In Charles Segal's lengthy study of Oedipus
Tyrannus, he writes that Sophocles created
the form of the "tragic hero" in Western
literature: "a figure whose force of personality
and integrity set him [or her] apart for a special destiny and enable him to confront that
destiny with clarity and courage after a
painfully won struggle for self-knowledge."
Bernard Knox in his book Oedipus at
Thebes almost agrees with Segal but inserts
the power of the gods when he writes that
"Oedipus had a special destiny, an invulnerability to ordinary calamities... His greatness
[at the end] is now based on knowledge of
man's ignorance ... and aligned with the powers that shape destiny and govern the world."
In his essay on "Fate, Freedom and the
Tragic Experience," Ian Johnston, writing in
2000, says a "hero is likely to be someone
who confronts fate in a very personal manner
and whose reaction to that encounter serves to
illuminate for us our own particular condition."
Johnston then proceeds to elaborate on
the qualities that make Oedipus a hero. From
the very beginning of the play, Oedipus has an
enormously powerful sense of his own excellence and the people demonstrate their confidence in him by asking him to stop the plague.
He saved the city once before using his intellect to solve the riddle of the Sphinx, so past
experience reinforces their belief in and regard
for him. When Oedipus receives the oracle's
report, he says he will find Laius' murderer
and his words reassure the people. But
Oedipus, in accepting this responsibility, will
share the problem with no one else. "As a
measure of his own greatness, he will resolve
Thebes' distress and he will do it openly for
all to see."
That's why he dismisses Creon's suggestion
that he listen to the oracle's report in private;
he is taking on the task as a personal challenge
and will share all information publicly. He
answers only to himself, to the standard by
which he measures his own greatness.
Therefore, Johnston wonders, is it Oedipus'
desire to help his city or his desire to manifest
his own greatness? Johnston concludes that
Oedipus has little political sense and will do
and say everything openly. Oedipus is someone with "the view that his conception of what
matters is, in fact, the truth."
When Tiresias, the blind prophet, says
Oedipus is the curse on the city, the king interrupts him to remind everyone of his previous
triumph over the Sphinx (stressing that
Tiresias did not help Thebes then) and will not
consider more complex possibilities. His sense
of right is based on his past achievements. At
the heart of his greatness is Oedipus' enormous self-confidence. We could criticize that
as a flaw, but without this self-confidence,
"this absolute trust in his own power to act
decisively, publicly and quickly, Oedipus
would be like the chorus, impotent in the face
Oedipus' actions make the play compelling
and increasingly tense in irony by the fact that
we, the audience, know the truth. But Oedipus
doesn't and he freely chooses to initiate the
chain of events which eventually lead to his
fate. The interplay between Oedipus' sense of
freedom and our knowledge of the outcome is
the battle between fate and free will and sets
up the main dramatic power in the play.
Oedipus thinks he has gained the knowledge
that a man does not have to submit to fate;
that thought is abhorrent to him and, possibly,
to the play's modern audience. But even with
all his excellence and past success, Oedipus
doesn't know enough about what "fate is really like to recognize what it has in store for
And when he finally discovers the truth
about himself, which he set in motion, it will
be he who determines his own punishment.
Then is Oedipus a "tragic hero"? The reexamination of his personality might help. First,
Oedipus chooses to defy fate by making his
own decisions his own way and living with
the consequences. Secondly, he is a man com-
mitted totally to his own freedom to be what
he thinks he must be, to live up to his stan-
dards of heroic greatness. If an obstacle gets
in the way such as Tiresias, that obstacle must
be removed. Third, he has an enormous ego
and he must assert that sense of himself. But
"with this powerful ego comes a narrowness
of vision, which has no room for alternative
opinions or dissenting views..."
is prepared to accept the consequences of his
actions; he does not blame the gods because
he remains the master of what happens to him.
The force of the play comes from the connection between Oedipus' suffering and his own
freely chosen actions.
We admire Oedipus for his qualities of freedom and integrity, but we question his attitude: "the expression of his own freedom, to
demand that the world answer to him rather
than the other way around."
The human being
who sets himself up to live life only on his
own terms, as the free expression of his own
will, is going to come to a self-destructive
end. There is no happy ending because the
tragic hero rarely displays intellectual or emotional flexibility.
Segal says that we read Oedipus because the
play asks: "Why do our lives turn out to have
the shape that they finally have?"
opens up a myriad of possibilities: the circumstances of our birth, our character, parental
nurture, sheer luck, a wrong decision at a crucial moment, a mysterious destiny. Finally, in
a 21st-century viewpoint, Johnston suggests
the play may be "a prophetic insight into the
nature of our own human confidence in our
ability to confront fate. Perhaps, we in our scientific confidence, our optimistic spirit with
which we think we can deal with fate, may
turn out to be like Oedipus..."
OEDIPUS REX by Sophocles
April 110, 2005
"Open house" lecture about Sophocles, Oedipus, Greek mythology and more.
Featuring the Stage Director of Oedipus Rex Anatoly Anohin, Set Designer Timaree McCormick, Lillian Corti "Blindness, Sight, and Psycoanalysis in Oedipus" of the UAF English Department and Dr.
Joseph Thompson "Oedipus Rex and the Oracle at Delphi" of the UAF Philosophy & Humanities
Department. Monday, March 28, 5:30pm in the Lee H. Salisbury Theatre Free Admission & will be available online via streaming audio and video! Check back here for details.OEDIPUS REX in the Lee H. Salsibury Theatre
Friday, April 1 @ 8:15pm
Saturday, April 2 @ 8:15pm
Sunday, April 3 @ 2:00pm followed by a Q&A with the director and cast!