Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Fall of Oedipus

We return today to the saga of Oedipus, the beleaguered King of Thebes (for the previous and first episode of the story, please click here). Having received word from the sacred Oracle at Delphi, King Oedipus discovered that in order for Apollo to lift the plague which stalks the streets of Thebes, he must hunt down and cast out the murderer of King Laius, Oedipus' predecessor. Vowing to exile the culprit himself, Oedipus embarked upon a campaign of discovery, piecing together the events surrounding his rise to the throne (when the Oracle had decreed that Oedipus would kill his own father and be wed to his own mother), and the murder of Laius. The blind prophet Tiresias denounced Oedipus himself as the murderer, much to the latter's disgust, yet Queen Jocasta sought to sooth her King's pain by reassuring him that Laius was killed at a crossroads by robbers, so it could not possibly have been Oedipus. Or could it?

The Corinthian lands
Photograph by the author.

Whilst urgently awaiting the arrival of the sole survivor of the massacre which took the life of Laius, Oedipus grows more and more agitated. Memories of his old life flood his mind, as his thoughts race, twist and turn to the time when he himself walked the road from Delphi to Thebes, and was himself assailed at a crossroads. Jocasta says that Laius was killed “at a place where three roads meet”, which reminds him all too ominously of where Oedipus slew that vulgar man and his entourage. Oedipus asks Jocasta to describe Laius:

                                    “ He was swarthy...
                                      And the gray had just begun to streak his temples,
                                      And his build... wasn’t far from yours... ”
                                                  - JOCASTA DESCRIBES LAIUS

Terror floods Oedipus, perhaps that blind seer could see? Just as he is about to resign himself to have fulfilled Apollo's terrible curse, a messenger suddenly arrives from Corinth. He tells Oedipus that his father, King Polybus is now dead, and that he is the rightful King of Corinth! Oedipus quickly demands to know how he died, was it murder? Sickness? What? Old age, the messenger assures him. Jocasta is relieved, there surely, is proof that the prophecy was false after all? Oedipus recovers a little of his former confidence. If it is as Jocasta and this man say, then he is in the clear.

The Messenger with the infant Oedipus
Sculpture by Antoine-Denis Chaudet.
Rejoicing in the news, Oedipus tells the messenger that he must not face Queen Merope of Corinth, his mother, for the second line of the prophecy could still, however dreadful, come to pass. "What prophecy is this?", the messenger asks. Oedipus repeats the fateful verse, that he is fated to murder his father and be wed to his mother. "Why don't I rid you of that old worry now?" says the messenger. So the messenger begins his story, that once as a young man whilst tending his flocks in the mountain pastures of Mount Cithaeron, a stranger gave to him an infant. An infant whose ankles were painfully bound. Oedipus remembers the deformity in his own feet that had plagued his movement for as long as he could remember. That baby was given by the messenger to King Polybus, who adopted it as his own, and raised him as his own son. Who gave this baby to him? Another shepherd, the messenger remembers, a servant "he called himself a servant of... if I remember lightly - Laius". Jocasta sharply turns to the messenger, "the king of the land who ruled here long ago?". "That's the one", he assures her. Upon asking his court if anyone knows of this servant, they reply that he is in fact the same man who survived the attack at the place where three roads meet, whom Oedipus has sent for. Jocasta, dread realisation spreading through her, begs Oedipus to call off his investigation, for his own sake. Oedipus is adamant, he must discover the truth. He vowed before the gods themselves that he would cast out Laius' murderer, and he alone can do so. Ordering the servant to speed his way to the court, Queen Jocasta runs screaming to her bedroom, bemoaning the "man of agony" that is her son.

An old shepherd is brought to the palace, reluctantly coming before King Oedipus. The messenger from Corinth is exultant, "He's your man!" he tells Oedipus. Oedipus questions him closely, did he truly hand over a baby to the messenger? "What? Why rake that up again?" the shepherd wails. Desperatedly trying to evade questioning and revealing the truth, the shepherd screams for Oedipus to ask no more. Threatening him with torture, Oedipus forces him to go on. "Queen Jocasta gave the infant to me", he despairs. Oedipus asks why she would do this. Out of fear of a prophecy, the shepherd responds, "they said - he'd kill his parents...". But why did the shepherd give the infant to this Corinthian? "I pitied the little baby, master", he could not bear to leave it to die on the harsh mountain slopes, and hoped it would receive a better lot in life far away in a distant land. Realisation of the whole truth, the terrible truth, that he had been a pawn of the gods his whole life, now one dreadful curse, Oedipus chokes on the fact that his father was slain by his own hand and that his four children were sprung from his own mother and wife:

                  “ O god -
                    all come true, all burst to light!
                    O light - now let me look my last on you!
                    I stand revealed at last -
                    cursed in my birth, cursed in marriage,
                    cursed in the lives I cut down with these hands! ”
                                           - THE TERRIBLE TRUTH STRIKES OEDIPUS

Hurtling back into the depths of his palace, Oedipus curses his fate with a great cry. The courtiers all despair at how the Fates can fell even the greatest of men, remembering the old days when Oedipus had saved them all from the Sphinx, only now to taint the land with his terrible curse. A shout echoes from within the palace - Queen Jocasta has hanged herself. Oedipus breaks into her chamber howling with rage. Bellowing at the guards to bring him a sword so that he too might die, he circles the body of his wife and mother. Changing his mind, Oedipus tears two brooch pins from his mothers corpse. Holding them high, and looking straight down the sharp pins, he thrusts them into his eyes. As the dark blood flows from his sockets, Oedipus cries:

                 “ You,
                    You'll see no more the pain I suffered, all the pain I caused
                    Too long you looked on the ones you never should have seen,
                    blind to the ones you longed to see, to know! Blind
                    from this hour on! Blind in the darkness - blind! ”
                                         - OEDIPUS DRIVES THE PINS INTO HIS EYES

Oedipus in Exile
Painting by Fulchran-Jean Harriet.
 Emerging slowly from the palace, led by a boy, the blinded Oedipus begs Creon, his uncle and brother-in-law, to enact the decree which Oedipus himself laid out, and exile him. Creon vows to consult the gods to ask what to do, but Oedipus is relentless, he must go. Hearing sobbing behind him, Oedipus turns and hears the voices of Antigone and Ismene, his daughters yet also his sisters. Weeping for them to have been born into such an accursed family, Oedipus begs Creon to look after them, a promise Creon makes. Oedipus offers his hand to Creon, who swiftly backs away, loath to touch the polluted man. Resigned to despair, Oedipus sets out on the road once again, this time a cursed exile, destined to be despised by gods and men for the rest of his days.

So ends Oedipus the King, the first episode of the Three Theban Plays. Regarded as a master stroke of dramatic storytelling, and a model for all future tragedies even in ancient times, the story of Oedipus and his progeny is as potent today as it ever was before. As clich├ęd as 'on the edge of your seat drama' has become today, this is what started that very sentiment. The story of Oedipus is very easily available, for a nominal price from Amazon. I strongly urge you to give them a go:

United Kingdom
The Three Theban Plays (Oedipus the King, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus):
The Three Theban Plays (Penguin Classics)
(A masterpiece. Accessible, readable, enjoyable)
The Library of Greek Mythology:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A much later book of mythology, containing the backstory of Oedipus)

United States
The Three Theban Plays (Oedipus the King, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus):
The Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus
(A masterpiece. Accessible, readable, enjoyable)
The Library of Greek Mythology:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A much later book of mythology, containing the backstory of Oedipus)

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