Sophocles Oedipus Rex Essay, Research Paper
Tragedy was performed in Athens at the annual festival of Dionysus, the Great, or the City, Dionysia in late March. Competition was held on three successive mornings of the festival. Three tragic poets, who had been selected earlier in the year, each presented a tetralogy, consisting of three tragedies and a satyr play. Additional festivities included comic and dithyrambic contests, religious processions and rituals of various kinds. At the close of the festival ten judges chosen by lot determined the winners and awarded the prizes.
The poets wrote the plays, composed accompanying music, directed the production, supervised rehearsals, and in earlier times acted the role of the protagonist. The choregus, who paid the cost of the production, was a wealthy citizen appointed by the government to do this public service. In turn the choregus shared the praise and the awards won by the poet. Tickets were originally free since attendance was seen as a civic and religious obligation as well as entertainment. Eventually there was a charge for the tickets; however, the state provided funds for citizens who could not afford the price.
Tragedy developed from ancient dithyramb or choral lyric, which was sung by the male chorus in honor of the god Dionysus at his annual festivals. Performances included group dancing and some brief dialogue between the leader and the chorus.
The dithyramb was at first a crude improvisation based on the myths about Dionysus; it may have taken the form of a rough burlesque or satire from the satyr play. In time it came to have a more formal, artistic structure and its content was expanded to include stories from the whole legendary tradition. Radical transformation in approach, a serious philosophical approach, replaced the older boisterousness. The addition of an actor allowed more complicated and lengthy stories to be included.
Thespis, the father of drama, first used an actor in his productions, and was responsible for several innovations. In 534 B.C. Thespis put on his first tragedy at the festival of Dionysus at Athens. Aeschylus wrote the first tragedy in the sense the word is used today. Tragic performances remained an important element in the civic worship of Dionysus. The dithyramb also developed along independent lines as a choral medium.
The plots were taken from the great cycles of mythology. Myths and legends recorded what was thought to be the collective social, political and religious history of the people. These stories included many problems of human life and the nature of the gods. The custom requiring use of these mythological stories in tragedy satisfied an essential requirement of the religious function of the drama, for it enabled the poets to deal with subjects of great moral dignity and emotional significance.
From a dramatic point of view, the use of plots and characters already familiar to the audience gave the poets many opportunities for the use of irony and subtle allusions that are not available to the modern playwright.
Theaters were built in the open air, and were sometimes quite large; the Theater of Dionysus at Athens had 17,000 seats. They were usually built in hollowed out hillsides, insuring excellent acoustics. The theatron was the area in which the audience sat; horseshoe-shaped, the rows of seats rose upward and backward in tiers. The first row of seats were stone thrones for principal citizens and the priest of Dionysus. The orchestra, the dancing place of the chorus, was a circular area at ground level, enclosed on three sides by the U-shaped theatron. The thymele in the center of the orchestra was an altar to Dionysus on which sacrifices were made. The altar was sometimes used as a stage prop during plays. The right and left entrance passages were called the parodoi.
The chorus assembled in the orchestra after marching in through the right or left parodos, and remained there during the rest of the performance. The flute player and occasional harpist who provided musical accompaniment for the tragedies generally sat in a corner of the orchestra.
Situated on the side of the orchestra, which formed an open end to the theatron, was a wooden building, the skene, used as a dressing room for actors. Its facade was usually made to resemble a palace or temple, which served as a backdrop for the action of the play. The three doors of the skene were used for entrances and exits.
The level area in front of the skene was called the proscenium. The proscenium was where the action of the plays took place; there was no curtain. Although the proscenium may have been raised one step higher than the orchestra, there was no elevated stage.
There were items of technical equipment in use. For special effects there were devices for imitating lightning and the sound of thunder, and there were other noise makers. The eccyclema was a wheeled platform which was rolled out of the skene to reveal a tableau of action which had taken place indoors, mainly scenes of violence. The machine was a kind of derrick that could be mounted on the roof of the skene and was used to bring about the miraculous appearance of the gods.
The actors, all male, wore elaborate formal costumes and masks that emphasized the dominant traits of the characters they were impersonating. They had to be competent singers because many of their lines were chanted to music. The mode of action was conventional and stylized rather than naturalistic. The acting could not have been too artificial since many scenes called for lively, realistic action, by their standards, if not by ours.
The chorus, the nucleus from which tragedy evolved, continued to have a central place in the drama throughout classical times. The use of the chorus varied depending on the method of the playwright and the needs of the play being performed. The chorus often acted as the ideal spectator, as in Oedipus Rex, wherein it clarifies the experiences and the feelings of the characters in everyday terms and expresses the conventional attitude toward the developments in the story. In general the tragedians used the chorus: one, to create its odes; two, to introduce and question new characters; three, to point out significance of events as they occurred; four, to establish facts; five, to affirm the outlook of society: and, six, to cover the passage of time between events; seven, to separate episodes.
