Horror. Anger. Mystery. Blame. Intense emotions and conflicts draw human interest, capturing our attention and coloring much of our art, literature, and entertainment. Whether one considers a Hollywood blockbuster or one of the greatest works of art, it is this intensity that ensnares us, using its power to entertain or enlighten. The appetites of modern audiences—ravenous for violent action, for sex and blood—run toward overt and superficial displays of external conflict. Yet the more subtle power of the internal endures. The most famous work of the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, illustrates how internal, psychological events can be as suspenseful, climactic, and powerful as a modern car chase or gunfight.
The ancient Greeks were intimately familiar with the myth of Oedipus long before Sophocles ever began to write his version. Their ancient myths, in fact, differed very little, if at all, from Sophocles' retelling. In myth, as in the play, Oedipus was born of King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. At his birth, it was prophesized that he would one day kill his father and bear children by his mother. His fearful parents had a servant abandon him in the mountains, where a shepherd found him and took him to the kingdom of Corinth, where he was raised by King Polybus, whose wife could not conceive a child. Later learning of the prophecy, Oedipus left Corinth, fearing that he would harm his adopted parents. He set out toward Thebes unknowingly killing King Laius in a roadside battle. Arriving in Thebes, he saved the populace from the ravages of the Sphinx by answering its riddle, and was elected king, taking the hand of Jocasta, the queen—and his mother—in marriage. Years later, after the ignorant couple have had four children, plague again strikes Thebes. Oedipus consults the Oracle at Delphi, learning that the blight is punishment for the death of Laius. Determined to find Laius' murderer, Oedipus begins to realize what he has done, though he initially mistrusts Teiresias, the blind seer who tells him that it was he who killed Laius. When the truth finally reveals itself, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus gouges his own eyes out with her combs and brooches.
The play takes place after Oedipus has already been king for many years, as the plague strikes Thebes. This, along with the Greek tradition of having all action and violence take place off-stage, means that the play's conflicts are mostly internal or expressed through dialogue. The excitement and suspense of the story come as a result of dramatic irony—the audience knows more about what is happening than the ignorant Oedipus. When Oedipus curses Laius' murderer, saying "I pray that that man's life be consumed in evil and wretchedness," (line 234) we wince, because we know that Oedipus' words are in condemnation of himself. When Teiresias tells Oedipus that it is he who murdered Laius, Oedipus' prideful disbelief and doubt raise tension, because we know that he is wrong. Later, as Oedipus begins to realize that it may have been he who killed Laius, he takes hope in news that the man he thinks is his father, King Polybus, has died. This seems to invalidate the prophecy about his birth, increasing his doubt toward Teiresias' soothsaying. Jocasta, who has realized that Oedipus is her son, tells him to stop searching into his past, but Oedipus rebukes her, asking "How could I not be glad to know my birth?" (line 1028) Oedipus' ignorance arouses the sympathies of the audience, who know that knowledge of his birth will bring him only sorrow.
As dramatic irony ratchets up the tension, the psychological events of the main characters mirror the traditional arc of storytelling. Their initial ignorance slowly becomes fearful realization, and then climactic reaction. Oedipus' discovery of his birth and of the fulfillment of his dire prophecy comes at the point of highest tension in the play—the audience knows what Oedipus is about to learn, and fears the result. Finally, his discovery provides a resolution to the story. When the beam of truth finally illuminates Oedipus, his realization is given physical manifestation as he destroys his own eyes. As with the blind seer Teiresias, blindness becomes a symbol of wisdom. The initially ignorant and prideful Oedipus has become humble and has gained wisdom through his suffering. He now begs to be expelled from Thebes, now knowing that he must sacrifice to save his city. "This punishment / I have laid upon myself is just," (line 1315) he says. While he had initially deflected blame for his sins, accusing Teiresias of plotting against him, he now accepts his fate. Though he has suffered and lost all stature, he still retains dignity and nobility in his decision to live.
The enduring power of Oedipus Rex seems to come not only from the drama of Oedipus' story and the Sophocles' artistry, but from the universal relevance of the themes it explores. Oedipus' search, on its most elemental level, asks the question, "Who am I?" "Wait: who were my parents?" (line 424) asks Oedipus when confronted with Teiresias' accusations. "This day will give you a father, and break your heart," (line 425) answers the seer. Oedipus asks the questions we all must ask as we struggle to give our lives meaning. Confronted with the brutal truth, Oedipus bravely chooses to live—again, a choice we all must make: "To be or not to be," as the tragic figure of Shakespeare's Hamlet put it. Oedipus' ultimate worth and dignity come as a result of this choice, his perseverance in the face of suffering. Oedipus Rex is powerful because it paints a realistic portrait of the human condition-in that we are all fated to die, ultimately tragic, but in that we all have the potential for greatness, ultimately noble. The fatalistic ambiguity of the play's closing lines leaves a lasting impression, projecting Oedipus' pain onto the whole human experience; our whole lives, it suggests, are epic tragedies:
"Let every man in mankind's frailty
Consider his last day; and let none
Presume on his good fortune until he find
Life, at his death, a memory without pain."
Note: I put this writeup in this node rather than in the node Oedipus the King because the latter is full of a long and incomplete Gutenberg Project text of the play.