Sophocles was one of the most celebrated playwrights of his time, writing more than 100 plays to captivate and delight his ancient Greek audiences. Today, although only seven plays remain, his work continues to be enjoyed, evoking a variety of emotions and passions from his meaningful and disturbing tragedies, proving that he revolutionised the face of drama. One of Sophocles most legendary plays, Oedipus the King, demonstrates his outstanding writing skill, by the number of techniques he incorporates, such as dramatic irony, symbolism and his usage of the Chorus.
Dramatic irony is a prominent device used in many tragedies. It allows the audience to feel a sense of privilege and engagement in the play and develops an alliance between the dramatist and the spectators, so that mere curiosity is not the only aspect keeping the viewers interested. Such tragedies containing dramatic irony include Othello, Romeo and Juliet and Time in the Conways by J.B. Priestley. In Oedipus the King, everyone in the audience knows from the beginning that Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother, not only from the prologue, but due to the fact that the basic story of Oedipus was a well known myth of the time.
The tension of the play, then, builds up from Oedipus slow but foreseeable advancement towards this horrifying self-knowledge. Watching Oedipus fate unfold, the audience associates with the protagonist, vividly sharing the horror of the reversal he suffers and recognising the command that fate has. By relating with the audience, Sophocles accomplished the catharsis that Aristotle thought was so essential. One scene in particular illustrates an obvious example of dramatic irony, when Oedipus is addressing his people about the plague they are suffering.
And while you suffer, none suffers more than I.
You have your several griefs, each for himself;But my heart bears the weight of my own, and yoursAnd all my peoples sorrows. I am not asleep.(Lines 51-54)Oedipus relates that he suffers from the fact that his people are sick, however, the viewers know its double meaning, that, although he does not know it he suffers from another type of sickness- that of being contaminated with the crimes of incest and murder, and actually, in the end he does suffer from the shame of his people, therefore carrying their grievances. Dramatic irony increases a sense of suspense among the audience as they wait for the inevitable, foreshadowing what is to be the climax of the story; that destructive moment of realisation which is the basis of most Greek tragedies. However, apart from their base knowledge of the Oedipus legend, the audience is unaware of the order and particulars of the play, therefore a medium is needed to relate between the audience and the drama on stage. In Greek theatre this comes in the form of the Chorus.
The major roles of the Chorus are to commentate and to react fittingly to the events onstage. They provide the audience with clarification and reinforce the morals of the play, reacting in a way the ideal spectators should react. The Chorus in Oedipus the King are wise Theban elders who long for stability and composure among their society, advising Oedipus to Be merciful and learn to yield in order to keep peace between himself and Creon, and in lines 875-894 they essentially exclaim that man should not try to rebel against fate, law or the gods. They also tend to keep the continuity and urgency of the play alive by summarising and foreshadowing particular events; Why has the Queen, sir, left us in such deep passion? / I fear some vile catastrophe will out…
The Chorus is also a tool Sophocles used to influence and control the audiences reaction because the Chorus were, in terms of status, personality and attitudes and values, very similar to the audience therefore they felt implied to feel how the Chorus was feeling. In this respect, the spectators were taking part in the play since the Chorus represented their voice. In Oedipus the King the last words are spoken directly to the viewers by the Chorus; a final summary and confirmation of tragedy, they state that all men are to be wretched until the day they die. In this tragedy the Chorus is a symbol of the common ideologies of the time and other symbols aid in giving meaning to the drama and allowing viewers to delve deeper into the plot.
Symbolism is a method of revealing ideas or truth through the use of symbols. In Oedipus the KingSophocles uses symbolism in a number of instances, proving his great ability as a playwright. As mentioned, symbolism gives depth to drama, and although symbolism may not have been evident to the ancient Greeks when viewing the play, on reflection these clues may have come known, revealing a whole new outlook of the play. In this particular tragedy sight is a consistent symbol throughout the text and it occurs both literally and metaphorically. In the beginning, clear sighted Oedipus sees only what he wishes to and is blind to the grave truth of his past (and future). He seems to pity Tiresias physical blindness more than he marvels at his gift, treating it as a significant disability and using it against him. Living in perpetual night, you cannot harm me, nor any man else that sees the light. Consequently when Oedipus comes to know of the truth he blinds himself in order to escape the shame of his children.
As soon as this happens we see a change in his character; he becomes more modest and although the chorus thinks only of the hurting Oedipus must be in- Foulest disfigurement that I ever saw! O cruel, insensate agony!(lines 1298-1300) -Oedipus makes no mention of physical pain. Another symbol is that of a crucial decisive moment in the play, the three cross roads where Laius is murdered. The symbol of the crossroads shows us how although Oedipus was destined to a certain thing he did have some free will- if his character had allowed him to stay calm in the situation with Laius, Oedipus may have been better off. A further symbol is Oedipus swollen feet and his name. The link between Oedipus name and his ankle is vital because it proves that Oedipus was the child that was left to die and therefore the one whom the oracles prediction was made to. It also gives a lasting physical proof in the form of his limp that he has had from birth. In addition to this feet are a symbol for humans in this play-the Sphinx riddle demonstrates this, therefore the meaning of Oedipuss swollen feet could also describe his flaw as a human being.
Through the study of some of the techniques Sophocles engaged in his plays, his aptitude and flair as playwright has become apparent and have most definitely helped his plays succeed throughout history. Dramatic irony kept viewers interested in the plot and increased suspense, symbolism gave depth to the plot and the Chorus developed the plays ability to universalise, by enabling the audience to relate to the feelings of the Chorus and the protagonist. When it was written it was, in the opinion of Aristotle, one of the greatest tragedies. Today, although attitudes and values have changed, it has the same effect and it is still said to be original tragedy from its universal techniques and morals.
Courtney from Study Moose
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