Close Reading Example
Oedipus Rex (English/ Classics)
Date : 11/05/2019
In this scene, Sophocles uses language and stage production to explore themes of corruption and family and develop Oedipus character while simultaneously foreshadowing his downfall.
Sophocles uses the language of torture to describe the chorus racked with terror due to the plague which the 5th-century Athenian audience were likely to have familiarity with as they had recently experienced one of their own, giving the vivid portrayal of suffering particular resonance. Racked also links Oedipus to the suffering brought by the plague as it alludes to his later threat to Tiresias of torture, compounding the image of the disease in Thebes stemming from Oedipus as a corrupt root and his people as branches. His reference to them as children from the outset fulfils the trope in Greek tragic theatre of the crimes of a father being passed to his offspring. This idea is similarly explored in Antigone where Oedipus actual children inherit this corruption.
Sophocles uses seafaring imagery throughout the play to symbolise Oedipus as the helmsman of the ship of Thebes. His instruction to Thebans to lift your head from the depths connotes the floundering of Thebes and directly links this image to Oedipus own crime as his coupling with his mother is likened to mooring his ship in his mother s harbour. This perverts the usual maternal, fertile connotations of the sea, showing the force that fosters all aspects of Athenian life is corrupt.
The stage direction Oedipus enters from the palace is an on-stage representation of his emergence from the domestic sphere which represents a coherent oikos and thus serves as a symbol of his departure from a position of safety as he exits the home to condemn himself. The image of the corrupt household is juxtaposed on stage with the lamenting chorus representing the dying population of Thebes to visually represent the spread of the corruption from the King to his citizens.
Sophocles uses heavy dramatic irony in relation to Oedipus ignorance of his crime. His insistence that he is a stranger to the story and belief that he is only counted as a native Theban illustrates his metaphoric blindness to both his crime and identity which prefigures his later, physical blindness. This sense of duality is reflected in Oedipus own name, meaning swollen foot relating to his physical deformity as a result of the mutilation orchestrated by his mother, while also meaning the man who knows where which suggest the gaps in Oedipus knowledge form an integral part of his identity.
In this passage, Sophocles presents several of Oedipus more negative qualities in order to characterise him as neither wholly innocent nor wholly depraved. His statement you pray to the gods, let me grant your prayers characterises him as arrogant and hubristic. Sophocles compounds the opening image of Oedipus being worshipped at his alter to demonstrate that he considers himself in the realm of the gods as well as being viewed in this light by his people. Like other tragic heroes, such as Hippolytus, this elevation to divine status only means Oedipus has further to fall when he inevitably experiences his periptea. It is his obsession with his supposedly superior investigative skills that contribute to him relentlessly pursuing the truth that ruins him.
Sophocles also hints at Oedipus short temper through the brutality of the language he uses, saying shrivel their women, kill their sons, burn them to nothing in this plague. This prefigures his later outburst to Tireseus and creates consistency of character that allows him to later fulfil the trope of the tragic hero who angrily disregards a prophet. His violent language and absolute power associates Oedipus with tyranny and can be seen as commentary by Sophocles championing the Athenian system of democracy that doesn`t allow one individual to hold such power and potentially bring such corruption to a city.
As his violent language is directed towards a murderer bringing suffering to Thebes, this redeems Oedipus character to an extent as he is motivated by his concern for his people. Thus, Sophocles portrays him as neither wholly good nor bad to emphasise his downfall is a result of circumstance and personal error rather than sole depravity of character. This affirms his status as a tragic hero and creates a cathartic experience for the audience by generating both pity for Oedipus predicament as well as evoking fear that such a downfall can happen to anyone.
The line break between whoever he is, a lone man in his crime and or one among many can be performed by the actor with a pause between the two statements to emphasise Oedipus subconscious prioritisation of the notion of a single criminal, exacerbated when multiple killers are constantly spoken of by all who inform him of the murder. Oedipus default assumption that there is only a single perpetrator can be viewed as projecting his own guilt at the seemingly separate murder he thinks he has committed onto the crime.
Oedipus curse for the murder to drag out his life in agony, step by painful step is a moment filled with great dramatic irony as he is already suffering this fate with his tell-tale limp being a constant visual reminder of this. The use of crutches or stage make-up to create the appearance of wounds on the actor s feet could be used in production to physically symbolise both his unfortunate start in life as well as his approaching fate.
Sophocles presents Oedipus declaration that he possess Laius bed and a wife who shares our seed as a moment of heightened dramatic irony that graphically encapsulates both Oedipus metaphorical blindness and the grotesque nature of his crime that has perverted his household. These allusions to the possibility of him and Laius having children born of the same mother creates dramatic tension as Oedipus unknowingly professes the horrifying truth on stage. The image of his mother s seed is equally appalling as this image with connotations of birth is corrupted, reflecting the corruption of both the birth of Oedipus children as well as the disease this has brought the Thebes. Indeed, the chorus question of what will you bring to birth? intertwines the search for the truth with Oedipus perverse sexuality.
Sophocles effectively portrays the pervasive nature of corruption spreading from the individual to both family and the state in this scene. He similarly creates an in-depth exploration of the moral ambiguity of Oedipus character as well as using dramatic irony and double entendres to foreshadow Oedipus eventual fate.
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