Oedipus Rex

By Sophocles

Themes and Style of Sophocles

If we look at all surviving plays of Sophocles we realise some unity in themes and style. His characters are presented to us as human beings suddenly faced with a crisis of life, which is determined by the superior authority of the gods. The hopeless struggle against such powers is followed by an intractable necessity, which inflicts failure, agony and death. Such harsh punishment is often due to the confident assumption of knowledge in the first place, which during the course of the suffering gives way to admitting doubts and ignorance. Such typically Sophoclean characters serve as models, which mean to remind men of certain principles. All the plays seem substantially to carry the same themes. Man ought not to forget his inborn weakness and inferiority to the gods, he must not forget the preciousness of possessions and be filled with overconfidence and pride (hubris), he must always be conscious of the inevitability of fate and transience of things. Sophocles' plays portray a moment of life but a life in a more heroic world, which is thus unrealistic and can only exist in men's minds. As he himself said, his character demonstrate "how men ought to behave" (Aristotle's Poetics 1460b 33). He enshrines his characters in a realistic life but for their heroic attitudes they loose on naturalism and realistic credibility. With such a portrayal, however, Sophocles succeeded in displaying the ideals of an Athenian society at a time of social and political crisis.

Influence of sophistic movement

During his lifetime Sophocles witnessed many changes within society - some of which had an enormous impact on the literature of those days. For this reason it is essential for the reader of Sophocles to be clear about the thoughts and ideas of a Sophoclean society. People at that point began to question the truth, which had previously been accepted by custom and the authority of tradition and state. There was a rising curiosity concerning the nature and origin of the physical world and even more importantly concerning government and law giving. Strictly speaking there was nothing irreligious about such speculations. But by taking thought the state's authority was afraid that the people might discover truths, which could clash with its long accepted and unquestioned authority and would thus provide a problem to the question of which authority was to prevail. In the course of the 5th century the laws in particular were increasingly weighed in the balance of reason. There is to say that "laws" in the Greek world included far more than those written rules, by which people are governed. Customs such as religious rituals and what we call morality (by which right and wrong is evaluated) were also understood under the general definition of "law".

This intellectual activity of reasoning is associated with the so-called sophistic movement. The sophists were itinerant teachers who took money for teaching and were a great target for attack since (at least from a conservative point of view) they acted intrinsically badly in teaching young people how to argue and to think for themselves. The sophists were undoubtedly one factor in the rapid spread of new ideas, but it is well to remember that the philosophers too made their contribution to the development of such thoughts. Some sophists (or philosophers) were put on trial on a charge of impiety in that they seemed to neglect or deny the traditional gods. Socrates is the best-known example of a philosopher to be charged in this way being accused of introducing new gods and corrupting the young. Despite the backlash, during the 5th century traditional values were thus beginning to loose their unquestioned position, and the authority of mere antiquity was no longer enough for the people's contentment.

Such changes within society undoubtedly had their impact also in the sphere of literature. Yet, Aeschylus, the "father of tragedy" stayed virtually untouched by this new movement while Euripides, the youngest of the three, proved himself extremely influenced, which can be seen in the provocative style of most of his tragedies. Sophocles clearly shows himself aware that the old values were under attack by these new ideas and ways of thinking. The portrayal of Oedipus in particular reflects an awareness of language and attitude of the 5th century BC. Beside the riddle of the Sphinx, which is solved by Oedipus with the help of pure intellect, the whole structure of the play is based on a search of knowledge, whose climax is the recognition of the truth (it has often, most recently by Pierre Bayard, been referred to as the first ever murder mystery in this sense). According to the sophist movement the guiding force seems to be the free will of the human beings and yet this will of theirs and their actions are not free but determined by fate (i.e. will of the gods). In Oedipus Rex Sophocles very skilfully combines the free will, which is the search for truth, and the inevitability of fate, which has been revealed by the oracle long ago. Not yet has the importance of prophecies entirely been banned from the people's mind. For Sophocles emphasises the importance of oracles and prophecies in that even though everyone tries to evade their destiny, it is the gods' will that prevails and it is men, who lose.