At a typical performance of tragedy in the fifth century, the chorus marched into the orchestra chanting the parados and remained there until the end of the play. At various points it divided into semi-choruses and moved around the orchestra to suit the requirements of the play, but its most important moments came when it sang the choral odes to music, accompanied by the stylized gestures and a series of intricate group dances. At times the chorus also engaged in lyrical dialogue, kommos, with one of the characters and made brief comments or inquiries during the course of an episode.
The trend in tragedy was toward a decline in the importance of the chorus. This was caused mainly by the introduction of additional actors and increasing sophistication in their dramatic use, and by the more personal and complex nature of the stories chosen for dramatization. With the passage of time the proportion of choral to individual lines decreased significantly, and the dramatic functions of the chorus, aside from the continued use of choral odes, which were performed between episodes, were greatly reduced.
Classical tragedies were composed within a definite structural framework, although there were occasional minor variations in some plays. Greek tragedy was performed without intermissions or breaks. The Prologue is the opening scene, in which the background of the story is established, usually by a single actor, or in a dialogue between two actors. The Parados was the entrance of the chorus, usually chanting a lyric which bore some relation to the main theme of the play. The Episode is the counterpart of the modern act or scene, in which the plot is developed through action and dialogue between the actors, while the chorus sometimes plays a minor role. The Stasimon, a choral ode, came at the end of each episode so that the tragedy is a measured alternation between episode and choral comment. The Exodos was the final action after the last stasimon, ended by the ceremonial exit of all the players.
Each culture must necessarily possess its own destiny-idea. Each culture is nothing but the actualizing and form of a single, singularly constituted (einzigartig) soul. The sense-actual person of Oedipus, his empirical ego, is hunted and thrown by Destiny. Oedipus complains that Creon misused his body and the oracle applied to his body . There is no pure-soul agony in Oedipus. The West developed Character-Drama; the Greeks developed Situation Drama, what man feels as the basic life form is what is imperiled by the onset of tragedy and fate. It is time that is tragic, and it is the meaning that one Culture differentiated from the other. The Classical mind developed tragedy of a moment; the West developed a whole life as tragedy. The West saw an inexorable Logic of Becoming; the Greeks saw an illogical, blind Casual of the Moment. 1
Kitto discusses a permanent feature of Greek thought that the universe, both the physical and moral universe, must not only be rational, and therefore knowable, but also simple; the apparent multiplicity of physical things is only superficial.2 The Greek is not trying to give a representative picture of life, but to express one conception as forcibly and as clearly as he can.3 Greek plays are built on a single conception and nothing that does not directly contribute is to admitted.4
Oedipus expresses not so much man s guilt or exile, as his ineluctable lot, the stark realities, which are and always will be. In Greek tragedy there is little pining for a lost Golden Age, or yearning for utopia, redemotion, or heavenly restitution. But if it stresses man s fate, it does not deny him freedom. Dramatic action assumes freedom; without it no tragedy can be written. Oedipus is less concerned with ultimate things than with things here and now; less with man and the gods as they should be than with man and the gods as they are.
The Greeks had no One God, no Code, no Covenant, or sacred Scriptures. Though they knew their gods had a part in every breeze that blew, in every vital force, and in every human action, the nature of divine participation in human affairs was unpredictable. One did not know why at any moment happiness or safety or plenty would be denied. The ways of the gods were reflected in the precarious and uncertain conditions of existence. Legends told of changes of dynasty even in heaven. Though some gods behaved better than others toward man, the Greeks expected perfect justice from none of them. Piety consisted in doing nothing to anger the gods, and in pleasing, or appeasing them through offerings. A Greek s fondest wish was that the gods would leave him alone. Fate, to which in a mysterious way the gods themselves were subject, was an impersonal force decreeing ultimate things only, and unconcerned with day by day affairs.
Beyond this Greek theology did not go. The State could regulate religious festivals and in times of political tension try a Socrates for atheism. The Homeric tales helped mold and guide the Greek imagination, but each individual, each new poet or philosopher made of them what he could. They combine many useful truths: how heroes behaved, what heroic virtues were, and how to be a good Greek, but not the Truth of Revelation. The Greeks could be said to have an open society, as the Hebrews in their Decalogue and Prophecy did not.
