Sophocles, who was born in Colonus Hippius (now part of Athens), is thought by many modern scholars to be the greatest of the Greek tragedians. Around 430 BC, Sophocles wrote Oedipus Tyrannus, also known as Oedipus Rex. Oedipus Rex set the standard for Greek tragedy, and is regarded today as a work of genius. The philosopher Aristotle even went as far to consider it the most perfect of all the Greek tragedies. There are several reasons that this work is held in such high regard. One such reason is that it creates a healthy sense of confusion of pleasure and disquietude in the reader.
Oedipus Rex takes place during the course of a day and uses flashback to fill in the details of the story. It tells of the cursed man Oedipus, who was born to Laius and Iocaste, the King and Queen of Thebes. It was prophesied by an Oracle that when Oedipus grew up he would kill his father, marry his mother, and father her children. Fearing this, Iocaste and Laius pierce the child’s ankles and leave him on a hillside to die. Unknown to them, a messenger finds Oedipus and nurses him back to health. Eventually, Oedipus is adopted by the King and Queen of Colonus. When he grows up, unknowing of his adoption, he discovers his doomed fate from an Oracle. Seeking to escape it, he flees from Colonus. Once upon the road, Oedipus discovers his path blocked by a man, whom he perceives to be a robber. He kills this man, who turns out to be his father, and unknowingly fulfills the first part of the prophecy. Soon, he comes to Thebes, which is being terrorized by a terrible monster, the Sphinx. The Sphinx wanders the streets surrounding the city, asking travelers an unanswered riddle. Oedipus encounters the Sphinx, and answers its riddle, causing the Sphinx to kill herself in disbelief. The citizens of Thebes, who have recently found themselves kingless, appoint Oedipus king and give him Queen Iocaste for his wife as a reward. The couple live together happily and produce four children. Some years later, the city is beset by a terrible plague. It is prophesied that the only way to cure the city is to find the killer of the previous king, and bring him to justice. Oedipus, who wishes to solve the city’s peril, relentlessly seeks out the answer to the problem. He soon discovers the hideous truth; he has killed his father, married his mother, and fathered her children. He returns home to find that his wife/mother has committed suicide, and, unable to deal with the reality of this wretched reality, he takes the broaches from her gown and gouges his eyes out.
The gruesome details of this story make for several examples of disquietude. The most obvious example occurs when Oedipus Gouges his eyes out with Iocaste’s broaches. This scene is vividly described by the Chorus of Theban Elders, “Deep, how deep you drew it then, hard archer, At a dim fearful range, And brought dear glory down”. Not only is this scene physically disturbing, but it is emotionally disturbing due to the dramatic irony. Oedipus, before this, was blinded by his intellectual arrogance. Now, he has been humbled by fate and sees his mistakes, but is physically blind. Along with this example, there are two other examples of disturbing physical events. They occur when Iocaste hangs herself and when young Oedipus’ ankles are pierced and he is left to die on the hillside. There are also two other significant emotional examples. Oedipus’ hearing of the prophecy and then having to see it come true despite all he has done to prevent it is one. The other occurs due to Oedipus’ search for the truth. The audience knows the truth of Oedipus’ fate, yet he still seeks to find it. This search creates an overwhelming sense of anxiety in the reader as Oedipus marches unknowingly towards his doom.
One would think that due to the grim nature of this play there are few examples of pleasure. There are, however, subtle instances of pleasure that effectively create a healthy sense of confusion in the reader. Despite failing to abate the disturbing feelings created by the actions of the play, the fact that the story’s events take place within one day and the plot is suspenseful and grabbing, make this play an effortless one to watch or read. Also, the reader ultimately receives a sense of pleasure due to the closure caused by justice being served at the finale of the play and Oedipus being punished. Additionally, there is a sense of pleasure derived when Oedipus discovers the truth of his fate. The feeling that his mad quest for the truth is finally over gives the reader a sense of relief. Teiresias’ vindication at the end of the play, after being denounced by Oedipus in the beginning for prophesying the truth, also provides pleasure. Finally, Sophocles’ use of universal themes creates pleasure by allowing the reader to relate to the story. The theme and moral of the play, which is clearly stated by Iocaste when she says, “Since Fate rules us and nothing can be foreseen? A man should live only for the present day.”, is a something that many people can associate with their personal beliefs.
As the play ends, the plague upon the city disappears, and Oedipus is punished for his crimes. At conclusion, the reader is left with a sense of both pleasure and disquietude. Sophocles, by using of instances of both, creates an emotional confusion in the reader that evokes a great sense of awareness. In addition, Sophocles uses themes that are universal to humanity regardless of time. The classic Sohpoclean theme of an individual attempting to defy divine will and make his own fate is one that many individuals will grasp. This theme, and the senses evoked by the contrasting emotions of pleasure and disquietude, provide for a classic tragedy that has and will continue to live on for the ages.