Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Notes on Oedipus Rex - Greek drama by Sophocles

Describe briefly the play Oedipus Rex in the light of ancient Greek tragedies and the functions of Chorus.

Drama is a literary composition meant to be staged. The term drama is derived from the Greek word ‘dran’ which means ‘to act’. Drama originated in ancient Greece. Ancient Greek drama took its origin from religious rituals performed during the worship of Dionysus, the God of wine and fertility.  The villagers celebrated the festivals with a lot of singing and dancing. Two types of plays originated from such celebration. They are tragedy and comedy.
Thespis was the first actor playwright in ancient Greece. Early Greek performances were stage in huge amphitheaters situated in open areas.  The theatre was rich in music, rituals and dance. Since there were no barriers between the actors and the audience, the actor-audience participation was very high. The tragic actors wore marks, padded costumes and thick, high heeled shoes. The comic actors wore light weight shoes. The masks prevented the actors from changing expressions and hence the actor’s facial expression remained unchanged throughout performance.

The Chorus of the ancient Greek tragedies often functions as the author’s mouth piece. It is usually a group of people who sing songs and perform dances during the play, guides the actions, and continually interrupting the dialogue and the progress of the action with their odes or interludes. The genesis of Greek tragedy is to be found in the dithyramb, or choral hymn, which as chanted by the village worshippers around the altar of Dionysus and from this ritual developed the Chorus which is an essential part of Greek tragedy.

 The great Greek dramatist Sophocles perfected Chorus.  In the play Oedipus Rex, the Chorus performs many functions. Here the Chorus represents the Theban elders who consult the King on important issues, warn him of the values of virtues and even makes important judgments on king and others and sings and dances. The main function of the Chorus was to narrate the events that took place off the stage and to make commends on the morality of the actions represented on the stage.  But in modern plays, the place of the Chorus is taken by one of the characters in the play.

Several Greek poets and playwrights wrote many popular versions of the Greek legend ‘Oedipus’. Hesiod, Aeshylus, Euripides and Sophocles wrote about Oedipus. Among them, ‘Oedipus Rex’ written by Sophocles is the best of the plays.  Oedipus was the son of Laiuis and Jocasta, king and queen of Thebes. Having been childless for some time, Laius consulted the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The Oracle prophesied that any son born to Laius would kill him. In an attempt to prevent this prophecy's fulfillment, when Jocasta indeed bore a son, Laius had his ankles pierced and tethered together so that he could not crawl; Jocasta then gave the boy to a servant to abandon ("expose") on the nearby mountain Cithareon. But the servant felt pity for the child and handed it to another shepherd who worked with him and was a native of Corinth. He gifted the infant to the king of Corinth.
The infant Oedipus was brought up in the house of Polybus, king of Corinth and his queen, Merope, who adopted him, as they were without children of their own. Little Oedipus was named after the swelling from the injuries to his feet and ankles ("swollen foot).
After many years, at a dinner party, Oedipus was told by a drunk that he was a "bastard", meaning his biological parents were not Polybus and Merope. Oedipus confronted his parents with the news, but they denied this. Oedipus went to the same oracle in Delphi to know of his real parents. But the oracle informed him he was destined to murder his father and marry his mother. In an attempt to avoid such a fate, he decided to run away from Corinth, and went  to Thebes, as it was near Delphi.
On the way, Oedipus came to Davlia, where three roads crossed each other. There he encountered a chariot driven by his birth-father, King Laius. They fought over who had the right to go first and Oedipus killed Laius when the charioteer tried to run him over him. Continuing his journey to Thebes, Oedipus encountered a Sphinx, who would stop all travelers to Thebes and ask them a riddle. If the travelers were unable to answer her correctly, they would be killed and eaten; if they were successful, they would be free to continue on their journey. The riddle was: "What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?". Oedipus answered: "Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs and; in old age, he uses a 'walking' stick". Oedipus was the first to answer the riddle correctly and, having heard Oedipus' answer, the Sphinx allowed him to carry on forward.
Queen Jocasta's brother, Creon, had announced that any man who could rid the city of the Sphinx would be made king of Thebes, and given the recently widowed Queen Jocasta's hand in marriage.
 The riddle was: "What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?". Oedipus answered: "Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs and; in old age, he uses a 'walking' stick". Oedipus was the first to answer the riddle correctly and, having heard Oedipus' answer, the Sphinx allowed him to carry on forward.
Many years after the marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta, pestilence inflicted Thebes., a plague of infertility struck the city of Thebes, and women became barren and they had no children. Oedipus asserted that he would end the pestilence.
 He sent his brother-in-Law, Creon, to the Oracle at Delphi, seeking guidance. When Creon returned, Oedipus learned that the murderer of the former King Laius must be brought to justice, and Oedipus himself cursed the killer of his wife's late husband, saying that he would be exiled. Creon also suggested that they try to find the blind prophet, Tiresias who was widely respected. Oedipus sent for Tiresias, who warned him not to seek Laius' killer. The blind prophet told the king that he himself was the murderer and responsible for the pestilence. On hearing this Oedipus is angry with the prophet and said that Creon and Tiresias conspire to overthrow the king. He also threatened that both Tiresias and Creon should be punished because they are traitors.
 Jocasta entered and tried to calm Oedipus by telling him the story of her first-born son and his supposed death. Oedipus became nervous as he realized that he may have murdered Laius and so brought about the plague. Suddenly, a messenger arrived from Corinth with the news that King Polybus had died. Oedipus was relieved for the prophecy could no longer be fulfilled if Polybus, whom he considered his real father, was now dead.
Still, he knew that his mother was still alive and refused to attend the funeral at Corinth. To ease the tension, the messenger then said that Polybus and Merop are not the real parents of Oedipus because he is an adopted child.. Jocasta, finally realizing that he was her son, begged him to stop his search for Laius' murderer. Oedipus misunderstood her motivation, thinking that she was ashamed of him because he might have been born of low birth.
 Jocasta in great distress went into the palace where she hanged herself. Oedipus sought verification of the messenger's story from the very same herdsman who was supposed to have left Oedipus to die as a baby at Cithareon mountain range. From the herdsman, Oedipus learned that the infant raised as the adopted son of Polybus and Merope was the son of Laius and Jocasta. Thus, Oedipus finally realized that the man he had killed so many years before, at the place where the three roads met, was his own father, King Laius, and that he had married his mother, Jocasta. Oedipus went in search of Jocasta and found she had killed herself. Using the pin from a brooch he took off Jocasta's gown, Oedipus blinded himself and was then exiled. Thus fate haunted the life of Oedipus from the womb to his grave.                                                                                  Kjt/15-02-2017

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