“The play quintessentializes misfortune; it is an epigram in ill-luck.”
- A.J.A. Waldock
Man is dislocated here and all his life’s constant and persistent strife is his determined attempt to relocate himself to the place of his ambition and dreams. The entire tenor of this pursuit, relentless or effortless, is decorated with frustration and faith, sureness and success, fall and rise, humiliation and achievement, disgrace and denial. This is always the pre-determined fate of all the high and the low, mighty and the meek, princes and the paupers; and all other millions in mortal form. Who can achieve ataraxy – lauded essential to be happy? Reconciliation born of complete surrender and hard-gained faith alone is the true wisdom needed to fulfill life. All else is futile and fruitless. And when relocation is in sight, we leave with the solace of setting out on our way to relocation. The tragedy of Oedipus, unexcelled in its meaning and amplification and perhaps the richest in drama, ethics, psychology, biology, sociology, philosophy and metaphysics, and even in religion, is the most ideal in history of world drama. The Greek masters and the masses were fully acquainted with the story of King Oedipus but Sophocles’ dramatic competence and potentiality have lent to it the status of unchallenged glorious pinnacle.
“Oedipus is a world-wonder in his suffering, in his peculiar destiny he is freak. He is a man selected out of millions to undergo this staggering fate; that is why his story is so fascinating. It fascinates because it is so rare; because on any rational assessment his story- as far as we are concerned- is impossible…. Circumstance has its practical jokes and its sinister-seeming moods, but a concatenation of malevolences on this scale is an absolutely unparalleled thing.” - A.J.A. Waldock: Drama of Dramas: The Oedipus Tyrannus
The very essence of Sophocles’ dramaturgy and, for that matter, its earned greatness, in handling the conspicuous confrontation between men and gods ( whatever be the position of men-only men, men as men or men higher than their species or men assuming or equating themselves to be gods)- for that purpose, gods as destiny (visible or invisible- visible in Oedipus and invisible in Antigone and Electra, is definitely to face the reality of life in a truthfully realistic manner in realization of what human powers and prowess can be and how far these can be wronged consciously out of which emerges the realization of the supremacy of the Highest Order and Harmony and the humility of the highest temporal authority and will.
Gods must play their game and, that too, on their own terms and conditions to be imposed and changed as they will, for fun or frivolity or to make fun of men in their fall or rotting in their fall. Hounding hands of destiny must bring man to do the evil they design to trap him into the rationale of the dilemma, as it happens with Oedipus; any attempt to escape doing evil is also a sin against gods and have to be penalized in proportion to be judiciously decided by the gods themselves. According to C. M. Bowra, “ King Oedipus shows the humbling of a great and prosperous man by the gods. This humbling is not deserved; it is not a punishment for insolence, nor in the last resort is it due to any fault of judgement or character in the man. The gods display their power because they will.”
In “King Oedipus”, the Chorus in the 5th Ode says -
“All the generations of mortal man add up to nothing!
Show me the man whose happiness was anything more than
Followed by illusion.
Here is the instance, here is Oedipus, here is the reason
Why I will call no mortal creature happy.
Time sees all; and now he has found you, when you least
Has found you and judged that marriage-mockery, bride-
This is your elegy:
I wish I had never seen you, offspring of Laius,
Yesterday my morning of light, now my night of endless
Destiny dislocates man to carry on the game of the gods who want unquestioning submission to their known and unknown will. Man does his best to relocate himself without any sense or burden of guilt. Oedipus’s strife reveals what disasters and damnation may befall man even in simple quest of simple truth of his parentage. Destiny further confounded him by answering his curiosity and the trap was well-patterned and woven till the man of golden opinions was enmeshed as the foulest and the filthiest to an unparalleled realization and affliction to be endured till eternity. Solving one riddle entangled him in other riddles that redefined his role and responsibility as a redeemer and ruin. Destiny gave him the illusion of having been relocated to fulfill his role as a caring and loving king, husband and father only to be muddled in total shame and the gravest sin. Oedipus, with cascade descending in scarlet rain from his eyes, says to the Chorus -
“My blood - will they remember what they saw,
And what I came that way to Thebes to do?
Incestuous sin! Breeding where I was bred!
