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Essay/Term paper: Irony, arrogance, and oedipus

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Oedipus

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"Listen to me. You mock my blindness, do you?/ But I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind" (I, 195-196). With these memorable words, the sightless prophet Teiresias all but paints the entire tragic story of Sophocles' Oedipus the King, one of the most prominent pieces of Greek literary heritage. Greeks knew and loved the story of Oedipus from childhood, just as children today cherish the story of Cinderella. In his version of the beloved tale, Sophocles concentrates his attention on the events directly leading to Oedipus' destruction, portraying Oedipus as a helpless pawn of fate. The most prominent literary device is dramatic irony, primarily of the spoken word, through which--especially in the Prologue--Sophocles captures audience attention, illuminates Oedipus' arrogant personality, and foreshadows the events of the final scenes.

It is not difficult to understand why Sophocles resorts to dramatic irony in the construction of his play. He is working with much the same problem a modern-day playwright would face in fashioning a play around the Cinderella motif: audience familiarity, leading to a lack of suspense. It is difficult to maintain audience interest when the conclusion and the events leading up to it are obvious to everyone. To circumvent this difficulty, Sophocles saturates his play with dramatic irony, riveting the audience with the awareness that they know more than Oedipus, letting them cringe with the delicious knowledge of the misfortunes he will face. Sophocles employs the blindness of Oedipus to such advantage that he creates an atmosphere similar in many respects to that of a modern horror film. The audience knows the destination well and has probably been there before, but the journey is too pleasurable to forego.

Understandably, it is the Prologue that is richest in dramatic irony, because in that scene, everyone concerned is still in complete darkness to the truth and their ignorance therefore causes their words to carry far greater weight. Oedipus comes out to the people, moved with compassion at their suffering, and says to their spokesman the Priest: "Tell me, and never doubt that I will help you/In every way I can; I should be heartless/Were I not moved to find you suppliant here" (Prologue 12-14). He will help them in any way he can: an awesome promise, for he little knows what it will cost him. To help his beloved city he will eventually harm his family, his loved ones, and himself; even the city will be hurt as it loses its august hero and protector. As he presents his petition, the Priest describes Oedipus as "the man surest in mortal ways/And wisest in the ways of God. . . ." (Prologue 36-37). The contrast is striking: the very man considered the most righteous and wise of his age--the man to whom they turn for help--is the same man who has committed two of the most grievous possible sins in Greek culture, incest and parricide, and brought the plague upon the people.

The words of this opening dialogue reveal much about Oedipus' character. Everyone presented so far is blind to the truth; but the ignorance of the people is understandable: they adore him for freeing the city from the Sphinx, and for comporting himself with dignity and justice as their ruler; they have come to revere him as one directly inspired by the gods (Prologue 34-42). To imagine that he could be at fault in the present tribulation is simply unthinkable. Oedipus, however, cannot be excused so lightly. Even in the solicitous manner with which he addresses the people we see evidence of the arrogance and haughtiness that figure so prominently later: "Sick as you are, not one is as sick as I," he says (Prologue 62). There is no denying that he feels deeply for his people. The problem is that in his attempt to express his emotion and convey the image of an empathetic ruler, he takes too much credit to himself. To claim that he is suffering the most of anyone sounds noble, but it is unjustified; a man of his temperament is unlikely to express such mental anguish (except it pertain to a personal affront!), and neither he nor his family has yet been affected by the plague. Oedipus here demonstrates the overbearing, impetuous personality that brought about the entire situation in the first place. The irony, of course, is that he says far more than he realizes. He uses the word sick in two different senses: physical illness and emotional distress. In his blindness, he does not see what is apparent to the audience (especially one reading an English translation): He is "sick" in yet a third way, for in his twofold crime of coming "to his father's bed, wet with his father's blood" (I, 242), as Teiresias expresses it later, he has committed vile perversion. Oedipus' condition is far more serious than he can possibly imagine.

