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Oedipus The King

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Sophocles uses a mixture of both visual and emotional imagery to create the morally questioning Greek tragedy 'Oedipus Tyrannos'. He presents the audience with an intense drama that addresses the reality and importance of the gods that the Greeks fervently believed in. "Sophocles holds that for mortals, modesty is the safest and most decent frame of mind. His gods will not abide our question" (Sheppard, 46). The play also forces the audience to ask themselves if there is such a concept as fate. What Oedipus does, what he says, and even who he is can sometimes be ironic. This irony can help us to see the character of Oedipus as truly a 'blind' man, or a wholly 'public' man.

From the very beginning of Oedipus, it is made clear "that his destiny be one of fate and worse." "His religious scruples, his obedience to the oracle, his patriotic energy, destroy him." (Sheppard, 69) The irony is that Oedipus unknowingly and repeatedly predicts his own fate: "It was I who called down these curses on that man" (Sophocles, 8). Oedipus unconsciously married his mother and killed his father, just as the Oracle predicted. Fate is proven to be unavoidable to Oedipus as the play shows a devout belief in the Greek gods. The gods are shown to have power over everything and everyone, and whoever ignores them will be cursed by the "darts no one escapes". Oedipus is someone who is seen to have ignored the Gods' warnings and therefore has brought a curse upon himself. Does Oedipus deserve his pitiful destiny and if it was so pre-decided, then why? It was yet again the God's powers.

One of the dramatic devices used in this play is Sophoclean Irony. Sophoclean Irony can be divided into two terms: unconscious and conscious irony. Unconscious irony occurs when a character speaks what he believes is the truth, but the audience (fore-armed with knowledge of the truth) knows that it is not. Conscious irony is evident when a character knows the truth but is reluctant to reveal it: thus, he speaks cryptic lines deliberately intended to be ironic. Our first example of unconscious irony can be seen in a discussion about Laius by Oedipus and Creon. Oedipus says about Laius: "I know: I learned of him from others: I never saw him." This passage constitutes unconscious irony as Oedipus believes that he is speaking the truth - that he never met Laius. Of course, the audience, armed with fore-knowledge, know that it is not. Oedipus not only has met Laius (his real father), he killed him at the crossroads "where three highways meet."

Our first example of conscious irony occurs later in scene I. Again, following Creon's advice, Oedipus decides to consult Tiresias, a famed blind prophet. Armed with mystical ability, Tiresias knows the truth about Oedipus's horrible fate. He knows that the King is doomed so he is reluctant to reveal what he knows. As he enters the stage, the old man says: "How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be when there is no help in truth. I know this well, but did not act on it. Else I should not have come." (Sophocles) Since he knows how horrible the truth is about Oedipus' fate, he is reluctant to reveal it. Thus, he speaks lines deliberately intended to be ironic

It may be difficult to avoid pitying Oedipus. Despite his obvious sins, he is shown to be a respectable and honest man: "I bear more pain for the people than for my own soul". Sophocles uses irony to increase your growing pity for Oedipus as he searches for the 'abomination' that is soon to be revealed as none other than himself: "That man must reveal himself to me". (Sophocles) A great irony is found in Oedipus's decree condemning the murderer. Oedipus says, "To avenge the city and the city's god, / And not as though it were for some distant friend, / But for my own sake, to be rid of evil. / Whoever killed King Laius might - who knows? - / Decide at any moment to kill me as well." Later he says, "As for the criminal, I pray to God - / Whether it be a lurking thief, or one of a number - / I pray that that man's life be consumed in evil and wretchedness." (Sophocles)

It is after these proclamations that the truth is slowly revealed to a "blind" Oedipus. The theme of sight, 'true' sight, and blindness also contains much irony. The first instance of this is in the scene between Teiresias and Oedipus. Teiresias plainly says, "You mock my blindness? But I say you, with both your eyes, are blind." (Sophocles) Oedipus, who saw plainly the riddle of the Sphinx, who is a great ruler over the city of Thebes, cannot see his own fate and his own life for what it is. He is trying to keep Oedipus from the truth because he knows the pain that will ensue afterwards. When Oedipus gouges out his own eyes, the difference between visual sight and insight is clearly represented: "Behold the evils I have suffered and done, Be dark from now on, since you saw before What you should not, and knew not what you should". (Sophocles, 48) Oedipus cannot bear to see the destruction that he has brought upon his family. "Would the sight of my children have been pleasant?" he asks himself, now left in the depths of shame. Due to the severe punishment that Oedipus inflicts upon himself it makes it difficult for one not to have respect and sympathy for him, as we are constantly reminded that he is "ill fated". The pity comes from a sense of reading the play in our time period, whereas Athenians wouldn't have viewed it this way.

Oedipus is considered a "tragic hero" from this point on in the story. Up until this point he is seen as trying to take care of his people and a good ruler of the city. "The modern concept of tragic drama takes for granted the existence of a single central character, whose action and suffering are the focal point of the play--- what we call 'the tragic hero'." (Knox, 1) If Oedipus had never been told the truth of his birth the thought comes that this could not have been a tragedy. At the same time the city of Thebes would have been left in ruin because the crime had never been punished. "The Sophoclean characters are responsible, through their action and intransigence, for the tragic consequences." (Knox, 5)

When we know the truth that Oedipus is the killer he speaks of, this statement becomes very ironic. Oedipus puts himself as his worst enemy, as he says later, "I think that I myself may be accurst / By my own ignorant edict." Oedipus makes many ironic statements throughout the play. One of the most poignant is when Oedipus makes a 'Freudian slip' and says 'highwayman' instead of highwaymen. This could suggest that Oedipus subconsciously

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