possible to say that, in his play, Sophocles rethinks the festive rituals and endows them with a secondary metaphoric meaning. While celebrations of death and rebirth were first related to the image of Dionysius, in the 5th century B.C. they were perceived in relation to the civil community. In this way, the polis, as a form of social-political organization, gained a ritualistic power and became the semantic center of the Greek tragedy. While, initially, the ritual implied an “imitation of the divine acts of gods” (Berberović 32), during Sophocles’ life, it became a reproduction of an event-precedent symbolizing a deadly threat to the community and sacrifice which ensured its survival. It means that the shift from a purely religious function to the social one was made in Greek tragedy, and these social implications can be traced in Sophocles’ play as well.
Based on the historical review of Greek tragedy, it is possible to say that the content of “Oedipus the King” is a dramatic description of the event with a precedential meaning – a sacrificial rescue of the polis. Researchers observe that, in his plays, Sophocles locates the values and attitudes which have importance for the public, communal existence rather than individuals (Dressler 515). The fact that the revelations made by Oedipus during the course of the play cannot be related to the characters individually but were in close associations with the collective served as a psychological basis for the creation of an impersonal, public meaning. The myth of Oedipus is known since the Homeric age (Cybulska par. 1), and Athenian spectators were, undoubtedly, well acquainted with it. The myth was not about a particular character or city but about life itself, and the world order as a whole, i.e., it was related to every single person in Greek society. The misfortunes which happened once to “young sons and daughters of old Cadmus” can occur in the lives of others as well (Sophocles 1). The final lines of the tragedy clearly state this idea:
“Look upon that last day always. Count no mortal happy
till he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain” (Sophocles 23).
At the same time, although Sophocles derives the major theme of the play from the original myth, he modifies it in a way that strengthens the dramatic effect. “Sophocles builds down and builds up: he builds down from the traditional situation and the mental attitudes which the action implies and he builds up from observation of life in such a way as to create credibility and encourage emotional response” (Raeburn 85). The tragedian makes characters more complex than his precursors and incorporates various moral stances in the narration. Such modifications helped to add psychological, internal conflicts to the text.
The Collective Worldview in the Tragedy
The world in which the characters of “Oedipus the King” live is geographically limited. It covers the territory from Parnassus to Cithaeron and comprises the cities of Thebes and Corinth. Since the rest of the land is not included in the system of action, it is regarded as foreign. For instance, when Teiresias talks about the exile of Laius’ killer, who is not named in the play as yet, he says:
“he shall go journeying to a foreign country
tapping his way before him with a stick” (Sophocles 7).
In the metaphysical dimension, the picture of the world identified in the tragedy includes both terrestrial and belowground forms of being. This structure of the world is mentioned by the characters many times. For example:
“Do you know who your parents are? Unknowing
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485 you are an enemy to kith and kin
in death, beneath the earth, and in this life” (Sophocles 7).
Overall, gods do not have any particular localization in the worldview presented in the tragedy. However, the natural sites, such as the mountains Parnassus and Cithaeron are endowed with divine qualities and are frequently addressed to as gods. For instance, the chorus sings:
“If I am a prophet and wise of heart
you shall not fail, Cithaeron,
1245 by the limitless sky, you shall not!—
to know at tomorrow’s full moon
that Oedipus honors you,
as native to him and mother and nurse at once” (Sophocles 17).
At the same time, in certain circumstances, human beings may be equal to gods as well. An old blind prophet, Teiresias, “versed in everything, things teachable and things not to be spoken, things of the heaven and earth-creeping things” is one of the examples of it (Sophocles 5).
Of course, there is no sufficient evidence to substantiate the assumption that Athenian citizens perceived the world in such a simplistic way as it is described in “Oedipus the King.” There were a lot of sailors, traders, craftsmen, warriors, politicians, and other important figures among Athenians. Thus, according to the criteria of the ancient times, they had a relatively spacious mind and well-developed practical grasp. However, we may presume that the imaginary world of the tragedy and the Athenian community shared one common feature. That is the mythological understanding of the world’s order. In other words, although the two societies differed in the content of knowledge and the degree of awareness, they were similar in the way according to which their knowledge was organized.
The Conflict of Views
The dramatic effect in the tragedy derives from the victim’s ability to reflect on the circumstances, as well as and his adverse position. The fixation of these skills of self-reflection was a significant landmark in the literature, and this achievement could not be possible without the contribution by Sophocles and his prominent contemporaries (Raeburn 85).
