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  • Oedipus:
    A Tragic Hero
    for our Time?

    Oedipus Rex logo

      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 of crisis..."

      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 him."

      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..."

      However, he 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?"

      Sophocles 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

      Special lecture
      "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!
    • Friday, April 8 @ 8:15pm
    • Saturday, April 9 @ 8:15pm
    • Sunday, April 10 @ 2:00pm


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