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November 27, 2008
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Excerpt from Oedipus the King by Sophocles
Oedipus the King: The Tragedy of Fate
In the world of Sophocles' Oedipus the King, everything happens on a grand scale, from feats of heroism to the most terrible of mistakes. It is a world of gods, prophets, kings, and plagues; a world of ancient tragedy whose stories unfold with relentless majesty and high emotion. As the great philosopher Aristotle explained in his Poetics (350 BC), the great tragedies are plays capable of arousing pity and fear, and thereby of purging those very emotions in us. Since at least Aristotle's time, Oedipus the King has been praised as a model of the greatness of Greek tragedy. For Aristotle the genius of the play resided in the organic perfection of its structure, and Sophocles' characterization -- remarkably complex for his time -- of Oedipus.
Generations of readers and spectators after Aristotle have agreed with his assessment of Oedipus. The king's flaws are clear enough to make his tragic fall believable, but so deeply enmeshed with his heroic qualities that we cannot help but feel sympathy for him. And while some have found Oedipus' plot frustrating -- the great eighteenth-century satirist Voltaire complained that it was absurd Oedipus knew so little about the death of Laius -- most readers have felt that its complex unfolding illustrates the mysterious nature and wondrous certainty of fate.
Beyond that point, however, the debates have never ended. Some have argued that the play illustrates the dignity of humanity. They see Oedipus as a wholly noble human, pursuing his inquiry fearlessly and accepting the terrible truths as they emerge. Others see the way Oedipus' ignorance robs him of his heroism, and argue that the play shows us the dark abyss of reality over which we skate through life, only rarely aware of the cruel depths below.
These widely disparate views are typical examples of the source of Oedipus' greatness: its mysterious polarities, which are there for us to wonder at but never to fully understand. The play gives us a hero who is both nobly courageous and polluted, shows us that fate is both cruel and grand, and that truth both sets you free and destroys you. It reaches deeply into the mysterious, noble, awful essence of human life and leaves its audience astonished and aghast.
The Life and Work of Sophocles
Sophocles was born in Colonus, a small suburb of Athens, in 496 BC. His father was a wealthy merchant (some scholars believe he was an armor-maker), and he brought Sophocles up with all the advantages available to him, including a thorough education in math, literature, and music. Sophocles rapidly became known for his good looks and cultured ways. In 480, when he was sixteen, Sophocles was chosen to lead a choir of boys in a celebration of the Grecian victory at Salamis over the invading Persian navy. This event marked the beginning of Sophocles' public career in politics and cultural events.
In 468 BC, at the age of twenty-eight, Sophocles was invited to participate as a playwright in the City Dionysia, a festival held every year in the Theater of Dionysus for the presentation of new plays. This dramatic competition was the gateway to literary recognition in Athenian culture. Sophocles took first prize with his debut effort, defeating Aeschylus (525-456), who was then the preeminent playwright of Athens. This fabulous beginning was followed by an equally fabulous career in which Sophocles presented at least 120 plays, and won at least eighteen first prizes.
Throughout his life Sophocles maintained the cultural and political presence he had assumed as a young man. For many years he served as a priest in the cult of a local hero, Alcon, and of the Panhellenic god of healing, Asclepius. (This kind of service involved administration of the cult, and participation in public services in honor of the deity or hero.) He also served his city as a member of the Board of Generals, a standing committee devoted to the military affairs of the state. In this capacity he came to be closely acquainted with state leaders such as Pericles and the renowned historian Herodotus. For a time, in midcentury, Sophocles was director of the treasury for the Delian League, which was a defensive alliance among many of the major Greek city-states.
It is hard to assign exact dates to the productions of Sophocles' plays, and even harder to pin down the details of his biography. Therefore we cannot talk confidently about the relation between his plays and his public (not to mention private) life at any given time. Scholars estimate that the first preserved play of Sophocles, Ajax, was composed between 451-444 BC, while his last remaining play, Oedipus at Colonus, was staged in 401, shortly after the his death. Oedipus the King was composed and staged around 429 BC.