Father, brother, and son; bride, wife, and mother;
Confounded in one monstrous matrimony!
All human filthiness in one crime compounded” (p64)
Every infamy, shame and disgrace is the pre-dominant fate that cleverly and cunningly conspired against Oedipus to this location by the continuous chiaroscuro of dislocation and relocation to be located thus! What a play for the festive occasion Sophocles wrote! And Sophocles doesn’t offer any solution; he doesn’t even think remotely of doing so but wants us to accept life and its bare truth with a sense of unconditional submission to His Will and feel reconciled. We are marginalized on the boundary lines of life and must not give ourselves the cause of our suffering and misery. Pride, simple or human or godly, incenses us to dislocate ourselves from our destination and the aftermath offers to us a picture of dark ruin wrapped in agony and torment. Helpless and enraged man challenges to wait who did it forgetting that we are -
“But helpless pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.”
- Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam
And also -
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.”
- Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam
The game of dislocation and callous desertion began with the birth of Oedipus and there was no going back- Citheron, the majestic mountain became the nestling bed of the foster-mother for the infant prince with “riveted ankles”. From there again, he was dislocated into the house of Corinthian father, Polybus, and Dorian mother, Merope till located into the illusion of his parentage. The irresistible curiosity to know the truth of his parentage, he goes to Pythos and returns more non-plussed. The game of dislocation gained further momentum and Oedipus earnestly and honestly made vain attempt to avoid the sin and crime –
“Of horror and misery: how I must marry my mother,
And become the parent of a misbegotten brood,
An offence to all mankind -….”
And he fled away- “putting the stars/ Between me and Corinth, never to see home again……”
The hands of Destiny were hounding Oedipus to guide him to pre-destined dislocations. With whole mind set and determined not to endure the lasting burden of the ever-first sin in the history of mankind, Oedipus wanted to locate himself into a neat, clean and pure life. That is why much is said about the innocence and guilt of Oedipus in the face of the hell-bent malicious gods. The poor Oedipus with all his pre-eminence! The gods are gods and man must not attempt to run away from the ring and let the masters play their bout. Oedipus tells the mother-wife, Jocasta -
“Banished from here, and in my banishment
Debarred from home and from my fatherland,
Which I must shun for ever, lest I live
To make my mother my wife, and kill my father…
My father…Polybus, to whom I owe my life.
Can it be any but some monstrous god
Of evil that has sent this doom upon me”
He is cynical about his absolution even. What is lotted cannot be blotted. Rightly said! Time couldn’t belie it. How can Oedipus? Albin Lesky says -
“The gods are so very much the more powerful, they shatter human fortune with such deadly certainty, that some scholars have seen nothing else in the play, and have called it a drama of destiny.”
- Albin Lesky: Oedipus: An Analytic Tragedy (p 131)
He says again,
“The divine governance, inaccessible to mortal thought, fulfils itself in an appalling manner, but remains always valid and deserving of reverence.” (p131)
It gives to us a psychological convincingness about the supremacy of the gods and the simple moral and social truth is that we, as humans, must not give in or give up. Life is fulfilled only if we make a persistent effort to assure ourselves that we are doing the right and we mean nothing against our creator and preserver, notwithstanding the painful reality of Oedipus that those who attempt to know or scrutinize the unknown, the unknowable and the inscrutable ways of the predominant destiny, howsoever earnest or solemn, must be dislocated so terribly that it becomes an eternal lesson. In all humility, we have to accept whatever be His Will- the only way to be happy. Of course, in His Happiness! We are nobody to exercise the sacred faculty of reason to pass judgement on Him or His Ways. Sophocles’ triology of Oedipean plays - Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone - emphasizes the absolute problem of relocating the dislocated. Destiny alone determines what the princes or paupers are to be and what is to become of them.
“Sophocles conceived doomed Oedipus, the greatest sufferer of the Greek stage, as a pattern of nobility, destined to error and misery despite his wisdom, yet exercising a beneficent influence upon his environment in virtue of his boundless grief. The profound poet tells us that a man who is truly noble is incapable of sin; though every law, every natural order, indeed the entire canon of etics, perish by his actions, those very actions will create a circle of higher consequences able to found a new world on the ruins of the old.” - Friedrich Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy; published by Doublesday& Company, New York, 1956, p60-61.