The conflicts present in the tragedy reveal that the detachment of the individual from the collective worldview was still in progress at those early times. For instance, contrasted to Oedipus, the character of Jocasta serves as an image of the traditional, impersonal position of the human being in the world. According to this point of view, an individual remains unaware of own destiny, has no responsibility, and cannot influence the course of events:
“Do not concern yourself about this matter;
listen to me and learn that human beings
815 have no part in the craft of prophecy” (Sophocles 11).
Oedipus’ acknowledgment of liability for own actions is a new, unconventional way of thinking, and it does not fit in the mythological nature of the ancient world. The given conflict of views constitutes the basis of the tragedy. In the profoundly impersonal archaic society, Oedipus’ persistent aspiration to follow the oracle’s advice looks like an unbridled act of self-will although it is hard to find anything besides the desire for the honest fulfillment of the duty in his motives and actions.
In case Oedipus adhered to the commonly accepted structure of social behavior, there could be no tragedy, and the play would resemble a happy fairytale. However, he violates the taboo and admits the guilt. And when the narration reaches this point, another conflict comes into existence because it is not clear before what forces did Oedipus stand guilty – was it God, cosmos, family, people, society, or something else? The given situation can be evaluated from two sides: internal and external. Oedipus struggles with it internally, while spectators or readers – externally. Two different points of view are connected by the prophecy or gods’ knowledge about everything that truly happens to the human. On the one hand, a traveler kills the king, but he is not aware that the king is his father. Then, this man takes reign, but he does not know that the king’s widow is his mother. There are the gaps in the character’s knowledge, yet the gods have a holistic view of his life. It means that the prophecy announced after Laius’ son was born is nothing but the knowledge of the things which will inevitably happen because it is predestined in the mythological worldview. In this way, the perspective of a well-informed Oracle entirely coincides with the external spectators’ point of view, while Oedipus is left alone with the mystery of his fate.
According to Fosso, the conflict between the mythological-collective and individual perspectives on the human existence reveal the Athenian citizens’ skepticism about oracles and their ministers (36). The play served as a “sly forum for interrogating the era’s structures of certitude and conviction: as an unsettling of myth and even as a timely Socratic drama of perplexed unknowing” (Fosso 36). In this way, over two thousand years ago, two conflicting views on the world and the individual’s place in it converged on the stage at the Dionysia in Athens. One of them was folkloric-mythological and mirrored a centuries-old tradition, in which nature, polis, and gods lived in a continual, undisrupted harmony. Another perspective presented a previously unknown picture of the world to the public and protected individuals’ interests and positions. The first, mythological view implies a well-established order and balance. However, the personal experiences, psychological tensions, and the sense of guilt are excluded from the myth. It does not provide an opportunity to scrutinize the character. The integration of an individual point of view in the tragedy was a creative task completed by Sophocles in the play.
Although Sophocles adhered to the major lines from the original myth of Oedipus, he also incorporated some psychological connotations in the literary work. If the dramatist did not modify the myth, there could be no psychological tragedy privately experienced by the character and the dramatic effect could be based merely on the external evaluation of Oedipus’ fate. Sophocles modified the myth into the human drama where the internal psychological conflicts and social problems are in the forefront.
In the play, Sophocles debates various points of views on developmental tendencies in the society but not in a conclusive way. Overall, the dramatist’s perspective on the discussed issue is complex. The analysis reveals that although Sophocles could have shared the fellow citizens’ skepticism about gods and oracles, he also acknowledged the divine predestination. At the same time, he showed the human being as free in his or her endeavors to influence the fate in a challenging environment associated with disharmony and individuals’ isolation. He emphasized the value of self-responsibility and will. Thus, Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” is not merely a tragedy of the fate, but the drama of a human’s spiritual liberty, the freedom which a person acquires by showing courage in the midst of multiple blows of fate.
Berberović, Nadja. “Ritual, Myth and Tragedy: Origins of Theatre in Dionysian Rites.” Epiphany, vol. 8, no. 1, 2015, pp. 31-38.
Cybulska, Eva. “Oedipus: A Thinker at the Crossroads.” Philosophy Now, 2009, Web.
Dressler, Alex. “Oedipus on Oedipus: Sophocles, Seneca, Politics, and Therapy.” A Companion to Sophocles, edited by Kirk Ormand, Wiley-Blackwell, 2015, pp. 507-523.
Fosso, Kurt. “Oedipus Crux: Reasonable Doubt in “Oedipus the King.” College Literature, vol. 39, no. 3, 2012, pp. 26-60.
Raeburn, David. Greek Tragedies as Plays for Performance. Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Kafkas University, 2009. Academic Information System, Web.