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an analysis of the play by Sophocles

The following essay on Oedipus Rex was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 188-91.

The story of Oedipus, which has supplied Sophocles with the most famous of his tragedies, had already been handled by Aeschylus in the central play of his Theban trilogy. Little is known about this composition; but it was probably as simple in structure as the Septem, with which it was written in connection, and bore no resemblence to the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles. The aim of Aeschylus, in his three tragedies, was to trace the course of ancestral guilt, and to exhibit the mysterious workings of destiny during successive generations. Hence it may be inferred that, in his treatment of the story, the emphasis was laid, more on the causes and effects of the crime of Oedipus, than on the actual process of its discovery. Sophocles, on the other hand, prefers to concentrate the interest upon a single point of time, and gives a different moral to the legend, converting it into a picture of the blindness and fallibility of mankind. To effect this purpose he devotes the greater part of the play to the gradual discovery of the murder and the incest, and makes Oedipus himself the author of the discovery, and the unconscious agent in his own destruction. It is he who persists in unravelling the fatal secret, in spite of warnings to the contrary, because he thinks it will benefit himself and his neighbours. He catches at each hint, and pursues each clue, with a light and cheerful heart, little dreaming that every step brings him nearer to the precipice; and it is only when he has reached the very brink, and the truth is revealed, that he perceives, when too late, the extent of his previous folly.

Aristotle, in his analysis of the tragic art, lays it down as a rule that the plot is of more importance than the characters. This statement is hardly true, as applied to Sophocles, in whose dramas, for the most part, the incidents are subordinate to the pictures of human passion. Bur Aristotle was possibly led to take this view by his admiration for the Oedipus Rex, which he regarded as a model drama, and in which, for once, the plot is undoubtedly the chief source of interest. Not that it is constructed on modern lines, or that it appeals to our curiosity by dubious and conflicting alternatives. The general result is clear from the first; but the pathos of the drama lies, not so much in the emotions of Oedipus, as in his actions. The course of events is contrived with so much skill, that everything he does has a sinister tendency, and whichever way he turns, he only involves himself closer in the meshes of fate. Nothing can help him; even those who wish to assist him only sink him deeper. Jocasta, in her desire to clear him of the murder of Laius, lets out part of the dire secret by her allusion to the "triple cross-roads." The herdsman, anxious to relieve him from his fears about Merope, leads up to the horrible discovery of his birth. Such is his destiny throughout the play; and it is this steady and unswerving progress of events towards the final catastrophe which absorbs the attention of the reader, to the exclusion of other interests.

The Oedipus of Euripides was probably written later than that of Sophocles, and appears to have contained several of those innovations upon tradition which the younger poet was sometimes compelled to adopt, in order to avoid repetition. The catastrophe, instead of being concentrated, as in Sophocles, fell in two successive blows. The murder of Laius was discovered first, and Oedipus was deprived of sight, not by his own hands, but by the followers of Laius, in revenge for their master's death. Then came a further calamity in the revelation of the incest. So much may be gathered from the existing fragments; but as to the general character of the tragedy noting is recorded.

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