After the self-blinding by Oedipus- What a harvest of ignorance! - the process of dislocation continues as willed by the Supreme Will. The sons of Oedipus- Eteocles and Polynices -
“………………………….both slayers, both slain,
Both stained with brother-blood, dead in a day…..”
were tragically relocated in death only leaving behind their sisters- Ismene and Antigone- to face further the wrath of dislocation. Creon ,too , can’t escape the clutches and claws of the same destiny with his son and wife gone. This triology has an invincible sense of the event the vibrancy of which inspires admiration and reverence in us. E. F. Watling is at his best when he says -
“Oedipus too complacent in his prosperity, too confident of his sufficiency, too ready to take offence or to impute blame when ‘rattled’ by the approach of trouble; Oedipus unshirking in the performance of a self-appointed unpleasant task, unflinching in quest of the truth at whatever cost of terrible self-revelation; Oedipus driven to the summit of passion by agony of body and soul, and returning at the last to humility and selfless resignation: this vast and living portrait of man, surrounded by a group of subsidiary portraits no less vital, has no equal in the Greek, nor perhaps in any other theatre.”
- Introduction to Sophocles: The Theban Plays (Penguin Classics, Great Britain, 1984.
How Supreme is the Will of God and how unchallengeable and eternal are the laws of the Divine, can be best seen in “Antigone” when Antigone dares King Creon -
“I did not think your edicts strong enough
To overrule the unwritten unalterable laws
Of God and heaven, you being only a man.
They are not of yesterday or to-day, but everlasting,
Though from where they came from, none can tell.”
The Chorus in the 3rd Ode says -
“This law is immutable:
For mortals greatly to live is greatly to suffer.”
The whole house of Labdacus is grueling under the unending burden of tragic dislocations and nothing has helped them relocate themselves- the whole is a story of ruin one after the other till even the whole progeny of Oedipus is dislodged and dislocated with none to scream, none to mourn and none to remember! The Chorus says in the 5th Ode -
“…………………….So strong is Destiny,
No wealth, no armoury, no tower,
No ship that rides the angry sea
Her mastering hand can stay.”
The Messenger also awakens us to the futility of man’s strife to relocate himself and to the realization of his humble position in the pre-ordained scheme of things -
“What is the life of man? A thing not fixed
For good or evil, fashioned for praise or blame,
Chance raises a man to the heights, chance casts him down,
And none can foretell what will be from what is.”
“Of happiness the crown
And chiefest part
Is wisdom, and to hold
The gods in awe.”
- The Chorus in the concluding speech in “Antigone”
Finally, we are left with no other option than to feel the transcending influence in all its serenity and sense of triumph after dealing with this problem in the Oedipus plays of Sophocles. We don’t experience any frustration or disgust or depressing emotion, though distressed we feel at times and that distress too is elevating. We are not angry at the gods, whoever and whatever they are; we don’t find Oedipus guilty or a sinner in all that has happened; and the tragic atmosphere illumines us in and out. From the darkest and the reddest in Oedipus Rex, we move on to Oedipus at Colonus and experience the blissful calm and tranquility, though the Chorus says -
“Who can say God’s purpose falters?
Time is awake, the Wheel is turning,
Lifting up and overthrowing.”
And the Chorus concludes -
“This is the end of tears:
No more lament,
Through all the years,
Immutable stands this event.”
Though “this event” refers to the death of Oedipus at Colonus, yet, I feel, that this speech should have concluded the triology as the story of the curse on the house of Labdacus ends with the end of Antigone. The words of Teiresias to Creon come as a final resolution and reconciliation -
“Mark this, my son: all men fall into sin,
But sinning, he is not for ever lost
Hapless and helpless, who can make amends
And has not set his face against repentance.”
The problem stands resolved when we feel relocated in our dislocation, in mythology, religion or literature, in complete acceptance of and surrender and submission to His Will and the ungrudging reconciliation that ensues!
- Watling , E.F Translated and Edited with Introduction: Sophocles: The Theban Plays; published by Penguin Classics , Great Britain, 1984.
- Luci Berkowitz and Theodore F. Brunner Translated and Edited: Oedipus Tyrannus; published by W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1970