Seeing One’s Way: The Image and Action of Oidipous Tyrannos
ELECTRONIC ANTIQUITY: COMMUNICATING THE CLASSICS,Volume I, Number 1, June (1993)
With Aristotle as our guide, we find OIDIPOUS TYRANNOS to be the near paradigmatic tragedy. Sophokles uses the best of techniques. Especially in matters relating to peripety and recognition, the very soul of tragedy Oidipous Tyrannos is the exemplar. Even when Sophokles errs, he does so in the best way. Aristotle explains to us in general why the Oidipous story is so tragic, why it arouses fear and pity in the reader. We pity seeing the once great Oidipous fall to the depths of the greatest misfortune. We fear because we see this as resulting from a flaw, hamartia , in Oidipous’ character. We see ourselves as prone to make the same sort of mistakes and fear lest such a tremendous misfortune befall us as well. Yet Aristotle stops short of pointing out to us the particular mistake of Oidipous. He expects we are not blind, and allows us to recognize it for ourselves. Although Sophokles manifests Oidipous’ particular mistake in many ways, we shall consider only one of them: the imagery and words of his play.
In reading it closely a second time, we are struck by Sophokles’ careful use of words. His words are ironic. The more we pay attention to his choice of words while holding the play’s action in view, the more we notice Sophokles employs the social virtue of wit, eutrapelia . By putting a good spin on things, he pleases what is best in us, our rational faculty. He does more than this, however; his use of irony clarifies the story for us. Consider the scene where Oidipous is seeking Laios’ killer, and where he asks the chorus about that story which tells of the king’s murder: What is it? For I am looking into every story. The chorus replies that Laios was killed by some hodoiporon (292), a word which, when pronounced correctly, hauntingly resembles a form of Oidipous . We are led to consider whether Oidipous’ name truly means something other than swollen foot as the messenger’s etymology suggests (1036 with 718). Is there a sense in which Oidipous is himself a wayfarer? Perhaps he is even one lost, one who does not know ( oid’ ) his way ( pous ).