Monday, July 15, 2013

Becoming a Writer: Oedipus King

Oedipus at Colonus by Jean-Antoine-Theodore Gi...Image by mharrsch via Flickr
In his Poetics Aristotle says that Oedipus King is the model Greek tragedy because it is flawless in construction, and of unmatched tragic force. The plot develops convincingly with each new revelation, growing naturally from what has preceded, much like mathematicians when they prove a theorem. The process towards discovery and catharsis maintains a steady crescendo.

Only after Oedipus fears that the man he killed on the road to Thebes, does he intuit that he has killed his father Laius. Intrigue and tension mount. When the shepherd — who was sent to tell whether one or more robbers had attacked Laius— arrives, the original question is substituted by a much heavier one — who gave him the child? Only the relentless questioning by Oedipus can prompt Tiresias (the blind seer) to speak up, and only by his quick temper can Oedipus force out the fateful revelation.

Many scholars —and possibly the audience, too— see that Oedipus, by his arrogant and inflexible character, brings his own fall.

Though it is obvious that Oedipus committed the crime unintentionally and that he was ignorant of the fact that the slain man was his father, the Greek moral order did not accept that. Oedipus was guilty, regardless; he cannot escape punishment.

Will the fact that Oedipus was a hero —having save Thebes from the Sphinx— affect his fate? Hardly, for even ordinary mortals, heroes, and gods must be punished for their transgressions. To wit: Prometheus stole fire from the gods and he was punished by being chained to a rock forever where his regenerating liver eaten daily by a vulture.

Can a fallen hero ever be redeemed and in the end still be considered a winner? It seems so. Despite the worse calamities that Oedipus suffers after he blinds himself, even today, he wins our respect. The Greek gods, on the other hand, are the villains. Oedipus was a man —not a god— and he endured his punishment with admirable manliness.

The perennial question that Oedipus King prompts throughout the ages is: can man escape his own fate, if it is already written in the stars?
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