As Oedipus speaks with the people, his brother-in-law Creon, whom he had sent to inquire of the Oracle at Delphi, returns with a message from the gods. With characteristic rashness, Oedipus has only seconds before vowed to fulfill whatever "act or pledge of mine may save the city" (Prologue 74, emphasis added). Having allowed the adulation of the people to go to his head, he cannot shake the vision of hero-protector; he still arrogantly regards himself as the sole hope of the city: ". . . I should do ill/To scant whatever duty God reveals," he proclaims (Prologue 79). At this point, his delusions are masked by his concern for the people; yet they foreshadow the ugly hubris he will manifest plainly in Scenes I and II as he basely accuses Teiresias and Creon of treachery for revealing the truth. Oedipus' self-perception, though delusive, is at the same time accurate--in a savagely ironic way. Seated on the throne of Thebes crowned with glory and honor, Oedipus does not anticipate the fury with which the gods look down upon him, and he remains unaware that he alone can propitiate them. He desires to root out the brigand that has caused his people so much suffering and is prepared to make the sacrifice necessary to save his city, but not in the fashion required of him.

Interestingly, the return of Creon casts a shadow of uneasiness over Oedipus. When Creon greets him with what appears to be good news, ". . . great afflictions/Will turn out well, if they are taken well," Oedipus replies, ". . . These vague words/Leave me still hanging between hope and fear" (Prologue 88-89, 90-91). It is not clear why Oedipus reacts in this fashion, but the faceless apprehension that surfaces here will continue to grow as he pursues the truth, driving him to an almost maniacally desperate singleness of purpose. As usual, unable to resist the temptation to self-promotion, he directs Creon to reveal the oracle before all the people. His reaction to the oracle is peculiar: he is not only fired with the zeal to execute justice one would expect from a ruler of his disposition, but also filled with a sense of dark foreboding, as if he vaguely senses the tragedy that awaits. Musing over the death of Laïos at the hands of highwaymen as described by Creon, Oedipus utters one of the most fascinating pieces of dramatic irony in the entire play: "Strange, that a highwayman should be so daring . . ." (Prologue 124, emphasis added). The difference in English is barely a minor slip of the tongue, but it is still impressive in its gravity; its impact could not fail to have been appreciated by a Greek audience, in whose inflected language the difference between singular and plural forms is much more significant. Oedipus has no way of knowing that he himself is that highwayman; yet by a quirk of fate, instinct, or conscience, he limits of the murder of Laïos to one man. Perhaps he is subconsciously aware of similarities between the two crimes, but his imprecatory oration of Scene I and ensuing behavior make it clear that he has in no way associated himself with the murderer, a thought his pride would have prevented regardless.

Rather than clearing Oedipus' head for action, as it should have, the conversation with Creon swells it: "Then once more I must bring what is dark to light" (Prologue 133). Oedipus, destroyer of the Sphinx, savior of Thebes, once more has a riddle to solve. His motives are not entirely altruistic, however: "Whoever killed King Laïos might . . . /Decide at any moment to kill me as well./By avenging the murdered king I protect myself" (Prologue 140-143). It seems clear here, and even more so in Scene II when he accuses Creon of seeking to overthrow him, that for all his beneficent demeanor and despite the adoration of his subjects, Oedipus has never felt secure on his throne. He sees in this a crisis a prime opportunity to both give an unforgettable demonstration of the consequences of treason (specifically, regicide) and increase his stature with his subjects. He seeks to make the name of Oedipus a force to be reckoned with, a terror to evildoers. And, frankly, he desires to perpetuate his name by elevating himself to celebrity status. One can almost hear the gods laughing as Oedipus builds his air castles. Oedipus shall indeed perpetuate his name--in one of the most horrible ways imaginable. He will indeed save Thebes--but he will destroy himself in the process. His name will become a byword forever. He will leave an unending legacy not of glory and fame but of infamy and shame.

Through Oedipus the King Sophocles presents the paradox of a man whose good side causes harm and whose bad side works good. The character of Oedipus itself is one vicious irony, for his virtues devolve into virulent vices that wreak his complete destruction. Though the story he tells is a heartbreaking and predictable tragedy, Sophocles masterfully employs the tools of his craft to fashion a drama that has captured the fascination of untold generations. Perhaps therein lies the ultimate irony: The name of Oedipus will always be cloaked in a pall of darkest ignominy, but that of Sophocles remains forever radiant in brightest glory.

 

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