In “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex,” E. R. Dodds takes issue with three different opinions on Oedipus Rex. I consider the first two opinions, which Dodds gleaned from student papers, to be defensible from a close reading of the text. The first of these opinions is that Oedipus was a bad man, and was therefore punished by the gods; Dodds counters that Sophocles intended for us to regard him as good, noble, and selfless. But the play would seem to indicate that Oedipus, while a clever man, is not a good one — this can be shown through Dodds’ own source of argument, the attitude of the chorus, as well as through Oedipus’ own actions onstage. Oedipus does not, as Dodds asserts, unselfishly seek out the truth even though he knows it will be painful for him; rather, he has no idea what the outcome of his search will be, denies the truth at every turn, and threatens those who speak it. The second conclusion drawn by students — that Oedipus’ actions are entirely determined by the gods, who control him completely — Dodds pooh-poohs on the grounds that Oedipus is a free agent, acting on his own initiative. In fact, Dodds states, the idea of free will vs. determinism is a Hellenistic thought and would not have even occured to an audience of Sophocles’ time. I believe that, as all of Oedipus’ actions, including those over the course of the play, were determined before his birth, and he cannot avoid them although it is his will to do so, those actions cannot be construed as real choice. This play contains many post-Sophoclean ideas, such as denial, that (while not yet named by Greek society) still were understood by the audience.
In his rebuttal of the first opi…
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… look at it as Greeks would, isn’t this the same as saying that the play is meaningless to today’s readers? One of the wonders of classic texts is that every generation will find something new in them. This should not be looked upon as a sign of students’ ignorance, but rather of their ingenuity.
Works Cited and Consulted
Dodds, E. R. “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Michael J. O’Brien. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1968. 17-29.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New York: Penguin Books, 1940.
Knox, Bernard M. W. The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1964.
Sophocles. “Oedipus Rex.” An Introduction to Literature, 11th ed. Eds. Sylvan Barnet, et al. New York: Longman, 1997. 800-836.
Essay on Fate in Oedipus Rex and The Seagull
Role of Fate in Oedipus Rex and The Seagull
The inevitability of fate is a key theme in Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus Rex’ and in Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’. I was fascinated by the ways this inevitability was conveyed by Chekhov and Sophocles respectively and the ways in which the actions of the characters contributed to and heightened their fate. I shall attempt to compare and contrast the way in which Oedipus and, to a lesser extent, Nina make their fates more unbearable by their own actions and choices. In each case the author uses characterisation to enhance and increase the sense of inevitability and hence the sense of tragedy in the respective plays.
Sophocles has created his Oedipus not as innately evil but as a likeable character. It is this that makes the conclusion of his play even more tragic. Had Oedipus been presented as an evil character we would have felt much less sympathetic towards him, as it is Oedipus appears to be the very essence of goodness at the commencement of the play and in this way makes his downfall owing to a realisation of the truth even more dramatic. He is an ‘ideal king’ – one who feels for his people. This addition to a well-known story by Sophocles makes the resultant dramatic irony extremely effective.
His evident flaws of character make it plausible that he could have unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. He is human but at the start of the play his excessive pride, impetuousness and efficiency, all human failings, seem to obscure and divert his search for the truth. Furthermore, he is arrogant and conceited, particularly concerning his personal successes:
“Oedipus: Why, when the monster with her song was here, spak’st thou no word our countrymen to help? And yet the riddle lay above the ken…and called for prophets skill…but then I came…and slew her.”
These features of Oedipus’ personality lead him inevitably to assume that he, the great Oedipus, liberator of his people, could not possibly be the murderer that they seek. Hence, it is Oedipus’ inflated ego that causes his fate to be so severe and his downfall so great at the end of the play. Furthermore, despite Teiresias’ words early in the play, Oedipus refuses to believe the truth that he is responsible for Laios’ death. His arrogance leads him to unknowingly curse himself, thus making his fate worse: