Sophocles is the great Greek dramatist, who gave us one of the most delightful works of human civilization – the tragedy of Oedipus the King. The plot revolves around a man, defining the topic – the theme of moral self-identity. Oedipus the King by Sophocles may not be the most profound and powerful among the Greek tragedies, but there is not such a drama in which the philosophical depth and tragic force would be combined with the noble grace and perfection of the external form.
Throughout the whole tragedy one may notice the reigns of the image of the winged beast with the face of a woman, sharp claws, and the lion’s torso – the Sphinx alike a symbolic statue on the top of the temple, the incarnation of Fate, of the Unknowable, also called by the pagans as Doom. Sophocles raised the question of universal scale: Who rules the human destiny – the gods, or humans themselves?
All the world religions tried to solve the problem between the Man and Doom – and in fact, the Man and Destiny (different names do not change the essence of the phenomenon). Doom, above all, is the inevitability, that denies the right to choose. The whole system of beliefs, rites, and superstitions is only a by-product of the interaction of consciousness with the unknown. The religion elevates the Obscure to the rank of the Unknowable, and actually, the issue moves to the subconscious, the area of human intuition. However, it is not tackled in this way.
In that regard, the fate of Oedipus, the unfortunate king of Thebes, was indicative. The king’s whole life was a continuous investigation of his own crimes, the continuous search for truth, consisting of the set of local clues. Oedipus, a stranger from Corinth, the young hero, once defeated the Sphinx. Oedipus saved his people from the terrible and deadly charm by solving the riddle. Therefore, at the beginning of the tragedy he was the father and the savior of the nation, the liberator of mankind from the dark forces of Doom, the incarnation of reason and will. Society believed in him, and he trusted himself. Oedipus was thought to be clean and wise as a god, and he considered himself if not the god, then at least the equal one to him.
However, surely, Oedipus was just a man. The victory of the intellect and will over a Sphinx was temporary. Still seductive and mocking, he settled in the heart of the hero. He would soon return to set unsolvable riddles and entangle his mind in a net of tricks. That is the fear; that is the node of the drama: the Sphinx was not outside anymore, but inside, in the soul of a winner. He is worse than any beast because of being elusive and incorporeal, like a ghost. The Sphinx is the mystery of life, the secrets of every human conscience.
Let the person solve the riddle of his own origin – and it appears that the meaning of the life is a crime, despair, and horror, and that the will is negligible before the eternal law of necessity. The ancient, treacherous Sphinx outsmarted the wits of the man, involved him in criminal temptations and destroyed his heroic origin.
The tragic figure of the victorious idol, Oedipus, struggling against the Sphinx – a monster, which is ferocious, as a beast, winged, as a spirit, seductive, as a woman –is immortal like all tragic images that haunt humanity from one generation to another. The hero and the fate, the desire and necessity, the reason and the mystery of the world construct the meaning of such a religious-philosophical symbolic drama. With our modern point of view, Oedipus is innocent. He did not know that he would kill his father and marry the mother. Neither consciousness nor intention participated in parricide or incest. It was not a crime, but only a misfortune, a desecration of the honorable man, deceived by the prophecies of the gods.
Oedipus died not due to his guilt, but because he wanted to be too great for human strength, too daring opponent of Destiny and mysteries of the ancient Sphinx. He sought to beat something excessive that was impossible, and his power converted to autocracy (as it could be seen in the scene with Creon and soothsayer Teiresias). He was above all the people and forgot about his benevolence, mocked the prophecies of the gods. Moreover, he wished to be the one. It is not a tragic accident, which appeared in front of us, but the very essence of life, the fatal inevitability of the death of any character who trusted only his own will, strength, and the unwavering and indestructible “I” when confronted by the obscurity of the world.
In addition to religious-philosophic meaning, this tragedy has an inexhaustible artistic charm. The poet showed us amazing art, consistently all stages of human life, beginning from the highest bliss and ending with the misfortune, which is only available to people on the Earth. A hero became an outcast and a villain; a king transformed into a homeless vagabond, a wise man, who clearly deciphered the riddles of the Sphinx grew into a miserable blind person.
The horror and the appeal of the drama mainly lie in the inevitable and gradual fate, with which the solution of the mystery was unraveled. Thus, this terrible, death alike, thing approaches step by step and grows from a tiny grain quietly and steadily, and finally, embraces and absorbs the victim.
Something subtle, resembling the Sphinx’s riddle, was coming, sometimes retreating, looking straight into his eyes, and then disappearing. The Fate was laughing at Oedipus and the monster was playing with him like a cat with a mouse. The Sphinx put his cunning nets; Oedipus wanted to break them, fought and then tightened them up even more. Meanwhile, the power of the evidence and the obviousness of the crime were magnifying with a slow, gradual pace. Hence, this game of Doom, the omissions, hints, ambushes, mockery, apprehension, and disgusting suspicion brought him to madness, and he lost his composure and called upon the final denouement. At the very edge of the abyss, still he had the power to present the challenge to the Fate. Additionally, at that moment the mystery was exposed. He became a parricide and defiled the mother’s bed. Only then, Oedipus stopped, but it was too late. The unfortunate mad man no longer searched for clues for they came towards him. He grabbed every speck on the edge of the abyss, eager to blind himself, due to facing the specter in order to protect himself from horror and deceive his heart and conscience. However, there was no salvation. When he said that he believed in hope – the hero did not truly mean it.
One final blow, the last word of reason, and it was all over. Then the tragic lament of Horus was heard over all human life, above any desire for the good, the truth and happiness. Perhaps, there is no similarly revealed, desperate and strange pessimism in the world of poetry, even including the modern one. Furthermore, these deep thoughts are expressed with childlike naivety, which made them even more irresistible. The last scene of Oedipus’ despair (where he deprived himself of vision), of his shame, the curse of the gods, is written with such power and ruthlessness of realism, that pity and horror that we feel border with disgust.
Nevertheless, harmony was not disturbed, and the beauty won over dismay. The last parts of the tragedy are illuminated by reconciling tenderness. Oedipus forgot himself, the grief and pride, and thought only of his poor, outcast and abandoned children. Love gave the true immortality of the human will and conquered the blind force of Doom.
The drama of “Oedipus the King” by Sophocles, is so profound and complex that while marking any particular topic from it, one involuntarily tightens it with others. The analysis of this piece reminds the dissolution of the knitted sweater: pull a single thread, and the two become bare. The fates of all three characters were formed only out of fear: one was afraid of death, another trembled before the truth, and the third dreaded the power. However, everyone got exactly what he apprehended. Thus, they express the main idea of the tragedy: the gods do not define the human fate – people do it themselves. Doom and inevitability are nothing in comparison to the man, who understands and realizes his moral and spiritual essence.