Fourth Of July Essay

This essay has a total of 3125 words and 21 pages.

Fourth Of July


Sophocles wrote "Oedipus the King" for the annual festival where playwrights competed for
prizes. It was a major civic occasion, with attendance expected.




Sophocles the writer is phenomenally good, especially considering his era. His writing is
tight, with each phrase contributing to the whole. He is full of succinct observations on
life. And despite the limits of the form, he often manages to make his characters seem
like real individuals.






The title of our play is often given in its Latin translation "Oedipus Rex", rather than
in its original Greek ("Oedipus Tyranneus"), since the Greek term for king is the English
"tyrant" which means a monarch who rules without the consent of the people.




As the play opens, the priest of Zeus and a bunch of non-speaking characters (old people,
children) appear before King Oedipus with tree-branches wrapped with wool. It was
evidently the custom to do this in front of a god's altar when you wanted something
urgently.




Oedipus greets them as a caring, compassionate leader. The priest explains (really for the
audience's benefit) that Thebes is suffering from a plague. Plants, animals, and people
are all dying. The people know Oedipus is not a god, but they believe that some god
inspired him to solve the riddle of the sphinx and save the town. And since Oedipus has
been king, he has done a splendid job. So now people look to him to find a cure for the
plague.




Oedipus explains (really for the audience's benefit) that he has sent Creon (Jocasta's
brother) to the oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi to get an answer. He's late returning,
but as soon as he gets back, Oedipus promises to do whatever the oracle says.




Just then, Creon arrives. Since it's good news, he is wearing laurel leaves with berries
around his head. Creon says, "All's well that ends well." (The Greeks loved irony.) Apollo
said that the killer of Laius must be found and banished, and the plague will end. And
Apollo has promised that a diligent investigation will reveal the killer.




Oedipus asks to review the facts. All that is known is that Laius left for Delphi and
never returned. (Don't ask what Oedipus did with the bodies of Laius and his crew.) There
was no immediate investigation, because of the sphinx problem. One of Laius's men escaped,
and walked back to Thebes. (Don't ask what Oedipus did with Laius's horses and chariot.)
By the time he got back, Oedipus was being hailed as king. The witness said Laius was
killed by a gang of robbers. (We can already figure out why the witness lied. And we'll
learn later that he asked immediately to be transferred away from Thebes, and has been
gone ever since.)




Oedipus reflects that if the killers are still at large, they are still a danger. He
decides to issue a policy statement to help find the killer.




The chorus, in a song, calls on the various gods (including Triple Artemis, in her aspects
as huntress, moon-goddess, and goddess of dark sorcery), to save them from the plague and
from the evil god Ares, who is ordinarily the god of war but is here the god of general
mass death.




Oedipus issues a policy statement, that whoever comes forward with information about the
murder of Laius will be rewarded, and that if the killer himself confesses, he will not be
punished beyond having to leave the city permanently. On the other hand, if anyone
conceals the killer, Oedipus says he will be cursed. Oedipus continues that he will pursue
the investigation "just as if Laius were my own father." (The Greeks loved irony.)




The Chorus says that Apollo ought to come right out and say who the murderer is. (The
Chorus's job is to say what ordinary people think.) Oedipus says, "Nobody can make the
gods do what they don't want to." The chorus suggests bringing in the blind psychic,
Teiresias. Especially, they hope he can find the missing witness to the killing. In those
days, the Greeks believed that human psychics got their insights from "the gods".






There are other stories about Teiresias. As a young man, he ran into some magic snakes and
got his gender changed for seven years. This enabled him to tell whether the male or the
female enjoys sex more. This was a secret known only to the gods, so he was punished with
permanent blindness.


Teiresias comes in. Oedipus asks his help finding the killers, ending up by saying, "The
greatest thing you can do with your life is to use all your special talents to help others
unselfishly."




Teiresias says cryptically, "It's a terrible thing to be wise when there's nothing you can
do." (As A.A. Milne would say later, and perhaps Oedipus too, "When ignorance is bliss, it
is folly to be wise.")




Teiresias says, "I want to go home." Oedipus calls him unpatriotic. Teiresias says, "Your
words are wide of the mark (hamartia)". Our expression in English is "You're missing the
point". (Originally an archery target was a point.) We'll hear about hamartia again.




Teiresias continues to stonewall, and Oedipus gets very angry. Finally Teiresias gives in,
says Oedipus is the killer, and adds that he is "living in shame with his closest
relative."




Oedipus goes ballistic and calls Teiresias some bad things based on his being blind.
Teiresias says, "You'll see soon." Oedipus understandably thinks this is a poltical trick
to smear him, with Teiresias and Creon in cahoots. Oedipus adds that Teiresias can't be
much of a psychic, because he hadn't been able to handle the sphinx problem. The Chorus
tells both men to cool down. Teiresias leaves, predicting disaster. Soon Oedipus will
learn the truth and be a blind exile, leaning on his staff.




The Chorus sings about the oracle at Delphi, which was supposedly the center of the world.
"Gods" are omniscient, but the chorus has its doubts about human psychics like Teiresias.
Especially, they cannot believe Oedipus is a killer.




Creon comes in, incensed that Oedipus would accuse him of trying to smear him. The Chorus
says Oedipus is simply angry. Creon says he must be nuts. The Chorus says that to the
king's faults and misbehavior, they are blind. ("See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil"
-- the norm in a non-democracy.) Oedipus comes in and accuses Creon directly of planning a
coup, using a smear by a crooked psychic as an excuse. They exchange angry words. Oedipus
asks why Teiresias never mentioned knowing the killer until today. Creon can't explain
this. He defends himself from the accusation of planning a coup. (1) Being king is too
much trouble. (2) Creon has other worthwhile things to do. (3) Creon has everything he
needs. (4) Creon has political influence anyway. (5) Creon is well-liked and isn't going
to do an obvious wrong. "You build a good reputation over a lifetime. A single bad action
ruins it." The Greeks loved irony.




Oedipus isn't satisfied. He says he wants Creon executed for treason. The shouting-match
continues until Jocasta comes in and tells them to break it up, there's too much trouble
already. The Chorus says it agrees, and tells Jocasta that both men are at fault.




Creon leaves, and Jocasta asks what's happened. The Chorus talks about what a fine king
Oedipus has been, and says, "Let's forget the whole business with Teiresias's prophecy."
The Chorus uses a variant of the proverb, "Let sleeping dogs lie." It's better not to ask
about things that can make trouble. The Greeks loved irony.




Oedipus talks about it anyway. Jocasta says, "Well, I don't believe in psychics. I'll
prove it. Laius and I were told that our baby would kill him and marry me. But this never
happened, because we left the baby to die in the woods. And the witness said that Laius
was killed at that place where three roads meet by robbers."




"Uh-oh", says Oedipus. "Which three roads?" The Greeks loved irony.



Jocasta says, "It's where the roads from Thebes, Delphi, and Daulis meet. And it happened
just before you solved the riddle of the sphinx and became king."




Oedipus is upset. He asks Zeus (chief god), "What are you doing to me?" He asks Jocasta
for a description. Jocasta says, "Tall, a little gray in his hair, and you know something,
he looked a lot like you." The Greeks loved irony.




Oedipus continues his questioning. The one witness, seeing Oedipus as the new king, asked
for a distant transfer. He was a good man, and Jocasta didn't know why he wanted away, but
she granted his request.




Oedipus tells his story. He was going to the oracles to find out whether he was adopted.
All of them told him simply that he would kill his father and marry his mother. As he was
traveling alone at the place Jocasta has mentioned, he met a group of men going in the
Continues for 11 more pages >>




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