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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

‘Oedipus is a victim of circumstances beyond his control’. Do you agree?

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Oedipus was no more a victim than I, though our differences are many and span the length of time, and the breadth of distance. The once great King of Thebes stumbled and fell from the blessing of the gods, to become one ‘whom the gods have declared accursed’. Surely this could not all be the doing of Oedipus himself? Surely Oedipus, the mighty King of Thebes could find a scapegoat. Alas, it was not to be, Oedipus could only blame himself for his predicament.

Oedipus, a liberated man of Corinth, surely could have seen his folly coming a mile off. After he was told that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he fled from his home town, like any man would do. But what man would then kill another man on the road? Surely Oedipus was smarter than this. After all, he did unlock the riddle of Thebes. Oedipus made a decision that night on the road. He decided to kill several innocent men over a petty argument. He knew that there was doubt over who his real parents were, and he already knew that he was doomed to kill his father. If he was serious about protecting his heritage, wouldn’t he have not killed anyone? Sophocles deliberately adds this moral dilemma to the story, increasing the audiences interest. The audience could see that Oedipus was a man of upright morals, and yet he had overlooked his reasoning process, letting himself slip into the habits which we associate with cave-dwellers and bogans.

However, Oedipus could not take all the blame upon himself. His parents were to blame too. As a baby, Oedipus could not leave Thebes all by himself. His exit was assisted by misleading sooth-sayers and gullible parents. If a parent truly loved their child, how could they try to kill it, just because of the word of a old man? The fortune teller’s words were mixed and jumbled, deliberately confusing, perhaps the hand of fate mixed up the potion using the sooth-sayer as a tool. If Oedipus’ parents chose to ignore the prophecy, then none of this mess would have ever come about. Oedipus would have grown up as a normal child. He would have known his real mother and father, and it would have been unlikely that he would have killed either of them. Then again, if none of this mishap had taken place, Sophocles wouldn’t have anything to write about.

The audience watching Oedipus Rex at its original showing would have looked up to Oedipus, not seen him as a victim. Like Oedipus’ loyal subjects in the play, audiences through the ages have remained spellbound as the story unfolds, seeing Oedipus as an oracle. Oedipus did save the city once already after all. The loyal people of Thebes could see their king’s downfall, but no one was leading an attack against Oedipus. The attack on the King of Thebes came from within. Oedipus promised his subjects that he would find this ‘unclean thing’ that infected the city and cast it out. Endeavouring to keep his word to his people, he traced the problem back within himself and destroyed it. In the process, he triggered his own destruction.

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Oedipus was essentially a good man. His loyal subjects looked to him for leadership. He could not find a scapegoat for his problems, and did not view himself as a victim. Oedipus exited the play learning a valuable lesson, not blaming fate, or his parentage. He learned that everything the prophets said should have been taken with a pinch of salt.

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