This dangerous freedom added an unique terror to the Greek tragic vision, but at the same time made the Greek drama possible. The terror lay in this: that, in extremity, the individual man was singularly unaccommodated and alone; he could not trust in the goodness of God or abide under the shadow of the Almighty; he could expect no recompense for a blameless life, nor, if he had sinned, could he put any hope in repentance and a contrite heart. But if there were no orthodoxy to comfort and sustain him, there was none either to confine or circumscribe. Greek culture nourished an atmosphere hospitable to drama, which became at its height an important medium of instruction in the deepest matters of human life and destiny. Here the Greek could witness the disparate elements of his life brought together in a viable aesthetic if not moral synthesis. What the materials of the Greek religion myth, folklore, legend did with these disparate elements was so contradictory and/or sketchy that for the thoughtful Greek it must have given cause for little more than a quiet speculation or quiet amusement. but the very formlessness of these materials gave good cause to the Greek tragic theaters, where in the presence of the gods themselves the tragedies brought them into formal and vital relationship with the affairs of man. The poets submitted their culture to the same critical and creative process that the poet of Job had exercised on the folk story. Out of the contradictions and conflicting claims of legend and myth, which in actual practice they saw making havoc of the lives of men, they too hammered out a new form.
The political and social reforms of Pisistratus in the Sixth Century strengthened Athens in all ways, and gave it a new sense of dignity and power. His encouragement of the arts and the institution of the great festivals, at which in the next century the dramatic contests were held, prepared the way externally for tragedy. The victory at Marathon gave to the Athenians the same spur and tonic that Elizabethan England knew after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. National vitality and nerve, essential to creativeness of any sort, were high. The threat from the East, though successfully overcome, brought about a crisis in Athenian affairs in which, as in any war situation, traditional values were brought into new focus; a new way of thinking and a new self-consciousness emerged. Athenian democracy under Pericles, who built the Parthenon and the Proplyaea and counted Sophocles among his friends, provided the ideal milieu for their expression. Untold new possibilities were at hand, new discoveries were imminent. In war, politics, and trade, and the manual arts, the Greeks were learning what they could do; they were preparing to learn from the tragedians and the philosophers who they were.
The Greek vision focused on the immediacy of experience and on the nature of man: Man is free, but fated, fated but free. What qualities does he reveal? Through suffering, what does he learn, not about the gods, for they are simply given , but about himself? Oepidus the King is Sophocles farthest penetration into these mysteries.
The story of Oedipus is of a man plunged suddenly from prosperity and power to ruin and disrepute. We see him at the height and the depth of his worldly fortunes. Oedipus, whom in the first scene the Priest calls the first of men, to whom all knees are bent, is at the end of the play polluted, blind, banished from the land he ruled and loved and from the people who lovingly obeyed him. The problem raised by this play is: is there justice in a world, where, for no reason clear to ethical understanding, the worst happens to the best? Oedipus can not be held accountable for his sufferings. He had faults of temper and pride and he made mistakes in judgment. But Sophocles does not present him as a guilty man. The slaying of his father was done in ambiguous circumstances and in ignorance of Laius identity, nor did he know that Jocasta was his mother when he married her. The play presents a mystery, the stubborn and destructive stuff of experience as man meets it on the way. Why do such things happen? All attempts to rationalize the play, to remove the secret cause fail; Oedipus search for his own identity is of course capable of large extension. Who am I? is a variant of Job s What is man? The answer is not that Oedipus is a sinner being punished by righteous gods, or an innocent man trapped by unconscious sexual jealousy of his father or as the Chorus says finally, a man better off dead. The answer is in all that Oedipus says, does and becomes, all that is implicit in image and metaphor; all that is revealed through the rapid and relentless dialectic of the action.
No analysis can convey more than a part of the rich meaning of the play. What emerges is not a doctrine or a system; it is rather an impression or sense of life. The hard, discrete particularities are brought into a kind of unity, but it is ambiguous, precarious, unfinal. We are left with images that cling, that fascinate and horrify, attract and repeal, whose meanings cannot be stated precisely or ever fully reckoned. The meanings change and accrue with the advancing action, and afterwards in our thoughts. Sophocles, accepting the terms of Oedipus situation as in the old story, sets him free, though fated, free to open his mouth in the midst of his afflictions. Oedipus speaks as much through actions as through words, and the precise or full meaning of what he does is forever beyond our reach. What mysterious dynamic within him impels him to pursue his quest so tenaciously? No god was at his shoulders. Why did he blind himself? As he gives reason after reason, each one loses it cogency. At the end of the play much remains to be seen, to praise, to blame and much to wonder at. What we thought was impossible has happened. The destructive element has yielded more than destruction.
The first of the images that cling, and the play s first intimation of human condition, is the plague-stricken city of Thebes. It stands to the play as the afflictions of Job stands in The Book of Job. It is the permanent backdrop of the play, the steady reminder of the precariousness of our lot, of the blight man was born for. The play opens at the point of crisis in the city s affairs. Normal life is suspended and survival is threatened. Prayer and sacrifices have been unavailing. The people turn in despair to Oedipus, who saved them from a similar fate before. But against this setting another situation unfolds, involving Oedipus not as king and savior but as an individual human being, a situation so horrible in its possibilities that the people, engrossed in the new revelation, all but forget their own afflictions.